“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

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“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

There have been four adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun”. One version was a radio play that broadcast in 1999. The Adventure Company released its own adaptation in 2007. John Bradbourne and Richard Goodwin released a movie version in 1982. However, the adaptation that has recently caught my attention is the 2001 television movie that aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”.

While dining at his friend Captain Arthur Hasting’s new Argentine restaurant, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot suffers a sudden collapse. His doctor reveals that Poirot need to lose weight or risk a heart condition. Both the doctor and the detective’s secretary, Miss Lemon, book Poirot at a health resort on the coast of Devon called Sandy Cove. Miss Lemon also insists that Captain Hastings accompany him.

At the Sandy Cove Resort, both Poirot and Hastings come across the usual assortment of guests. Among them was a well-known stage actress named Arlena Stuart Marshall. Many of the guests disliked Arlena, including her new husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall and her 17 year-old stepson, Lionel. Another guest, Mrs. Christina Redfern harbored jealousy over Arlena’s indiscreet affair with hubby Patrick. Well-known dressmaker Rosamund Darnley, was an old flame of Captain Marshall’s, and also harbored jealousy toward Arlena. A fanatical vicar named the Reverend Stephen Lane viewed Arlena as the embodiment of evil. An athletic spinster named Emily Brewster harbored resentment toward Arlena for bailing out on a play she had invested. The only guests who seemed to harbor no feelings regarding Arlena were a Major Barry and a Mr. Horace Blatt. But both seemed to be involved in some mysterious activities around the resort’s island – including the location where Arlena had been waiting to meet for a clandestine lover. When Arlena’s body is discovered strangled to death, Poirot and Hastings work with Scotland Yard inspector Japp to investigate the crime.

When I was younger, I had read Christie’s novel on a few occasions. I tried to enjoy the novel. I really did. I understood that it was a favorite among Christie fans. But I never managed to rouse any enthusiasm for the story. There was something about it that struck me as rather flat. This 2001 television adaptation seemed to be an improvement over the novel. Perhaps a visual representation on the television screen made it easier for me to appreciate the story. I certainly cannot deny that Rob Hinds’ production designs struck me as colorful and sleek – a perfect continuation of the Art Deco style that had dominated the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” since the beginning. I was also impressed by Charlotte Holdich’s sleek costume designs for the cast – especially the female characters. Overall, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be eye-candy for those who usually enjoy television and movie productions with a 1930s setting.

The subplot involving Poirot’s health certainly made it easier for me to understand why he would vacation at a not-so-interesting hotel resort. To be honest, I could not see someone like the flashy Arlena Marshall being a guest at such a low-key location. Screenwriter Anthony Horowitz made a wise choice in transforming Arlena’s 16 year-old stepdaughter Linda Marshall, who studied magic; into a 17 year-old boy, studying poisons. Arlena had been strangled. And Scotland Yard made it clear that large hands had been responsible for the crime. The idea of a 16 year-old girl with man-size hands struck me as slightly improbable. After all, if Christie wanted Linda to be considered as a serious suspect, she should have changed the character’s gender, which Horowitz did; or find another method to bump off Arlena Stuart.

The above mentioned changes in Christie’s story – Poirot’s health problems and the transformations of the Linda/Lionel Marshall character – seemed like improvements over the original story. However, other changes made it impossible for me to love this adaptation. I understand why the series’ producers and Horowitz had decided to include Hastings, Japp and Lemon into the story. After all, the Eighth Series, which aired in 2000 and 2001, proved to be the last that featured these three characters. But none of them had appeared in the 1941 novel. Hastings’ presence only gave Poirot a pretext for vacationing at Sandy Cove in the first place. Unfortunately, the running joke about Poirot’s distaste toward the resort’s health-conscious menu for its guests became tiresome within one-third of the movie. Other than the Argentine restaurant sequence, Horowitz failed to make Hastings’ presence relevant to the story. And why on earth was Chief Inspector Japp investigating a murder in Devon? He was outside of Scotland Yard’s jurisdiction, which was limited to Greater London and the home counties of Essex and Hertfordshire in the East of England; along with Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey and Kent in South East England. In other words . . . what in the hell was Japp doing there in Devon? Miss Lemon proved to be the only veteran recurring cast member that proved to be relevant to the story. She helped Poirot investigate another murder case with connections to Arlena Stuart’s murderer.

The cast gave solid performances. But I could not recall any memorable performances among them. The four main cast members – David Suchet, Hugh Fraser, Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran – were competent as usual. I was also impressed by Michael Higgs (Patrick Redfern), Carolyn Pickles (Emily Brewster), Ian Thompson (Major Barry), Tamzin Malleson (Christine Redfern) and especially Russell Tovey (Lionel Marshall). But there were performances that failed to rock my boat. David Mallinson’s portrayal of Kenneth Marshall struck me as . . . meh. He was not terrible, but simply not that interesting. Marsha Fitzalan’s performance as Rosamund Darnley seemed a bit off. Her portrayal of the dressmaker struck me as gossipy and callow. She seemed like an early 20th century version of her old role, Caroline Bingley; instead of the warm and strong-willed Rosamund. Both Tim Meats and David Timson’s performances seemed slightly hammy and rather off for such a low-key production. But the real worm in the apple proved to be Louise Delamere’s portrayal of victim Arlena Marshall. I realize that Delamere was given a role that seemed the least interesting in Christie’s novel. But Horowitz’s script and Delamere’s performance failed to improve upon it. Delamere ended up projecting a fourth-rate version of Diana Rigg’s performance in the 1982 film.

Overall, “EVIL UNDER THE SUN” proved to be a mixed bag. Production wise, it looked sleek and colorful. The script provided a few improvements over Christie’s novel. And there were some first-rate performances that included David Suchet. But in the end, I felt the movie was slightly undermined by other changes that I found unnecessary and some not-so impressive performances.

 

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Notes and Observations on “STAR WARS – EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002)

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NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS ON “STAR WARS – EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002)

The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “Episode II: Attack of the Clones”. I hope that you enjoy them:

*It is interesting that the story starts out with Coruscant – the seat of the Republic’s power – covered in a shroud of fog. Was this an allegory of the Republic’s impending doom? Or a sign of hidden secrets within the seats of power?

*Why did the Jedi believe they would have to protect the Republic in a military action, if the Separatists broke away? It seems as if the Republic and the Jedi were prepared to consider using military force to draw the Separatists back into the Republic, against their will.

