“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1975) Review

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1975) Review

I had been a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, ever since I first saw the 2004 television adaptation a few years ago. Mind you, I had never read the novel. And I still have yet to read it. Despite this, I became a fan of the story. And when I learned that the BBC planned to release an older adaptation of Gaskell’s novel, which first aired in 1975, I looked forward to seeing it. 

As one would assume from reading this review, I eventually purchased a copy of the 1975 adaptation on DVD. And if I must be honest, I do not regret it. “NORTH AND SOUTH” proved to be a pretty damn good adaptation. Like the 2004 version, it consisted of four (4) fifty-minute episodes. Gaskell’s novel told the story of one Margret Hale, who returns home after ten years to her cleric father’s rector in Helstone, after attending the wedding of her cousin, Edith Shaw. Margaret’s homecoming is short-lived when she and her mother learn that her father Richard Hale has left the Church of England as a matter of conscience, after he has become a dissenter. His old Oxford friend, Mr. Bell, suggests that the Hales move to the industrial town of Milton, in Northern England; where the latter was born and own property. 

Not long after the Hales’ arrival in Milton, both Margaret and mother Maria Hale find Milton harsh and strange. Due to financial circumstances, Mr. Hale works as a tutor. One of his more enthusiastic students turn out to be a wealthy cotton manufacturer named John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills. Appalled by the conditions of the poverty-stricken mill workers, Margaret befriends the family of one Nicholas Higgins, a union representative. She also develops a dislike of Thornton, finding him gauche and seemingly unconcerned about his workers’ condition. Unbeknownst to Margaret, Thornton has grown attracted to her. The volatile relationship between Margaret and Thornton eventually plays out amidst the growing conflict between mill owners and angry workers.

As I had stated earlier, “NORTH AND SOUTH” proved to be a pretty good adaptation. I have a tendency to regard BBC miniseries produced in the 1970s with a jaundice eye, considering their tendency end up as televised stage plays. Thanks to the conflicts, social commentaries and romance featured in “NORTH AND SOUTH”, the miniseries was never boring. Many viewers who have seen this version of Gaskell’s novel claim that it was a more faithful adaptation than the 2004 miniseries. I cannot agree or disagree, considering that I have yet to read the novel. But I have never been too concern with the faithfulness of any movie or television adaptation, as long as the screenwriter(s) manage to come up with decent script that adheres to the main narrative of the literary source. Fortunately, David Turner did just that. His screenplay, along with Rodney Bennett’s direction, explored all of the aspects of Gaskell’s 1855 novel – the reason behind the Hales’ move to the North, the labor conflicts between the workers and the mill owners, Margaret Hale’s conflict/romance with John Thornton, the latter’s relationship with his mother, Nicholas Higgins’ conflict with fellow mill worker Boucher, and the fragmentation of the Hale family. Also, Bennett directed the entire miniseries with a steady pace that kept me alert.

It is a good thing that Bennett’s pacing kept me alert . . . most of the time. Like many BBC productions in the 1970s, “NORTH AND SOUTH” did come off as a filmed play in many scenes. Aside from Margaret’s arrival in Helstone in Episode One, the labor violence that erupts within the grounds of Marlborough Mills in Episode Two and the delivery of Boucher’s body in his neighborhood; just about every other scene was probably shot inside a sound stage. And looked it. This even includes the Milton train station where Margaret says good-bye to her fugitive brother, Frederick. Now many would state that this has been the case for nearly all BBC miniseries productions from that era. Yet, I can recall a handful of productions from the same decade – 1971’s “PERSUASION”, 1972’s “EMMA” and even “JENNIE, LADY RANDOLPH CHURCHILL” from 1974 – featured a good deal of exterior shots. And there were moments when some scenes continued longer than necessary, especially in Episode One. Margaret’s conversation with her cousin Edith and Mr. Hale’s announcement of his separation from the Church of England seemed to take forever. And due to this problem, there were moments went the miniseries threatened to bog down.

But as much as I liked Turner’s adaptation of the novel, it seemed far from perfect. One aspect of the script that really irritated me was that Turner had a habit of telling the audiences what happened, instead of showing what happened. In Episode One, following their arrival in Milton, Margaret tells her parents that she met the Higgins family. The miniseries never revealed how she met Nicholas or Betsy Higgins in the first place. The series never revealed the details behind Boucher’s death in Episode Four. Instead, a neighbor told Margaret, before his body appeared on the screen. We never see any scenes of Fanny Thornton’s wedding to mill owner Mr. Slickson. Instead, John tells Mr. Bell about the wedding in a quick scene between the two men on a train. Also, I found Margaret’s initial hostility toward John rather weak. A conversation between the two about the mill workers took part after audiences met the Higgins family. It is easy to see that John’s arrogant assumption regarding his control of his workers might seemed a bit off putting to Margaret. But it just did not seem enough for her hostility to last so long. And while the script probably followed Gaskell’s novel and allowed John’s regard for Margaret to be apparent before the end of Episode One, I never felt any growing attraction that Margaret may have felt toward John. Not even through most of Episode Four. In fact, Margaret’s open declaration of her love for John in the episode’s last few minutes seemed sudden . . . as if it came out of the blue.

