“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

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“MOROCCO” (1930) Review

As a long time movie buff, I have read a great deal about Hollywood’s Pre-Code Era, a brief period in which the film industry barely made an effort to enforce its Production Code, which forbade any open portrayal of controversial topics like sexual innuendos, prostitution, and excessive violence. Among the movies discussed during this period were the seven films that served as a collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. 

The second film that the pair made together (and their first in Hollywood) was “MOROCCO”, the 1930 adaptation of “Amy Jolly”, Benno Vigny’s 1927 novel. The movie, which also starred Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou is basically a melodramatic love story between Amy Brown, a cabaret singer, and an American-born Legionnaire named Tom Brown, who fall in love during the Rif War (also known as the Second Second Moroccan War), which was fought during the first half of the 1920s. Their potential romance is threatened by his womanizing and a wealthy Frenchman named Kennington La Bessière, who develops an interest in Amy. Also complicating Amy and Tom’s potential love life is the latter’s past affair with his commanding officer’s wife, which has attracted the jealous attention of the officer, one Adjutant Caesar.

“MOROCCO” is not the first Dietrich-von Sternberg collaboration I have seen. And I am not going to pretend that it was their best film together. Because it was not. Once you strip away the iconic Dietrich moments during one of her cabaret act, the steamy chemistry between Dietrich and Cooper, and the exotic Moroccan setting; it is basically a somewhat lurid melodrama. I did not find the dialogue written by screenwriter Jules Furthman particularly
scintillating. It was a miracle that both Cooper and Menjou were barely able to rise above some of the stiff dialogue. Poor Dietrich did not fare as well, due to “MOROCCO” being her first English-speaking movie. It was easy to see that the actress had to phonetically delivered her dialogue. The songs she had performed in the movie were not only unmemorable, but not very good . . . if I must be frank. And the action surrounding a particular battle scene in which the jealous Adjutant Caesar tries to kill Tom Brown came off as a bit uninspiring.

But “MOROCCO” had its virtues. One, I was very impressed with Lee Garmes’ cinematography for the movie. Between his soft-focus photography, Hans Dreier’s art design and Elizabeth McGreary’s production work; Yuma, Arizona made an excellent stand-in for Morocco. Two, the movie may have been a borderline turgid melodrama, but I must admit that I found the relationship between Amy Jolly and Tom Brown rather interesting. It seemed pretty obvious that both had been romantically damaged in the past and resorted to different means to deal with their pain. Amy resorted to projecting a cool and disdainful facade to any man who might express interest in her. And Tom resorted to womanizing – an act that nearly got him in trouble with Adjutant Caesar. And yet, no matter how they tried, the pair seemed unable to overcome their deep interest in each other. This was apparent when Cooper uttered what became for me, the movie’s best line:

“I’ve told women about everything a man can say. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told a woman before: I wish I’d met you ten years ago.”

Dietrich’s silent reaction to his words pretty much confirmed that Amy shared Tom’s feelings. However, there were other aspects of “MOROCCO” that I found very interesting. Many have commented on that moment in the film in which Dietrich’s Amy Jolly kissed a woman during her cabaret act. With the actress in a tuxedo and top hat and a playful expression on her face, I must admit that I found the moment very memorable myself. What I found equally memorable was the moment in which she tossed a flower at Cooper, who immediately tucked it behind his ear before regarding her with deep attraction. Cooper must have been very comfortable with his masculinity in order to shoot that particular scene. Although I was not that impressed by the battle scene featuring the Legionnaires and the Moroccans, I must admit that I found Caesar’s final moment on screen hard to forget. But if there is one scene that will always stick with me is that last scene with Amy joining a group of camp followers, marching across the desert in the wake of Tom and the other Legionnaires in his regiment. That scene of a bare-footed Amy with the other camp followers, with the desert sand blowing and the wind emitting from the soundtrack, is something I do not think I will ever forget. I thought it was a very classic ending to a somewhat classic film.