*I noticed that both Mace and Ki-Adi had the same condescending attitude that the entire Council had in TPM, when explaining to Padme that Dooku could never be behind her assassination attempt.

*Why was it so important to Obi-Wan that he and Anakin follow the Council’s instructions regarding Padme, to the letter?

*I wonder if Jango would have killed Zam if she had succeeded in killing Padme.

*Are dreams usually dismissed by the Jedi in such a cavalier fashion?

*No wonder the Jedi and senators like Bail Organa had never formed a strong bond by ROTS, if Obi-Wan’s general attitude toward all politicians (which the Order shares, I suspect) is anything to go by.

*The more I look at Anakin and Obi-Wan’s interactions in AOTC, the more I realize how unsuited they were for a master/padawan relationship. Anakin would have been better off being trained by someone more suited to deal with his emotional and non-conformist personality. However, I see nothing wrong with Anakin and Obi-Wan forming a strong friendship, once Anakin becomes a Jedi Knight.

*I wonder if Anakin’s feelings about Palpatine would have remained the same if Obi-Wan had been less strident in his teaching.

*How interesting. Obi-Wan ended up following Anakin’s suggested mandate regarding Padme’s would-be assassin, after all.

*The Coruscant chase sequence is another major favorite with me. Note the slightly chubby woman with Ahmed Best and a silver-blond woman with too much eye make-up, both giving Anakin lust-filled glances in the nightclub scene. Come to think of it, I believe I had spotted two other women doing the same.

*”Until caught this killer is, our judgement she must respect.” – Why did Yoda believe that Padme MUST accept the Jedi’s decision that she return to Naboo? I realize that he is concerned for her safety. But why would he assume that she had no choice but to accept the Council’s decision on where she should be? At least Mace seemed to realize that Padme would obey if Palpatine, as the Supreme Chancellor, had given the order.

*When discussing his abilities with Palpatine, Anakin is polite and practically modest. Yet, whenever he is around Obi-Wan or discussing the latter, he becomes arrogant about his abilities and bitter at what he perceives as Obi-Wan’s inability to recognize them.

*”Anakin . . . don’t try to grow up too fast.” – It is ironic that Padme would say this to Anakin, considering that she has been trying to do this very thing for most of her life.

*Although Captain Typho’s assumption on the safety of Padme’s arrival on Coruscant proved to be false, his fear that she might do something foolish or rash proved to be very accurate.

*”If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” – ah, another prime example of the Jedi’s arrogant belief in themselves. Who would have thought it would come from the Archives’ librarian?

*Anakin might be pretty close to the truth in the definition of love he had given to Padme.

*Despite the sweet and charming overtones of the younglings scene, it still has a sinister sense of the foreboding.

*It is interesting how ALL of the Separatists are tainted with the same brush as the Trade Federation and the Banking Union, because they had sought the latter for help. Guilt by association.

*When Sio Biddle had asked Anakin a question about Padme’s safety, Padme rudely interrupts and brushes off Anakin. Now, why did she do that? And in such a rude manner?

*It’s interesting how the imagery and symbolism on Kamino seemed to be of the fertile kind.

*I just realized that if Palpatine had eventually accused the Jedi of creating the Clone Army, he would have been correct. Especially since Master Sifo-Dyas really did order the creation of the clones for the Republic.

*For someone with hardly any experience in romance, Anakin managed to do a good job in winning over Padme without resorting to smooth lines and a cocky manner.

*Of course . . . Padme seemed to be a bit of a flirt, herself. She certainly knows how to use her voice effectively.

*In an article on Anakin and Padme’s relationship, I read a segment from a poem or story written hundreds of years ago that was compared to Anakin’s fireside speech. What amazed me was how similar Anakin’s speech was to what is considered courtly love.

*I noticed that once Padme had rejected Anakin’s offer of love, he turned away from her. And she, in turn, began to pursue him in a very subtle manner.

*It is ironic that Anakin believes that he did not have a choice in leaving Naboo to help his mother. In reality, he did have a choice . . . and he exercised it. Like the other characters around him, Anakin has become adept at deluding himself.

*I see that Obi-Wan had made the first move in his fight with Jango Fett on Kamino. Not only did it result in him nearly falling over a ledge, it was the movie’s first sign of the “good guys” acting as the aggressors.

*”Those Tusken Raiders. They may walk like men, but they’re nothing more than vicious, mindless monsters.” – Judging from Cliegg Lars’ words, I cannot help but wonder if Anakin’s murder of the Tusken Raiders was something rare on Tatooine. Would Anakin’s actions have been condoned by Tatooine’s moisture farmers? Cliegg’s words seemed to have a xenophobic ring to them.

*When Padme told Anakin that it was okay to be angry, she was right. It was okay. It would have been a lot unhealthier for Anakin to pretend otherwise. But where Anakin went wrong was that he had allowed his anger to overwhelm him . . . which led to his murder of the Tuskens.

*Anakin’s claim that he would even learn to stop people from dying seemed to foreshadow his opera conversation with Palpatine in ROTS.

*If Jar-Jar had not proposed that Palpatine should be given emergency powers, I wonder who would have made the proposition? Bail Organa had been certain that the Senate would never grant such powers to the Chancellor or authorize a clone army. Boy, was he wrong!

*Did Obi-Wan’s own prejudices and beliefs in the Jedi’s infallibility led him to easily dismiss Dooku’s claim that a Sith Lord had control over the Senate?

*I think that Padme’s arrogant belief in her diplomatic skills were in overdrive, when she and Anakin learned about Obi-Wan’s predicament. I can see why Typho had been worried that she would do something rash.

*It seems interesting that Anakin was the only one who had managed to control the attacking him in the Geonosis area, without resorting to brute force. Was this a metaphor of his potential to control (but not suppress) the animus within himself? A potential that he had failed to attain until the end of his life?

*Obi-Wan, on the other hand, succeeded in dealing with his animal attacker with brute force . . . just as he had succeeded with Maul and Anakin. Was this a foreshadow of his advocacy of Luke using violence to deal with Vader/Anakin in the Original Trilogy?

*I suspect that Jango’s success in killing Jedi Master Coleman Trebor had gone to his head, when he had decided to attack Mace. Just as many of the Jedi have discovered in this movie and will discover in ROTS, Jango will learn that it does not pay to be the aggressor.

*I did not realize that the Republic and the Jedi had acquired both troops and weapons from the Kaminoans.

