“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

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“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” tells the story of a New Orleans man named Benjamin Button who ages backward from 1918 to 2005 with bizarre consequences. The movie was directed by David Fincher and starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. 

Judging from an article I had read, it is clear that this movie is more or less a loose adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story. Aside from the premise of a man aging backwards, there are many differences between the two versions. The main differences center around the fact that in the literary version, Benjamin Button is born physically and mentally as an old man (asking for a rocking chair), and dies physically and mentally young. In the film, Benjamin is born physically old, but with the mental capacity of a newborn; and dies physically young, although his mind aged normally throughout his life. Aside from the dynamics of the main character, the setting changes from mostly late nineteenth century Baltimore in the novel, to mostly twentieth century New Orleans. Also Benjamin’s literary wife is named Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of a respected Civil War general, to whom he eventually becomes less attracted. Benjamin’s love in the movie is Daisy Fanning, the granddaughter of one of the tenants at the elderly nursing home where he lives with his black adoptive mother, Queenie.

I found ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” to be a technical wonder. I was very impressed by the film’s use of the CGI effects created by a team supervised by Burt Dalton. The movie’s other technical aspects – costume design by Jaqueline West, the art direction, Victor J. Zolfo’s set decorations, and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda – were first-class. I was especially impressed by how Miranda photographed New Orleans in the movie. With the movie’s art direction, the cinematographer did an excellent capturing the rich atmosphere and charm of the Big Easy. And I was especially impressed by the way he filmed 1918 New Orleans through the use of a sepia color for the movie’s prologue that centered on a clockmaker. And director David Fincher did an excellent job in utilizing the movie’s New Orleans setting and technical effects. If only he could have done something about the script . . . and the movie’s pacing. 

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that “THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” is a bad movie. Far from it. Not only can it boast a first-class production design, but also an excellent cast led by Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt’s since I first saw him in a movie I would love to forget – “COOL WORLD”. But I do feel that he has a tendency to be slightly theatrical. It almost seems as if his acting style was more suited for the stage than in front of a camera. However, he does know how to be subtle when the role calls for it. And his portrayal of Benjamin Button is quite subtle. The character does not seemed to develop much – even following the deaths of his blood father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and his foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). It took his romantic problems with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) between the mid 1940s and the 1950s, and the realization that he would soon be too young to help raise his daughter Caroline that led his character to assume dimensions that were lacking earlier in the film. Despite this last minute development of the character, I must admit that Pitt gave one of his better performances in his career.

Pitt was ably supported by Cate Blanchett, who portrayed the love of his life – Daisy Fanning. Mind you, I found her character rather shallow at first. I could dismiss this simply as a case of her being young at the time. But there seemed to be lacking something in Daisy’s character that Blanchett’s excellent performance could not overcome. Quite frankly, I did not find her that interesting. Screenwriter Eric Roth (”FOREST GUMP”) tried to inject some angst into her character by having her fall victim to a car accident in Paris that cut short her dancing career. But I could not buy it. I am sorry, but Daisy did not really become interesting to me until she was forced to raise Caroline without Benjamin, and later take care of him before his death. But Blanchett gave it all she could. Without her, Daisy could have been a disaster – at least for me.

The other supporting characters were excellent. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton gave a poignant performance as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British spy whom Benjamin meets and has an affair with in Russia before the Pearl Harbor attack. Jared Harris was colorful and funny as Captain Mike, the commander of the tugboat that Benjamin works for during the 1930s and early 40s. Julia Ormond, whom I have not seen in ages, gave solid support as the adult Caroline. So did Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Queenie’s husband, Tizzy and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, Benjamin’s brother. But I have to say something about Taraji P. Henson. She portrayed Queenie, an attendant at the New Orleans nursing home who adopts Benjamin as her own. I loved her performance. She was colorful, tough, funny, sharp and pretty much the emotional center of the whole damn film. And it seemed a shame that she did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

The first thing I had noticed about ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” was that it strongly reminded me of the 1994 Oscar winning film, ”FOREST GUMP”. In fact, I even nicknamed the movie, ”a backwards ”FOREST GUMP” . And judging from the fact that this movie’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, had also written the 1994 film, I should not have been surprised. But whereas the main tone for ”FOREST GUMP” seemed to be one of historical whimsy, ”BENJAMIN BUTTON” seemed melancholy – especially in the movie’s last hour. The themes of aging and mortality seemed to permeate the movie like a black shroud. Considering the movie’s theme and the fact that Benjamin spent his early years in the company of the elderly, it seemed surprisingly appropriate. And at least it gave the movie its main theme. Without this theme of aging and mortality, the movie could have easily been reduced to a 166 minute film with nothing but a gimmick. 