“MOROCCO” featured some solid performances from the supporting cast. I was especially impressed by Ullrich Haupt as Adjutant Caesar, Eve Southern as Madame Caesar, Francis McDonald as Sergeant Tatoche and Juliette Compton as Anna Dolores. As for the leads . . . Adolphe Menjou gave a charming and charismatic performance as the wealthy Kennington La Bessière. However, there were times when I found it hard to believe that his La Bessière was so infatuated with Amy. He simply did not seem that passionate toward her . . . at least to me. I think Gary Cooper fared somewhat better as the womanizing Legionnaire Tom Brown. Despite his portrayal of Tom’s attitude toward Amy and other women, I feel that Cooper was a little more successful in conveying his character’s true feeling for Amy. As I had stated earlier, I believe that Marlene Dietrich’s lack of experience with the English language and phonetically delivery of her dialogue led her to come off as a bit stiff in some of her scenes. I am amazed that she managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Although she more than managed to rise to the occasion in scenes that either did not require dialogue from her or when her character performed on the stage.

But you know what? Despite its flaws – and it had plenty, I rather enjoyed “MOROCCO” very much. It never tried to pretend to be more than it was – merely a romantic melodrama in an exotic setting. Despite the movie’s turgid nature, I thought Josef von Sternberg did an excellent job in maintaining my interest in the story with a well-balanced pacing. The movie also featured some interesting and complex characters that were performed not only by a solid supporting cast, but also three charismatic leads who would continue to forge successful careers – namely Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Adolphe Menjou.

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“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” (1971) Review

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“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” (1971) Review

I might as well be frank. After my recent viewing of “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”, I have come to the conclusion that it just might truly be the worst Bond movie ever released by EON Productions. I certainly view it as an unworthy follow-up to the superb “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”. Yet, despite my low opinion of the movie, I also found it to be very funny. 

The movie’s pre-credits started the movie out with a montage featuring Bond’s search for Ernst Stravos Blofeld, head of SPECTRE and the man responsible for the brutal murder of the agent’s wife of a few hours, Teresa Bond. And yet . . . the movie had never clearly stated that Bond wanted revenge for his wife’s death. Rather curious. I suppose that Broccoli and Saltzman wanted the audience to forget about “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” . . . and at the same time, remember that Bond had a reason to seek revenge against Blofeld. The movie eventually unfolded a tale featuring a diamond smuggling operation from South Africa to Amsterdam and finally to Las Vegas. Apparently, the operation seemed to becoming to an end, since two assassins – the very funny Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, played by Bruce Glover and Putter Smith – seemed to be killing every courier/link that formed the smuggling ring. Her Majesty’s government, worried that the stability of the diamond market might be threatened if all the hoarded diamonds are released at the same time, ordered MI-6 to investigate. M assigned Bond to investigate the matter. At first, the British agent (along with diamond smuggler Tiffany Case, Felix Leiter and the CIA) discovered that a reclusive American millionaire named Willard Whyte might be behind the smuggling operation and the murders. But this proves to be a red herring and Bond finally realized that Blofeld (whom he thought he had killed in the pre-credit sequence) had taken control of Whyte’s business operation to use the diamonds to create a satellite with a powerful laser on board in order to blackmail the world. And of course, Bond destroyed Blofeld’s operation before the villain could blow up Washington D.C.

What is it about “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” that made it such a terrible Bond movie? One of the main culprits had to be Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay. Their first mistake came in the form of Bond’s search for Ernst Stravo Blofeld in the movie’s pre-credit sequence. It all seemed so vague . . . almost pointless. In fact, it seemed as if the screenwriters and producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had been torn between a desire to make fans forget about “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”’s tragic ending and a fear that those same fans might not forget. Which would explain why the movie’s opening found Bond traveling from one location to another in search of Blofeld. He even managed to nearly strangle one contact with her bikini top, titillating certain fans of the franchise. Yet, not once did Bond ever mention his late bride or her murder – obviously the main reason behind his search for SPECTRE’s leader. I could not help but conclude that the entire sequence was nothing but a cop-out.

And the story had failed to improve following the opening credits. I never could understand why Her Majesty’s government had deemed it necessary for MI-6 to investigate a diamond smuggling operation. Why not seek the assistance of an agency like Interpol or something? And why would the CIA be interested in such a case? Both MI-6 and CIA’s interest all came about before the revelation of Blofeld using the diamonds to create a weapon to extort the major superpowers. And I never could understand this.

Bond’s investigation took him to Amsterdam, impersonating one of the links in the smuggling operation – Peter Franks. From this point forward, a serious of implausible moments appeared in the story. After a fight with the real Peter Franks, who had appeared at Tiffany Case’s Amsterdam apartment, Bond planted his own wallet in the dead smuggler’s jacket. Tiffany discovered the wallet and expressed dismay at the idea of someone killing ‘James Bond’. Could someone please explain how a diamond smuggler would know about a MI-6 government agent, yet have no knowledge of Blofeld or the fact that he had been her actual boss? And there are more implausible moments to follow:

-After Mr. Slumber prevented Bond from being incinerated, Bond accused him and Shady Tree of giving him bad money (they saved him, because he had switched the real diamonds for fakes). Yet, he pocketed the ’bad money’and used it at one of the Vegas hotel/casinos.