The above mentioned problem may have been one reason why I found Margaret and John’s romance unconvincing. Another problem was that I found the on-screen chemistry between the two leads, Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart, rather flat. In short, they did not seemed to have any real chemistry. The two leads gave first-rate, if somewhat flawed performances in their roles. Aside from a few moments in which I found Shanks’ Margaret Hale a bit too passive, I thought she gave an excellent, yet intelligent performance. Stewart seemed as energetic as ever, even if there were moments when his John Thornton seemed to change moods faster than lightning. But they did not click as an on-screen couple. Also, Turner’s screenplay failed to any signs of Margaret’s growing attraction toward John. It simply appeared out of the blue, during the series’ last few minutes. 

I certainly had no problems with the other performances in the miniseries, save for a few performances. Robin Bailey did an excellent job in portraying Margaret’s well-meaning, yet mild-mannered father, Richard Hale. Bailey seemed to make it obvious that Mr. Hale was a man out of his depth and time. Kathleen Byron perfectly conveyed both the delicate sensibility and strong will of Margaret’s mother, Maria Hale. I was very impressed by Rosalie Crutchley’s portrayal of the tough, passionate and very complex Mrs. Hannah Thornton. I could also say the same about Norman Jones, who gave a very fine performance as union representative Nicolas Jones . . . even if there were times when I could barely understand him. Christopher Burgess’ portrayal of Boucher struck me as very strong . . . perhaps a little on the aggressive side. And Pamela Moiseiwitsch gave a very funny portrayal of John’s younger sister, Fanny; even if her performance came off as a bit too broad at times. It was a blast to see Tim Pigott-Smith in the role of Margaret’s fugitive brother, Frederick Hale. I say it was a blast, due to the fact that Pigott-Smith portrayed Richard Hale in the 2004 miniseries, 19 years later. As much as I enjoyed seeing him, there were times when his performance came off as a bit hammy.

Overall, “NORTH AND SOUTH” is a pretty solid adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Aside from a few changes, it more or less adhered to the original narrative, thanks to David Turner’s screenplay and Rodney Bennett’s direction. And although it featured some fine performances, the miniseries did suffer from some narrative flaws and a lack of chemistry between the two leads – Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart. However, “NORTH AND SOUTH” still managed to rise above its flaws . . . in the end.

“FAST FIVE” (2011) Review

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“FAST FIVE” (2011) Review

I have never seen a movie from the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise before 2011. Never. I never had the inclination to see any of these movies, despite the series being a consistent cash cow for producer Neal H. Moritz and Universal Studios.  One might begin to wonder what led me to break that tradition and see the franchise’s 2011 entry, “FAST FIVE”

I might have to retract a little. I did see the first movie, 2001’s “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS” seven months before the 2011 film was released.  Well, I only saw two or three minutes of one of the movie’s early scenes on a large screen television at my local electronics store. But those two or three minutes did not convince me to go see “FAST FIVE”. The movie trailer did. When I first saw it, I had rolled my eyes in disgust at the idea of a fifth FAST AND FURIOUS movie. When I saw the trailer for a second time . . . it intrigued me. Because of this, I decided to end my ban on the franchise and see the movie.

In order to understand the beginning of “FAST FIVE”, one would have to watch the past four movies – especially 2009’s“FAST AND FURIOUS”. That movie, featured law enforcement officer Brian O’Conner’s reunion with the Toretto family – street car racer/thief Dominic “Dom” and his younger sister, Mia – after he had allowed Dom to escape arrest at the end of the first movie. Dom and Brian investigated the murder of the former’s girlfriend, Leticia “Letty” Ortiz and her connection to a major drug lord. Brian made arrangements with the FBI for Dom’s release in exchange for the latter’s assistance in the drug lord’s capture. However, a Federal judge reneged on the deal and sentenced Dom 25 years to life in prison. The movie ended with Brian, Mia and two of Dom’s colleagues (Tego Leo and Rico Santos) attempting to free Dom from a bus en route to the Lompoc Penitentiary.

“FAST FIVE” picked up with Dom’s rescue from the prison bus. Dom, Brian and Mia are forced to leave the United States as fugitives from justice. Upon their arrival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; they encounter Dom’s former colleague, Vince. He recruits them to participate in steal cars from a moving train, on behalf of a Rio businessman and crime lord named Hernan Reyes. When Dom realizes that one of their fellow thieves, Zizi, is only interested in stealing one car – the Ford GT40 – he has Mia steal the car, while Dom and Brian fight Zizi and his henchmen. The fight results in Zizi’s murder of three DEA agents on board the train. The murders are pinned on Dom and Brian. The trio discover a computer chip from the Ford GT40 that consists of details of Reyes’ criminal operation and locations of $100 million dollars in cash. They decide to rip off the crime lord’s money in order to start a new life, with the help of old friends. Dom, Brian and Mia also discover that a diehard U.S. DSS agent named Luke Hobbs is in Brazil to capture them for the murders of the DEA agents.

When “FAST FIVE” first hit the theaters, many fans and critics declared it to be the best in the franchise. Following my first viewing of the movie, I watched the other four that came before it. Two of them proved to be well-written entertainment; one of them seemed decent, but a little mediocre; and one barely maintained my interest. But “FAST FIVE” definitely turned out to be better than the first four movies. Although the movie featured an extreme car chase through the streets of Rio, it barely touched upon street car racing, a theme that dominated the other four films. In fact, the movie only featured two street car races – a good natured contest between four of the characters and another between Dom and Brian right before the movie’s end credits. In other words, “FAST FIVE” was more of a heist film. And although certain fans had complained about the limited emphasis on street car racing, the critics and other fans had expressed that the heist plot made “FAST FIVE” the best in the franchise. So far.

