“MANSFIELD PARK” (1999) Review

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“MANSFIELD PARK” (1999) Review

From the numerous articles and essays I have read on-line, Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, “Mansfield Park” did not seemed to be a big favorite amongst the author’s modern fans. In fact, opinions of the novel and its heroine, Fanny Price, seemed just as divided today, as they had been by Austen’s own family back in the early 19th century. 

When director-writer Patricia Rozema was offered the assignment to direct a film adaptation of “Mansfield Park”, she had originally rejected it. She claimed that she found both the novel and the Fanny Price character unappealing. In the end, she changed her mind on the grounds that she wrote her own screen adaptation. The result turned out to be an adaptation filled with a good deal of changes from Austen’s original text. Changes that have proven to be controversial to this day.

One obvious change that Rozema had made centered on the heroine’s personality. Rozema’s script allowed actress Frances O’Connor to portray Fanny as a talented writer with a lively wit and quick temper. Mind you, Rozema’s Fanny continued to be the story’s bastion of morality – only with what many would view as sass. Rozema also allowed the Edmund Bertram character to become romantically aware of Fanny a lot sooner than the character did in the novel. Because of this revision, actor Jonny Lee Miller portrayed an Edmund who seemed a bit livelier and less priggish than his literary counterpart. Characters like the Crawfords’ half-sister and brother-in-law, the Grants, failed to make an appearance. Fanny’s older brother, William Price, ceased to exist. And in this adaptation, Fanny eventually accepted Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal during her stay in Portsmouth, before rejecting it the following day.

But the biggest change made by Rozema had involved the topic of slavery. The writer-director allowed the topic to permeate the movie. Austen’s novel described Fanny’s uncle by marriage, Sir Thomas Bertram, as the owner of a plantation on the island of Antigua. Due to a financial crisis, Sir Thomas was forced to depart for Antigua for a certain period of time with his oldest son as a companion. Upon his return to England and Mansfield Park, Fanny asked him a question regarding his slaves. Sir Thomas and the rest of the family responded with uncomfortable silence. Rozema utilized the Bertrams’ connection to African slavery to emphasize their questionable morality and possible corruption. She also used this connection to emphasize Fanny’s position as a woman, a poor relation, and her semi-servile position within the Mansfield Park household. Rozema used the slavery connection with a heavier hand in scenes that included Fanny hearing the cries of slaves approaching the English coast during her journey to Mansfield Park; a discussion initiated by Sir Thomas on breeding mulattoes; Edmund’s comments about the family and Fanny’s dependence upon the Antigua plantation; oldest son Tom Bertram’s revulsion toward this dependence and graphic drawings of brutalized slaves. These overt allusions to British slavery ended up leaving many critics and Austen fans up in arms.

One aspect of “MANSFIELD PARK” that impressed me turned out to be the movie’s production values. I found the production crew’s use of an abandoned manor house called Kirby Hall to be very interesting. Rozema, along with cinematographer Michael Coulter and production designer Christopher Hobbs, used the house’s abandoned state and cream-colored walls to convey a corrupt atmosphere as an allusion to the Bertrams’ financial connection to slavery. Hobbes further established that slightly corrupted air by sparsely furnishing the house. I also found Coulter’s use the Cornish town of Charlestown as a stand-in for the early 19th century Portmouth as very picturesque. And I especially enjoyed his photography, along with Martin Walsh’s editing in the lively sequence featuring the Bertrams’ ball held in Fanny’s honor. On the whole, Coulter’s photography struck me as colorful and imaginative. The only bleak spot in the movie’s production values seemed to be Andrea Galer’s costume designs. There was nothing wrong with them, but I must admit that they failed to capture my imagination. 

I cannot deny that I found “MANSFIELD PARK” to be enjoyable and interesting. Nor can I deny that Rozema had injected a great deal of energy into Austen’s plot, something that the 1983 miniseries failed to do. Rozema removed several scenes from Austen’s novel. This allowed the movie to convey Austen’s story with a running time of 112 minutes. These deleted scenes included the Bertrams and Crawfords’ visit to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton; and Fanny’s criticism of Mary Crawford’s caustic remarks about her uncle. This did not bother me, for I feel that such editing may have tightened the movie’s pacing. Other improvements that Rozema made – at least in my eyes – were changes in some of the characters. Fanny became a livelier personality and at the same time, managed to remain slightly oppressed by her position at Mansfield Park. Both Edmund and Henry were portrayed in a more complex and attractive light. And Tom Bertram’s portrayal as the family’s voice of moral outrage against their connection to black slavery struck me as very effective. In fact, I had no problem with Rozema’s use of slavery in the story. I am not one of those who believed that she should have toned it down to the same level as Austen had – merely using the topic as an allusion to Fanny’s situation with the Bertrams. Austen opened Pandora’s Box by briefly touching upon the topic in her novel in the first place. As far as I am concerned, there was no law that Rozema or any other filmmaker had to allude to the topic in the same manner. 

