“INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” (2009) Review

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“INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” (2009) Review

I have rather mixed feelings about director Quentin Tarantino’s work. I have not seen all of the movies that he has directed. Of the movies that I have seen, I can name only three or four I would consider favorites of mine. One of those favorites happened to be his 2009 Oscar winning film, “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, a World War II comedy-melodrama (I do not know how else to describe the movie) about two attempts to assassinate Nazi leader Adolph Hitler during a movie premiere in occupied Paris. 

Thinking about “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, it occurred to me that its premise struck a familiar note. It bears a strong resemblance to the 2008 movie, ”VALKYRIE”, a thriller about the last attempt to kill Hitler by a group of high-ranking German Army officers. But unlike Bryan Singer’s movie, “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” featured two separate plots to kill Hitler that ended with a particular twist.

In order to present a detailed account of these two accounts, Tarantino divided his story into five chapters. The first chapter introduced Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a notorious S.S. officer known for hunting and finding refugee Jews in Austria and occupied France. He appears at a French dairy farm in search of a missing Jewish family named Dreyfus. After threatening to punish the dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) hiding the family, Landa manages to have them all killed, except for the 18-19 year-old Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who escapes due to Landa lacking bullets in his revolver. Chapter Two opens in early 1944 and introduces U.S. Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee hillbilly, who has recruited a group of Jewish-American soldiers to kill and mutilate as many Nazi soldiers they can get their hands on behind enemy lines in occupied France. By the time they have recruited Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), a former German soldier set to be punished for killing 13 S.S. soldiers, the “Basterds” have created a reputation as butchers by the German high command.

Shosanna returns to the story in Chapter Three, as the owner of a Parisian movie theater. Her theater is chosen to host the premiere of “A Nation’s Pride”, one of Joseph Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) propaganda films about the exploits of a German war hero named Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) . . . after Zoller meets and becomes attracted to Shosanna. The theater owner realizes that the movie premiere is the perfect place for her to get revenge for the deaths of her family and she plots with her lover and projectionist, Marcel (Jacky Ido) to burn down the theater with the moviegoers locked inside. In Chapter Four, British intelligence learns about the premiere from one of their agents – popular German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and her plans to have the German high command assassinated. They send one of their operatives to France – German speaking Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) – to meet up with the Basterds and von Hammersmark and go along with her assassination plans. Unfortunately, the meeting goes awry due to an encounter with some German soldiers and a Gestapo officer named Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl). Raines and von Hammersmark are forced to make some changes in their assassination plot. Chapter Five featured the movie’s finale at Shosanna’s movie theater, where the two plots to kill Hitler and the Nazi high command weave in a series of revelations, betrayals, death, sacrifice and a surprising plot twist.

“INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, like some of Tarantino’s films, turned out to be a prime example of how several unconnected subplots merge into one major plot or goal. In the case of this particular movie, the goal to assassinate Hitler and the Nazi high command. I have noticed that in movies like “PULP FICTION” and “JACKIE BROWN”, Tarantino likes to use nonlinear story lines. This does not seemed to be the case for “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. In fact, he carefully introduced the characters and the story in a straight, linear fashion in Chapters One to Four. Once the finale unfolded in Chapter Five, Tarantino pulled the rug from under moviegoers with several surprising plot twists that left me reeling. And by the time the last scene ended, only two major characters and a supporting character were left standing. Another aspect about “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” that I found enjoyable was its mixture of humor, drama, suspense and action. Well, most of the action featured massive shootings, a major fire, stabbings, strangulation and mutilation. And the ironic thing is that the percentage of action featured in the film was minor in compare to the number of scenes dominated by dialogue. This should not be surprising, considering that many of Tarantino’s films seemed to feature more dialogue than action. Aside from one or two scenes, this did not bother me at all. I think it had something to do with the fact that I found many of the characters in “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” fascinating. Tarantino really earned his Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

If there is one thing you can count on a Quentin Tarantino film, it is bound to feature a cast of some interesting characters and performances. I suspect that Lieutenant Aldo Raine will go down as one of my favorite characters portrayed by Brad Pitt. The movie never explained Raine’s dislike and hostility toward the Nazis. But his recruitment speech to his “Basterds” made it clear that he disliked them . . . intensely. He even makes sure that his men know that he expects each of them to take at least 100 Nazi scalps. And he literally means scalps. Also, Pitt did an excellent job of expressing not only Raine’s dislike of the Nazis, but also his ruthlessness, sadism and ornery streak. And as long as I remember this movie, I will always relish Pitt’s Tennessee accent and the way he says “Nat-sees”. Another performance I will certainly remember is Christoph Waltz’s superb performance as the soft-spoken, yet sinister Waffen-SS-turned-SD officer Colonel Hans Landa. The Nazi officer, known for successfully hunting down refugee Jews, is clearly the movie’s main antagonist, yet watching Waltz portray this guy is a joy to behold. He does not resort to the usual clichés about Nazi characters. Instead, his Landa is a polite, humorous and yet, sadistic man who enjoys putting his victims through psychological torture. His interrogations of the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, Shosanna and even Raine are prime examples of this. Only with Raine, I think he may have met his match. It is not surprising that Waltz received the Best Actor Award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.

