“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.

 

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“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.

“AGENT CARTER” Season One (2015) Episodes Ranking

FFBoxi6Below is my ranking of the eight episodes featured in Season One of ABC’s “AGENT CARTER”. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the series stars Hayley Atwell as Agent Margaret “Peggy” Carter:

 

“AGENT CARTER” SEASON ONE (2015) Episodes Ranking

1 - 1.06 A Sin to Err

1. (1.06) “A Sin to Err” – While Agent Peggy Carter and Howard Stark’s valet Edwin Jarvis investigate a mysterious woman whom Stark may have dated, Chief Roger Dooley and the rest of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.) staff begin to suspect that Peggy might be a traitor in their midst.

2 - 1.05 The Iron Ceiling

2. (1.05) “The Iron Ceiling” – After a message from the Leviathan intelligence agency is decoded; Peggy, Agent Jack Thompson and the Howling Commandos investigate a Soviet military complex to stop a possible sale of Stark’s missing weapons.

3 - 1.08 Valediction

3. (1.08) “Valediction” – In this season finale, Peggy and her fellow S.S.R. agents race to stop a pair of Leviathan agents from kidnapping Stark and dumping lethal gas on the population of New York City.

5 - 1.04 The Blitzkrieg Button

4. (1.04) “Blitzkrieg Button” – Stark briefly returns to New York City in order to instruct Peggy in getting her hands on one of his weapons, now in the hands of the S.S.R. Meanwhile, Chief Dooley travels to Germany to interview a convicted Nazi military criminal about the Battle of Finow, in which most of the Soviet troops were massacred.

4 - 1.01 Now Is Not the End

5. (1.01) “Now Is Not the End” – The series premiere features Peggy, who is still grieving over the “death” of Steve Rogers, arriving at her new assignment with the S.S.R. in 1946 New York City. She is also recruited by Howard Stark, who is suspected of selling his weapons to the Soviets, to find out who had stolen them.

6 - 1.07  Snafu

6. (1.07) “SNAFU” – A suspicious Chief Dooley and the other S.S.R. agents interrogate Peggy about her connection to Stark and Leviathan. Meanwhile, the Leviathan agents get their hands on the lethal gas that had been responsible for the massacre at the Battle of Finow.

7 - 1.03 Time and Tide

7. (1.03) “Time and Tide” – Jarvis is interrogated by Thompson regarding Stark’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, the S.S.R. discover a typewriter used to exchange coded messages by the Leviathan agents.

8 - 1.02 Bridge and Tunnel

8. (1.02) “Bridge and Tunnel” – Peggy and Jarvis set out to find a missing truck filled with nitramene weapons.

 

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“KING KONG” (2005) Review

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“KING KONG” (2005) Review

Years ago, producer-director Peter Jackson had stated in an interview that one of movies that had inspired him to become a filmmaker was Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 hit adventure film, “KING KONG”. Sixteen to eighteen years after his first directorial effort, Jackson was finally able to pay tribute to his inspiration with a remake of the 1933 film. 

Anyone familiar with Cooper’s film should know the story of King Kong. Set during the early years of the Great Depression, an overly ambitious movie producer coerces his cast and the crew of a freighter ship to travel to mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who becomes immediately smitten with the producer’s financially struggling leading lady. After using his leading lady to lure Kong into a trap, the producer ships Kong back to Manhattan to be displayed to the public as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Unfortunately, Kong escapes and inflicts chaos on the city streets in search for the leading lady.

Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens pretty much followed the 1933 movie. However, they made some changes. In the 1933 film, Carl Denham was a respected and successful filmmaker. He was a struggling filmmaker who resorted to stealing footage of his film from his financial backers in Jackson’s version. There is more backstory on the Ann Darrow character in the newer film and she is a vaudeville dancer/comedian, not simply a unemployed and starving woman. Ann remains frightened of Kong throughout the entire 1933 film (an emotion that actress Fay Wray did not share); whereas Naomi Watts’ Ann forms an emotional bond with him. The inhabitants of Skull Island are a lot more hostile in the 2005 film, and less human. Kong is portrayed as simply an animal and less of a monster. Jack Driscoll is a playwright hired as a screenwriter in this film, whereas in the ’33 film, he is the S.S. Venture’s first mate. And in Jackson’s film, the first mate is an African-American. The 2005 Captain Englehorn is at least fifteen to twenty years than his 1933 counterpart. Kong’s rampage across Manhattan was a lot more horrific than his rampage in the 2005 film. The character of actor Bruce Baxter was created as a homage to actor Bruce Cabot, one of the stars of the 1933 film. And it is he, along with Denham and some actress hired to impersonate Ann that ends up on the stage with Kong in Jackson’s film. In Cooper’s film, both Ann and Driscoll end up on stage with Denham and Kong.