-Bond and Tiffany found dead prostitute Plenty O’Toole in the latter’s Vegas swimming pool. Apparently, there had been a scene in which Plenty (who had been dumped out of Bond’s hotel room and into a swimming pool by gangsters working for Tiffany) had returned to Bond’s room and found Tiffany’s purse. If this is true, I can see why this scene had been cut, because it lacked sense. But why had EON Productions failed to cut the scene featuring the discovery of Plenty’s body, as well?

-The stunt featuring Bond’s two-wheeler driving of Tiffany’s Red Mustang through a narrow alley seemed . . . questionable.

-Why on earth did Bond bother to wear a tuxedo in order to break into Willard Whyte’s penthouse?

-Since Blofeld had left instructions to Bond (impersonating as SPECTRE minion, Burt Saxby’s voice) over the telephone to kill Willard Whyte, how did Saxby learn of the assignment in order to appear at Whyte’s house to do the job?

-Why would Tiffany be suspicious of a Blofeld in drag and tail him, when she never knew how he looked in the first place? And I doubt that she knew about the cat.

“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”’s script had ended in a rather disappointing showdown on a SPECTRE-controlled oil rig off Baja California. Come to think of it, Blofeld’s “death” and Bond’s showdown with Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd seemed equally lame.

The movie had also marked Sean Connery’s last appearance as the agent in an EON Productions’ Bond film. He returned following George Lazenby’s decision not to continue with the Bond role. Granted, Connery’s performance had its moments. He seemed to be at his funniest in this movie, displaying a true flair for comedy. And his elevator fight with Joe Robinson (portraying Peter Franks0 made it apparent that he had not lost his touch with action films, following a four-year hiatus from the Bond franchise. And yet . . . I could not help but wish that Lazenby had continued his tenure as James Bond, following “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”. Perhaps the Australian’s presence could have guaranteed a more serious follow-up to Tracy Bond’s death. Then again . . . perhaps not. And despite Connery’s comedic touch, he seemed to have lost some of the fire that had made his earlier performances as Bond so memorable. In fact, he seemed to have sailed through the entire movie without any true depth.

There seemed to be a split opinion amongst fans regarding Jill St. John’s performance as smuggler Tiffany Case. Some viewed the red-haired Tiffany as a funny, smart and sassy woman. Others regarded her as nothing more than a bubble-headed bimbo. Personally, I agree with both views. I liked St. John’s sharp portrayal of Tiffany in the movie’s first hour or so. She portrayed the smuggler as a sharp-tongued woman who was shrewd enough to keep Bond’s paws off of her, until she needed him for her advantage. And she helped Bond infiltrate Willard Whyte’s desert laboratory. But once Blofeld was revealed to be alive, Tiffany became this idiot bimbo who allowed herself to get caught by Blofeld; and who helped Bond on the oil rig and later against Wint and Kidd with great ineptitude. Her character seemed to have lost its steam by the movie’s last half-hour.

Charles Gray, who had been last seen as a murdered MI-6 agent in “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE”, became the third actor to portray SPECTRE leader Ernst Blofeld on screen. I have to give points to the British actor for being the wittiest villain in the franchise’s history. Although he had spent most of his on-screen time in the movie’s second half, more witticism streamed out of Gray’s mouth than any other actor or actress. And as funny as he was, this abundance of witticism had also lessened his impact as a villain, I am sorry to say. This seemed rather odd for an actor like Gray, who has proven to be more intimidating in other roles.

“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”’s supporting cast had seemed at best, a mixed blessing. Not many Bond fans have been impressed by Norman Burton’s gruff performance as CIA agent Felix Leiter. Frankly, I found his gruffness rather amusing and witty . . . in a deliciously acidic way. Speaking of gruffness, Bernard Lee seemed downright acerbic and hostile during his brief appearance as M. Neither Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewellyn as Moneypenny and Q, respectively, came off as memorable in this movie.