However, not all of Rozema’s changes impressed me. Why was it necessary to have Henry Crawford request that he rent the nearby parsonage, when his half-sister and brother-in-law, the Grants, resided there in the novel? If Rozema had kept the Grants in her adaptation, this would not have happened. Nor did I understand Sir Thomas’ invitation to allow the Crawfords to reside at Mansfield Park, when Henry had his own estate in Norfolk. I suspect that Sir Thomas’ invitation was nothing more than a set up for Fanny to witness Henry making love to Maria Bertram Rushworth in her bedroom. Now, I realize that Henry is supposed to be some hot-to-trot Regency rake with an eye for women. But I simply found it implausible that he would be stupid enough to have illicit sex with his host’s married daughter. And why did Maria spend the night at Mansfield Park, when her husband’s own home, Sotherton, was located in the same neighborhood? And why was Fanny in tears over her little “discovery”? She did not love Henry. Did the sight of two people having sex disturb her? If so, why did she fail to react in a similar manner upon discovering Tom’s drawings of female slaves being raped?

Many fans had complained about Fanny’s acceptance of Henry’s marriage proposal during the visit to Portmouth. I did not, for it allowed an opportunity for Fanny’s own hypocrisy to be revealed. After all, she claimed that Henry’s moral compass made her distrustful of him. Yet, upon her rejection of him; Henry exposed her as a liar and hypocrite, claiming the real reason behind her rejection had more to do with her love for Edumund. Unfortunately . . . Rozema seemed determined not to examine Fanny’s exposed hypocrisy and dismissed it with an intimate scene between her and Edmund; the revelation of Henry’s affair with Maria; and Edmund’s rejection of Henry’s sister, Mary Crawford. 

This last scene regarding Edmund’s rejection of Mary revealed how truly heavy-handed Rozema could be as a filmmaker. In Austen’s novel, Edmund had rejected Mary, due to her refusal to condemn Henry for his affair with Maria and her plans to save the Bertrams and Crawfords’ social positions with a marriage between Henry and the still married Maria. Mary’s plans bore a strong resemblance to Fitzwilliam Darcy’s successful efforts to save the Bennet family’s reputation following Lydia Bennet’s elopement with George Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice”. In “MANSFIELD PARK”, Edmund rejected Mary after she revealed her plans to save the Bertrams from any scandal caused by the Henry/Maria affair – plans that included the eventual demise of a seriously ill Tom. The moment those words anticipating Tom’s death poured from Mary’s mouth, I stared at the screen in disbelief. No person with any intelligence would discuss the possible demise of a loved one in front of his family, as if it was a topic in a business meeting. I never got the impression that both the literary and cinematic Mary Crawford would be that stupid. In this scene, I believe that Rozema simply went too far. The director’s last scene featured a montage on the characters’ fates. And what fate awaited the Crawfords? Both ended up with spouses that seemed more interested in each other than with the Crawford siblings. I suppose this was an allusion to some fate that the Crawfords deserved for . . . what? Okay, Henry probably deserved such a fate, due to his affair with Maria. But Mary? I would disagree.

Ironically, both Rozema and Austen shared one major problem with their respective versions of the story. Neither the Canadian writer-director nor the British author bothered to develop Fanny and Edmund’s characters that much. In fact, I would say . . . hardly at all. “MANSFIELD PARK” revealed Edmund’s penchant for priggish and hypocritical behavior in scenes that featured his initial protest against his brother’s plans to perform the “Lover’s Vow” play and his final capitulation; his argument against Sir Thomas’ comments about breeding mulattoes (which Fanny expressed approval with a slightly smug smile) and his willingness to accept his family’s dependence on slave labor; and his support of Sir Thomas’ attempts to coerce Fanny into marrying Henry Crawford. The above incidents were also featured in the novel (except for the mulatto breeding discussion). Not once did Fanny criticize Edmund for his hypocritical behavior – not in the movie or in the novel. Instead, both Rozema and Austen allowed Fanny to indulge in her own hypocrisy by turning a blind eye to Edmund’s faults. Worse, she used Henry Crawford’s flaws as an excuse to avoid his courtship of her and later reject him. Henry’s angry reaction to her rejection was the only time (at least in Rozema’s movie) in which Fanny’s hypocrisy was revealed. Yet, not only did Fanny fail to acknowledge Edmund’s flaws, but also her own.

For me, the best aspect of “MANSFIELD PARK” proved to be its cast. How Rozema managed to gather such a formidable cast amazes me. Unfortunately, she did not use the entire cast. Two members – Justine Waddell (Julia Bertram) and Hugh Doneville (Mr. Rushworth) certainly seemed wasted. Rozema’s script failed to allow the two actors to express their talent. Waddell’s presence barely made any impact upon the movie. And Doneville seemed nothing more than poorly constructed comic relief. I almost found myself expressing the same belief for actress Lindsay Duncan, despite her portrayal of two of the Ward sisters – Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price. Her Lady Bertram seemed to spend most of the movie sitting around in a drug-induced state from the use of too much laudanum. However, Duncan had one memorable moment as Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Price. In that one scene, she gave emphatic advise to Fanny about Henry Crawford by pointing out the consequences of her decision to marry for love.