So, what did I think of Jackson’s “KING KONG”? Technically and visually, it is a beautiful film. One of the first things that impressed me was Grant Major’s production designs for the movie. His work, along with the art direction team led by Dan Hannah, Hannah and Simon Bright’s set decorations and Andrew Lesnine’s photography did an excellent job in re-creating Manhattan of the early 1930s. And what I found even more amazing about their work is that all of the Manhattan sequences were filmed in New Zealand . . . even the opening montage that introduced the movie’s time period and its leading female character. Terry Ryan’s costume designs for the movie were attractive to look at. But if I must be honest, they did not particularly blow my mind. I really cannot explain why. It seemed as if her costumes – especially for the female characters – failed to achieve that early 1930s look, one hundred percent. I was also impressed by work of both the art department and the visual effects team. Their work on the Skull Island sequences struck me as impressive. But honestly, I was more impressed by their work on the Manhattan scenes . . . especially the sequence featuring King Kong’s confrontation with the U.S. Army planes. And here are two samples of their work:

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My only quibble about the visual work in the Manhattan sequences featured the S.S. Venture’s depature from Manhattan. Frankly, it looked like the work of an amateur, circa 1929. Why on earth did Jackson allowed the ship to leave New York Harbor at double speed? It looked so tacky.

Jackson, Walsh and Boyens did a pretty good job in re-creating Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace’s story. In fact, I believe they had improved on some aspects of the 1933 film. One, the Ann Darrow character was given more of a background and more screen time before the S.S. Venture’s journey to Skull Island. I could say the same for the Carl Denham character, who proved to be a more ambiguous character than his 1933 counterpart. Due to the depth given to both Ann and Denham’s characters, the setup for the S.S. Venture’s departure from Manhattan seemed more detailed and far from rushed. The movie spent a good deal of time aboard the S.S. Venture, building up suspense to the ship’s arrival at Skull Island and allowing relationships and the characters to develop – especially Ann’s romance with playwright/screenwriter Jack Driscoll. I wonder if many moviegoers had complained about the length it took the Venture to reach Skull Island. I certainly did not. The longer the movie focused on the Venture sequences, the longer it took the movie to reach Skull Island.

Because . . . honestly? I disliked the Skull Island sequences. I was able to bear it in the 1933 film. But I cannot say the same for Jackson’s film. There were some scenes in the Skull Island sequence that I liked. I enjoyed the chase sequence featured members of the Venture crew, Denham’s film production and a Venatosaurus saevidicus pack‘s hunt of Brontosaurus baxteri. I even tolerated Kong’s rescue of Ann from three Vastatosaurus rex. And I was impressed by the scene that featured Ann and Kong’s initial bonding. I found it both touching and slightly humorous. And I could see that the screenwriters, along with Naomi Watts and Fay Wray (who portrayed the original Ann) understood Kong’s feelings for the leading lady a lot better than Cooper and Wallace did. But I still disliked the Skull Island sequence – especially the scenes featuring Denham’s film crew’s encounter with the island’s natives and the visitors’ enounter with giant insects inside a large pit. The natives seemed more like Orc rejects from Middlearth with very little humanity. Despite the coconut bras and bone jewelry, the natives featured in the 1933 film struck me as a lot more human and less like savage stereotypes. As for the giant insect pit sequence . . . I usually press the fast-forward button for that scene. I not only dislike it, I find it repulsive.