Marc Lawrence and Sig Haig had portrayed two of the gangsters who popped up during Bond’s first day in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, they came off as movie gangsters from a 30s crime melodrama, instead of modern day thugs. Donna Garratt and Trina Parks portrayed Willard Whyte’s bodyguards, Bambi and Thumper. I must admit that they were memorable, although Ms. Parks had struck me as a bit of a drama queen. Lana Wood (Natalie Wood’s younger sister) portrayed the unfortunate Plenty O’Toole. And honestly? I now feel that Ms. Wood was one of THE WORST actresses to appear in a Bond movie. Okay, make that the second worst. I consider Marguerite Le Wars, the actress who played the photographer in “DR. NO” to be the worst.

Speaking of bad acting, who on earth had the bright idea to cast Country-Western singer, Jimmy Dean, as Willard Whyte? No wonder he had never pursued a movie career. Dean must have been the biggest ham in the movie, considering his tendency to bellow nearly every word that came out of his mouth. Hollywood star Bruce Cabot (“KING KONG” [1933]) seemed like a waste of time in his role as Blofeld minion, Burt Saxby. What a shame, especially since “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” was his last film. The movie’s bright spot came in the forms of Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as Blofeld’s assassins, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. Glover and Smith portrayed these two hitmen (and possible lovers?) with wit, style and a delicious touch of menace. It seemed a shame that they were killed off in one of the lamest action sequences of any Bond film.

I am trying to think of a Bond movie directed by Guy Hamilton that has really impressed me. So far, I cannot think of one.“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” is certainly not that movie. Granted, it has its bright points – the witty humor, a sassy Tiffany Case in the film’s first half, a great fight scene between Connery and Robinson; along with Bruce Glover and Putter Smith. I would also like to add that I also enjoyed the film’s musical score by John Barry and the theme song, performed by Shirley Bassey. Granted, the song lacked the excitement and brashness of “GOLDFINGER” and the lyrical beauty of “MOONRAKER”, but I still managed to enjoy it. But considering some of the second-rate performances found in this movie, along with poor editing and piss poor writing by Maibaum and Mankiewicz, “DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER” strikes me as being the complete nadir of the Bond franchise. And that is saying something about a movie that I still enjoy watching . . . much to my continuing surprise.

 

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1981) Review

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“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1981) Review

Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility” has been a favorite with her modern-day fans. The novel has produced at least three television and two movie adaptations and a literary parody. However, this review is about the seven-part, 1981 BBC adaptation. 

Directed by Rodney Bennett and adapted by Alexander Baron and Denis Constanduros, “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” starred Irene Richards and Tracey Childs as the two main protagonists – sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The story focused on the sisters’ attempts to find happiness in the tightly structured society of early 19th century England. Through their experiences with men and their relationship with each other, Elinor and Marianne learn that one must strive for a balance of both sense and sensibility.

From an overall point of view, this “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” seemed to be a solid adaptation of Austen’s 1811 novel. I have noticed in many articles and reviews of Austen adaptations made in the 1970s and 1980s, fans tend to view them as “faithful” in compare to later ones. Frankly, I have yet to see an Austen adaptation made before or after 1986 as completely faithful. And I can extend this opinion to this 1981 production. One, Baron and Constanduros’ screenplay began with the grieving Dashwood women returning to Norland Hall, after viewing a potential new home. And there is no sign of a Margaret Dashwood – the youngest of the three sisters – in sight. But since the other versions of the novel are no more or less faithful, I do not have a problem with this. But I did have a problem with the miniseries’ ending. It featured Edward Ferrars asking for Elinor’s hand in marriage and Colonel Brandon commencing his courtship of a receptive Marianne. That is it. The ending seemed a bit too abrupt for my tastes.

And I had other problems with “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. Peter Woodward gave a charming performance as the novel’s ne’er-do-well, John Willoughby. Unfortunately, Woodward’s presence barely made a dent in the production. And his biggest scene – in which Willoughby expressed remorse for his bad treatment of Marianne to Elinor – featured some over-the-top acting. Watching Diana Fairfax’s performance as Mrs. Dashwood, I found myself wondering why Elinor was forced to assume so much responsibility for their household at Barton Cottage. Fairfax’s Mrs. Dashwood barely seemed like the emotional widow who was forced to come down to earth by her more sensible older daughter. She seemed just as sensible in her own way. I barely remember Marjorie Bland’s portrayal of Mrs. Jennings’ older daughter, Lady Middleton. She failed to leave a mark in my memories. I could say the same about Hetty Baynes as Mrs. Jennings’ younger daughter, Mrs. Charlotte Palmer. And Margot Van der Burgh’s Mrs. Ferrars seemed more like a dress rehearsal for Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”.