However, Pitt and Waltz are not the only ones who provided some memorable performances. I really enjoyed Mélanie Laurent’s performance as the intense and vengeful Shosanna Dreyfus. Not many critics seemed impressed by her performance, but then Shosanna is not exactly what one would call an in-your-face role. I could also say the same about Diane Kruger’s role as the German-born film star, Bridget von Hammersmark. Her role as the anti-Nazi spy for the British is not as colorful as some of the other roles in the film, but it is certainly more complex and interesting than her performances in the “NATIONAL TREASURE” movies and “TROY”. I heard a rumor that Kruger had fought for the role of von Hammersmark. Judging from the way she seemed to relish in her role that seem very obvious. Another low key, yet complex performance came from Daniel Brühl as the war hero-turned film actor Fredrick Zoller. He did an excellent job in conveying a genuine attraction to Shosanna, along with his frustration over her cold attitude toward him. He also seemed embarrassed and slightly ashamed of his heroics that led to the deaths of many American soldiers in Italy. Yet, he loves the celebrity that he has managed to acquire as due to his actions as a military sniper. I was also impressed by Michael Fassbender as the British intelligence officer, Lieutenant Archie Hicox, who was selected to assist von Hammersmark and the Basterds in the plot to kill Hitler. I enjoyed Fassbender’s sharp performance as the British officer as a suave “George Saunders” type, whose command of the German language is perfect, but not his knowledge of German regional accents. And Til Schweiger was perfect as Hugo Stiglitz, the psychotic German soldier whose dislike of the Nazi regime led him to murder 13 Gestapo officers before joining Raine’s group of “Basterds”. He was hilarious, yet frightening in the Chapter Four sequence that featured von Hammersmark’s rendezvous with his fellow Basterd Corporal Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard) and Hicox. Schweiger’s struggle to keep his temper and murderous impulses in check during their encounter with Major Hellstrom was fascinating to watch. Speaking of the latter, August Diehl gave a subtle, yet scary performance as the uber-observant S.S. officer, Major Dieter Hellstrom. This was esepcially apparent in the Chapter Four sequence, as his character played mind games with Ms. von Hammersmark and Hicox. Apparently actor-writer-producer Eli Roth does not have a great reputation as an actor. Even I could see that he was no great shakes as an actor. Yet, the role of the violent and obnoxious Staff Sergeant Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz seemed to fit him like a glove. Roth did a pretty good job in conveying Donowitz’s funny, yet psychotic nature.

Before one would assume that I consider “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS” as an example of cinematic perfection, I must admit there were a few aspects of the film that troubled me. There were moments when the pacing seemed a bit too slow for me. I thought that Tarantino had lingered on the conversation between Colonel Landa and Perrier LaPadite longer than necessary. I suspect that this scene was merely a showcase for Landa’s talents as an investigator and his penchant for psychological sadism. Unfortunately, I found myself longing for it to end before it actually did. Another scene that I found mind boggling was Landa’s last encounter with Ms. von Hammersmark. Knowing that the actress was a Allied spy and had been at the tavern that featured a murderous shoot-out, Landa toyed with her before strangling her to death. My question is why? Why did he kill her? I would have understood this if he had remained loyal to the Third Reich until the bitter end. But moments after he murdered her, Landa betrayed the German High command by trying to help the “Basterds” go ahead with their assassination plan. Why . . . “punish” Ms. von Hammersmark before making the decision to commit treason himself?

My last quibble centered around Lieutenant Raine’s men – the “Basterds”. Aside from Hugo Stiglitz and Donny Donowitz, we never really got a chance to really know the Basterds. Most of them were given brief spotlights, but not enough to really satisfy me. After all, the movie is named after their group. Of the other “Basterds” – Wilhelm Wicki, Smithson Utivich, Omar Ulmer, Gerold Hirschberg, Andy Kagan, Michael Zimmerman, and Simon Sakowitz – at least three of them were given brief spotlights. And Tarantino never revealed what happened to the “Basterds” who were at the movie theater in Chapter Five.. I also understand that Tarantino had attempted to recruit Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone to create the movie’s score. The composer rejected the offer, due to the film’s sped-up production schedule. Instead, Tarantino utilized some of Morricone’s tracks from previous films into the movie’s soundtrack. I only hope that Tarantino did this with the composer’s permission.

As for the technical aspects of “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”, I believe that Tarantino did a solid job in consolidating the cinematography, production designs, costume designs, and special effects to create a first-rate movie. But I must admit that I found myself especially impressed by Tarantino’s own script that featured a straight, linear story that concluded in a very surprising manner. I was also very impressed by the visual effects supervised by Gregory D. Liegey and Viktor Muller . . . especially during the final sequence that featured the movie premiere.

I might as well say it . . . I really enjoyed ”INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. It is one of the very few movies I really enjoyed back in 2009. And it is one of my top favorite Tarantino films. It featured an excellent story with some surprising twists and a superb international cast led by Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent. And considering my mixed views on Tarantino’s body of work that has to be saying something.