Fortunately, the movie returned to Manhattan. And I noticed that for the first minutes or so, Jackson re-created Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s introduction of Kong to the people of Manhattan. I was impressed. In fact, I found this second Manhattan sequence very impressive . . . but not as much as I did the earlier one. Granted, Bruce Baxter’s quick departure from the theater following Kong’s escape provided some laughs. And Jackson handled Kong’s rampage of Manhattan rather well. I was a little disappointed that Jackson did not re-create the elevated train sequence from the first film. I was stunned by the sight of Ann searching the streets of Manhattan for Kong wearing nothing but her costume from a stage musical in the middle of winter. Hell, I was amazed that she managed to not to get pnemonia from wandering around the city with no overcoat and no sleeves for her gown. And frankly, I found Ann and Kong’s reunion in Central Park something of a bore. I truly wish that Jackson had cut that scene. As for the Empire State Building sequence, once again, Naomi Watt’s Ann did not seemed to be affected by the cold weather, while wearing nothing but a costume gown. And I noticed that Jackson plagerized Gandalf’s death in “LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING” for Kong’s final death scene. I felt nothing but a little relief because the U.S. Army Air Corp’s attempt to kill Kong seemed to last forever.

The cast of “KING KONG” seemed to fare very well, despite some of the mediocre lines written by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens. Thomas Kretschmann’s portrayal of the pragmatic and cynical Captain Englehorn struck me as very skillful and effective. Both Evan Parke and Jamie Bell provided some well-acted pathos as First Mate Ben Hayes and a young crewman named Jimmy, for whom Hayes seemed to act as mentor. Adrien Brody provided a nice balance of romance, heroics and cynicism in his portrayal of writer Jack Driscoll. Actually, I thought he made a more interesting leading man than Bruce Cabot. And Colin Hanks’ solid portrayal of Preston, Denham’s neurotic but honest personal assistant, proved to be the movie’s emotional backbone. But there were the performances that really stood out for me.

Andy Serkis, who had impressed the world with his portrayal of Gollum in the “LORD OF THE RINGS” movies, proved to be equally impressive in his motion capture performance as Kong. Not only was he solid as the S.S. Venture cook, Lumpy; he did an excellent job in providing Kong with a great deal of emotional nuances. Kyle Chandler nearly stole the film with his hilarious portrayal of movie actor Bruce Baxter. Not only was Chandler’s Baxter egotistical and self-involved, he also proved to be a surprisingly pragmatic character with a talent for self-preservation. He also provided, in my opinion, one of the film’s best quotes:

“Hey, pal. Hey, wake up. Heroes don’t look like me – not in the real world. In th real world they got bad teeth, a bald spot, and a beer gut. I’m just an actor with a gun who’s lost his motivation. Be seeing you.”

Jack Black gave a superb job as movie producer Carl Denham. In fact, I believe that Black’s Denham proved to be the film’s most ambiguous character. Even though his Denham seemed manipulative, greedy and exploitive; he also managed to bring out the character’s compassionate side and enthusiasm for his profession. It seemed a pity that Black never received any acclaim for his performance. Many moviegoers and critics seemed disappointed that Naomi Watts did not receive a Golden Globes or Academy Awards nomination for her excellent portrayal of out-of-luck vaudevillian Ann Darrow. Frankly, I think she deserved such nominations for her work. More than any other member of the cast, she had to develop an emotional bond and work with an animated figure and at the same time, develop her own character. And she did one hell of a job. Think Bob Hoskins in 1988’s “WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?”.

“KING KONG” has become a highly regarded film over the years. It made “Empire” magazine’s 2008 list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Do I agree with this assessment? Hmmm . . . no. Not really. It is a very entertaining film filled with plenty of action and adventure. It also featured some pretty damn good acting from a cast led by Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Andy Serkis. But the movie also possesses some pretty obvious flaws and I find it difficult to enjoy the Skull Island sequence. Like I said, Jackson created a pretty good movie. But I could never regard it as one of the greatest movies of all time.

 

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Ten “Points” Commentary

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Ten “Points” Commentary

”BAND OF BROTHERS” finally came to an end in this tenth episode that featured Easy Company’s experiences as part of the U.S. Army of occupation, following Germany’s surrender in Europe. This marked the third episode that featured Richard Winters as the central character and the second with his narration. 