*It is interesting that Obi-Wan’s threat of expulsion from the Jedi Order did not faze Anakin one bit, in his concern for the fallen Padme. Either the Jedi Order was never that important enough to Anakin . . . or it was too important to Obi-Wan. Or perhaps it was both.

*Both Anakin and Obi-Wan made the mistake of aggressively moving against Dooku, first. And both had failed. Again, this seemed to be another example of the Jedi’s acceptance of using aggression in this movie.

*Anakin vs. Dooku – it’s ironic that this was the first duel between Palpatine’s present and future apprentices.

*Dooku, who had wisely allowed both Obi-Wan and Anakin to be the aggressors, became the aggressor, himself, in his duel against Yoda. He had barely managed to escape with his life.

*The failure of aggression committed by our heroes and by villains like Dooku and Jango seemed to be the theme for this movie . . . and perhaps the Prequel Trilogy overall. This theme seems especially true for the Jedi, who had agreed to use the clone troopers against the Separatists. The same clone troopers that will become the tools of their destruction. Irony at its most tragic.

*Looking back on AOTC, it strikes me as being a very nourish story, despite the some of the usual STAR WARS elements. Perhaps that is why so many people have difficulty in accepting it. Film noir can be highly regarded – or not. But people rarely understand it, or bother to watch it in the movie theaters.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

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“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

I have heard of the 1977 adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’ 1902 adventure film. But I never thought I would see it. Recently, it occurred to me to rent the movie from Netflix, because I have yet to run across it at any store that sells DVDs. I did rent “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. Needless to say, it produced some rather interesting feelings within me. 

Anyone familiar with Mason’s tale knows that “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is the story about a 19th century British Army officer named Harry Faversham, who harbor plans to resign from his commission in the Royal North Surrey Regiment and live out the rest of his days with future wife Ethne Eustace. During a ball held at his family estate, telegrams for Harry and three of his friends – Jack Durrance, William Trench and Thomas Willoughby – ordering them to report for duty, due to their regiment being shipped out to the Sudan to participate in the Mahdist War. Being the first to receive the telegrams, Harry had them destroyed so that he would not have to report for duty a day before his resignation from the Army was due to be official. Realizing what Harry had done, his father ostracized him, his three friends gave him white feathers that labeled him as a coward, and Ethne breaks off their engagement and also hands him a white feather. Also, Harry’s best friend, Captain Durrance, becomes a rival for Ethne. Haunted by his efforts to avoid combat, Harry travels to the Sudan to help his friends any way possible and return their feathers.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” attracted a good deal of critical acclaim, after it aired on British and American television. The movie also earned a Primetime Emmy nomination. And if I must be honest, I find that particularly surprising. I have seen this movie twice. Granted, it seemed pretty decent as far as television movies go. But . . . an Emmy nomination? “THE FOUR FEATHERS”? It just did not strike me as being that memorable. The Wikipedia site claimed that it was a very faithful to Mason’s 1902 novel. Actually, it was no more faithful than any other adaptation I have seen. But I do feel that the movie’s critical acclaim might be overrated.

The movie can boast its virtues. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” provided a small, but detailed peek into Harry Faversham’s childhood that gave audiences a good idea behind his aversion to continuing his military career. It also featured at least two excellent action sequences – the skirmish that led to the destruction of Durrance’s company and his blindness, and Harry and Trench’s escape from the prison-of-war camp at Omdurman. Dramatic scenes abound in the film, especially one that featured the breakup of Harry and Ethne’s engagement and the former’s final confrontation with his militant father, retired General Faversham.

And I cannot deny that some very good performances were also featured in “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. David Robb, Harry Andrews and Robin Bailey all gave solid performances. I found Simon Ward’s portrayal of William Trench rather intense, but believable. Both Robert Powell and Jane Seymour were excellent as Jack Durrance and Ethne Eustace. Beau Bridges proved to be an enjoyable surprise in his portrayal of the lead character, Harry Faversham. I recall reading one review of this movie, in which the critic praised the rest of the cast, but put down Bridges’ performance. Apparently, he found the idea of an American portraying a Victorian British military officer unbelievable. I have seen Americans portray British characters before. And quite honestly, I thought Bridges did an excellent job by giving a subtle performance and avoiding histronics . . . unlike his performance in the 1976 film,“SWASHBUCKLER”.

And while I found the production’s quality solid, I did not find it particularly dazzling. I can only assume that as a television production, it would not be on the same quality as a theatrical release. The movie’s costume designs by Olga Lehmann seemed a little more impressive. I especially enjoyed her costumes for Jane Seymour, despite my confusion over whether the costumes reflected the 1870s or the 1880s. But if I must be honest, I have seen other television productions a lot more impressive. I was also disappointed to find that the story’s jingoistic portrayal of the British Empire somewhat off-putting, especially for a television movie that had aired in the 1970s. I would even add that the sympathetic portrayal of Harry’s anti-military attitude struck me as a bit hypocritical, considering that the movie’s conservative view of British imperialism. I must also admit that I found myself slightly repelled at the sight of white English actors portraying Sudanese soldiers. Did the producers really find it that difficult to find non-white actors to portray the Sudanese? Speaking of white actors portraying African ones:

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Yes, ladies and gentlemen. The above photo is an image of British actor Richard Johnson portraying a Sudanese Arab named Abou Fatma, who assists Harry in his efforts to save his friends. Johnson gave a nice, solid performance as Fatma, but . . . why?Why??? Why on earth did the producers cast Johnson in this role? He looked like a performer in a 19th century minstrel show . . . or a cast member from “THE BIRTH OF A NATION”. This kind of wince-inducing casting may have been common in the film industry during the first half of the 20th century. But “THE FOUR FEATHERS” aired on television around 1977/78. Nearly a year after the ABC miniseries, “ROOTS”. What in the hell were the producers and casting director Paul Lee Lander thinking?

Do not get me wrong. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is a pretty solid adventure movie that can boast a first-rate cast led by Beau Bridges. But I do feel that the movie is critically overrated. I did not find it that impressive, dramatically or production wise. I found the casting of white actors portraying non-white characters rather repulsive. And the movie’s sympathetic portrayal of the character’s anti-military stance in comparison to its pro-conservative portrayal of British imperialism struck me as hypocritical. Still . . . it was not a bad movie.

“THE HUNGER GAMES” (2012) Review

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“THE HUNGER GAMES” (2012) Review

The year 2008 saw the publication of a best-selling novel for young adults called “The Hunger Games”.  Written by Suzanne Collins, the novel’s success led to the publication of two sequels and a Hollywood adaptation of the first film some three or four years later.