Not only do I believe that “FAST FIVE” is the best in the franchise, I feel that it is one of the better heist movies I have seen in recent years (aside from 2001’s “OCEAN’S ELEVEN” and 2007’s “OCEAN’S THIRTEEN”). Aside from a small quibble regarding the Vince character, screenwriter Chris Morgan’s plot turned out to be a strong continuation of the first, second and fourth films. Morgan’s utilization of characters from the previous films provided “FAST FIVE” with a strong ensemble cast. In fact, I happily noticed that none of supporting characters had been shoved into the background or overshadowed by the Dom, Brian and Mia characters. Most of the supporting characters have previous connections with Dominic, except for two – Roman Pearce and Tej Parker – who appeared in 2003’s “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS” as Brian’s friends. This fifth film provided a warm and humorous private reunion between the three. And thanks to Morgan’s script, the franchise’s theme of family (especially fatherhood) resonated strongly. This theme also led me to view the Dominic/Brian friendship with a jaundiced eye.

The movie’s production also struck me as top notch. Aside from the train robbery sequence, many of the exterior scenes were shot in Puerto Rico and Rio. Director Justin Lin and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon did a first rate job in conveying the elegance, color, chaos and squalor of Rio de Janeiro. I also have to commend Kelly Matsumoto, Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner for their editing of the film – especially the foot chase through Rio’s Rocinha Favela (shantytown) and the chase sequence throughout the city.

Before I end up gushing over the movie, I do have a few quibbles. The train heist had been shot in Arizona . . . and looked it. I am aware of the scrub lands that exist in Brazil, but the train featured in this sequenced looked as if it was traveling through a very stark and dry looking terrain. And Morgan’s script never revealed how Vince ended up in Brazil. He had last been seen in “THE FAST AND FURIOUS”, being evacuated to hospital by a medivac, after being badly injured in truck heist gone wrong. Had he been convicted following his release from the hospital? How did he end up in Brazil in the first place?

Considering the number of performers featured in the cast of “FAST FIVE”, I figured it would take a separate article to write about them. If I must be honest, there was not a performance that hit the wrong note. I noticed that the movie seemed to have a strong sense of ensemble acting. Not only did the gang of thieves summoned by Dominic and Brian clicked with perfect magic, but Dwayne Johnson and the other actors who portrayed the DSS agents clicked very well as a team. And I could say the same about Joaquim de Almeida as crime lord Reyes and Michael Irby as his henchman, Zizi.

There were some performances that caught my eye. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker made an even stronger screen team, now that the latter’s character (Brian O’Conner) officially became a criminal. And Walker’s chemistry with Jordana Brewster seemed a lot stronger and more stable than it was in the first and fourth movies. Speaking of Walker (again), he was also able to re-create his strong chemistry with Tyrese Gibson, who portrayed his childhood friend Roman, from the second film. As for Gibson, not only did he have the worst line in the movie, he also had most of the best ones. He was dynamic as ever. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges gave a deliciously cool and sardonic performance as Tej Parker. Spanish-born actress Elsa Pataky really connected with Diesel and Johnson in separate films. And it was great to see Almeida in a strong role again. I found his character’s view on the differences between Spanish and Portuguese colonization rather interesting and chilling. Sung Kang (Han Seoul-Oh) and Gal Gadot (Gisele Harabo)’s characters created a surprisingly sexy romance. Tego Calderon and Don Omar made a hilarious screen team as Dom’s old colleagues from the Dominican Republic. And even Dwayne Johnson gave a slightly scary take on the “holy roller” Federal agent, Luke Hobbs.

Considering how long this article is, one would assume that I really enjoyed “FAST FIVE”. And that person would be right. And I find this surprising, considering my initial contempt, when I first saw the movie’s trailer. Not only did I really enjoy “FAST FIVE”, it became one my favorite movies of 2011, as well.  I am impressed.

“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

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“UNKNOWN” (2011) Review

Several years ago, I had noticed that Hollywood has released a minor political thriller during the first or second month of a new year. And to my surprise, I discovered that I found all of them quite entertaining. The latest political thriller to hit the movie screens during the winter season is film starring Liam Neeson called “UNKNOWN”

Based upon Didier van Cauwelaert’s 2003 French novel published in English as “Out of My Head”“UNKNOWN” is about an American scientist named Dr. Martin Harris, who arrives in Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth, to attend a science conference held at an upscale hotel. Upon their arrival at the hotel, Dr. Harris discovers that one of his suitcases had been left behind at the airport. While Elizabeth checks into the hotel, Martin hires a taxi to take him back to the airport. Unfortunately, the taxi becomes involved in a serious accident en route, and Martin’s life is saved by the driver. Several days later, Martin wakes up from a coma and returns to the hotel. He discovers that his wife has checked into the hotel with another man assuming his identity. Not only is Martin taken aback by this turn of events, he becomes aware of a mysterious stranger that has made one or two attempts upon his life. Martin recruits the help of the taxi driver, an Eastern European immigrant named Gina; and a former Stasi agent named Ernst Jürgen to help him learn the truth behind the deception being perpetrated with his wife and the man assuming his identity.