Told in flashback via Winters’ narration, ”Points” opened in July 1945, with Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) enjoying a morning swim in an Austrian lake, while being watched by his best friend, Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston). After the two friends spend a few minutes looking at regimental photos, Winters recalls the experiences of Easy Company during the last days of the war in Europe and their role as part of an occupational force. Two months earlier, the company manages to capture Eagle’s Nest, Adolf Hitler’s high mountain chalet in Berchtesgaden. Following Easy Company’s capture of Berchtesgaden, they receive news of Germany’s surrender to the Allied Forces. Easy’s remaining stay in Germany does not last long. They, and the rest of 2nd Battalion, are sent to Austria as part of the U.S. Army’s occupational force. Easy Company battled boredom, various departures, the death of Private John Janovec (Tom Hardy) in a jeep accident, the shooting of Sergeant Chuck Grant (Nolan Hemmings) by a drunken American soldier, and a mixture of anticipation and anxiety over the possibility of being shipped to the Pacific. The miniseries ended with a visit by a recovered Lynn “Buck” Compton (Neal McDonough) and the revelations of the men’s post-war lives.

”Points” proved to be a mildly interesting episode about what it was like for World War II veterans to serve as part of an occupational force in Europe, following Germany’s defeat. Many of the incidents featured in the last paragraph certainly prevented the episode from becoming dull. And thanks to Erik Jendresen and Erik Bork’s screenplay, along with Mikael Salomon’s direction; ”Points” provided other interesting scenes. One featured a tense scene that saw Joe Liebgott (Ross McCall), David Webster (Eion Bailey) and Wayne A. “Skinny” Sisk (Philip Barrantini) assigned to capture a Nazi war criminal. Private Janovec’s conversation with a German veteran at a road checkpoint provided a good deal of subtle humor for me. Another humorous scene featured Winters and Nixon’s encounter with a still resentful Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer), who proved to be very reluctant to salute the now higher ranked Winters. One scene that really grabbed my attention featured most of the 506th regimental officers watching a newsreel about the fierce Battle of Okinawa in Japan. Not only did that scene remind viewers the fate that Easy Company had managed to evade with the surrender of Japan, it also proved to be an unintentional foreshadow to Spielberg and Hanks’ World War II follow-up, ”THE PACIFIC”.

Once again, Damian Lewis gave a subtle, yet exceptional performance as the miniseries’ leading character, Richard Winters. But I was also impressed by Matthew Settle’s fierce portrayal of a frustrated and somewhat tense Ronald Spiers, who struggled to keep Easy Company together, despite their travails as part of an occupying force. And I was pleasantly surprised by Peter Youngblood Hills’ poignant performance in a scene that featured Darrell C. “Shifty” Powers’ private farewell to Winters.

I do have one major complaint about ”Points”. I did not care for the fact that miniseries did not reveal the post-war fates of “all” of the surviving members of Easy Company. The only characters whose lives we learned about were most of those seen in Austria, at the end of the episode . . . but not all. The episode never revealed what happened to Edward “Babe” Heffron or Donald Malarkey, who were also in Austria, by the end of the miniseries. And viewers never learned of the post-war fates of veterans such as William “Bill” Guarnere, Walter “Smokey” Gordon, Joe Toye, Roy Cobb, Les Hashley, Antonio Garcia, and yes . . . even Herbert Sobel.

Despite my major disappointment over how the episode ended, I still enjoyed ”Points”. I would never consider it to be one of my favorite episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. But it did not put me to sleep. However, it still managed to be a satisfying end to the saga.

 

“THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” (2005) Review

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”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” (2005) Review

Although considered one of her most famous novels, 1934’s ”Murder on the Orient Express” was not the first of Christie’s novels that featured a famous luxury train as a setting. The year 1928 saw the publication of another novel called ”The Mystery of the Blue Train”, which told the story of a brutal murder aboard the famous Blue Train. 

This story had its origins in Christie’s 1922 novella, ”The Plymouth Express”, which told the story of the murder of an Australian heiress. Christie took that story and expanded it into a full-length novel, ”The Mystery of the Blue Train”. The television series, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” aired ”THE PLYMOUTH EXPRESS”, an adaptation of the novella, in 1991. And fourteen years later, the series aired its own version of ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE”. Actor David Suchet portrayed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in both productions.

