Sunday, January 8, 2017

"APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" (1988) Review

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"APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" (1988) Review

Agatha Christie's 1938 novel, "Appointment With Death" has proven to be a problem over the past 70 years or so. If I must be honest, it is not a great novel. Considering the topic of emotional abuse, it had the potential to be great. But I feel that Christie never achieved what could have been a memorable and haunting tale. 

The novel also produced adaptations in the form of a 1945 stage play, a 2008 television movie and a 1988 theatrical release. Of the three adaptations, the 1988 film, "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" came the closest in being faithful to novel. Is it the best adaptation? Unfortunately, I have never seen the stage play and have no idea what changes to Christie's plot had been made. I have seen the 2008 television movie. And honestly? I consider it a colorful travesty. Do I harbor the same opinion of the 1988 film? Well . . . no. It is not a bad film. But I believe it is a far cry from some of the best of the Christie adaptations.

Directed by Michael Winner, "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" centered on Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot's investigation into the death of a wealthy middle-aged woman named Mrs. Boynton. Actually, the story began several months earlier, in New Jersey, where the recently widowed Mrs. Boynton learned that her late husband left a second will would enable her stepchildren and daughter to enjoy a financially stable life, independent of her. Jealous of the idea of no longer holding any power over her family, Mrs. Boynton blackmailed the family attorney, Jefferson Cope, into destroying the second will, leaving her in charge of the family finances. The family embarks on a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land during the spring of 1937. During the sea voyage between Italy and the Middle East, fellow passenger Hercule Poirot overhears two of Mrs. Boynton's stepchildren, Raymond and Carol, discussing the possibility of their stepmother's death. More importantly, Mrs. Boynton is surprised by the appearance of Cope, fearful he might inform her children about her husband's second will. 

Following the characters' arrival in Petra, Poirot and some of the other characters become aware of Mrs. Boynton's domineering abuse of her stepchildren and daughter. One of the vacationers, a Dr. Sarah King, falls in love with one of Mrs. Boynton's stepsons - Raymond. But she becomes frustrated by his inability to break free of his stepmother's grip. Sarah's frustrations reflect those of Nadine Boynton, who is near the breaking point over her husband's inability to break free from his stepmother. Also, the old lady's stepchildren are becoming increasingly worried over Mrs. Boynton's poisonous influence over the latter's only child and their half-sister, Ginerva. Things come to a boil during a one day expedition to an archeology dig outside Petra. A few hours after Mrs. Boynton encourages her family to go for a walk, she is discovered dead. It does not take Poirot very long to figure out that the old lady had been murdered. And he is recruited by the region's British Army representative, Colonel Carbury, to investigate her death.

As I had earlier stated, "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" is not a bad film. But it is certainly no masterpiece. Let me be frank. It is quite obvious that the look and tone of this production is more akin to television movie feature from "AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT" than a theatrical movie. It is a bit cheap in compare to star Peter Ustinov's previous two Poirot movies and the 1974 one that starred Albert Finney. Some of cast members seemed to be going through the motions in their performances. This especially seemed to be the case for Carrie Fisher, Nicholas Guest, John Gielgud and sadly, Peter Ustinov. And when the star of the film seemed almost too relaxed or uninterested in his performance or the film, there is potential for disaster. What makes this sad is that Ustinov gave a funny and energetic performance for his next role as Detective Fix in the 1989 miniseries, "AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS". Adding to the film's second-hand look was Pino Donaggio's very disappointing score. Honestly, it was probably the worst movie score for any Agatha Christie's production I have ever heard. It seemed to be 1980s pop music at its cheesiest. And allowing a cheesy 80s pop tune to serve as the main score for a movie set in the late 1930s was one of the worst mistakes that Michael Winner and the other film's producers made.

But all is not lost. At least Winner can claim he directed the better version of Christie's 1938 novel. The television movie adaptation made twenty (20) years later seemed like a total disaster in compare to this film. And the 1988 movie had more virtues. Although the movie's production visuals seemed a bit of a comedown from the Christie movies between 1974 and 1982, production designer John Blezard's work in "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" still struck me as pretty solid. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Alan Cassie and Shlomo Tsafrir's set designs and David Gurfinkel's photography during the archeological dig sequence. John Bloomfield's costume designs also struck me as pretty solid, but not exactly mind-blowing. Despite Michael Winner's pedestrian direction and the less-than-spectacular production, I have to admit that Winner, Anthony Shaffer and Peter Buckman did a very admirable job of adapting Christie's novel. I am not saying this because it is more faithful than the 1945 stage play and the 2008 television movie. The three screenwriters made some changes to the plot - including the deletion of one or two characters - but those changes did not harm the story overall.

Most of the cast certainly injected a good deal of energy, despite Ustinov, Fisher, Guest and Gielgud's lethargic performances. I was especially impressed by Jenny Seagrove as the stalwart Dr. Sarah King, David Soul's sly performance as the Boyntons' slippery, yet charming attorney Jefferson Cope, and John Terlesky's earnest performance as Raymond Boynton. As far as I am concerned, both Lauren Bacall and Hayley Mills gave the funniest performances in the film. Bacall's hilarious portrayal of the rude and pushy American-born Lady Westholme almost reminded me of her performance as the verbose Mrs. Hubbard from 1974's "MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS". However, her Lady Westholme struck me as funnier. And Hayley Mills was equally funny as Lady Westholme's impromptu traveling companion, the obsequious Miss Quinton. But the engine that really drove "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" turned out to be Piper Laurie's performance as murder victim, Mrs. Emily Boynton. There were moments with Laurie's performance became somewhat hammy. But she did a great job in portraying a manipulative and emotionally sadistic woman with a talent for keeping her stepchildren in line. I found her performance very commanding.