 

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode One “Currahee” Commentary

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – EPISODE ONE “CURRAHEE” COMMENTARY

After spending the last six months or so watching and re-watching my taped copies of the recent HBO miniseries, ”THE PACIFIC”, my family and I decided to re-watch the first television collaboration between Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Of course I am speaking of the 2001 Golden Globe and Emmy winning miniseries, ”BAND OF BROTHERS”

Based upon Stephen Ambrose historical book , ”BAND OF BROTHERS” centered around the experiences of “Easy” Company, one company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. The miniseries was divided into ten episodes and starred Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston. The first episode, titled”Curahee”, told the story of Easy Company’s two years of training at Toccoa, Georgia; North Carolina; and later in England under the command of Herbert Sobel.

”Currahee” basically served as an introduction of the main characters featured throughout the miniseries. However, not all of the characters made an impact in this episode. Albert Blythe, David Webster and several others were occasionally seen, but not heard. But one did have characters like William “Wild Bill” Guarnere, Carwood Lipton, George Luz, John Martin, Joe Liebgott, and Harry Welsh certainly made their impacts. More importantly, the two lead characters were featured – namely Richard Winters and Lewis Nixon. But I might as well be frank. This episode truly belonged to the man who had served as Easy Company’s first commander, Herbert Sobel.

The acting in ”Currahee” struck me as pretty solid. At least 70% of the cast featured British or Irish actors portraying American servicemen. Some of the actors did pretty good jobs in maintaining an American accent – including Damian Lewis. However, there were times when it seemed that the basic American accents that most of the British cast seemed capable of using were either Southern, a flat trans-Atlantic accent or an accent from one of the five boroughs of New York City. I found it disconcerting to find some British actors using the latter, despite their characters coming from another part of the country. For example, actor Ross McCall did a great New York accent. Unfortunately, his character Joe Liebgott was born in Michigan, and moved to San Francisco sometime before the war. Even some of the American actors used the wrong accent for their characters. I enjoyed James Madio’s performance as Frank Perconte. However, Madio, who hailed from New York City (the Bronx), used his natural accent to portray Illinois native, Perconte.

I have to be honest. I never found the basic training sequences featured in some war movies to be interesting. In fact, the only war movies that featured interesting training sequences were about the Vietnam War – ”THE BOYS OF COMPANY ‘C’” (1978) and ”FULL METAL JACKET” (1987). As I had stated earlier, the episode ”Currahee” truly belonged to the Herbert Sobel character and David Schwimmer’s memorable and complex performance. Despite Ambrose’s portrayal of Sobel as a tyrannical company commander that was deeply disliked by his men, many veterans of Easy Company cannot deny that he made the company. His tough training methods helped the men endure the horrors of war that faced them in future battles. If it were not for his character and Schwimmer’s performance, I would barely consider ”Currahee” as an interesting episode.

Once Sobel was removed from the scene, the last 15 to 20 minutes of ”Currahee” featured Easy Company’s preparation for their jump into Normandy, France and their participation of the famous June 5-6 invasion. Those last minutes also set future storylines in the next episode and in future ones – including Easy Company’s experiences in France, Guarnere’s anger over his brother’s death, and Lynn “Buck” Compton’s relationship with the men in his platoon. It was not a bad episode. In fact, it was pretty interesting, thanks to David Schwimmer’s portrayal of Easy Company’s first commander, Herbert Sobel. But if it were not for the presence of Sobel’s character, I would almost find this episode rather dull.

 

“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

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“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

When I had first learned about Ron Howard’s biopic about boxing champion James J. Braddock, I was very reluctant to see the film. In fact, I did not even bother to go see it. Instead, I merely dismissed “CINDERELLA MAN” as a ‘“SEABISCUIT” in the boxing ring’. After I finally saw the movie, I must admit that my original assessment stood. 

”CINDERELLA MAN” and the 2003 Oscar nominated film, ”SEABISCUIT” seemed to have a lot in common. Both were released by Universal Pictures. Both films possessed a running time that lasted over two hours, both were sentimental stories that centered around a famous sports figure and both were set during the Great Depression. Unlike ”SEABISCUIT””CINDERELLA MAN” told the story about a man – namely one James J. Braddock, an Irish-American boxer from New York and Bergen, New Jersey. The movie started out with Braddock (portrayed by Russell Crowe) as a boxing heavyweight contender in 1928, who had just won an important bout against another boxer named Tuffy Griffiths. But within five years, Braddock found himself as a has-been struggling to keep his family alive during the depths of the Depression, while working as longshoreman. Thanks to a last minute cancellation by another boxer, Braddock gets a second chance to fight but is put up against the number two contender in the world, Corn Griffin, by the promoters who see Braddock as nothing more than a punching bag. Braddock stuns the boxing experts and fans with a third round knockout of the formidable Griffin. After winning a few more bouts, Braddock ends facing boxing champ, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), for the heavyweight title in 1935.