Directed by Gary Ross and adapted by him, Collins and Billy Ray; “THE HUNGER GAMES” is about a sixteen year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen, who lives in  a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in the nation of Panem, which consists of a wealthy city called the Capitol that  is surrounded by 12 less affluent districts. As punishment for a past rebellion against the government, the Capitol created the Hunger Games – a televised annual event in which one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts are selected in a lottery as “tributes”.  They are required to fight to the death in a wilderness arena until there is one remaining victor. When the name of Katniss’ sister, Primrose, is called as the female tribute for their district, the 16 year-old volunteers to take Primrose’s place in order to save the latter from participating in the 74th Hunger Games.  Katniss is joined by her district’s male tribute, the son of a baker named Peeta Mellark.  They travel to the Capitol to train for the Hunger Games, under the guidance of former victor Haymitch Abernathy.

When the media blitz for “THE HUNGER GAMES” had first began, I dismissed it.  Especially since all I  heard were comparisons to the HARRY POTTER franchise.  The comparisons merely led me to roll my eyes in contempt.  Not even the publicity blitz surrounding Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy could generate my interest.  However, by the time “THE HUNGER GAMES” was a week or two away from its theater release, I suddenly became interested.  My interest was ignited by the fact that over a month had passed since I last saw a decent new movie during the early spring of 2012.  I went to see the movie at my local movie theater and left feeling more than satisfied.

I might as well admit it.  I was very impressed by “THE HUNGER GAMES”.  I was more than impressed.  Director Gary Ross did a superb job in bringing Suzanne Collins’ novel to life on the movie screen.  More importantly, the movie’s dark portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future not only impressed me, but frightened me a little.  Considering the present economic state of the world, it was pretty easy to image such a future for this country.  “THE HUNGER GAMES” was not the first science-fiction movie with a setting featuring a wide disparity between the haves and have-nots.  Last fall saw the release of a movie called  “IN TIME”.  Whereas that movie suffered from a plot that went nowhere in its last act, “THE HUNGER GAME” ended on a more satisfying note – aside from the last minute or two.  There were two main aspects of “THE HUNGER GAME” that made this movie so terrifying to me.  One, the participants of this deadly game were children between the ages of 12 and 18, not adults.  And more importantly, the actual games, which unfolded through two-thirds of the movie, came damn close to be a young adult remake of the chilling 1972 movie, “DELIVERANCE”.  Watching a group of adolescents and pre-adolescents being forced to ruthlessly kill each other pretty much made my skin crawl.  Kudos to Suzanne Collins for creating a very effective tale and the same to Ross for translating it so well to the screen.

I was not surprised to learn that the exteriors for “THE HUNGER GAMES” were filmed in North Carolina.  The movie’s opening sequence, along with the setting for the actual games did look as they had been filmed somewhere in that state.  However, I was surprised to learn that the entire movie was filmed there.  Apparently, Lionsgate took advantage of an $8 million tax break from North Carolina in order for the movie’s principal photography to take place there.  Most of the outdoor scenes – the arena and the District 12 outskirts – were filmed at the DuPont State Forest.  And cinematographer Tom Stern did an excellent job in doing justice to the location’s natural beauty.  But he, along with Ross, did an even better job in transforming the cities of Shelby and Charlotte.  They were aided by production designer Phil Messina, whose designs for the Capitol were inspired by 1939 New York’s World Fair, along with Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Red Square in Moscow.  Messina’s designs gave the Capitol an extravagant and decadent feel, in sharp contrast to the rural poverty of District 12.  I was also impressed by Judianna Makovsky’s colorful costume designs, along with the outrageous hairstyles and make up – especially for the characters in the Capitol.

But the movie’s plot, production designs, cinematography and other aspects of “THE HUNGER GAMES” would not have worked without Gary Ross’ direction and the outstanding cast led by Jennifer Lawrence.  I have only seen Lawrence in one previous movie – last year’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” – and I was impressed by her performance.  But she was even more impressive as this movie’s leading character, Katniss Everdeen.  Many have not only gushed over Lawrence’s portrayal of the 16 year-old Katniss, but they have also labeled her as a new breed of female action heroes and a feminist icon that has not been seen  on television or in the movies for years.  I do not know if I agree with the latter assessment, but I cannot deny that Lawrence did a superb job in portraying an adolescent girl who is not only strong-willed and intelligent, but also very complex.  Another performance that took me by surprise came from  Josh Hutcherson, who portrayed Katniss’ fellow combatant from District 12, Peeta Mellark.  Hutcherson’s Peeta has such a mild-mannered persona, I had assumed that the character would not last very long in the competition . . . or would at least proved to be a weak character that would eventually turn on Katniss.  Color me surprised.  But Hutcherson’s performance seemed so subtle and skillful that I was surprised to discover that his character had really grown on me by the end of the movie.

“THE HUNGER GAMES” was also lucky to possess solid performances from the supporting cast.  Liam Hemsworth – brother of Chris – gave a nice performance as Katniss’ childhood friend, Gale Hawthorne.  Fortunately for Hemsworth, he will be given the opportunity to strut his stuff, when his role becomes bigger in the upcoming sequels.  Woody Harrelson already managed to show what a first-rate actor he could be in his superb performance as the complex and alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy, a former District 12 winner of the Hunger Games, who is assigned to act as mentor for Katniss and Peeta.  There was a good deal of controversy surrounding the casting of Amandla Stenberg as the Games’ youngest participant, Rue.  Certain fans took issue with her racial background.  Pity.  Because I was very impressed by her subtle, yet charming peformance as Katniss’ competitor and ultimate friend.  Elizabeth Banks gave a rather funny performance as Katniss and Peeta’s uptight chaparone, Effie Trinket.  Singer Lenny Kravitz (and father of Lawrence’s “X-MEN” co-star and friend, Zoë Kravitz) was surprisingly first-rate as Katniss and Peeta’s stylist, Cinna.  It has been a while since I have seen Wes Bentley in a movie.  And it was heartening to see that he had not lost his touch in his ability to portray very complex characters.  He certainly gave a superb and complex performance as the 74th Hunger Games’ Head Gamekeeper, Seneca Crane.  Donald Sutherland was also superb as President Coriolanus Snow, the introverted, yet ruthless leader of the Capitol and all of Panem.  The movie also boasted fine performances from Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Dayo Okeniyi, Isabelle Fuhrman and Alexander Ludwig.