I really did not know how I would react to ”UNKNOWN”, when I first saw the trailer. It struck me as one of those movies in which the best parts were featured in the previews. I had also suspected it would be another ”TAKEN” or ”FROM PARIS WITH LOVE”, a lightweight thriller with a great deal of action and a simplified plot. As much as I had liked those two movies, I never really found them that impressive. On the other hand, ”UNKNOWN” seemed to possess more substance as a complex political thriller. The movie had mysteries and plot twists that took me by surprise, before its denouement.

Director Jaume Collet-Serr certainly did justice to Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s screenplay. Whether they did justice to the novel is another matter, considering that I have never read it. But ”UNKNOWN” featured exciting and well-dramatized scenes that provided both depth and atmosphere to the movie. One of my favorite scenes featured the recently hospitalized Martin’s attempt to connect with one of the conference’s other scientists, a Professor Bressler. Unfortunately for Martin, the man impersonating him happened to be at Professor Bressler’s laboratory. And both Martin Harrises’ attempts to prove themselves as the real McCoy were both strangely humorous and frustrating . . . at least for Martin and the audience. The meeting between Martin’s longtime colleague, Professor Rodney Cole and Ernst Jürgen, the former Stasi agent, proved to be fascinating and tense, thanks to the first-rate performances by Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. And Martin’s first attempt to reunite with his wife, Liz, came off as rather creepy, due to both January Jones and Aidan Quinn’s skillful acting. 

However, I found myself greatly impressed by Collet-Serr’s direction of two major action scenes. One of those scenes featured the finale in which Martin attempts to prevent an assassination attempt that proved to be one of the plot’s surprising twists. I also enjoyed the action sequence at a Berlin hospital that began with the murder of a nurse and the first attempt on Martin’s life. But I must admit that I believe Collet-Serr did justice to what I consider to be the movie’s best sequence – another murder attempt on Martin’s life at Gina’s apartment that segued into an exciting car chase through Berlin’s streets.

”UNKNOWN” provided some first-rate performances by a cast that included Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Sebastian Koch, and Frank Langella. Diane Kruger proved to be a surprisingly effective action heroine that racked up a higher body count than the rest of the cast. January Jones gave one of the most enigmatic performances I have ever seen in quite a while. She effectively kept me speculating upon the reasons behind her character’s failure to acknowledge Martin as her husband. However, the movie really belonged to Liam Neeson, whose portrayal of the beleaguered scientist proved to be the movie’s backbone. Neeson perfectly captured all the emotions that his character experienced throughout the story, without missing a beat. My only complaint is that I found his American accent a bit stiff and formal.

I really had no idea on how I would accept ”UNKNOWN”, once I saw it. The only reason I went to see it in the first place was because I had nothing else to do. I am glad that I saw the movie. I enjoyed it so much that I went to see it for a second time. And I enjoyed it even more.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

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“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

Following the release of her 2009 movie, “THE HURT LOCKER”, director Kathryn Bigelow hit Oscar gold when the movie won Best Picture and she picked up a Best Director statuette. Three years later, Bigelow returned to the setting of the Middle East in this historical drama about the operation of the C.I.A. for the manhunt of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Quaeda whom the U.S. government held responsible for the terrorist attacks on this country in September 2001.

The movie begins two years after the September 11 attacks with the arrival of a C.I.A. agent named “Maya” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Although she had been gathering information on al-Queda for two years, Maya becomes familiar with interrogation methods used by fellow agent Dan on several Islamic detainees, including one named Anmar. Maya evolves into a hardened, yet overzealous veteran. Over the next several years, Dan transfers to the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia; Maya and her friend and fellow agent Jessica survive the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Mariott Hotel; and Jessica is killed during a suicide bomber’s attack on Camp Chapman, Afghanistan in 2009. Although Maya is eventually reassigned to Langley following a personal attack on her outside her home, she continues the search for bin Laden. The efforts of Maya, Dan and two other agents named Hakim and Larry eventually leads the Agency to bin Laden’s location in a suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The movie ends with an attack on the compound on May 2, 2011 authorized by President Barack Obama.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” had acquired a good deal of acclaim and accolades after its release. Conservative critics of the Obama Administration accused Bigelow and her fellow producers of planning to release the movie before the 2012 Presidential election as a boost for the President’s re-election campaign.  GOP Congressional leaders also accused the Obama Administration of providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. More liberal critics accused the director of using the movie’s torture scenes as justification for U.S. intelligence use of torture on his prisoners. Bigelow and Columbia scheduled the movie’s release date for December 2012 for a limited release to theater and January 2013 for a wide release. It was eventually proven that Bigelow and her team never received any classified information from the Obama Administration. As for the accusation that Bigelow is pro-torture . . . I believe it depends upon the individual moviegoer’s point of view.