The Blue Train referred to in this story was not the luxury train that traveled through Southern Africa. Known as Le Train Bleu or the Calais-Mediterranée Expres, this Blue Train was a luxury French night train that conveyed, wealthy and famous passengers between Calais and the French Riviera from 1922 until 1938, usually during the winter seasons. Unlike Christie’s novella, ”THE PLYMOUTH EXPRESS”, the case featured in ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN”centered on the murder of an American heiress named Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, aboard the Blue Train. One of Ruth’s possessions ended up missing, namely a famous ruby called the Heart of Fire that was recently purchased by her father, American millionaire Rufus Van Aldin. The suspects accused of killing her and stealing the Heart of Fire were:

*Katherine Grey – a young Englishwoman who became wealthy through a recent inheritance; and whose father had been financially ruined by Van Aldin

*Derek Kettering – Ruth’s estranged and financially strapped husband, who came from an aristocratic family

*the Comte de la Roche – Ruth’s lover and a fake aristocrat who happened to be a con man and thief

*Ada Mason – Ruth’s maid, who disappeared during the Blue Train’s stop in Paris

* Mirelle Milesi – an exotic French courtesan, who was seen entering Ruth’s compartment aboard the train

*Major Richard Knighton –Van Aldin’s private secretary, who happens to be in love with Katherine

*Lady Tamplin – a financially strapped British aristocrat living on the Riviera with her daughter and young husband; and who is Katherine Grey’s distant cousin

*Lennox Tamplin – Lady Tamplin’s daughter

*’Corky’ Evans – Lady Tamplin’s young husband

*the Maquis – a famous jewel thief

Belgian-born detective, Hercule Poirot, found himself aboard the same train heading toward Nice for a winter vacation. The one passenger he managed to befriend was Katherine Grey, who had switched compartments with Ruth Kettering after meeting the latter. Overwrought by his daughter’s death, Van Aldin hired Poirot to find her killer.

I became a major fan of ”The Mystery of the Blue Train” not long after I first read the 1928 novel, years ago. The mystery struck me as slightly intriguing, the characters colorful and the atmosphere reeking with the glamour of the early 20th century rich in Europe. Imagine my delight when I first learned that a television adaptation of the novel had been made, starring David Suchet as Poirot. When I finally saw the movie, I found myself both disappointed . . . satisfied with it.

”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” could have truly been a first-class production. But some of the changes in the story stood in the way. One, Guy Andrews’ script got rid of the love triangle between Katherine Grey, Richard Knighton and Derek Kettering. Pity. I rather enjoyed it. Instead, Katherine only enjoyed a romance with Knighton. She barely shared any scenes with Derek, except for one in which she snapped at him for his childish behavior. And speaking of Derek Kettering, he became a petulant and hard drinking man who remained in love with the spoiled and estranged Ruth. He seemed quite different from the sardonic man in the novel, who had already fallen out of love with his wife long before the story began. Another change that proved to be a major one, involved the character of Mirelle. She remained a Frenchwoman, but one of African descent. And instead of being Derek’s soon-to-be former mistress and a dancer, this cinematic Mirelle turned out to be Rufus Van Aldin’s mistress. As for Lady Tamplin, she and her family also made the journey aboard the Blue Train – which did not happen in the novel. Any other changes? In this version, Katherine Grey revealed to Poirot that Van Aldin had financially ruined her father. Also, someone tried to kill her one hour into the movie.