Despite the similarities between ”CINDERELLA MAN” and ”SEABISCUIT”, I must admit that I regret not seeing this film in the theaters. It turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Director Ron Howard, along with screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, did an excellent job of chronicling Braddock’s boxing career at a time when he had been labeled a has-been by the sports media. The movie also featured some excellent fight sequences that came alive due to Howard’s direction, Crowe, Bierko, and the other actors who portrayed Braddock’s opponents. Although the movie’s main event was the championship fight between Braddock and Baer during the last thirty minutes, I was especially impressed by the sequence that featured Braddock’s fight against Art Lansky (Mark Simmons). In my opinion, most of the praise for these fight sequences belonged to cinematographer Salvatore Totino, and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill (who both received Academy Award nominations for their work) for injecting the boxing sequences with rich atmosphere and effective editing.

Ironically, the movie’s centerpiece – at least in my opinion – was its deception of the Depression. I understand that Howard had used the city of Toronto to serve as 1930s Manhattan and New Jersey. And judging from the results on the screen, he did an excellent job of utilizing not only the cast led by Crowe, but also the talents of production designer Wynn Thomas, Gordon Sim’s set decorations, Peter Grundy and Dan Yarhi’s art direction and Totino’s photography to send moviegoers back in time. There are certain scenes that really seemed to recapture the desperation and poverty of the Depression’s early years:

*Braddock begs for money from the sports promoters and boxing managers at Madison Square Garden
*Mae Braddock’s discovery of the gas man turning off the family’s heat
*The Braddocks witness the desertion of a man from his wife and family
*Braddock’s search for his friend, Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), at a Hooverville in Central Park

Howard and casting agents, Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, managed to gather an impressive group of cast members for the movie. The ironic thing is that despite the impressive display of talent on screen, hardly anyone gave what I would consider to be a memorable performance – save for one actor. Russell Crowe naturally gave an impressive, yet surprisingly likeable performance as James Braddock. Although I found his performance more than competent, I must say that I would not consider it to be one of his best roles. There was nothing really fascinating or complex about his Braddock. I suspect that screenwriters Hollingsworth and Goldsman could have made Braddock a more interesting character . . . and simply failed to rise to the occasion. I have to say the same about their portrayal of the boxer’s wife, Mae Braddock. Portrayed by Renee Zellweger, her Mae was a loving and supporting spouse, whose only kink in her personality revolved around her dislike of Braddock’s boxing. In fact, Zellweger’s Mae threatened to become a cliché of the countless number of women who end up as wives of men in dangerous professions. Thankfully, Zellweger managed to give an excellent performance and with Crowe, create a strong screen chemistry.

Paul Giamatti received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould. Many had assumed that Giamatti had received his nomination as a consolation prize for being passed over for his superb performance in ”SIDEWAYS”. After seeing his performance as Gould, I suspect they might be right. I am not saying that Giamatti gave a bad performance. He was excellent as Braddock’s enthusiastic and supportive manager. But there was nothing remarkable about it . . . or worthy of an Oscar nomination. If there is one performance that I found impressive, it was Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Mike Wilson, Braddock’s friend and co-worker at the New York docks. Considine’s Wilson was a former stockbroker ruined by the 1929 Crash, who was forced to become a menial laborer in order to survive. Although his plight seemed bad enough to generate sympathy, Considine did an excellent job of portraying the character’s bitterness and cynicism toward his situation, President Roosevelt’s ability to lead the country out of the Depression and the world itself. I hate to say this, but I feel that the wrong actor had received the Oscar nomination. God knows I am a big fan of Giamatti. But if it had been left up to me, Considine would have received that nomination.

We finally come to Craig Bierko’s performance as Max Baer, champion boxer and Braddock’s final opponent in the movie. Baer’s character first makes his appearance in a championship fight against Primo Carnera, following Braddock’s surprising upset over Corn Griffin. From the start, he is portrayed as a brash and aggressive fighter who does not know when to quit. And it gets worse. Before I continue, I want to say that I have nothing against the actor who portrayed Baer. Like Crowe, Zellweger and Giamatti, Bierko had to do the best he could with the material given to him. And he did the best he could. Bierko, being an above-average actor, infused a great deal of energy and charisma into his portrayal of Baer. It seemed a shame that Howard’s direction, along with Hollingsworth and Goldman’s script forced Bierko to portray Baer as some kind of callous thug who felt no remorse for killing two other fighters in the ring and was not above needling Braddock at a Manhattan nightclub by making suggestive remarks about Mae.

Baer’s son, Max Baer Jr. (”THE BEVERLY HILLIBILLIES”) had been naturally outraged by what he deemed was the movie’s false portrayal of the boxer. What the movie failed to convey was that Baer had only killed one man in the ring – Frankie Campbell – and had been so shaken up by the other man’s death that it affected his boxing career for several years. Nor did Baer ever make any suggestive remarks toward Mae Braddock. He also hugged and congratulated Braddock following the latter’s June 1935 victory. I really do not know why Howard thought it was necessary to turn Baer into a one-note villain. Someone claimed that the movie needed a nemesis for Braddock that seemed more solid than the vague notion of the Depression. If that is true, I believe that Howard and the movie’s screenwriters turned Baer into a villain for nothing. As far as I am concerned, the Great Depression made an effective and frightening nemesis for Braddock. This was brilliantly conveyed in Braddock’s bout with Art Lasky. At one point in this sequence, the New Jersey boxer seemed to be on the verge of defeat . . . until his memories of his family and how the Depression had affected them . . . urged him to a hard-won victory. Sequences like the Braddock-Lasky fight and Braddock’s search for Mike Wilson in the Central Park Hooverville made the Great Depression a more effective nemesis than the one-dimensional and crude behavior of a falsely portrayed Max Baer ever could.