How do I feel about “ZERO DARK THIRTY”? Generally, I believe it is an excellent movie that benefited from a talented director and cast. Bigelow did an excellent job in capturing the tense, yet meticulous methods that the C.I.A. used to track down bin Laden. Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s screenplay pretty much did solid work in giving the movie a documentary style aura in this historical drama. The character of Maya is supposed to be based on an actual C.I.A. agent who had worked on the bin Laden manhunt. Thanks to Bigelow, Boal and a superb and Golden Globe award-winning performance by Jessica Chastain, audiences saw the gradual development of Maya’s character from C.I.A. newbie to hardened intelligence agent and negotiator, and finally to a woman obsessed with the capture of the man she not only held responsible for the September 11 attacks, but also for the death of the close friend who was killed at the Camp Chapman attack.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” also featured some top-notch performances from the rest of the cast. Jason Clarke, who had previously worked with Chastain in “LAWLESS”, gave an excellent performance as Dan, the intense and ruthless C.I.A. agent who initiated Maya into the brutal world of intelligence interrogations. Kyle Chandler handed in another top-notch and complex performance as former C.I.A. Islamabad Station Chief, Joseph Bradley, who seemed to be both impressed and exasperated by Maya’s obsession with the bin Laden hunt. I was surprised to see Jennifer Ehle in this movie. Then again, I have been seeing her in a great deal of American productions, lately. In “ZERO DARK THIRTY”, she gave a first-rate as Maya’s friend and colleague, Jessica. The movie also boasted some solid work from the likes of Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez, Fares Fares, Stephen Dillane (who did possess a shaky American accent) and James Gandolfino.

I am perplexed about one thing about the cast. Could someone explain why Joel Edgerton was billed over Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt and Mark Strong? All four had bigger roles than Edgerton. I realized that the latter portrayed one of the U.S. Navy SEALs that conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. But I do not see this as a reason for him to receive billing over Chandler, Ehle, Pratt and Strong. Another problem I have with “ZERO DARK THIRTY” is that the movie struck me as a bit schizophrenic in its style. The movie’s first hour – which featured Maya and Dan’s interrogations of Ammar and other detainees and some detailed investigations struck me as rather dry.  I would have fallen asleep within an hour if it were not for the torture scenes. And honestly? I found that rather disturbing. The movie’s second half seemed to shift in tone with the Islamabad Marriott Hotel and Camp Chapman bombings. The major characters – especially Maya – became more emotional. The second half also featured verbal conflict between Maya and Bradley, and also an attempt on her life. Once the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, the movie’s tone shifted back to its dry and documentary style.

Speaking of both the torture and bin Laden compound raid sequences, both seemed to stretch out a bit too long. I understand that the C.I.A. used torture to gather information for their manhunt. Honestly, I am not surprised. I did not believe that the scandal over the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would end such interrogation methods. Personally, I find them repulsive. But I doubt that the C.I.A. or the U.S. government would care less about my feelings. But the torture scenes struck me as too long. I could have dealt with a minor on-screen torture scene. But I think Bigelow stretched it too far. I could also say the same about the SEALs’ raid on the bin Laden compound. I realize that Bigelow was trying to milk the suspense for all it was worth. I am sorry, but I found it difficult to accept the idea that the SEALs were in so much danger. I was not that impressed by the Camp Chapman sequence. I never knew about the attack until I saw this movie. But I pretty much guessed what was about to happen in this sequence at least five minutes before the actual attack. How disappointing.

I had noticed how the media consistently labeled Quentin Tarantino’s movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, has been labeled by the media as a “revenge tale”. I find this ironic, considering that the movie’s protagonist seemed more interested in saving a loved one than revenge. On the other hand, “ZERO DARK THIRTY” practically reeks of revenge. Some movie critics have noted this, but the movie has not really acquired a reputation as a “revenge tale”. I find this odd. Very odd.

I understand that “ZERO DARK THIRTY” earned both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, along with a Golden Globe win for Jessica Chastain. On one level, I believe the movie earned those nominations. Thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal, it is basically a well made movie that featured some top-notch performances from a cast led by Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I loved the flim. I barely liked it. It struck me as a bit too cold for my tastes.

“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” (1990) Review

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“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” (1990) Review

As a long time reader of Agatha Christie’s novels, I have been well aware of her first novel that was published in 1920, namely “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. I read the novel once. But if I must be honest, I never became a fan of it.

Due to my lackluster feelings for the novel, it took me a while to watch the television adaptation of it, which aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” back in 1990. But eventually I got around to it and was amazed to discover that it had been the second Christie novel to be adapted as a feature-length film on that series. Another amazing aspect of “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is that it is the first of two or three episodes that was not set during the 1930s decade. In the case of this film, it was set in 1917, during World War I.

The movie opens in London with Captain Arthur Hastings on sick leave from military duty. Hastings seemed to be suffering from a mild case of post traumatic stress disorder. An encounter with an old friend named John Cavendish leads him to eagerly accept the latter’s invitation to visit his family’s estate – Styles – in Essex. During his visit, Hasting’s meets John’s family:

*Emily Inglethorp, John’s wealthy stepmother and mistress of Styles
*Alfred Inglethorp, her much younger new husband, who is viewed as a fortune hunter
*Mary Cavendish, John’s wife
*Lawrence Cavendish, John’s younger brother
*Evelyn Howard, Mrs. Inglethorp’s companion, who dislikes Mr. Inglethorp
*Cynthia Murdoch, the orphaned daughter of a family friend

Hastings also reunites with an old acquaintance he had met before the war – a Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot, who has become a war refugee. Due to Mrs. Inglethorp’s generosity, Poirot has managed to find a place in the nearby village to harbor his fellow Belgian refugees in the area.