But as much as I liked ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”, it has some flaws. The movie’s main flaws, at least for me, turned out to be – ironically – the script by Eric Roth and the movie’s pacing. Now I realize that movies that cover a span of years or decades tend to run up to at least two-and-a-half to three hours. But did the pacing of this film have to be so goddamn slow? I realize that Fincher wanted to give the movie a Southern atmosphere, considering its setting, but I feel that he went a bit too far. By the time Daisy gave birth to Caroline in the movie’s second half, I found myself screaming for the movie to end. As for the screenplay, Roth filled it with moments and plot points that dragged the film needlessly. I never understood why the movie’s ”present day”, which featured a dying Daisy telling Caroline about Benjamin, was set during the outset of Hurricane Katrina. What was the point? In the end, the hurricane had nothing to do with the story. And although I found Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbott rather charming at times, I had some problems with it. The sequence started out well with the circumstances of their first meeting. But the buildup to their affair and eventual parting seemed longer than necessary. The one sequence that really irritated me featured Daisy’s accident in Paris. All Roth had to do was featured her encounter with a Parisian taxicab, Benjamin’s trip to Paris and their meeting in a hospital. But . . . no. Instead, Roth wrote this contrived scene that featured little moments from various strangers that led to Daisy being struck by the taxi. It seemed so ridiculous that I nearly groaned in agony. 

Despite its flaws – and this movie certainly had plenty – ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” turned out to be a first-class period piece with an interesting premise of a man aging backward. Although this premise could have reduced the movie to nothing more than a gimmick, the topic of aging and mortality lifted the movie to an interesting, yet sad tale filled with emotional moments, great cinematography and solid acting, especially from Brad Pitt. The movie earned thirteen (13) Academy Award nominations and won three (3). I have no problems with the Oscars that it won, since they turned out to be in the technical categories. But I must admit that it is one of the top twenty (20) movies I had first seen back in 2008.

 

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“THE GREAT GATSBY” (1974) Review

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“THE GREAT GATSBY” (1974) Review

Many years have passed since I last saw “THE GREAT GATSBY”, the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Many years. I must have been in my twenties when I last viewed the movie on television. After the release of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation, I found myself curious to see how this 43 year-old movie still held up. 

Directed by Jack Clayton and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a Jazz Age tale about a World War I veteran who becomes rich via bootlegging. His story is told from the viewpoint of another war veteran and Midwestern transplant, Nick Carraway, who happens to be his neighbor. Through Nick’s narration, audiences become aware of Gatsby’s obsessive love for his former paramour and Nick’s second cousin, a Louisville native named Daisy Fay Buchanan. Gatsby became rich, purchased a Long Island estate and befriended Nick in order to be near Daisy, who lived in the more socially elite part of Long Island with her husband Tom Buchanan and their daughter. With Nick’s help, Gatsby hopes to renew his romance with Daisy and convince her to leave the brutish Tom in order to recapture their romantic past.

So . . . what can I say about “THE GREAT GATSBY”? For one thing, it is an elegant looking film. And one can thank John Box’s production designs, which beautifully recapture the super rich of the Jazz Age. Box’s designs were aptly supported by the set decorations of Peter Howitt and Herbert F. Mulligan. Good examples of Howitt and Mulligan’s work can be found in the movie’s opening shot that feature the interiors of Gatsby’s Long Island home. Another aspect of “THE GREAT GATSBY” that contributed to the film’s elegance was Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes. I must admit that they are gorgeous. Take a look:

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Aldredge had stiff competition for the Best Costume Design Academy Award, but in the end she won. Did she deserve that Oscar? I do not know. One of her competitors was Anthea Sylbert, who was nominated for her work on “CHINATOWN”. As much as I enjoyed Aldredge’s work, Sylbert’s work struck me as equally impressive. The two designers could have easily shared an Oscar. However, I did discover something interesting – although Aldredge did most of the work for the female leads and supporting characters, producer David Merrick hired designer Ralph Lauren to design the costumes for leading male characters – Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan. Although Lauren did not receive any recognition for his work, I must admit they looked great, even if I possess a bigger preference for Aldredge’s work. 