What else can I say about “THE HUNGER GAMES”?  It is one of the top-grossing movies in recent years or perhaps even of all time.  Whether it deserves this honor or not, I cannot deny that it turned out to be a surprisingly well made movie, thanks to Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, the movie’s production team and a superb cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.  I had felt some anxiety when I first heard that Ross has not signed up to do the movie’s sequel, “CATCHING FIRE”.  Pity.  Fortunately, his successor ended up being an equally good director.

“POLDARK” Series One (2015): Episodes Five to Eight

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“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (2015): EPISODES FIVE TO EIGHT

Within the past year, I had developed a major interest in author Winston Graham’s 1945-2002 “POLDARK” literary saga and the two television adaptations of it. Series One of the second adaptation produced by Debbie Horsfield, premiered on the BBC (in Great Britain) and PBS (in the United States) last year. Consisting of eight episodes, Series One of “POLDARK” was an adaptation of 1945’s “Ross Poldark – A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” and “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”. Whereas Episodes One to Four adapted the 1945 novel, Episodes Five to Eight adapted the 1946 novel. 

Episode Four left off with the death of Ross Poldark’s uncle, Charles; leaving Trenwith, the family’s premiere estate, in the hands of his cousin Francis. Ross’ former kitchen maid and new bride, Demelza Carne Poldark, formed a friendship with Francis’ sister Verity and accompanied Ross to a rather tense Christmas celebration at Trenwith, which was further marred by an unexpected appearance of the noveau-riche Warleggan family and friends. Ross also learned that copper had been discovered inside his mine and that Demelza had become pregnant with their first child.

Episode Five began several months later with the arrival of a traveling theater company that includes a young actress named Keren, who attracts the attention of miner Mark Daniels. The episode also marked the arrival of two other players – Dwight Enys, a former British Army officer and doctor, who happens to be a former comrade of Ross’; and young Julia Poldark, whose birth interrupted her parents’ enjoyment of the traveling theater company’s performance. The four episodes featured a good number of events and changes in Ross Poldark’s life. Julia’s birth led to a riotous christening in which he and Demelza had to deal with unexpected guests. Francis lost his fortune and his mine to George Warleggan’s cousin Matthew Sanson at a gaming party. Ross learned that his former employee Jim Carter was seriously ill at the Bodomin Jail and tried to rescue the latter with Dwight Enys’ help. The tragic consequences of their attempt led to Ross’ ill nature at the Warleggan’s ball. Dwight drifted into an affair with Keren Daniels, with tragic results.

Ross and several other mine owners created the Carnmore Copper Company in an effort to break the Warleggans’ stranglehold on the mineral smelting business, while Demelza plotted to resurrect her cousin-in-law Verity Poldark’s romance with Captain Andrew Blamey. The success of her efforts led to an estrangement between Ross and Frances. Demelza’s matchmaking also led to financial disaster for her husband’s new business venture. A Putrid’s Throat epidemic struck the neighborhood, affecting Francis, Elizabeth and their son Geoffrey Charles. Not long after Demelza had nursed them back to health, both she and Julia were stricken by disease. The season ended with a series of tragic and tumultuous events. Although Demelza recovered, Julia succumbed to Putrid’s Throat. The Warleggans’ merchant ship wrecked off the coast of Poldark land and Ross alerted locals like Jud and Prudie Paynter to salvage any goods that wash up on the shore. This “salvaging” led to violence between those on Poldark lands and neighboring miners and later, both against local military troops. One of the victims of the shipwreck turned out to be the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson. After Ross insulted Sanson’s death in George Warleggan’s face, the season ended with the latter arranging for Ross’ arrest for inciting the riot.

I must admit that I liked these next four episodes a bit more than I did the first quartet. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed those first episodes very much. But Episodes Five to Eight not only deepened the saga – naturally, considering a they were continuation of the first four – but also expanded the world of Ross Poldark.

One of the aspects of Series One’s second half that caught both my attention and my admiration was the production’s continuing portrayal of Britain’s declining economic situation during the late 18th century . . . especially for the working class. Both Episodes Five and Seven featured brief scenes that conveyed this situation. In Episode Five; Ross, Demelza and Verity encounter a starving family on the road to Turo, begging for food or money. A second brief scene in Episode Seven featured Demelza baking bread and later, dispersing it to the neighborhood’s starving poor. However, the series also featured bigger scenes that really drove home the dire economic situation. Upon reaching Truro in Episode Five, both Demelza and Verity witnessed a riot that broke out between working-class locals and the militia when the former tried to access the grain stored inside Matthew Sanson’s warehouse. I found the sequence well shot by director William McGregor. The latter also did an excellent job in the sequence that featured locals like the Paynters ransacking much needed food and other goods that washed ashore from the Warleggans’ wrecked ship. I was especially impressed by how the entire sequence segued from Ross wallowing in a state of grief over his daughter’s death before spotting the shipwreck to the militia’s violent attempt to put down the riot that had developed between the tenants and miners on Ross’ land and locals from other community.

Even the upper-classes have felt the pinch of economic decline, due to the closing and loses of mines across the region and being in debt to bankers like the Warleggans. Following the discovery of copper inside his family’s mine in Episode Four, Ross seemed destined to avoid such destitution. Not only was he able to afford a new gown and jewels for Demelza to wear at the Warleggan ball in Episode Six, he used his profits from the mine to create a smelting company – the Carnmore Copper Company – with the assistance of other shareholders in an effort to break the Warleggans’ monopoly on the local mining industry. One cannot say the same for his cousin Francis, who continued to skirt on the edge of debt, following his father’s death. Unfortunately, Francis wasted a good deal of his money on gambling and presents for the local prostitute named Margaret. In a scene that was not in the novel, but I found both enjoyable and very effective, he lost both his remaining fortune and his mine, Wheal Grambler, to the Warleggans’ cousin, Matthew Sanson, at a gaming party. But this was not the end of the sequence. Thanks to director William McGregor and Horsfield’s script. The sequence became even more fascinating once the Poldarks at Trenwith learned of Francis’ loss, especially Elizabeth. And it ended on a dramatic level with Francis being forced to officially close Wheal Grambler in front a crowd. I realize the sequence was not featured in Graham’s novel, but if I must be honest; I thought Horsfield’s changes really added a good deal of drama to this turn of events. Not only did McGregor shot this sequence rather well, I really have to give kudos to Kyle Soller, who did an excellent job in portraying Francis at his nadir in this situation; and Heida Reed, who did such a superb job conveying the end of Elizabeth’s patience with her wayward husband with a slight change in voice tone, body language and expression.