When the Styles Court’s residents wake up to find Mrs. Inglethorp dying of strychnine poisoning, they learn from the local doctor that she had been murdered. Hastings recruits the help of Poirot to investigate the murder. They discover that John Cavendish will automatically inherit Styles Court upon his stepmother’s death, due to being the estate’s vested Remainderman. His brother Lawrence will also inherit a nice sum of money. However, the income left to Mrs. Inglethorp by the late Mr. Cavendish would be distributed, according to her will. However, Mrs. Inglethorp was heard arguing with a man about his infidelity – either her stepson John or her husband Alfred. She made a new will after the quarrel, but no one can find it. Two suspects would end up falling under the suspicions of the law before Poirot can reveal the murderer.

“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is the kind of adaptation that most fans of Christie’s novel absolutely adore. Due to Clive Exton’s script, it is a detailed and nearly faithful adaptation of the novel. And for most moviegoers and television viewers these days, a faithful adaptation to a literary source is very important to the quality of a production. My view on the matter is a bit more ambiguous. It all depends on whether a faithful adaptation translate well to the movie or television screen. In the case of “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES”, I would say that Clive Exton’s faithful adaptation served the story rather well. But the only reason I harbor this view is that I cannot think of a way how any change might serve the story. Because honestly? Christie’s 1920 novel did not exactly rock my boat. And I can say the same about this television movie.

“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is not a terrible story. It is a pretty solid tale that made it a little difficult for me to guess the murderer’s identity. The story also featured mildly interesting characters that actually left me wondering about their fates. I especially found the stormy marriage between John and Mary Cavendish particularly interesting. And I also found myself scratching my head over Mrs. Inglethorp’s marriage to the younger and obviously unlikable Alfred Inglethorp. I had originally assumed that this tale featured the first meeting between Poirot and Hastings. But as it turned out, the two men first met during a murder investigation in Belgium before the war. Pity. Come to think of it, “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” did not feature the first meeting between Poirot and Scotland Yard Inspector Japp. They had first met before the war, as well. But the story did feature the first meeting between Hastings and Japp.

Okay . . . look. “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is a pretty solid story. It is filled with competent performances from the cast, including David Suchet, Hugh Fraser, and Philip Jackson as Poirot, Hastings and Japp. I was especially impressed by Gillian Barge as Emily Inglethorp, Michael Cronin as Alfred Inglethorp, Joanna McCallum. I was especially impressed by David Rintoul and Beatie Edney as the emotional John and Mary Cavendish. I do have to give kudos to production designer Rob Harris of his re-creation of World War I England and also costume designer Linda Mattock. But in the end, this television adaptation of Christie’s story no more wowed me than the 1920 novel did. The most interesting aspects of “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” proved to be the World War I setting and that it served as the beginning of Poirot’s relationship with both Hastings and Japp.

Before one comes away with the idea that I disliked “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES”, I do not. Like I have been stating throughout this review, it is a pretty solid production. I am certain that many “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” fans would love this movie, due to screenwriter Clive Exton’s faithful adaptation. I liked the movie. But if I must be honest, my true reaction to it was simply – “Eh, not bad.”

“THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008) Review

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”THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008) Review

In 2005, director/writer Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman franchise with the highly successful movie, ”BATMAN BEGINS” that starred Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader. Both men have reunited three years later for a new story centered around Batman’s conflict with his greatest nemesis, the Joker, in this sequel called ”THE DARK KNIGHT”.

There has been a great deal of attention surrounding this movie. Many have not only praised it, claiming that it is better than the 2005 movie. But most of the word-of-mouth have centered around Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, especially after his tragic death some six months ago. When ”THE DARK KNIGHT” was finally released, many critics and fans expressed the belief that the positive word-of-mouth had been justified. Not only have many judged Ledger’s performance as the best in his career, others have claimed that the movie is probably the best Comic Book Hero movie ever made. I do not know if the Joker featured Heath Ledger’s best performance ever. As for the claim about ”THE DARK KNIGHT” being the best comic book hero movie . . . I do not agree.

I am not saying that ”THE DARK KNIGHT” was a terrible or mediocre film. Frankly, I believe that it was one of the best movies I have seen this summer. Most of the movie featured an excellent story scripted by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and David S. Goyer, in which Gotham’s organized criminal element has found itself threatened by the law ever since the end of the Falsone family in ”BATMAN BEGINS”, thanks to Batman (Bale). A former inmate of Arkham Asylum named the Joker (Ledger) approaches the crime bosses, which include Salvatore “Sal” Maroni (Eric Roberts), with an offer to kill Batman for pay. At the same time, Batman and Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) contemplate including the new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in their plan to eradicate the mob, as he could be the public hero Batman cannot be. Harvey Dent is found to be dating Wayne’s childhood friend and object of romantic desire, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). This conflict between Batman, the Joker and their allies escalates to a tragic and well-directed dénouement that leads to Rachel’s death. And it is here where I believe that the movie faltered.