Douglas Slocombe’s photography also contributed the elegant look and style of “THE GREAT GATSBY”. Mind you, Slocombe’s shots of the film’s locations – New York, Rhode Island and Great Britain – looked beautiful. But his photography also had that soft focus look that practically screamed PERIOD DRAMA!”. It was the kind of photography that was very popular in the 1970s and still annoys me to this day. Nelson Riddle won an Academy Award for the score he wrote for the film. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it and found it very effective. Actually, I found Riddle’s score to be incredibly boring. The music sounded as if it belonged in a television one-hour drama, instead of a Hollywood film adaptation of a classic novel. The only music that I managed to enjoy in the film were the 1920s tunes featured in the Gatsby party scenes.

What can I say about Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel? Actually, I cannot say a word. According to Coppola, what he wrote and what ended on the screen proved to be two different entities. Even screenwriter William Goldman, who had read Coppola’s original screenplay, seemed indifferent to Jack Clayton’s changes to the script. I have seen at least three adaptations of Fitzgerald’s novel. This is probably the most faithful adaptation I have come across. Unfortunately, this close adaptation did not really help the movie. I have no idea what kind of movie “THE GREAT GATSBY” would have become if Clayton had adhered to Coppola’s script. But judging from the nature of Clayton’s direction, I suspect that it would not have helped in the end. Clayton’s direction proved to be incredibly dull. In fact, he nearly drained the life out of Fitzgerald’s tale. I think Clayton took the concept of period drama a bit too far. I got the feeling that I was watching a “MASTERPIECE THEATER” production that originated on the BBC, instead of a film adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. And honestly? I have come across “MASTERPIECE THEATER” productions that proved to be a lot more energetic. 

Some of the movie’s scenes turned out well. I was impressed by the party scenes at Gatsby’s house, even if screenwriter William Goldman found them vulgar. The scenes’ “vulgarity” did not bother me, because I found them entertaining and energetic. Those scenes, by the way, featured appearances by future star Edward Herrmann, who eventually starred in his own 1920s opus, “THE CAT’S MEOW” twenty-seven years later. I also enjoyed the party held by the adulterous Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson at their own New York hideaway, even if it was nearly bogged down by Myrtle’s account of her first meeting with Tom. I also thought that Clayton handled the discovery of Myrtle’s death very well. It struck me as especially effective, thanks to a flashback of the hit-and-run that claimed her life. The movie’s best scene proved to be Gatsby and Tom’s confrontation over Daisy at the Plaza Hotel suite. This is not surprising, since this scene has proven to be the best in all of the adaptations I have seen and in the novel. My only complaint is that Clayton or the script cut it short by allowing Daisy to flee the suite before she could say anything or make a decision about her relationships with both Gatsby and Tom.

But the movie’s slow pace and reverent exploration of the Jazz Age wealth featured in the production designs nearly grounded “THE GREAT GATSBY” to a halt. I take that back. The slow pacing and obsession with the 1920s production designs proved to be impediments to the movie. But the Gatsby-Daisy love scenes nearly grounded the movie to a halt. I found them incredibly boring. Mindlessly dull. I had to hit the “fast-forward” button of my DVD remote every time Robert Redford and Mia Farrow appeared in a scene alone. They had no screen chemistry whatsoever. Between Redford’s silent intensity and Farrow’s over-the-top impersonation of Zelda Fitzgerald, there seemed to be no middle ground between them in order to form a believable romance. Daisy Buchanan was supposed to be Jay Gatsby’s “American Dream” – his final rung into the world of the American elite. But I had a difficult time accepting this, while growing increasingly bored over Redford and Farrow’s non-existent screen chemistry. Redford and Farrow are partially to blame, due to their performances. But I place most of the blame on Clayton who did not even bother to rectify this flaw.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” was also sabotaged by one particular scene in which Gatsby confronted Daisy over her decision to marry Tom and not bother to wait for his return from the war and France. I must admit that Redford did some of his best acting in this scene. Unfortunately, I found his efforts a complete waste of time. There was no need for this scene. Why would Gatsby confront Daisy on this matter? He knew why she had dumped him in the first place. Why else would he bother to get into bootlegging in order to quickly acquire a great deal of money and a mansion across the bay from her husband’s Long Island home? Even after Daisy finally admitted that “nice rich girls do not marry poor boys”, either Clayton, Coppola’s screenplay or both failed to explore the consequences of Daisy’s confession. Instead, the movie immediately jumped to the scene featuring the Buchanans’ visit to one of Gatsy’s Saturday night parties. In other words, this scene was a complete waste of time. 