I was also impressed by other scenes in Series One’s second half. The christening for Ross and Demelza’s new daughter, Julia, provided some rather hilarious moments as their upper-crust neighbors met Demelza’s religious fanatic of a father and stepmother. Thanks to Harriet Ballard and Mark Frost’s performances, I especially enjoyed the confrontation between the snobbish Ruth Treneglos and the blunt Mark Carne. It was a blast. Ross and Dwight’s ill-fated rescue of a seriously ill Jim Carter from the Bodmin Jail was filled with both tension and tragedy. Tension also marked the tone in one scene which one of the Warleggans’ minions become aware of the newly formed Carnmore Copper Company during a bidding session. Another scene that caught my interest featured George Warleggan’s successful attempt at manipulating a very angry Francis into revealing the names of shareholders in Ross’ new cooperative . . . especially after the latter learned about his sister Verity’s elopement with Andrew Blamey. Both Soller and Jack Farthing gave excellent and subtle performances in this scene. Once again, McGregor displayed a talent for directing large scenes in his handling of the sequence that featured the wreck of the Warleggans’ ship, the Queen Charlotte, and both the looting and riot on the beach that followed. Series One ended on a dismal note with Ross and Demelza dealing with the aftermath of young Julia’s death and Ross’ arrest by the militia for leading the beach riot. Although I found the latter scene a bit of a throwaway, I was impressed by the scene featuring a grieving Ross and Demelza, thanks to the excellent performances from series leads, Aidan Turner and Elinor Tomlinson.

If there is one sequence that I really enjoyed in Series One of “POLDARK”, it was the Warleggan ball featured in Episode Six. Ironically, not many people enjoyed it. They seemed put out by Ross’ boorish behavior. I enjoyed it. Ross seemed in danger of becoming a Gary Stu by this point. I thought it was time that audiences saw how unpleasant he can be. And Turner did such an excellent job in conveying that aspect of Ross’ personality. He also got the chance to verbally cross swords with Robin Ellis’ Reverend Dr. Halse for the second time. Frankly, it was one of the most enjoyable moments in the series, so far. Both Turner and Ellis really should consider doing another project together. The segment ended with not only an argument between Ross and Demelza that I found enjoyable, but also a rather tense card game between “our hero” and the Warleggans’ cousin Matthew Sanson that seemed enriched by performances from both Turner and Jason Thorpe.

I wish I had nothing further to say about Episodes to Eight of Series One. I really do. But . . . well, the episodes featured a good number of things to complain about. One, there were two sequences in which Horsfield and McGregor tried to utilize two scenes by showing them simultaneously. Episode Seven featured a segment in which both Demelza and Elizabeth tried to prevent a quarrel between two men in separate scenes – at the same time. And Episode Eight featured a segment in which both Ross and Demelza tried to explain the circumstances of their financial downfall (the destruction of the Carnmore Copper Company and Verity Poldark’s elopement) to each other via flashbacks . . . and at the same time. Either Horsfield was trying to be artistic or economic with the running time she had available. I do not know. However, I do feel that both sequences were clumsily handled and I hope that no such narrative device will be utilized in Series Two.

I have another minor quibble and it has to do with makeup for both Eleanor Tomlinson and Heida Reed. In Episode Eight, the characters for both actresses – Demelza Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark – had been stricken by Putrid’s Throat. Both characters came within an inch of death. Yet . . . for the likes of me, I found the production’s different handling of the makeup for both women upon their recovery from Putrid’s Throat rather odd. Whereas Elizabeth looked as if she had recently recovered from a serious illness or death (extreme paleness and dark circles under the eyes), the slight reddish tints on Demelza’s face made her looked as if she had recently recovered from a cold. Winston Graham’s portrayal of Demelza has always struck me as a bit too idealized. In fact, she tends to come off as a borderline Mary Sue. And both the 1970s series and this recent production are just as guilty in their handling of Demelza’s character. But this determination to make Demelza look beautiful – even while recovering from a near fatal illness – strikes me as completely ridiculous.

If there is one aspect of this second group of Series One’s episodes that really troubled me, it was the portrayal of traveling actress Keren Smith Daniels and her affair with Dr. Dwight Enys. After viewing Debbie Horsfield’s portrayal of the Keren Daniels character, I found myself wondering it Debbie Horsfield harbored some kind of whore/Madonna mentality. Why on earth did she portray Keren in such an unflattering and one-dimensional manner? Instead of delving into Keren’s unsatisfaction as Mark Daniels’ wife and treating her as a complex woman, Horsfield ended up portraying her as some one-dimensional hussy/adultress who saw Dwight as a stepping stone up the social ladder. Only in the final seconds of Keren’s death was actress Sabrina Barlett able to convey the character’s frustration with her life as a miner’s wife. Worse, Horsfield changed the nature of Keren’s death, by having Mark accidentally squeeze her to death during an altercation, instead of deliberately murdering her. Many had accused Horsfield of portraing Keren in this manner in order to justify Mark’s killing of her, along with Ross and Demelza’s decision to help him evade the law. Frankly, I agree. I find it distasteful that the portrayal of a character – especially a female character – was compromised to enrich the heroic image of the two leads – especially the leading man. Will this be the only instance of a supporting character being compromised for the sake of the leading character? Or was Horsfield’s portrayal of Keren Daniels the first of such other unnecessary changes to come?

Despite my disppointment with the portrayal of the Keren Daniels character and her affair with Dwigh Enys and a few other aspects of the production, I had no problems with Episode Five to Eight of Series One for “POLDARK”. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it slightly more than I did the first four episodes. With the adaptation of “Demelza – A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790” complete, I am curious to see how Debbie Horsfield and her production staff handle the adaptation of Winston Graham’s next two novels in his literary series.

“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (2011) Review

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“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (2011) Review

Recently, I became aware of the BBC series called “THE MUSKETEERS” and became an instant fan. Due to my renewed interest in Alexandre Dumas père’s work, I decided to focus my attention on 2011’s “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, the most recent adaptation of the author’s 1845 novel. 

Produced and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, this cinematic version of Dumas père’s novel, proved to be a different kettle of fish. Yes, screenwriters Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak managed to adhere to some aspects of the 1845 novel. The movie closely followed d’Artagnan’s first meeting with his future three friends – Athos, Aramis and Porthos – along with Captain Comte de Rochefort and Milady de Winter. The rivalry between the Musketeers and Cardinal Richelieu’s guard – led by Rochefort – remains intact. “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” also included a conspiracy created by Richelieu that centered around Queen Anne, Britain’s Duke of Buckingham and the former’s diamond necklace given to her by King Louis XIII.