Despite the movie’s badly written portrayal of Baer, and slightly uninteresting major characters like James and Mae Braddock, and Joe Gould; ”CINDERELLA MAN” is still an excellent biopic that featured exciting boxing sequences. More importantly, it is one of the few Hollywood films that revealed an in-depth look into one of the country’s most traumatic periods – namely the Great Depression. Flawed or not, I believe that it is still worth watching.

 

RVWrxu

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel, “The Sittaford Mystery”. And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read “The Sittaford Mystery”

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain’s new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter’s elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest.

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby’s surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan’s death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan’s wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple’s help.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie’s original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie’s denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide.

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings – unnecessary, as far as I am concerned – that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer’s identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer’s identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock’s last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, “PYSCHO”. I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie’s setting – a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan’s home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole “verbose elderly lady” act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan’s performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan’s right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan’s past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film’s production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town’s local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story’s main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety.

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY”. I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie’s novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast’s acting – including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan’s.

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Ten “Home” Commentary

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I wrote this commentary on the tenth and final episode of “THE PACIFIC”

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) EPISODE TEN “Home” Commentary

Well. After two months or so, I finally finished ”THE PACIFIC”.  Finally.  I could discuss the entire miniseries, but this is about Episode Ten. The full review will have to wait for another article.

Episode Ten focused upon our three main characters – Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge and John Basilone – returning home after the war in the Pacific Theater. Or perhaps I should say two characters, considering that Basilone was killed on Iwo Jima in Episode Eight. This allowed his story to be shown from the viewpoint of his widow, Sergeant Lena Riggi Basilone. It is through her eyes that viewers got to peek at the Basilone family for the third and final time. The episode also focused upon Sledge’s attempts to put the horrors of the war behind him, and Leckie’s reunions with his family and Vera Keller.

Lena Basilone’s visit to her in-laws in New Jersey turned out to be a strange and uncomfortable affair. Perhaps this sense of discomfort came from the family’s reaction to her presence. Mr. Basilone Senior commented politely on Lena’s good looks. Brother-in-law was just as polite, but slightly warmer. Mrs. Basilone, on the other hand, seemed to regard Lena with a wary eye. This wariness finally broke down when Lena handed over John’s medal to her. Considering that Lena’s ties with the Basilones eventually dissipated into the wind, one might as view this moment in the Basilone family history as very rare moment.

Following the Japanese surrender to the Allied forces in August 1945, Eugene Sledge and fellow combatants such as ‘Snafu’ Shelton and R.V. Burgin remained in Asia – specifically China – for several months, before finally returning home in 1946. The eastbound train journey included a humorous moment in which ‘Snafu’ tried to pick up a young woman and earned a slap for his troubles. The three Marines surmised that they would have been luckier with women if they had returned home back in 1945. In two poignant moments, Sledge and Shelton bid Burgin good-bye, after the train arrived at the Texan’s hometown. Upon the train’s arrival in New Orleans, Shelton decided to leave the train without saying good-bye to the sleeping Sledge. And the Alabama native eventually returned home and was warmly greeted by his old friend, Sid Phillips and his parents. But despite this warm and emotional homecoming, adjusting to civilian proved to be difficult for Sledge. Nightmares of the war plagued his sleep. He seemed more inclined to stay at home at hang around, instead of continuing his education or getting a job. It all came to a head during a hunting trip with his father, in which he burst into tears over his bad memories.

Robert Leckie learned of the Japanese surrender, while staying a Navy hospital. Considering that he had been wounded at Peleliu in late September 1944, I was surprised to learn that he was still being hospitalized some ten to eleven months later. He was eventually discharged from the hospital and the Marines and returned home to New Jersey by the fall of 1945. It did not take him long to regain his old job as a sportswriter for the local paper. Courting Vera Keller proved to be another matter. It seemed she had never received any of the letters he had written to her for nearly three years and a recent West Point graduate-turned Army officer was courting her. But with a great deal of chutzpah and charm, he finally managed to win her over. Leckie’s greatest challenge centered on his reunion with his family. When he had revealed his pre-war life to his former Australian girlfriend Stella in Episode Three, I had no idea that the relationship between him and the rest of his family was that chilly. Now I know.