Victoria Hamilton fared better in her nuanced performance as the spoiled, yet frustrated Maria Bertram. She effectively conveyed how her character was torn between her pragmatic marriage to Mr. Rushworth and her desire for Henry Crawford. Frankly, I believe that Austen gave her an unnecessarily harsh ending. James Purefoy gave an interesting performance as the Bertrams’ elder son and heir, Tom. He expertly walked a fine line in his portrayal of Tom’s disgust toward the family’s involvement in slavery and penchant for a wastrel’s lifestyle. The late actress Sheila Gish gave a slightly humorous, yet sharp performance as Fanny’s other aunt – the tyrannical and venomous Mrs. Norris. 

I believe that the movie’s best performances came not from the leads, but from three supporting actors – Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz, and the late playwright-actor Sir Harold Pinter. The literary Henry Crawford had been described as a seductive man that quite enjoyed flirting with or manipulating women. Nivola certainly portrayed that aspect of Henry’s character with great aplomb. But he prevented Henry from becoming a one-note rake by projecting his character’s growing attraction to Fanny and the hurt he felt from her unexpected rejection. Embeth Davidtz gave an equally compelling performance as Henry’s vivacious sister, Mary. She skillfully portrayed Mary’s more endearing traits – humor and sparkling personality – along with her cynical views on authority and talent for cold-blooded practicality. However, not even Davidtz could overcome that ludicrous rip-off from 1988’s “DANGEROUS LIAISONS”, in which her Mary briefly stumbled out of the Bertrams’ drawing-room, mimicking Glenn Close, following Edmund’s rejection. It seemed like a flawed ending to a brilliant performance. For me, the film’s best performance came from Sir Harold Pinter. His Sir Thomas Bertram struck me as one of the most complex and multi-layered film portrayals I have ever come across. I find it astounding that this intimidating patriarch, who considered himself to be the family’s bastion of morality, was also responsible for the corruption that reeked at Mansfield Park and within the Bertram family. And Pinter made these conflicting aspects of the character’s personality mesh well together. Rozema added an ironic twist to Sir Thomas’ story. After being shamed by Fanny’s discovery of Tom’s drawings of abused slaves, Sir Thomas sold his Antigua estate and invested his money in tobacco. However, since U.S. states like Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky were the world’s top producers of tobacco at the time, chances are that the Bertrams’ benefit from slavery continued.

I suspect that if actress Frances O’Connor had portrayed the Fanny Price character as originally written by Jane Austen, she would have still given a superb performance. O’Connor certainly gave one in this movie. Despite Rozema’s refusal to openly acknowledge Fanny’s flaws in the script (except by Henry Crawford), the actress still managed to expose them through her performance. Not only did O’Connor did a great job in portraying Fanny’s wit and vivacity, she also revealed the social and emotional minefield that Fanny found at Mansfield Park with some really superb acting. I first became aware of Jonny Lee Miller in the 1996 miniseries, “DEAD MAN’S WALK”. I found myself so impressed by his performance that I wondered if he would ever become a star. Sadly, Miller never did in the fourteen years that followed the prequel to 1988’s “LONESOME DOVE”. But he has become well-known, due to his performances in movies like “MANSFIELD PARK”“TRAINSPOTTING” and the recent miniseries, “EMMA”. In “MANSFIELD PARK”, Miller portrayed the younger Bertram son, who also happened to be the object of Fanny Price’s desire. And he did a top-notch job in balancing Edmund’s virtues, his romantic sensibility and his personality flaws that include hypocrisy. I realize that Edmund was not an easy character to portray, but Miller made it all seem seamless.

Considering that Austen’s “Mansfield Park” is not a real favorite of mine, I am surprised that I managed to enjoy this adaptation of the novel. I will be frank. It is far from perfect. Patricia Rozema made some changes to Austen’s tale that failed to serve the story. Worse, she failed to change other aspects of the novel – changes that could have improved her movie. But there were changes to the story that served the movie well in my eyes. And the movie “MANSFIELD PARK” possessed a first-rate production and a superb cast. More importantly, I cannot deny that flawed or not, Rozema wrote and directed a very energetic movie. For me, it made Austen’s 1814 tale a little more interesting.

 

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“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

 

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“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

For years, I could never understand Hollywood’s penchant for making so many films about the British Empire during the first half of the 20th century. The film industry had released films about imperial outposts under the control of other countries – like France, Spain and even the United States. But why did they film so many about British Imperialism? One of those films is the 1935 feature, “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” is based upon the 1930 memoirs of a former British Army officer named Francis Yeats-Brown. But if you are expecting the movie to be a clear adaptation of Yeats-Brown’s book, you are in for a big disappointment. I suspect Paramount Pictures and producer Louis D. Lighton simply used the book’s title and setting – Imperial India – to create their own movie. The movie’s screenwriters, who included Waldemar Young and John L. Balderston, wrote a story about the experiences of three British Army officers serving with the 41st Bengal Lancers on the Northwest Frontier of India. The Scots-Canadian Alan McGregor welcomes two replacements to the 41st Bengal Lancers, the well-born Lieutenant Forsythe and Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), who happens to be the son of the regimental commander, Colonel Tom Stone. McGregor is regarded as some kind of North American savage, who needs to reign in his aggression. Forsythe, who comes from an upper-class family, takes pleasure in mocking McGregor’s Scots-Canadian ancestry. And Stone grows to resent his father, who is determined to treat him coldly in order not to show any partiality. 