I also found the lack of African-Americans in this movie rather puzzling. “THE GREAT GATSBY” is set in Manhattan and Long Island, during the early years of the Jazz Age (although the movie changed the story’s setting to 1925). One would think some of the super rich had black servants. The movie did feature a few black characters in the scene at Wilson’s Garage, following Myrtle’s death in the Valley of Ashes. But that is it. I did not expect any major or supporting black characters in this story. But the servants featured in the Buchanans and Jay Gatsby’s mansions were all white. Even the jazz musicians who performed at Gatsby’s parties were white. Even more incredible, they were white, middle-aged men between the ages of 40 and 55. This sounds plausible in the post-World War II era in which one would find such bands engaged in musical nostalgia at some quaint nightclub or community event. However, we are talking about the 1920s. All white jazz bands seem plausible if the performers had been between the ages of 18 and 30. But these jazz musicians were middle-aged. White, middle-aged jazz musicians in 1925? Perhaps some did exist. But this is the only adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel in which I have come across this phenomenon.

Jack Clayton’s direction did nothing for most of the performances in this film. As I had earlier pointed out, Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby spent most of the film looking iconic and acting mysterious. What happened to the hopeful loser from Fitzgerald’s tale? Even Redford managed to beautifully portray a similar character with great success in 1973’s “THE STING”. Perhaps he simply lost interest, thanks to Clayton’s direction. However, I must admit that Redford had at least two great moments. Despite my dislike of the scene in which Gatsby demanded an explanation from Daisy regarding her earlier rejection of him, Redford gave a perfectly intense performance. But I was really impressed by that moment in which Gatsby met Daisy and Tom’s daughter, Pammy. Redford conveyed a perfect mixture of surprise and wariness. In fact, I would say it was his best moment in the entire movie.Mia Farrow has received a good deal of praise for her portrayal of Daisy Buchanan. She will not receive any from me. I found her performance rather strident and grating. Her performance reminded me more like the wild and unstable Zelda Fitzgerald than the seductive and flaky Daisy. Another over-the-top performance came from Karen Black, who portrayed the grasping and adulterous Myrtle Wilson. She had some nice moments. But most of her scenes found her nearly screaming at the top of her lungs. “THE GREAT GATSBY” featured Lois Chiles’ third screen role, in which she portrayed Daisy’s Louisville friend, Jordan Baker. Honestly? I really do not know what to say about Chiles’ performance other than I found it flat and dull. She looked good. That, I cannot deny. If one wants to see both Farrow and Chiles at their best, I would recommend 1978’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”, in which both actresses gave better performances.

The movie did feature some good performances. Sam Waterston gave a nice, subtle performance as Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway. He managed to project a good deal of emotion, while being subtle at the same time. My only complaint is that both he and Redford failed to generate any kind of chemistry as two neighbors who become friends. Scott Wilson gave an emotional, yet textured performance as Myrtle’s cuckolded husband, George Wilson. The actor did a very good job in conveying both the character’s passionate love for Myrtle and whipped personality. I also enjoyed Howard Da Silva’s performance as Gatsby’s bootlegging colleague, Meyer Wolfsheim. Although brief, I found his performance very entertaining and charming. By the way, Da Silva portrayed George Wilson in the 1949 version of Fitzgerald’s novel. If I had to give an award for the movie’s best performance, I would hand it over to Bruce Dern for his portrayal of Daisy’s brutish and elitist husband, Tom Buchanan. Mind you, Dern did not exactly convey the picture of a sports-obsessed ex-jock with a powerful build. But he did an excellent job in portraying Tom’s obsession with social position, warm passion for Myrtle and possessive regard for Daisy. More importantly, he managed to inject a great deal of energy in all of his scenes – especially the one featured at the Plaza Hotel suite. I must admit that I found one of his lines rather funny for two different reasons. Tom’s complaint about Gatsby’s pink suit struck me rather funny, thanks to Dern’s delivery. But I also found it hilarious that Tom would complain about the color of Gatsby’s suit, while wearing a purple one. If you doubt me, take a gander at the following image:

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If the purple in Tom’s suit had been any deeper, one would think he was a gauche social climber . . . or a pimp. Frankly, Dern’s line would have been more effective if the actor’s suit had possessed a more conservative color in that scene.

Overall, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a beautiful looking movie to behold. And I believe it could have become a more energetic and interesting tale if the producers had hired a better director. I realize that Jack Clayton’s reputation had been made due to his work on 1959’s “ROOM AT THE TOP”. But he really dropped the ball some fifteen years later, thanks to his dull and lethargic direction of “THE GREAT GATSBY”. Cast members such as Bruce Dern and Sam Waterson managed to overcome Clayton’s direction. Others failed to do so. This was especially the case for Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, who portrayed the movie’s two main characters. And because of Clayton’s poor direction, this version of “THE GREAT GATSBY” proved to be a big disappointment for me.

 

“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.”