But Davies and Litvak created changes to Dumas’ story. One, Milady de Winter begins the story working with the three musketeers to steal airship blueprints created by Leonardo da Vinci. In this scenario, Milady and Athos are long time lovers and not a married couple. Their antipathy begins when Milady betray her compatriots and gives the plans to Britain’s Duke of Buckingham. Her betrayal leads to the disbandment of the Musketeers. So, when d’Artagnan arrives in Paris to join the military unit, he is a year too late. Also, the Duke of Buckingham is portrayed more as a villain, since he is not The Constance Bonacieux is not only single in this story, but also one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting; instead of married and a royal seamstress. Also, there is no real affair between Queen Anne and Buckingham. But Cardinal Richelieu decides to create false rumors using the Queen’s diamond necklace and false love letters in order to discredit her. This would lead to Anne’s execution, a war against Britain and a demand by the people that a more experienced leader – namely Richelieu himself – would rule France. Alas, thanks to Constance, d’Artagnan and the Musketeers step up to save the Queen’s reputation and ruin Richelieu’s plans.

It would be difficult for me to deny that “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” is a beautiful looking film. Germany served as 17th century France and Great Britain in this film and Glen MacPherson really did justice to the shooting locations, thanks to his beautifully sharp and colorful photography. MacPherson’s photography also did justice to Paul D. Austerberry’s production designs, whose re-creations of 17th century France and England struck me as spot on. Both MacPherson and Austerberry’s work benefited from Philippe Turlure’s set decorations and the art direction team of Nigel Churcher, Hucky Hornberger and David Scheunemann. But what really dazzled me about “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” were Pierre-Yves Gayraud’s s costume designs. Personally, I found them worthy of an Oscar nomination. Below are three images just to prove my point:

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There are aspects of “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” that did not exactly impress me. First of all, the chemistry between the four leads seemed a bit off. One might blame Logan Lerman, who was the only American in the team. But I had no problems with his chemistry with both Matthew MacFadyen and Ray Stevenson. And Luke Evans had a nice chemistry with both MacFadyen and Stevenson, despite his subdued take on his role. And I cannot blame MacFadyen, who seemed to be the odd man out as a screen swashbuckler. I am not saying that all four men – Lerman, MacFadyen, Evans and Stevenson – had no chemistry whatsoever. There was some inclination of a screen chemistry. But . . . their chemistry as the four musketeers never struck me as dynamic than in other versions I have seen.

Another major problem I had with the movie proved to be Davies and Litvak’s re-writing of the Milady de Winter character. I had no problem with Milady starting the movie as colleague of Athos, Aramis and Porthos. I had no problem with her being Athos’ lover, instead of his estranged spouse. I did have a problem with Milady being written as some kind of action woman. Many of her scenes featured actress Milla Jovovich engaged in some acrobatic stunt at a great height. I understand why. Both Jovovich and Anderson (who are married, by the way) are known for the “RESIDENT EVIL”movies, in which the actress had starred as the main protagonist. For some reason, the couple and the two screenwriters seemed to believe it was necessary to transform Milady into a female action figure. In doing so, all four robbed the Milady of the subtle villainy that made her such a memorable character in the novel and in other adaptations. I almost got the impression that Anderson and the screenwriters did not believe Jovovich lacked the ability to portray a seductive and manipulative villainess. Yet, one scene between Jovovich and actor Christoph Waltz (who portrayed Cardinal Richelieu) made it clear to me that the actress could have been a very effective Milady de Winter without resorting to countless number of stunts and other action scenes. Hmmm . . . pity.

Despite these misgivings, I must admit that I enjoyed “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”. Much to my utter surprise. When I first saw the film, I was ready to reject it after the Venice sequence. The idea of Milady working with Athos, Aramis and Porthos on a mission in Venice was not how I recall previous adaptations of Dumas’ novel. But I gave it a chance and decided to finish the film. And I enjoyed it. Actually, there were aspects of the movie that made it enjoyable for me. Aside from the movie’s visual style and costumes, I enjoyed how Davies and and Litvak put a different spin on Dumas’ story arc about Queen Anne’s diamond necklace. I was also both surprised and impressed at how they utilized the heist movie trope in two major sequences – the opening scene in Venice and the Musketeers’ attempt to get their hands on the diamonds, which were stolen by Milady and planted inside London’s Tower of London.

Davies and Litvak’s screenplay displayed a nice sense of humor. This was apparent in the personalities of three major characters – Porthos (who has been the comic relief of nearly all versions of Dumas’ tale), King Louis XIII and surprisingly, the Duke of Buckingham, along with d’Artagnan’s first meetings with his future three friends. The movie also featured some excellent action sequences. My favorite include the Musketeers and d’Artagnan’s fight against Rochefort and the Cardinal’s guards, the four friends’ heist of the diamond necklace from the Tower of London, and their final showdown against Rochefort and his men upon their return to Paris. This last sequence featured an outstanding duel between d’Artagnan and Rochefort that in my opinion, rivaled the duel between the two characters in 1974’s “THE FOUR MUSKETEERS”.

I still stand by my belief that the chemistry between the four actors who portrayed the Musketeers and d’Artagnan was not as strong as it had been in other productions. But the movie did featured some solid performances from the four actors. Ray Stevenson displayed his usual talent for comedy in his performance as Porthos. Honestly, I think his comic skills are highly underrated. Luke Evans gave a decent performance as Aramis. However, I do wish he could have displayed a little more élan in his portrayal of the usually dashing womanizer. Matthew Macfadyen did a skillful job in portraying Athos’ brooding nature and role as the group’s leader. But I got the feeling that he was not the type of actor I would cast in a swashbuckling film. Of the four actors, he never struck me as the swashbuckling type. It is odd that I would say this about Macfadyen and not Logan Lerman, who portrayed d’Artagnan. But the thing about Lerman is that his looks strike me as mediocre and he seems to be the shortest of the four leads.  And yet, once he opens his mouth and move, he becomes a bundle of energy with a good deal of style and panache. Curious.