The three officers, who find themselves sharing the same quarters, slowly develop a grudging friendship. However, when word reaches the regiment from intelligence officer Lieutenant Barrett that a local chieftain named Mohammed Khan might be preparing an uprising against the ruling British, Colonel Stone and his senior officers respond with a display of both friendship and power to the chieftain. Unfortunately, Khan kidnaps Lieutenant Stone, using his mysterious “associate” Tania Volkanskaya (portrayed by a rather unexceptional Kathleen Burke) as bait. While Khan tries to extract vital information about a British ammunition caravan from Lieutenant Stone, the latter’s father refuses to make any attempt to rescue him. Outrage, McGregor and Forsythe go after their younger colleague without orders. 

As I had stated earlier, I never could understand Hollywood’s penchant for Imperial British adventures for many years. Until now. I read in a few articles that “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first of its kind in this genre. Well . . . not really. The previous year – 1934 – saw the release of John Ford’s World War I adventure, “THE LOST PATROL”. And the silent era produced such films as 1929’s “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. But it was the box office and critical success of “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” that kicked off a major influx of British Empire movies that clogged the theaters up to the end of the 1930s. 

How do I feel about “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”? Well . . . I certainly do not view it as a bad movie. I thought it was pretty decent. There were aspects of it that I found unoriginal – namely the “bromance” between the three major characters and the conflict involving a rebellious chieftain. How can I put this? I have encountered both scenarios before in other British Empire movies. The three buddies? Hmmm . . . the friendship between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone strongly reminded of a similar friendship between the three protagonists in 1939’s “GUNGA DIN”. One could accuse the 1939 film of plagiarizing the 1935 film, since it was released four years later. But the friendship featured in “GUNGA DIN”was based upon Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories called “Soldiers Three”. Who is to say that the movie’s screenwriters used Kipling’s stories as inspiration for the “bromance” in “THE LIVES OF THE BENGAL LANCER”

Speaking of the movie’s trio, why did Paramount cast three American-born actors in the leading roles? Was there really a serious shortage of British actors? As I recall, Ray Milland was under contract with Paramount around that time. The writers made excuses for Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell’s characters by portraying the former as a Canadian and the latter as an Anglo-American raised in the U.S. Franchot Tone is another matter. He portrayed the upper-class Englishman, Lieutenant Forsythe. Mind you, I have no problems with the actors’ performances. But I had a difficult time watching a movie set in British India . . . and starring three American actors.

I realize “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first movie to really utilize the whole “local chieftain rebels against British Imperial authorities” into its plot. This was also used in subsequent movies like “GUNGA DIN”“THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, and “WEE WILLIE WINKIE”. The problem is that I have seen these movies before I saw the 1935 film. And if I must be brutally honest, the screenwriters and director Henry Hathaway’s use of this trope rather dry and bloodless. Hell, even the torture that Richard Cromwell’s character underwent was handled off screen.

After viewing “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, it occurred to me that the movie’s character studies impressed me a lot more than the “action-filled” subplot. The interactions between the characters – especially between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone – struck me as a lot more interesting and complex. First of all, the screenwriters and Hathaway did an excellent job in portraying the problems (or lack of them) that the three major characters had with the film’s other supporting characters – especially their fellow British officers. I was especially impressed by the film’s portrayal of the officers’ low regard for McGregor’s so-called North American aggression, and with the younger Stone’s cool relationship with his estranged father. I was also impressed by how the three disparate leading characters developed into a strong friendship by the movie’s last act. But the screenwriters and Hathaway are not the only ones who deserve the praise. The movie’s strong characterization would have never worked without the first-rate performances from the cast – especially Gary Cooper as McGregor, Franchot Tone as Forstythe and Richard Cromwell as the younger Stone. The three actors were ably supported by solid performances from Guy Standing, C. Aubrey Smith and Douglass Dumbrille.

Do not get me wrong. I do not dislike “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”. I think it is a pretty solid film. But I find it difficult to believe or accept that it received a total of seven Academy Award nominations. Despite the movie’s strong characterizations and excellent performances, I did not find it particularly exceptional. A part of me believes simply believes it would have been better off as a character study (with a shorter running time) than an epic British Imperial adventure.

 

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (2004) Review

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“DEATH ON THE NILE” (2004) Review

This 2004 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel, “Death on the Nile”, was the second to be adapted for the screen. In the case of this movie, it aired as a 90-minute presentation on the long-running television series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’s POIROT”

Like the novel and the 1978 movie adaptation, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” centered around Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the murder of an Anglo-American heiress named Linnet Ridgeway. Linnet had stolen the affections of her best friend’s fiancé and married him. When the newly married couple vacationed in Egypt, the best friend – one Jacqueline de Bellefort – stalked and harassed them during their honeymoon. Yet, when Linnet and her new husband, Simon Doyle, boarded the S.S. Karnak for a steamboat cruise down the Nile River, the heiress discovered she had other enemies that included the offspring of a man whom her father had financially ruined, her embezzling attorney who required her signature on a paper or her death to hide his crimes, a kleptomaniac American socialite and a professional thief who was after her pearls. Unfortunately for the killer, a vacationing Hercule Poirot and his friend, Colonel Race, are on hand to solve Linnet’s murder.