”THE DARK KNIGHT” could have ended with Rachel’s death, followed by the Joker’s manipulation of a grieving Harvey Dent into madness and his eventual capture or death. Instead, the Nolan brothers and Goyer allowed the Joker to escape and continued the story with Dent’s vengeful hunt for those he considered responsible for Rachel’s death and the Joker resorting to a Green Goblin situation involving two ferryboats packed with explosives. The situation involved him telling the passengers on each that the only way to save themselves is to trigger the explosives on the other ferry; otherwise, at midnight he will destroy them both remotely. All of this occurred during the movie’s last half hour and quite frankly, it was a half hour I could have done without. I found the entire ferryboats sequence so unbelievable and contrived. It seemed as if Nolan teased us with the possibility of seeing the darker side of the average citizen . . . and wimped out, because he would rather stroke the ego of his moviegoers with some “nobility of man” bullshit by allowing the passengers refuse to blow or try to blow each other to kingdom come, instead of telling the truth about human nature. Very disappointing. It would have been more interesting or darker if Batman had prevented the passengers from blowing up the boats at the last minute. Batman would have saved the people, but the Joker would have proven a point.

A fan had pointed out that the ending of the sequence was Nolan’s message about leaving a sliver of hope for the audience that human beings do have the capacity to do good things. I realize that this was Nolan’s aim, but this is a message that has been done to death by moviegoers for eons. The problem is that screenwriters and moviemakers are always giving moviegoers this “sliver of hope”. They call themselves pointing out the dark side of humanity and then they pervert these messages by allowing them to come out of the mouths from villains like the Joker, before the latter is eventually proven wrong. It just seems like a cop out to me. Which was why I found the whole ferryboat sequence something of a joke. Sure, human beings are capable of doing some good. But in that particular situation? I rather doubt it. If there is one trait that humanity possess, it is a talent for self-preservation. It would have been more realistic to me if the boats had detonated or Batman had prevented this before anyone on one or both of those boats and activated the bombs. Granted, Batman/Bruce Wayne would have been disappointed in Gotham’s citizens, but he would have learned a valuable lesson about the very people he calls himself protecting. Even better, I would have preferred if Nolan had never added that sequence in the first place.

As for Harvey Dent’s hunt for those he deemed responsible for Rachel’s death . . . I would have been more satisfied if Nolan and his co-writers had ended the movie with Dent’s eventual slide into darkness in that hospital room and saved his transformation into a twisted vigilante and arch villain in a third Batman film. This would have prevented the movie from being unnecessarily a half hour long. And it would have saved the talented Aaron Eckhart for the third film as “Two-Faced” Harvey. It would have also spared moviegoers of that ludicrous ending in which Batman and Gordon decided to allow the former assume blame of Dent’s crimes in order to save the reputation of the D.A. I am still stunned by this little plot development. What were the Nolan brothers thinking? Why was it so necessary to save Dent’s reputation in the first place? Did Batman and Gordon harbored such a low opinion of Gotham’s citizens that they had to treat the latter like children?

The performances in ”THE DARK KNIGHT” were basically superb. Christian Bale beautifully captured the growing dilemma of Bruce Wayne’s desire for a normal life with Rachel Dawes, juxtaposed with his role as Gotham’s costumed vigilante and his growing power over the city’s criminal element, thanks to his alliance with police lieutenant James Gordon and the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. There is one aspect of Bale’s performance I did not like – namely the growling tone he used, while in the Batman persona. I did not care for it in ”BATMAN BEGINS”. I cared for it even less in this film.

I have noticed how many have expressed the view that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Rachel Dawes was better than Katie Holmes in the 2005 film. Personally, I did not see much of a difference in the quality of their performances. Both actresses gave good, solid performances. But . . . the screenwriters’ portrayal of Rachel in this film disappointed me. They had turned her characters into an object. She was Bruce Wayne’s prize for giving up the Batman persona, as soon as he could get Dent to assume the role of Gotham’s “hero”. She was Dent’s love interest, Girl Friday and a reason to go on a rampage for Dent. And for the Joker, she was a means to get at Batman, once he realized how the latter felt about her. There were times when Rachel’s character almost seemed irrelevant and a sad decline from the legal and moral dynamo that Holmes had portrayed in ”BATMAN BEGINS”.

Heath Ledger as the Joker. What can I say? The man was brilliant. He made Jack Nicholson’s Joker look like chump change. Honestly. One of the reasons why I have never care for the Joker character in the past was due to his over-the-top persona. Cesar Romero’s Joker has never impressed me, regardless of the numerous insane clown laughs he had utilized. Nicholson’s Joker was too over-the-top for my tastes. As one can see, I do not have a love for overly theatrical characters, unless they are done right. Granted, Ledger portrayed the Joker as over-the-top. But somehow . . . I really do not know how to describe it. Somehow, he managed to infuse some kind of control in the character’s insanity, not only with his behavior, but also with a talent for emotional manipulation and the views he had spouted to Batman and other characters. Do I believe that the Joker was Ledger’s best performance? No. I believe that the character was one of his two best performances, the other being Ennis DelMar from 2005’s ”BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN”. Do I believe that Ledger deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance, despite his death? Hmmmm . . . yes. He was that good.