But there were performances that impressed me. Julia Chambers and Pippa Sparks made a very entertaining Lucy and Ann Steele. I was especially impressed by Chambers’ performance, which struck a fine balance between Lucy’s scheming and desperation to become a member of the respectable and wealthy Ferrars family. Philip Bowen’s portrayal of Robert Ferrars struck me as rather funny. He gave the character a foppish edge that I have never seen in other portrayals of the character. Donald Douglas was certainly down-to-earth in an affable manner as Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton. Amanda Boxer gave a spot-on portrayal of the cold-blooded and domineering Fanny Dashwood. But the one performance that really impressed me was Peter Gale’s as the Dashwood family’s new patriarch, John. Although he gave a solid performance in the miniseries’ early episodes, he really came into his own in the role, when the story shifted to London. I was especially impressed by one scene in which Gale’s John tried to point out the suitability of Colonel Brandon as a match for Elinor.

At first, I was not that impressed by Robert Swann’s portrayal of Colonel Brandon. However, as the story progressed, Swann skillfully revealed the character’s passion and emotions behind the stoic facade. There are two other performances of which I have a similar view. When I first saw “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”, I had regarded Bosco Hogan’s portrayal of Edward Ferrars as boring. But numerous viewings made me realize that he gave a very subtle performance. With a bit of patience, I noticed how Hogan managed to express Edward’s feelings about Elinor and Lucy with the expressions on his face and in his eyes. I also became more appreciative of Annie Leon’s portrayal of the cheerful Mrs. Jennings. She was no Elizabeth Spriggs or Patricia Rutledge, but I must admit that I was very impressed by the manner in which she captured Mrs. Jennings’ friendly, yet vulgar personality . . . especially in the production’s second half. Both Irene Richards and Tracey Childs gave solid performances as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The two actresses did a first-rate job of holding the miniseries together as the the leads. And both were somewhat spot-on in their portrayal of the two sisters. Mind you, I would have liked if Richards had revealed the passion that Elinor harbored for Edward in small moments. And I wish that Childs’ Marianne was not so sober – especially in a few scenes in the miniseries’ earlier episodes. But in the end, they did a very good job.

As far as production design goes, I am afraid that Paul Joel did a solid job. But there was nothing about his work that I found particularly impressive. I suspect that he may have been hampered by the budget. I was NOT impressed by Dorothea Wallace’s costumes. Frankly, I found them rather cheap looking and in some cases, slightly ill fitting. Like the miniseries’ production design, it was probably hampered by the budget. Overall, I would have to say that this “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” was the least impressive looking adaptation I have ever seen.

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” had its virtues. Both Irene Richards and Tracey Childs gave solid performances and kept this production together, along with director Rodney Bennett. The supporting cast also included memorable performances from the likes of Peter Gale, Amanda Boxer, Donald Douglas, Julia Chambers Bosco Hogan and Robert Swann. And screenwriters Alexander Baron and Denis Constanduros managed to create a solid script that was nearly faithful to the story. And despite a few disappointing performances and some slightly underwhelming costumes, my regard for this production has risen over the years. Much to my great surprise.

 

“SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” (2008) Review

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”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” (2008) Review

After finally seeing the 2008 Academy Award winning Best Picture, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE”, I am beginning to suspect that this film had garnered a great deal of unnecessarily extreme reactions. Moviegoers either loved it with every fiber of their being or considered it as either vastly overrated or insulting to the citizens of India. My reaction to the movie has been neither.

Directed by Danny Boyle, co-directed by Loveleen Tandan and written by Simon Beaufoy, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” is about a young man from the slums of Mumbai who appears on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (Kaun Banega Crorepati, mentioned in the Hindi version) and exceeds people’s expectations, arousing the suspicions of the game show host and of law enforcement officials. Beaufoy based his script upon the Boeke Prize-winning and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-nominated novel, ”Q & A” (2005), written by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup.