What did I think of ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN”? I did not mind some of the changes from the novel. For example, Lady Tamplin became a more likeable and sexy personality, thanks to Lindsay Duncan’s spirited performance. I found her young husband, Corky (Cubby Evans in the novel) less vacuous and self-absorbed. Mirelle’s personality acquired a welcome change from the character in the novel. Actress Josette Simon portrayed her as a world-weary, yet passionate woman with a great deal of complexities, instead of Christie’s one-dimensional portrait of sex and greed, wrapped in a French accent. I also enjoyed Nicholas Farrell’s quiet, yet charming portrayal of Rufus Van Aldin’s private secretary, Richard Knighton. Jaime Murray did a solid job in portraying Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, the murder victim, whose body was discovered aboard the Blue Train. I must admit that she managed to capture her character’s extroverted, ruthless and somewhat self-absorbed personality, even if her American accent seemed a bit questionable. And thank goodness for the presence of Elliot Gould, whose portrayal of Van Aldin transcended the cliché of the American businessman featured in the novel. Finally, David Suchet continued to give another fine performance as Hercule Poirot, everyone’s favorite Belgian detective – subtle, yet intense as always.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie featured the Blue Train’s departure from Calais during a heavy rainfall. Thanks to director Hettie Macdonald, production designers Jeff Tessler and an uncredited Paul Spriggs, along with cinematographer Alan Almond; this particular scene reeked with atmosphere and mystery. They also did an excellent job in capturing the sunny and exotic glamour of the French Riviera – especially in one scene that featured a house party given by Lady Tamplin at her home, Villa Marguerite. I also liked the fact that the story began in London, paused in Calais and ended in Nice. It did not shift to different locations throughout England and France, as in the novel. More importantly, Poirot revealed the murderer’s identity in front of all the suspects and the police; instead of limiting his audience to two characters.

What did I NOT like about “THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN”? Unfortunately, a good deal. One, I did not care for the change in Katherine Grey’s personality. I have no complaints about Georgina Rylance’s performance. She did a solid job in the role. But screenwriter Guy Andrews transformed the Katherine Grey character from a cool and smart woman that kept her emotions in check to a naïve woman that wore her emotions on her sleeve. It almost seemed to me that Katherine’s character had been somewhat diminished. Another change I did not care for was Andrews’ decision to make Mirelle the mistress of Van Aldin, instead of Derek Kettering. Nor did I care for his decision to reveal that Van Aldin’s wife was still alive, slightly mad and living in a convent in Nice. I found this plot twist to be very unnecessary. Speaking of Mr. Kettering, his personality went through a major change. In this adaptation, Derek became a drunken, gambling addict with a habit of sniveling over a wife who no longer loved him. Only James D’Arcy’s complex performance made it possible for me to tolerate the character. The movie’s portrayal of Lennox Tamplin seemed like a letdown from Christie’s novel. Instead of the sardonic young woman who had learned to tolerate her mother’s talent for exploitation and exhibition, this version of Lennox became a bubbly and extroverted personality (still capable of a few sharp remarks) with an atrocious hairstyle for a story set in the 1930s.

The biggest change occurred in the movie’s revelation scene. Although I had expressed approval of Andrews and director Hettie Macdonald’s decision to allow Poirot to reveal the murderer in Nice, I still had some problems with the scene. One, it began with the detective indulging in a ridiculous tirade about how each suspect could have been the murderer. But after Poirot identified the killer, viewers were treated to a ridiculous and theatrical scene in which the latter attempted to use a hostage to evade the police. I did not know whether to laugh or shake my head in disgust. I believe I ended up doing the latter.

“THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” will never be a favorite Christie adaptation of mine. There were too many changes that I did not care for – especially with some of the characters and the revelation scene. On the other hand, I found other changes – including the revelation scene – to be an improvement from the novel and a welcome relief. I also enjoyed the movie’s atmosphere, setting, photography and David Suchet’s performance as Poirot. It was not the best Christie adaptation, but I found it tolerable.

 

“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

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“MILDRED PIERCE” (1945) Review

I have been a fan of the 1945 movie, “MILDRED PIERCE” for years. Ever since the age of twelve. But many years have passed since I felt the urge to watch it. When I learned about the recent HBO version of the story, I decided to re-visit the past and watch the movie again. 

Based upon James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, “MILDRED PIERCE” is about a middle-class woman who struggle to make a new life for herself and her daughters and maintain their social position, following the break-up of her marriage during the last years of the Great Depression. After a difficult search Mildred finds a job as a waitress, but she worries that it is beneath her middle-class station. More than that, she worries that her ambitious and increasingly pretentious elder daughter, Veda, will view her new job as demeaning. Mildred encounters both success and failure as she opens a chain of successful restaurants, operates a pie-selling business and copes with the death of her younger daughter, Kay. Veda enjoys her mother’s newfound financial success but turns increasingly ungrateful and demanding, while openly condemning Mildred for becoming a working woman.