I never expected Episode Ten to be any great shakes, in compare to the other episodes. I still recall how the last episode of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” seemed rather . . . mellow. Mind you, this last episode did not feature any accidental deaths. But it did provide a glimpse of how returning war veterans dealt with civilian life. Sledge’s difficulty in adjusting to civilian life did not strike me as surprising. I have been aware of his difficulties for quite a while. Although I must admit that I found his emotional breakdown during a hunting trip with his father rather poignant and sad. Joseph Mazzello did an excellent job of conveying Sledge’s unexpected emotional outburst. And actress Annie Paarisse also gave a first-rate performance portraying the now saddened Lena Basilone, who seemed slightly intimidated by her in-laws’ coolness. James Badge Dale seemed to be enjoying himself in the scenes featuring Leckie’s return to his sportswriters job and his courtship of Vera Keller. But if there is one scene that really took me by surprise was the chilly reception that the former Marine received from his family. I was very impressed by the subtle hostility that both Badge Dale and actress Betty Buckley (who portrayed Marion Leckie) conveyed between the two characters. I also have to say a word for Rami Malek, who did an excellent job in portraying ‘Snafu’ Shelton’s regret and determination not to bid Sledge good-bye upon the train’s arrival in New Orleans. It was a subtle cap to a very flamboyant performance.

I did have a few problems with Episode Ten. I wish it could have revealed how Lena Basilone became estranged from her in-laws. But I suppose that Bruce C. McKenna and Robert Schenkkan were unable to collect any material on the matter, considering that she had passed away in 1999 and the Basilone family might be reluctant to discuss their relationship with her. And I also could have enjoyed a post-war reunion between Leckie and his three friends – ‘Chuckler’, ‘Hoosier’, and ‘Runner’. Perhaps he did not reunite with them until after 1946. Pity. It would have a great emotional cap to a very charismatic friendship.

Despite the above-mentioned problems, Episode Ten was not a bad episode. I never expected it to be. And the only way it could have knocked my socks off was if it became part of a sequel in which Spielberg, Hanks and Goetzman explored the post-war lives of Leckie, Sledge and Lena Basilone. Their own version of ”THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES”. But it still proved to be a nice little epilogue to an outstanding miniseries.

 

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

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“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

I just realized something. I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1932 novel, “Peril at End House”. I find this ironic, considering that I have seen the 1990 television movie adaptation of this novel at least three or four times. One of these days, I will get around to reading Christie’s novel and comparing it to the television adaptation. Right now, I am going to focus on the latter. 

Directed by Renny Rye and adapted by Clive Exton, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” is the first full-length television movie aired on “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It is also about Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s efforts to prevent the murder of a young socialite, during his vacation in Cornwall. The movie begins with Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings arriving at a Cornish seaside resort for their vacation. While conversing with socialite Magdala “Nick” Buckley on the resort’s grounds, Poirot notices that someone had fired a bullet into the brim of her floppy hat. Poirot exposes the bullet hole to Nick, who finds it difficult to believe that someone wants to kill her. She points out that aside from her house – End House – has no real assets. Poirot decides to investigate her inner circle, who includes the following:

*Charles Vyse – Nick’s cousin and an attorney
*Mr. and Mrs. Croft – an Australian couple that has leased the lodge near End House, who had suggested Nick make a will six months earlier
*Freddie Rice – a close friend of Nick’s, who is also an abused wife
*Jim Lazarus – an art dealer in love with Nick
*Commander George Challenger – a Royal Navy officer who is also attracted to Nick

Poirot eventually advises Nick to invite a relative to stay with her for a few weeks. Nick invites her distant cousin Maggie Buckley. Unfortunately, someone kills Maggie, after she makes the mistake of wearing Nick’s dress shawl during an evening party. Even worse, the killer eventually achieves his/her goal by sending a box of poisoned chocolates to Nick, while she was recuperating at a local hospital.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” possessed a certain plot device that Christie had used in several of her novels. I would describe this plot device. But to do so would spoil the rest of the story. It took me years to spot this plot device. And I should be surprised that I have not come across anyone else who has spotted it. And yet . . . I am not. The fact that it took me several years to spot this particular plot device only tells me that Christie has utilized it with great effect in some of her more interesting and well-written mysteries. Thankfully, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be one of those well-written mysteries.

I must admit that Clive Exton did a pretty damn good job in adapting Christie’s novel for the television screen. He stuck very closely to the original novel’s plot . . . with a few changes that did no harm to the overall movie. Both Exton and Rye presented a well-paced production to the audiences. They set up the story with Poirot and Hastings’ arrival to Cornwall and continued on with without any haste or dragging feet. The only time the movie threatened to put me to sleep occurred between the story’s second murder and the revelation of the killer . . . . when the story threatened to ground to a halt. I have one last problem – namely the appearance of Chief Inspector Japp. I realize that Japp did appear in the novel. But his appearance merely dealt with Poirot’s request that he investigate the Crofts, whom the Belgian detective suspected of being forgers. The cinematic Japp immediately appeared following Maggie Buckley’s death as the main police investigator. And Cornwall is not under Scotland Yard’s main jurisdiction.