There were aspects of this adaptation of “DEATH ON THE NILE” that I found admirable. The movie’s set designs for the S.S. Karnak seemed bigger and slightly more luxuriant that what was shown in the 1978 movie. Production designer Michael Pickwoad did a first-rate job in creating the luxurious atmosphere for the 1930s upper class. Actor J.J. Feild gave a solid performance as Simon Doyle, the man who came between Linnet Ridgeway and Jacqueline de Bellefort. However, I do not think he managed to capture the literary Simon Doyle’s boyish simplicity and lack of intelligence. I also enjoyed Frances La Tour’s portrayal of the alcoholic novelist, Salome Otterbourne. She gave her performance a slight twist in which her character seemed to be a little hot under the collar as she makes sexual advances toward Poirot in a subtle, yet comic manner. And the movie’s one true bright spot was, of course, David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. As usual, he gave an exceptional performance. However, I noticed that he was never able to form any real chemistry with James Fox’s Colonel Race or Emma Griffiths Malin, who portrayed Jacqueline de Bellefort; as Peter Ustinov had done with David Niven and Mia Farrow, respectively.

I wish I could harbor a high opinion of “DEATH ON THE NILE”. But I cannot. There were too many aspects of this production that rubbed me the wrong way. I noticed that this version adhered closer to Christie’s novel than the 1978 film. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s close adaptation did not help the movie very much. It still failed to be superior or just as good as the 1978 version. So much for the argument that a movie has to closely follow its literary source in order for it to be any good. A closer adaptation of Christie’s novel meant that characters missing from the 1978 version – Cornelia Robson, Marie Van Schuyler’s clumsy young cousin; society jewel thief Tim Allerton; the ladylike Mrs. Allerton and the Allertons’ cousin, Joanna Southwood – appeared in this movie. Only the Italian archeologist, Mr. Richetti and Jim Fanthorp, the British attorney were missing. And honestly, the presence of the Allertons, Cornelia Robson and Joanna Southwood added nothing to the story as far as I am concerned. Aside from a few members of the cast, the acting in this movie struck me as very unexceptional and a little hammy at times. You know . . . the kind of hamminess that makes one wince, instead of chuckle with amusement.

There were other aspects that I disliked. Emma Blunt’s portrayal of the autocratic Linnet Ridgeway Doyle struck me as . . . well, shallow instead of impressive. I had this feeling that she was simply going through the motions with a Valley Girl’s accent. One scene featured her smoking a marijuana joint. Linnet Doyle has never struck me as the type who would risk losing her self control with the use of drugs. There were other performances I did not care for. I found Zoe Talford’s Rosalie Otterbourne to be ridiculously arch and sardonic. Nor did I care for Judy Parfitt’s one-note portrayal of the autocratic American socialite, Mrs. Marie Van Schyler. I could say the same for Daniel Lapaine’s performance as the effiminate Tim Allerton. And Alistair Mackenzie’s portrayal of the ardent Communist, Mr. Ferguson, seemed to be all over the map.

The movie featured a potential romance between Rosalie Otterbourne and Tim Allerton, which was featured in the novel. Unfortunately, I disliked how screenwriter Kevin Elyot ended it . . . by hinting incestuous tones between Tim and his mother. I found it so unnecessary. Nor was I impressed by director Andy Wilson handling of the Abu Simbel temples sequence in which one of the passengers tried to shove a boulder on Linnet and Simon. It struck me as rather shabby and almost anti-climatic. Blunt’s lazy performance in this scene did not help.

But the movie’s real atrocities came from the hairstyles and makeup created for the younger actresses in the cast. Most of the hairstyles seemed like sloppy re-creations of those from the mid-1930s, the worst offenders being the cheap-looking blond wig worn by Emily Blunt (Linnet Ridgeway Doyle), the butch hairstyle worn by actress Zoe Telford (Rosalie Otterbourne); and the gaudy makeup worn by all of the younger actresses. Only Daisy Donovan, who portrayed Cornelia Robson was spared from resembling a kewpie doll. Instead, she wore a sloppy bun that served as a metaphor for her insecure personality – a theatrical maneuver that I found unnecessary.

I hate to say this but despite David Suchet’s performance as Poirot and Michael Pokewoad’s production designs, I came away feeling less than impressed by this version of “DEATH ON THE NILE”. Not only did I find it inferior to the 1978 version, but also to many other adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.