Anyone familiar with Cain’s novel would immediately realize that screenwriters Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner and Catherine Turney took a great deal of liberties with the plot. One, the movie only spanned at least four to five years, in compare to the nine years featured in the novel. Any references to the Great Depression were eliminated altogether. However, the movie did feature one scene in which Mildred wrote the year 1939 on some document. In the novel, Mildred’s younger daughter was named Ray, not Kay. Nor did she die in the bedroom of the house owned by her father’s mistress, Mrs. Biederhof, as shown in the film. And Mildred’s friend, Lucy Gessler and co-worker Ida Corwin were combined into the wise-cracking Ida, who started out as Mildred’s boss and ended up as her partner (or manager – I am still not certain). References to Veda’s training as a pianist and later success as an opera singer, were tossed. The movie only made brief mention of her training as a singer. More importantly, Mildred’s second husband, Monty Beragon, was never killed. In fact, there was no murder mystery at all in Cain’s novel. Monty’s murder was invented by the filmmakers, because the old Production Code required that evildoers – namely the selfish and pretentious Veda and Monty, who were caught necking by Mildred – be punished for their misdeeds.

Even after so many years, “MILDRED PIERCE” remained a very entertaining and energetic film. Somewhat. The movie had one or two problems. One, why on earth did the screenwriters allow Ray (pardon me) Kay to die at the home of Bert Pierce’s mistress? How tacky is that? Why did he not have the good sense to take his younger daughter to the hospital? When I first saw the movie years ago, I had no problems with the murder mystery that had been included in the plot. But when I watched the movie recently, it finally occurred to me that the focus upon Monty’s murder in the first fifteen or twenty minutes nearly bogged down the movie’s pacing. I found myself longing to reach for my DVD remote and push the Fast Forward button. But a part of me argued that I had to watch every moment of the film to fully appreciate it. Fortunately, the movie eventually delved into Mildred’s back story, which included the breakup of her marriage, the job hunt, Ray’s (pardon me) Kay’s death, her first meeting with Monty, the launch of her first restaurant and most importantly, her relationship with Veda. As the unfolding of Mildred’s life weaved its magic spell, the script occasionally broke away from this very entertaining melodrama and forced us to contemplate the identity of Monty’s murderer. And every time this happened, the movie nearly grounded to a halt. I used to derive a great deal of pleasure when the very evil Veda was revealed as Monty’s murderer. Unfortunately, the pleasure of that moment failed to grasp me, the last time I saw “MILDRED PIERCE”. I finally remembered that when I first saw the movie, I knew that Veda was the killer. And her reason for killing Monty? After Mildred had interrupted Veda and Monty’s passionate embrace, the latter made it clear to his spoiled stepdaughter that he would always love Mildred. Go figure. When I first saw the movie, I cheered when Veda was being led away by the police. But after my last viewing, I realized that transforming Veda into a murderer did not solve the main problem – namely Mildred’s unhealthy love for her daughter. As Veda was being led away by the police, the look on Mildred’s face expressed her continuing obsession over the former. Nothing had really changed – at least not the relationship between Mildred and Veda. In the end, attaching the murder mystery did not solve a damn thing.

But despite these flaws, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still a first-rate movie after sixty-six years. The screenwriters and director Michael Curtiz handled the meat of the story – Mildred’s tormented relationship with Veda – with great skill and drama. I was happy to notice that the best aspects of Cain’s plot remained intact. My favorite sequences include Mildred’s lessons on the restaurant business as a waitress, the introduction of Monty’s character, the showdown between Mildred and Veda over the former’s waitress uniform, and Veda’s attempt to blackmail the wealthy Forresters with a fake pregnancy. I also have to commend Curtiz for providing the movie with his usual brisk pacing. I realize that I had earlier complained of the pacing featured in the movie’s first 15 to 20 minutes. And although the movie threatened to bog down in the scenes that featured the murder mystery, I thought that Curtiz handled the other aspects of Mildred’s life with his usual competent and artistic manner.