The other truly superb performance came from Aaron Eckhart as Gotham’s new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. One of Eckhart’s virtues was that he formed an excellent screen chemistry with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Frankly, I found their romance more believable than her relationship with Bruce Wayne. Eckhart projected a great deal of magnetism, charm and intensity into his portrayal of Dent. But I was more impressed by the way he expressed Dent’s descent into vengeful madness, following Rachel’s death. Granted, this turn of his character occurred in the movie’s last half hour. Although I disliked the movie’s last half hour, Eckhart’s performance in it almost made it bearable.

Gary Oldman, Michael Caine (Alfred Pennyworth), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) and Cillian Murphy (Dr. Jonathan Crane/the Scarecrow) all reprised their roles from the first film. All four gave solid performances, but only Oldman’s role as James Gordon seemed bigger. I found Gordon’s fake death somewhat contrived and manipulative. Aside from the creation of the Rachel Dawes character, everything about the two Batman movies directed by Nolan have adhered to the Batman canon. Which is why I found it difficult to believe that Gordon was dead. Alfred’s role seemed to have diminished from the first film. Freeman’s Lucius Fox is now quite aware that Bruce is Batman and seemed to be acting as the latter’s armourer, as well as Wayne Enterprises’ CEO. The only problem I had with the Fox character was his opposition against Wayne/Batman’s development an advanced surveillance system that can listen in and track the movement of any of the thousands of cell phones in the city. I found the whole scenario contrived. As much as I had enjoyed Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of Dr. Crane/the Scarecrow in ”BATMAN BEGINS”, I found his less than ten minutes appearance in ”THE DARK KNIGHT” a waste of the actor’s time . . . and mine.

Composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard returned to score the sequel. I must admit that I had been impressed by their work in ”BATMAN BEGINS” and had expected another exceptional score by them. Unfortunately, I barely remembered the score. I understand that they had rehashed the original score for this movie and added a new theme or two. But it all came off as unmemorable for me.

”THE DARK KNIGHT” had the potential to be this summer’s best film. But there were some aspects – the portrayal of Rachel Dawes’ character, Zimmer and Newton Howard’s score, the portrayal of some of the minor characters and the contrived writing that dominated the movie’s last half hour – that I believe had ruined the movie’s chances of achieving this potential. Fortunately, the virtues outweighed the flaws and in the end, ”THE DARK KNIGHT” managed to remain first-rate and become – in my view – one of the best films of 2008.

“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

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“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

With the disappointing summer movie season of 2010 finally over, moviegoers received one of its first releases for the fall season. The movie in question happened to be a tight little thriller about an American assassin working on a job in Italy called ”THE AMERICAN”.

Directed by Anton Corbijn and starring George Clooney, ”THE AMERICAN” is a film adaptation of ”A Very Private Gentleman”, Martin Booth’s 1990 novel about an assassin named Jack, who is hired to construct a rifle for another assassin in a small town in Italy called Castel del Monte. During his stay there, Jack befriends a friendly, yet observant priest named Father Benedetto; and falls for a young prostitute named Clara. He also tries to prevent himself from becoming the target of another assassin.

I had mixed feelings about going to see this movie. After watching it, my feelings about it remained mixed. One, I managed to predict the end of this movie before I even saw it. And I have never read Booth’s novel. The ending seemed even more apparent, considering the movie’s style and story. Two, the pacing struck me as being unnecessarily slow in some scenes. Now, I am not demanding that Corbijn should have paced ”THE AMERICAN” with the same timing as any of the recent Jason Bourne movies. After all, it is basically a character study of an assassin who has come to realize that he has been in the killing game too long. But there were moments when the camera lingered too lovingly upon some of Jack’s more mundane tasks that I would not have minded avoiding. One last complaint I have about ”THE AMERICAN” is that Rowan Joffe’s screenplay never made it clear who was behind the attempts to kill Jack in Sweden and the assassin who stalked him in Castel del Monte. Mind you, I had a pretty good idea on the person’s identity. Unfortunately, the script never really made it clear.

But there were aspects of ”THE AMERICAN” that I enjoyed. I found George Clooney’s portrayal of the world weary assassin well done. In fact, I could honestly say that he did an excellent job in portraying Jack’s mixture of professional wariness, emotional bankruptcy and hopes of a romantic future with the prostitute, Clara. The role of Jack might prove to be one of his better ones. Both Paolo Bonacelli and Violante Placido, who portrayed Father Benedetto and Clara respectively, gave Clooney excellent support. So did actress Thekla Reuten, who portrayed Mathilde, the assassin that commissioned Jack to construct a rifle for her. However, there were times when she conveyed the femme fatale persona just a bit too thick.

Joffe’s screenplay almost seemed to strike a balance between an in-depth character study and a small, taunt thriller. I say almost, due to the movie’s occasional slow pacing and a vague subplot regarding a threat to Jack’s life. But director Corbijn did effectively utilize some tense scenes included in Joffe’s script. The two best scenes featured Jack’s final encounter with the assassin hired to stalk him around Castel del Monte and the explosive finale that featured a slight, yet surprising twist.

”THE AMERICAN has its share of faults. Nor would I consider to be one of the best movies of 2010.  But I must admit that George Clooney’s performance as the world-weary assassin, Jack, might be one of his better roles. And director Anton Corbijn managed to strike a nice balance between an in-depth character study and a tense-filled action thriller. I could honestly say that ”THE AMERICAN” one of 2010’s more “interesting” films.