1750-1799 Costumes in Movies and Television

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Below are images of fashion between 1750 and 1799, found in movies and television productions over the years:

 

 

1750-1799 COSTUMES IN MOVIES AND TELEVISION

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“Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939)

 

 

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“The Devil’s Disciple” (1959)

 

 

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“Barry Lyndon” (1975)

 

 

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“Poldark” (1975-1977)

 

 

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“Dangerous Liaisons” (1988)

 

 

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“The Aristocrats” (1999)

 

 

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“Marie Antoinette” (2006)

 

 

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“Amazing Grace” (2006)

 

 

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“The Duchess” (2008)

 

 

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“The Book of Negroes” (2015)

 

 

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“Poldark” (2015-2019)

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

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“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

Twenty-four years before the award-winning HBO miniseries “JOHN ADAMS” aired, the CBS network aired a miniseries about the first U.S. President, George Washington. Simply titled “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, this three-part miniseries was based upon two biographies written by James Thomas Flexner – 1965’s “George Washington, the Forge of Experience, 1732–1775” and 1968’s “George Washington in the American Revolution, 1775–1783”

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” spanned at least forty years in the life of the first president – from 1743, when his father Augustine Washington died from a sudden illness; to 1783, when Washington bid good-bye to the officers who had served under him during the American Revolutionary War. The miniseries covered some of the major events of Washington’s life:

*His training and profession as a surveyor of Western lands
*His experiences as an officer of the Virginia militia during the Seven Years War
*His friendship with neighbors George William and Sally Cary Fairfax between the 1750s and the 1770s
*The romantic feelings between him and Sally Fairfax
*His marriage to widow Martha Dandridge Custis and his role as stepfather to her two children
*His life as a Virginia planter
*His role as a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses
*His growing disenchantment with the British Parliament
*His brief experiences as a representative of the Second Continental Congress
*And his experiences as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army

Actually, one half of the miniseries covered Washington’s life from his childhood to his years as a Virginia planter. The other half covered his experiences during the American Revolution. Glancing at the list above, I realized that “GEORGE WASHINGTON”covered a great deal in Washington’s life. More importantly, Jon Boothe and Richard Fielder did a first-rate job by delving into the many aspects of the man’s life and his relationships with great details and depth. This was especially apparent in Washington’s relationships with his controlling mother, Mary Ball Washington; his friendship with George William Fairfax; his light romance with Sally Fairfax; his relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution and especially his marriage to Martha Custis.

I found it interesting that the miniseries managed to convey how difficult and controlling Mary Washington was as a parent. However, I found it slightly disappointing that the miniseries did not further explore Washington’s relationship with his mother, once he became swept up into the Seven Year’s War – especially since she had survived long enough to witness him become the first U.S. president.

Washington’s relationship with George William “Will” Fairfax proved to be a complex matter for two reasons. One, Will Fairfax had remained loyal to the British Crown throughout his life. During the decade leading to the outbreak of the American Revolution, that relationship threatened to fall apart due to the two friends’ different political belief – something I was happy to see that the miniseries had conveyed. Another aspect that posed a threat to Washington’s friendship with Fairfax was his romantic feelings for the man’s wife, Sally Fairfax . . . and her feelings for him. There have been rumors that Washington’s relationship with Sally had led to physical adultery, but no proof. But there is proof that they had strong feelings for one another and the miniseries; due to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay, along with the performances of Barry Bostwick and Jaclyn Smith; did an excellent job of conveying the pair’s emotional regard for each other in a subtle and elegant manner. What I found even more amazing was the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s courtship of and his marriage to Martha Custis. I was surprised that Boothe and Fiedler had portrayed Washington’s feelings toward her with such ambiguity. This left me wondering if he had married her for love . . . or for her fortune. By the last half hour or so of the miniseries, Washington finally admitted to Martha that he did love her. However, the manner in which Bostwick portrayed that scene, I found myself wondering if Washington was himself amazed by how much his feelings for Martha had grown.

I do not know what to say about the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution. I do not doubt that his aides were loyal to him or probably even worship him. But I must admit that it seemed the miniseries’ portrayal of this relationship seemed to make Washington’s character just a touch too ideal for my tastes. In fact, one of the miniseries’ main problems seemed to be its idealistic portrayal of the main character. Aside from Washington’s bouts of quick temper, his ambiguous affections for his wife Martha, and his cold relationship with his less than ideal stepson, John “Jacky” Parke Custis; the miniseries made very little effort to portray Washington in any negative light. In fact, Washington’s demand for higher rank within the Virginia militia and British Army during the Seven Years War is portrayed as justified, thanks to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay. Personally, I found his demand rather arrogant, considering his young age (early to mid-20s) and limited training and experience as a military officer at the time. Not only did I found his demand arrogant, but also rather astounding. What I found even more astounding was the miniseries’ attitude that television viewers were supposed to automatically sympathize with Washington’s demands.

The miniseries’ portrayal of Washington in the second half – the period that covered the American Revolution – nearly portrayed the planter-turned-commander as a demigod. Honestly. Aside from his occasional bursts of temper, General George Washington of the Continental Army – at least in this miniseries – was a man who could do no wrong. And at times, I found this rather boring. I cannot recall any moment during the miniseries’ second half that questioned Washington’s decisions or behavior. Most of his military failures were blamed on either military rivals or limited support from the Continental Congress.