The question is – do I believe that ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” had deserved its Best Picture Oscar? Honestly? No, I do not. In fact, the movie did not even make my list of Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2008. In some ways, I do feel that it is slightly overrated. No movie is perfect, but the flaws in this movie – or aspects of the movie I saw as flaws – made me wonder how it managed to win Oscars in the Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay categories. I realize that this movie is based upon Swarup’s novel, in which the plot is centered around a popular game show. But I really could have done without this particular plot device. I found the scenes that featured Jamal Malik’s moments during the question-and-answer sessions of the game show unnecessarily dramatic. This plot device also provided a ridiculously over-the-top ‘happy ending’ that provided a sharp contrast to most of the story. And the idea that the game show questions provided triggers to Jamal’s reminisces about his childhood and his feelings about Latika, a girl he first fell in love with following the deaths of their parents in a mob attack did not exactly work for me. It seemed . . . off. There were times when director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy made it difficult to keep track on what Jamal was reminiscing in regard to the question he was being asked on the game show. By biggest complaints centered around the movie’s second half, the characterization of Latika and Chris Dickens’ editing.

At least two-thirds of ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” are focused around the boyhoods of Jamal’s recollections of his childhood in the slums of Mumbai with his older brother, Salim. In my opinion, this was the movie’s strongest part. It was not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than the second half. There have been complaints that Boyle’s savage look into Mumbai’s slums is not the real India. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. I would not know. I have never seen the real India. I must admit that the series of incidents presented in the movie’s first half left me feeling that I was watching an Anglo-Indian version of a Charles Dickens novel. Especially ”Oliver Twist”. And I found it fascinating, despite the squalor presented on the screen. But once the movie’s setting shifted to 2006 Mumbai, I found myself mired in a contrived story in which the rescue of Jamal’s love, Latika, from a wealthy gangster depended upon his success on the ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” show. As it turned out, Latika ended up being rescued by Jamal’s gangster brother, Salim.

Speaking of Latika, she proved to be another problem. Quite frankly, I found her character rather one-dimensional and frustrating. She seemed to be the ultimate example of the damsel-in-distress archetype. Jamal saw her as his ”destiny”. I saw her as this rather uninteresting character that became nothing more than a trophy for various character – including Jamal. There was one scene in which Salim decided to claim Latika as a sex partner after he had saved her and Jamal by killing some minor gangster whom she worked for. Jamal naturally tried to prevent Salim from claiming Latika. Latika did nothing . . . until she agreed to sleep with Salim to prevent him from hurting Latika. And I . . . was disgusted. She could have easily helped Jamal overcome Salim. Instead, she stood there like an idiot before offering herself to the older brother. The only time Latika ever really did something for herself was when she unsuccessfully tried to flee from the wealthy gangster. She was a very frustrating character and I felt sorry for the actresses – especially Freida Pinto – forced to portray such an uninteresting character. One last problem I had with this movie was Chris Dickens’ editing. It seemed like it was more appropriate for a MTV music video clip, instead of a two hour movie. Worse, it interfered with my enjoyment of Anthony Dod Mantle’s colorful cinematography. What makes this nauseating is that Dickens managed to win an Oscar for his work.

On the whole, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” is pretty good movie that tries to give Westerners a peek into late 20th century and early 21st century India. The movie can boast some first rate performances by the movie’s lead actor, Dev Petel, who portrayed the 18 year-old Jamal, Tanay Chheda as the pre-adolescent Jamal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as the young Salim and Tanay Chheda as the early adolescent Salim. I was also impressed by Irrfan Khan’s performance as the police inspector who interrogated Jamal throughout most of the movie. He and Petel created a very interesting screen team. As I had stated earlier, I was also impressed by Mantle’s cinematography in the movie. Despite the squalor that permeated the scenes featuring Jamal and Salim’s childhood, he infused the photography with color, energy and sweep. And what can I say about the exciting music featured in this film? I loved it. A. R. Rahman definitely deserved his Oscar for one of the most exciting and original film scores I have heard in years . . . and that includes ”Jai Ho”, the song he wrote for the film. By the way, he earned a well deserved Oscar for that as well.

Considering the eight (8) Academy Awards that it had earned, I wish I could say that it deserved all of its awards. But I do not think it did. Despite the movie’s first-rate cast, Mantle’s excellent photography and Rahman’s superb score, I cannot say that it was the best movie I had seen in 2008. In fact, it failed to make my list of 10 favorite movies for that year. Frankly, I found Simon Beaufoy’s script rather uneven and his characterization of the Latika character one-dimensional. And Danny Boyle failed to rise above these flaws with his direction. But . . . despite the movie’s flaws, I could honestly say that it would have made my list of the top 20 movies of 2008.

“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

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“EVIL UNDER THE SUN” (2001) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

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“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“THE HUNGER GAMES” (2012) Review

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“THE HUNGER GAMES” (2012) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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