Fans of Cain’s novel have complained that this adaptation have skimmed one or two strong aspects of Mildred’s personality – namely her narcissist obsession toward Veda. I cannot say that I fully agree with this criticism. Mind you, I do believe that the movie failed to delve deeply into the aspect of Mildred’s personality that led her to indulge in Veda’s desires at nearly every opportunity. But MacDougall, Faulkner and Turney’s screenplay did not ignore it altogether. In the argument scene that featured the Pierces’ breakup, Bert pointed out Mildred’s penchant for indulging Veda’s whims . . . almost to the point of ignoring younger daughter Kay. Mind you, Bert is not completely blameless, considering his lack of interest in Veda and his failure to provide for his family. And in another scene, Mildred’s snobbery and class aspirations – something in which she had passed on to Veda – is apparent in her insistence that Kay continue with her dance lessons, despite the latter’s tomboyish nature and disinterest in any kind of social aspirations.

What can I say about the cast of “MILDRED PIERCE”? To be honest, I cannot find fault in the performances featured in the movie. Many have criticized Bruce Bennett for giving a dull performance as Bert Pierce, Mildred’s first husband, who leaves the family in a financial lurch. Mind you, his portrayal of Bert did not exactly rock my boat. But I did not find it dull – especially in two scenes that featured a heated argument between his character and Mildred. Butterfly McQueen gave an entertaining performance as Mildred’s maid, Lottie. Even more importantly, her character was not the wince inducing cliché that she portrayed in 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Jo Ann Marlowe was charming as Mildred’s earthy and tomboyish younger daughter, Kay. I especially enjoyed her little spoof of Carmen Miranda. Both Jack Carson and Eve Arden gave deliciously sarcastic performances as Bert’s ex-partner Wally Fay (Burgan in the novel) and Mildred’s boss-turned-partner Ida Corwin. In fact, both were given some of the best lines in the movie. I cannot help but wonder if this line – “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” – had led to Arden’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Zachary Scott has portrayed a good number of heels throughout his movie career. But none of them had been as interesting as his performance as Monty Beragon, the Pasadena socialite who becomes Mildred’s second husband. Instead of portraying Monty as a one-note villain or sleaze, Scott portrayed the character as a complex personality that seems to convey both some of the good and a good deal of the bad in humanity, and who became a tool in Mildred’s campaign to win back her daughter . . . and grew to resent her for it and his willingness to become her gigolo. Ann Blyth earned a well deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Veda Pierce, Mildred’s snobbish, selfish and ungrateful older daughter. And I must say that she did a superb job. What impressed me about Blyth’s performance was that not only did she convey all of the venality of Veda’s personality without going over the top, she also managed to hold her own against the powerhouse of Joan Crawford. Speaking of the latter actress, the role of Mildred Pierce must have seemed like a godsend to her career. After eighteen years with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Crawford found herself shoved aside for new starlets to fill the studio’s roster. Warner Brothers saved her career with a new contract and the Mildred Pierce role. And Crawford gave it everything she got. Some have accused the Hollywood icon of being obvious in a pursuit for Oscar gold. Personally, I simply saw a first-rate performance. She did an excellent job of conveying Mildred’s determination to become a successful businesswoman and obsession toward winning Veda’s love. Most importantly, I do not believe that she was “over melodramatic” as some critics have claimed. If I have to be honest, I consider Mildred Pierce to be one of her best roles.

After reading this review, one would suspect that my opinion of “MILDRED PIERCE” is not be as positive as it used to be. And that person would be right. My latest viewing of the film detected some flaws that I had failed to notice in the past. The biggest flaw seemed to be the screenwriters’ attempt to combine aspects of film noir and melodrama. It simply did not work for me, because the movie’s noir aspects dragged the pacing. But despite any flaws, I feel that the movie still manages to hold up very well after nearly seventy-four years. And this is all due to Michael Curtiz’s excellent direction, Ernest Haller’s photography, some very sharp dialogue and characterization, and a first-rate cast. Even after all of these years, “MILDRED PIERCE” is still entertaining to watch.