And then . . . there was the matter of black soldiers serving in the Continental Army. According to “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, Southern representative in Congress wanted blacks – whether they were former slaves or freemen – banned from serving in the army. It was Washington who demanded that Congress allow black men to fight alongside white men in the country’s rebellion against the British Empire. By the way . . . this was a complete lie. Despite black men fighting in the Massachusetts militias during the Battles at Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington signed an order forbidding them to become part of the Continental Army when the white New England militiamen did. Come to think of it, when it came to racism and slavery, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” presented a completely whitewashed portrait of the future president. The miniseries even featured a pre-war scene in which Washington prevented his overseer from breaking apart slave families at Mount Vernon by selling some of the slaves for needed funds for the plantation. In reality, Washington was not above selling off slaves or breaking up families for the sake of profit or punishing a slave. At a time when historians and many factions of the American public were willing to view the Founding Fathers in a more ambiguous light; Fiedler and co-producers Buzz Kulik and David Gerber lacked the guts to portray Washington with a bit more honestly . . . especially in regard to race and slavery. If they had been more honest, they could have portrayed Washington’s growing unease over slavery and race, following Congress’ decision to allow them within the ranks of the Continental Army in 1777. Unfortunately, putting Washington on a pedestal seemed more important than allowing him some semblance of character development.

Production wise, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” struck me as first-rate. The miniseries had been shot in locales in Virginia and Southern Pennsylvania, adding to the production’s 18th century Colonial America atmosphere. I cannot say whether Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography also contributed to the miniseries’ setting. If I must be honest, I did not find his photography that memorable. But I was impressed by Alfred Sweeney’s production designs, along with Sig Tingloff’s art direction and Arthur Jeph Parker’s set decorations. However, I had a problem with the costume choices selected by a costume team supervised by Michael W. Hoffman. To be honest, I did not have much trouble with the costumes for the men. The women’s costumes proved to be another man. A good deal of the story is set among the colonial Virginia gentry. I hate to say this, but I found a good deal of the women’s costumes less than impressive. They looked as if they came straight from a costume warehouse in the middle of Hollywood. I especially had a problem with Jaclyn Smith’s wardrobe as Sally Fairfax. I realize that she is supposed to be an 18th century version of a Southern belle. But there were one or two costumes that seemed to be some confusing mixture of mid 18th and mid 19th centuries. Yikes.

I certainly had no problem with the performances featured in the 1984 miniseries. The latter featured solid performances from legendary actors like Lloyd Bridges, Jose Ferrer, Trevor Howard, Jeremy Kemp, Clive Revill, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Stack and Hal Holbrook. However, I really enjoyed James Mason’s energetic portrayal of the doomed General Edward Braddock; Rosemary Murphy’s skillful performance as the future president’s demanding mother, Mary Ball Washington; Richard Kiley’s emotional portrayal of Washington’s neighbor, planter George Mason; and John Glover’s ambiguous performance as the ambitious Revolutionary officer, Charles Lee. I was also impressed by Stephen Macht’s performance as the ambitious and volatile Benedict Arnold. I could also say the same about Megan Gallagher’s portrayal of Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen. Ron Canada provided a good deal of depth in his limited appearances as Washington’s slave valet, Billy Lee. Philip Casnoff, who was a year away from his stint in the “NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries, gave a very charming and humorous performance as Washington’s French-born aide and close friend, the Marquis de Lafayette. And Leo Burmester gave an excellent performance as Eban Krutch, the New England born Continental soldier, who served as the viewers’ eyes of both Washington and the war throughout the miniseries’ second half.

I really enjoyed David Dukes’ performance as Washington’s neighbor, mentor and close friend, Will Fairfax. I found it quite energetic and charming. And he managed to develop a first-rate chemistry with Barry Bostwick. Come to think of it, so did Jaclyn Smith, who portrayed Fairfax’s wife and the object of Washington’s desire, Sally Fairfax. I also found Smith’s performance rather complex as she had to convey her character’s feelings for Washington in a subtle manner. At first, I found Patty Duke’s portrayal of the future First Lady, Martha Washington, solid but not particularly interesting. Thankfully, the last quarter of the miniseries allowed Duke to prove what a first-rate actress she could be, as it explored Mrs. Washington’s reaction to the privations suffered by the Continental Army’s rank-and-file. Her performance led to an Emmy nomination. And finally, I come to the man of the hour himself, Barry Bostwick. Despite the miniseries being guilty of whitewashing some of Washington’s character, I cannot deny that Bostwick gave a superb performance. The actor skillfully conveyed Washington’s character from the callow youth who was dominated by his mother and his ambition to the weary, yet iconic military general who carried the rebellion and the birth of a country on his shoulders. It is a pity that he did not receive any award nominations for his performance.

I may have my complaints about “GEORGE WASHINGTON”. Despite its detailed account of the first president’s life, I believe it went out of its way to protect his reputation with occasional whitewashing. And some of the miniseries’ production values – namely the women’s costumes – struck me as a bit underwhelming. But despite its flaws, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” proved to be a first-rate miniseries that delved into the history of the United States during the mid-and-late 18th century, via the life of one man. It also benefited from excellent direction from Buzz Kulik and superb performances led by the talented Barry Bostwick. Not surprisingly, the miniseries managed to earn at least six Emmy nominations.

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

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“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

The year 2004 marked the umpteenth time that an adaptation of Jules Verne’s travelogue movie, “Around the World in Eighty Days” hit the movie screen. Well . . . actually, the fifth time. Released by Disney Studios and directed by Frank Coraci, this adaptation starred Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Cécile de France, Ewan Bremmer and Jim Broadbent. 