Despite my complaints by Anderson and the screenwriters’ attempt to turn Milady de Winter into an action queen, I must say that I still managed to enjoy Milla Jovovich’s performance. She is the only actress I know who conveyed the spy’s seduction skills with a good deal of sly humor. Christoph Waltz did a solid job as the villainous Cardinal Richilieu. But I must admit, I did not find his performance particularly memorable or energetic. I can also say the same about Gabriella Wilde, who portrayed Constance Bonacieux. I hate to say this, but I found her performance somewhat wooden. On the other hand, Juno Temple gave a very charming performance as Queen Anne (formerly of Austria). Not only did she give a charming performance, she also conveyed a good deal of the Queen’s strength of character.

I really enjoyed Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Captain Rochefort. The Danish actor did an excellent job of conveying Rochefort’s subtle menace and talent for intimidation. Orlando Bloom proved to be quite a surprise as the villainous Duke of Buckingham. He was very funny in a sly, yet theatrical way. James Corden also gave a funny performance as Planchet, the Musketeers’ long suffering manservant. But the funniest performance came from Freddie Fox, who portrayed the rather young King Louis XIII. What can I say? He was hilarious in his portrayal of the King’s insecure nature and lack of experience as a leader. In fact, I believe he gave the best performance in the movie.

What else can I say about “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”? It is not particularly faithful to Alexandre Dumas père’s novel. But to be honest, I do not really care. In my opinion, the movie’s lack of adherence to the novel was not a weak point. The worst I can say about the movie is that the chemistry between the four actors portraying the Musketeers was not particularly strong. I did not care for the use of 17th century airships in this story. And I was not that impressed by the movie’s tendency to portray Milady de Winter as an action figure. On the other hand, I still managed to enjoy the screenplay written by Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak, along with Paul W.S. Anderson’s direction. And the movie also featured some strong performances – especially from Logan Lerman, Juno Temple, Orlando Bloom and Freddie Fox. In the end, I still enjoyed the film, despite my initial reservations.

“EASTERN PROMISES” (2007) Review

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“EASTERN PROMISES” (2007) Review

Eleven years ago, I saw for the first time, the crime thriller directed by David Cronenberg called, ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”. Viggo Mortensen had starred in the movie, portraying a happily-married café owner, whose Good Samaritan actions against two thugs led to his disclosure as a former mob enforcer. Both Cronenberg and Mortensen reunited two years later to collaborate on another crime thriller called, “EASTERN PROMISES”

Based upon a screenplay written by Steve Knight, ”EASTERN PROMISES” began with a gangland murder and the death of a 14 year-old Russian-born prostitute after giving birth to an infant girl. The two incidents would resonate over the lives of a London hospital midwife of Russian descent named Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a Russian mob boss and restaurant owner named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his wastrel son Krill (Vincent Cassel), and the mob boss’ enigmatic chauffeur, Nikolai Luzhin (Mortensen).

The plot is a little too complex for me to explain in this review. Needless to say that it centered around the mob boss’ attempt to recover the dead prostitute’s diary, which found itself in the hands of the hospital midwife. I would suggest that one find a way to see the movie. It will not disappoint. I know I found it very interesting. Yes, it has violence, but not as much that was found in ”A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”. But the amount of blood shown in the film – especially in the gangland slaying and the prostitute’s death – seemed to like a metaphor of the story’s theme . . . and the connection between the major characters.

On the surface, ”EASTERN PROMISES” seemed like a typical crime thriller centered around a Russian crime family in London. But the plot – like three of the major characters – turned out to be something quite different than what appears to be on the surface. What seemed like a gang war, turned out to be a lurid family secret that brings down the Russian mobster. As I had earlier pointed out, this theme is also apparent in three of the four major characters:

*Krill – who seemed like a crude and murderous monster on the surface, who proves to be more benign

*Semyon – a talented cook and mob boss, whose grandfatherly demeanor hides a darker and more ruthless personality

*Nikolai – the enigmatic chauffeur, whose practical and cynical nature makes him unsuited to merely be the family’s driver. As in the case of Semyon and Krill, he turns out to be someone very different.

And it is through the eyes of the London midwife, Anna that the audience becomes acquainted with the exotic (at least for American and British eyes) world of Russian émigrés mingled with the violence and degeneracy of the Vory v Zakone (Russian Mafia). Thanks to Cronenberg’s direction, the world of the Vory v Zakone seemed so exotic and something never seen before. In fact, it seemed so insular that the usual British atmosphere of London almost seemed miles away, despite the presence of Scotland Yard. One sequence that came to mind is the hand-to-hand fight between Nikolai and two Chechen assassins seeking revenge for the gangland murder featured in the movie’s opening scene. The sight of a nude Mortensen viciously defending his life against two burly assassins inside a London bathhouse is one that I will never forget. And I suspect that it will become an unforgettable scene in the minds of moviegoers for years to come.

I was also impressed by the performances in the movie. Despite having the least interesting character, Watts managed – with her usual competency – to infuse pathos and spirit into the London midwife. And Mueller-Stahl did an excellent job of portraying a brutal and ruthless man who manages to hide these traits under a veneer of warmth and civility. But I feel that Cassel deserves an Oscar nod for his portrayal of the pathetic Krill, who tries to hide his weaknesses (or what he conceives as weakness) with a crude and extroverted persona.

Finally, there is Viggo Mortensen, whose portrayal of the enigmatic Nikolai might finally allow the critics to truly appreciate his skills as an actor. Instead of using words or openly expressed emotions, Mortensen manages to reveal his character to the audience through subtle words (in a Russian accent that surprisingly works), body language, costume and especially in his eyes. What makes Mortensen so remarkable as a film actor is that he has no need for big speeches (which he had attempted in ”LORD OF THE RINGS: Return of the King”) or outbursts of emotions to convey to express his characters’ personalities. This certainly seemed true in the scene in which Nikolai has sex with one of the prostitutes, in the whorehouse owned by Krill’s father. Nikolai does not simply have sex with the woman. He IS FORCED to do so . . . on the orders of Krill, who wants Nikolai to prove that he is not a homosexual. The audience was well aware that the prostitute felt violated and exploited. But Mortensen managed to convey through his eyes, Nikolai’s feelings of violation, exploitation . . . and disgust at Krill’s desire to watch him have sex with the prostitute. Good performances by Mortensen, Cassel and the actress who portrayed the prostitute.

What else can I say about “EASTERN PROMISES”? It is not the best movie I had seen back in 2007.  But I feel that it is a fascinating and emotionally complex story that seems different from the usual crime thriller. Unlike “A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE”, it is not capped by a violence sequence that gives us the last word on the protagonist’s fate. Yet, all the same, I found it very tense and emotional.

 

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