The production values for “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be top-notch. Rye shot the film’s exterior scenes in Salcombe, Devon; instead of the county of Cornwall. I found that curious. However, both he and cinematographer Peter Bartlett certainly took advantage of the movie’s setting with Bartlett’s photography of Salcombe’s charming, Old World style. This was especially apparent in the movie’s opening sequence that featured Poirot and Hasting’s arrival by airplane. Actually, production designer Mike Oxley did an excellent job of recreating an English vacation resort in the early 1930s. The production practically reeked of the Art Deco style of that time period. However, I was especially impressed by Linda Mattock’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by those costumes worn by actresses Polly Walker, Pauline Moran and Alison Sterling. My only complaints about the movie’s visual styles were the actresses’ hairstyles. No one seemed capable of re-creating the early 1930s soft bob. The actresses either wore a chignon or in the case of Sterling, a Dutch Boy bob made famous by actress Louise Brooks in the late 1920s.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” featured some solid performances by the cast. David Suchet gave his usual excellent portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was especially impressed by the on-screen chemistry he managed to produce with Polly Walker. The latter gave a standout performance as the killer’s main target, Madgala “Nick” Buckley. Walker did an excellent job of transforming Nick from the charming “Bright Young Thing” to a wary and frightened woman, who realizes that someone is trying to kill her. Alison Sterling was also excellent as one of Nick’s closest friends, “Freddie” Rice. Next to Walker’s Nick, Sterling gave an interesting and skillful portrayal of the very complex Freddie. Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson were also excellent as Arthur Hastings, Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. All three, along with Suchet, managed to re-create their usual magic. The movie also featured solid performances from Paul Geoffrey (whom I found particularly convincing as an early 30s social animal), John Harding, Christopher Baines and Elizabeth Downes. I found the Australian accents utilized by Jeremy Young and Carol Macready, who portrayed the Crofts, rather wince inducing. But since their accents were supposed to be fake in the first place, I guess I had no problems.

For some reason, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” has never become a big favorite of mine. It is a well done adaptation of Christie’s novel. And I found it visually attractive, thanks to the movie’s production team. The movie also featured some excellent performances – especially from David Suchet, Polly Walker and Alison Sterling. Naturally, it is not perfect. But that is not the problem. I cannot explain my lack of enthusiasm for “PERIL AT END HOUSE”. I can only assume that I found nothing particularly mind blowing or fascinating about its plot. It is simply a good, solid murder mystery that has managed to entertain me on a few occasions. Perhaps . . . that is enough.

 

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” (2011) Review

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: (2011) Review

I have been aware of the Marvel Comics hero, Captain America, ever since I was in my early teens. And I might as well say right now that I was never a fan. Captain America? Why on earth would someone like me be interested in some uber patriotic superhero who even dressed in red, white and blue – colors of the flag? This was my initial reaction when I learned that Marvel Entertainment had planned to release a movie based upon the comic book character seven or eight years ago. 

My condescending contempt toward this movie had grown deeper when I learned that Chris Evans, of all people, had been hired to portray the title character. I have been aware of Evans ever since he portrayed another comic book hero, Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the 2005 movie, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”. And aside from the 2009 movie, “PUSH”, I have seen Evans portray mainly flashy types with a cocky sense of humor. So, I really could not see him portraying the introverted and straight-laced Steve Rogers aka Captain America.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby first conceived the character of Captain America sometime around 1940-41 as a deliberate political creation in response to their repulsion toward Nazi Germany. The first Captain America comic issue hit the stores in March 1941, showing the protagonist punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the jaw. The comic book was an immediate success and spurred a comic saga that continued to last over the next six decades – more or less. I had already seen two television movies based upon the Captain America character in my youth. Both movies starred Reb Brown and they were, quite frankly, quite awful. They were so awful that I deliberately skipped the 1990 movie that starred Matt Salinger. After those encounters with the comic book hero, I approached this new movie with great trepidation. But since it was a comic book movie and part of “THE AVENGERS” story arc, I was willing to go see it.

Directed by Joe Johnston (“THE ROCKETEER” (1991) and “JUMANJI” (1995)), “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” was basically an origin tale about a sickly Brooklyn native name Steve Rogers, who had been making and failing attempts to sign up for the military, following the U.S. entry into World War II. While attending an exhibition of future technologies with his friend Bucky Barnes, Rogers makes another attempt to enlist. This time, he is successful due to the intervention of scientist and war refugee Dr. Abraham Erskine, who overheard Rogers’ conversation with Barnes about wanting to help in the war. Erskine recruits Steve as a candidate for a “super-soldier” experiment that he co-runs with Army Colonel Chester Phillips and British MI-6 agent Peggy Carter. Phillips remains unconvinced of Erskine’s claims that Rogers is the right person for the procedure, until he sees Rogers commit an act of self-sacrificing bravery.

The night before the treatment, Dr. Erskine reveals to Rogers about a former candidate of his, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt, who had underwent an imperfect version of the treatment and suffered side-effects. Unbeknownst to the good doctor, Schmidt has managed to acquire a mysterious tesseract that possesses untold powers, during an attack upon Tønsberg, Norway. Schmidt has plans to use the tesseract and the Nazi science division, H.Y.D.R.A., to assume control of the world . . . without Adolf Hitler and the Nazi High Command in the picture. Before Steve can face off Schmidt, he has to travel a long road to assume the persona of Captain America.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” really took me by surprise. I never really expected to enjoy it, but I did. Not only did I enjoy it, I loved it. Either I have become increasingly conservative as I grow older, or Joe Johnston’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely managed to avoid the unpleasant taint of smug patriotism. Perhaps it is both . . . or simply the latter. But I certainly did enjoy the movie.