This adaptation of Verne’s novel started on a different note. It opened with a Chinese man named Xau Ling (Jackie Chan) robbing a precious statuette called the Jade Buddha from the Bank of England. Ling managed to evade the police by hiding out at the home of an English inventor named Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan). To keep the latter from turning him in to the police, Ling pretends to be a French-born national named Passepartout, seeking work as a valet. After Fogg hired “Passepartout”, he clashed with various members of the Royal Academy of Science, including its bombastic member Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent). Kelvin expressed his belief that everything worth discovering has already been discovered and there is no need for further progress. The pair also discussed the bank robbery and in a blind rage, Phileas declared that that the thief could be in China in little over a month, which interests “Passepartout”. Kelvin pressured Phileas Fogg into a bet to see whether it would be possible, as his calculations say, to travel around the world in 80 days. If Fogg wins, he would become Minister of Science in Lord Kelvin’s place; if not, he would have to tear down his lab and never invent anything again. Unbeknownst to both Fogg and “Passepartout”, Kelvin recruited a corrupt London police detective named Inspector Fix to prevent the pair from completing their world journey. However, upon their arrival in Paris, they met an ambitious artist named Monique Larouche (Cécile de France), who decides to accompany them on their journey. Ling also became aware of warriors under the command of a female warlord named General Fang (Karen Mok), who also happens to be an ally of Lord Kelvin.

I might as well make this short. “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” did not do well at the box. In fact, it bombed. In a way, one could see why. In compare to the 1956 and 1989 versions, it took a lot more liberties with Verne’s original story. Phileas Fogg is portrayed as an eccentric inventor, instead of a Victorian gentleman of leisure. He takes on a bet with a rival member of the Royal Academy of Science, instead of members of the Reform Club. Passepartout is actually a Chinese warrior for an order of martial arts masters trying to protect his village. Princess Aouda has become a cheeky French would-be artist named Monique. And Inspector Fix has become a corrupt member of the London Police hired by the venal aristocrat Lord Kelvin to prevent Fogg from winning his bet. Fogg, Passepartout and Monique traveled to the Middle East by the Orient Express, with a stop in Turkey. Their journey also included a long stop at Ling’s village in China, where Fogg learned about Ling’s deception.

Some of the comedy – especially those scenes involving Fix’s attempts to arrest Fogg – came off as too broad and not very funny. Also, this adaptation of Verne’s tale was not presented as some kind of travelogue epic – as in the case of the 1956 and 1989 versions. The movie made short cuts by presenting Ling and Fogg’s journey through the use of day-glow animation created by an art direction team supervised by Gary Freeman. Frankly, I thought it looked slightly cheap. I really could have done without the main characters’ stop in Turkey, where Monique almost became Prince Hapi’s seventh wife. It slowed down the story and it lacked any humor, whatsoever. I am a major fan of Jim Broadbent, but I must admit that last scene which featured his rant against Fogg and Queen Victoria on the steps of the Royal Academy of Science started out humorous and eventually became cringe-worthy. Poor man. He deserved better.

Did I like “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”? Actually, I did. I found it surprisingly entertaining, despite its shortcomings. Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan made a rather funny screen team as the resourceful and clever Ling who had to deceive the slightly arrogant and uptight Fogg in order to quickly reach China. Cécile de France turned out to be a delightful addition to Chan and Coogan’s screen chemistry as the coquettish Monique, who added a great deal of spark to Fogg’s life. Granted, I had some complaints about Broadbent’s performance in his last scene. Yet, he otherwise gave a funny performance as the power-hungry and venal Lord Kelvin. It was rare to see him portray an outright villain. And although I found most of Bremner’s scenes hard to take (I am not that big of a fan of slapstick humor), I must admit that two of his scenes left me in stitches – his attempt to arrest Ling and Fogg in India and his revelations of Lord Kelvin’s actions on the Royal Academy of Science steps.

There were many moments in David N. Titcher, David Benullo, and David Goldstein’s script that I actually enjoyed. One, I really enjoyed the entire sequence in Paris that featured Ling and Fogg’s meeting with Monique and also Ling’s encounter with some of General Fang’s warriors. Not only did it featured some top notch action; humorous performances by Chan, Coogan and de France; and colorful photography by Phil Meheux. Another first-rate sequence featured the globe-trotting travelers’ arrival at Ling’s village in China. The action in this sequence was even better thanks to the fight choreography supervised by Chan and stunt/action coordinator Chung Chi Li. It also had excellent characterization thanks to the screenwriters and Chan, Daniel Wu, Sammo Hung and other actors.  One particular scene had me laughing. It featured Coogan and the two actors portraying Ling’s parents during a drunken luncheon for the travelers.

I wish I could say that this version of “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the best I have seen. But I would be lying. To be honest, all three versions I have seen are flawed in their own ways. This version is probably more flawed than the others. But . . . I still managed to enjoy myself watching it. The movie can boast some first-rate performances from the cast – especially Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan and Cécile de France. And it also featured some kick-ass action scenes in at least three major sequences. Thankfully, it was not a complete waste. In fact, I rather liked the movie, despite its flaws.

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