One of the aspects about “CAPTAIN AMERICA” that I truly enjoyed was its production design created by Rick Heinrichs. With the help of John Bush’s set decorations, the Art Direction team and the visual effects supervised by Johann Albrecht, Heinrichs did a superb job in transforming Manchester and Liverpool, England; along with the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles into New York City, London, Italy and German between 1942 and 1944-45. Their efforts were enhanced by Shelly Johnson’s beautiful photography and Anna B. Sheppard’s gorgeous photography.

It was nice to discover that Joe Johnston still knew how to direct a first-rate movie. Okay, he had a bit of a misstep with “WOLFMAN” last year – unless you happen to be a fan. With “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, he seemed to be right back on track. I knew there was a reason why I have been a fan of his work since “THE ROCKETEER”. Some directors have taken a first-rate script and mess up an entire movie with some bad direction. Johnston, on the other hand, has managed through most of his career to inject his projects with a steady pace without glossing over the story. His handling of the movie’s two major montages were also first-rate, especially the montage that featured Steve’s experiences with various war bond drives and U.S.O. shows. And with period pieces such as this film and “THE ROCKETEER”, Johnston has maintained a talent for keeping such movies fixed in the right period. He certainly did this with “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, thanks to his pacing, exciting action sequences and direction of the cast.

Speaking of the cast, I was surprised to find that so many of the cast members were not only British, but veterans of a good number of costume dramas. This particular cast included Richard Armitage, J.J. Feild, Dominic Cooper, Natalie Dormer and especially Toby Jones and leading lady Hayley Atwell. In fact, it was the large number of British cast members that led me to realize that a good number of the movie was filmed in the British Isles. They performed along the likes of Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Sebastian Stan, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci.

I have been a fan of Toby Jones since I saw his performances in two movies released in 2006 – “INFAMOUS” and THE PAINTED VEIL”. He continued to impress me with his subtle portrayal of Joachim Schmidt’s quiet and self-serving assistant and biochemist Arnim Zola. Richard Armitage was equally subtle as H.Y.D.R.A. agent Heinz Kruger, whose assassination attempt of Dr. Erskine and failed theft of the latter’s formula led to an exciting chase scene through the streets of Brooklyn and a funny moment that involved him tossing a kid into New York Harbor. Trust me . . . it is funnier than you might imagine. Dominic Cooper was surprisingly effective as the young Howard Stark, scientist extraordinaire and future father of Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, J.J. Feild, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci were great as members of Captain America’s commando squad. One, all of the actors created a strong chemistry together. Yet, each actor was given the chance to portray an interesting character – especially Choi, who portrayed the sardonic Jim Morita. The only misstep in the cast was poor Natalie Dormer, who was forced to portray Colonel Erskine’s assistant, Private Lorraine. Personally, I thought she was wasted in this film. The script only used as a minor plot device for the temporary setback in Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter’s romance.

Samuel L. Jackson had an entertaining cameo in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. His appearance guaranteed the continuation of the Avengers storyline. I believe that Stanley Tucci’s performance as the brains behind the Captain America formula, Dr. Abraham Erskine, was one of the best in the movie. He managed to combine warmth, compassion and a sly sense of humor in at least two scenes that he shared with leading man Chris Evans. I had never expected to see Tommy Lee Jones in a Marvel Comics movie. His Colonel Erskine struck me as so witty and hilarious that in my eyes, he unexpectedly became the movie’s main comic relief. Sebastian Stan was convincingly warm and strong as Steve’s childhood friend and eventual war comrade, Bucky Barnes. He and Evans managed to create a solid screen chemistry. Hugo Weaving . . . wow! He was fantastic and scary as the movie’s main villain, Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull. I have not seen him in such an effective role in quite a while.

I have enjoyed Hayley Atwell’s performances in past productions such as 2007’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and 2008’s “BRIDESHEAD REVISTED”. But I was really impressed by her performance as MI-6 agent and the love of Steve Rogers’ life, Peggy Carter. Atwell infused her character with a tough, no-nonsense quality that is rare in female characters these days. She also revealed Peggy’s vulnerability and insecurities about being a female in what is regarded as a man’s world. She also did an effective job in conveying Peggy’s gradual feelings for Steve. And it was easy to see why she fell in love with him. Chris Evans really surprised me with his performance as Steve Rogers aka Captain America. I was more than surprised. I was astounded. Evans has always struck me as a decent actor with a wild sense of humor. But for once, he proved . . . at least to me that he could carry a major motion picture without resorting to his usual schtick. His Steve Rogers is not perfect. Evans did a great job of conveying his character’s best traits without making the latter unbearably ideal. This is because both the script and Evans’ performance also conveyed Steve’s insecurities with a subtlety I have never seen in any other Marvel film. Superb job, Mr. Evans! Superb job.

I have to be honest. I tried very hard to find something to complain about the movie. In the end, I could only think of one complaint . . . and I have already mentioned it. But aside from that one quibble, I really enjoyed the movie and so far, it is one of my top five favorite movies from the summer of 2011.