Overall, I would not consider "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" to be one of the best movie adaptations of a Christie novel. Heck, I can think of several television movie adaptations that I would view as better. But I believe it is the better of the two adaptations of the 1988 novel. I wish I could say that director Michael Winner and Peter Ustinov's performance as Hercule Poirot contributed a good deal to this movie's production. But it was not that difficult for me to see that Winner is at heart, a mediocre director. And Ustinov's performance seemed at worst, lethargic. And yet, the rest of the cast (aside from two others) and a solid script prevented "APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH" from sinking into a mire of crap. At least for me.






R.I.P. Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)

Monday, January 2, 2017

"THE STING" (1973) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "THE STING", winner of the 1973 Best Picture Oscar winner. Directed by George Roy Hill, the movie starred Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Robert Shaw: 


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Monday, December 26, 2016

"CASHELMARA" (1974) Book Review

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"CASHELMARA" (1974) Book Review

My experiences with novels by Susan Howatch are rather limited. If I must be honest, I have only finished three of her novels. I tried reading two other novels - "THE RICH ARE DIFFERENT" (1977) and the first novel in The Starbridge Series"GLITTERING IMAGES" (1987). However, I could not maintain any interest in the last two novels. Neither focused upon the history of an upper-class British family, which happened to be my main interest when I was in my late teens and early twenties. 

One of the three novels I did finish was 1974's "CASHELMARA", a saga that focused upon an Anglo-Irish family called the De Salis. The story began in 1859 when Edward Baron de Salis journeyed to antebellum New York City to visit his late wife's cousins, the Marriotts; and ends some 32 years later in 1891 with his grandson Edward, resorting to extraordinary means to regain control of the family's Irish estate called Cashelmara. During this 32 year journey, readers become acquainted with six main characters and a fascinating cast of supporting characters that add to Howatch's tale.

Before reading "CASHELMARA", one has to understand that it is one of three novels that are based upon one of the British Royal Family's royal houses - that of the Plantagenets. The 1971 novel, "PENMARRIC" focused on characters based upon the Plantagenet line that stretched from King Henry II to one of his younger sons, King John. However, Howatch skimped a generation and decided to continue her focus on the Plantagenet line with John's grandson, King Edward I and finished the novel with a character based upon the latter's grandson, King Edward III"CASHELMARA" is divided into six segments. Those segments are narrated by the following characters:

*Edward, Baron de Salis - a middle-aged English aristocrat and owner of both Woodhammer Hall (in England) and Cashelmara (based upon King Edward I)
*Marguerite Marriott, Baroness de Salis - a 17-18 year-old adolescent from a wealthy New York family who becomes Edward's second wife (based upon Margaret of France, later Edward I's second consort)
*Patrick, Baron de Salis - Edward's only surviving son, who loses Woodhammer Hall ten years after his father's death via gambling debts (based upon King Edward II)
*Sarah Marriott, Baroness de Salis - Marguerite's oldest niece and Patrick's wife (based upon Isabella of France, later Edward II's consort)
*Maxwell Drummond - an Irish tenant farmer on the Cashelmara estate, who becomes Sarah's lover and Patrick's enemy (based upon Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, Isabella's lover)
*Edward "Ned", Baron de Salis - Patrick and Sarah's oldest son (based upon King Edward III)

Another aspect about "CASHELMARA" that Howatch fans might find fascinating is that "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" could be considered a direct sequel to the former novel. Remember . . . "CASHELMARA" ended with Ned as the novel's narrator. And Ned is supposed to be based upon Edward III. "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" began with Robert Goodwin, who is based upon Edward the Black Prince, Edward III's oldest son. Since Robert's father was still alive in the first half of the 1984 novel, this means that Howatch based two characters on Edward III - Ned de Salis and "Bobby" Goodwin. Really, one might as well view "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" as more of a direct sequel to "CASHELMARA" than "PENMARRIC". In fact, Bobby Goodwin's background story in the 1984 novel is practically a re-enactment of what happened between Ned and his parents, Patrick and Sarah in "CASHELMARA", but with a few changes.

How do I feel about "CASHELMARA"? I thought Howatch had created a very fascinating tale. On one level, she took a family saga and placed it within a setting that gave readers a look at how British Imperial policy worked in Ireland. And we saw this policy in motion via the viewpoint of an aristocratic family - except for the Maxwell Drummond character. And although there are many novels set within the British Empire - even in Ireland - "CASHELMARA" is probably the only one that I can recall that had been written by Howatch. More importantly, Howatch's description of the Cashelmara estate left a stark image in my mind that I found rather interesting. It was interesting that half of the major characters regarded the Irish estate with a negative view. The other three major characters seemed to have different views of Cashelmara. Edward de Salis seemed to have a mixed view of the estate. Cashelmara reminded him of the period he had enjoyed as a child. Yet at the same time, it stood as a reminder of his failure to offer genuine help to his tenants during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Ironically, the de Salis family and their tenants would find themselves facing another famine over thirty years later. Maxwell Drummond seemed to regard Cashelmara as a symbol of his ambition to become a landowner and a gentleman. And he would try to achieve these goals through Sarah with disastrous results. As far as Ned de Salis was concerned, Cashelmara was his home, and a family legacy that he would go through great lengths to regain. After all, his father Patrick had lost the family's English estate, Woodhammer Hall, sometime before his birth.

Most of the novel proved to be interesting in its own right. The first two segments - narrated by Edward de Salis and his second wife, Marguerite - also proved to be interesting. Howatch did an excellent job in painting a portrait of both antebellum New York City and mid-Victorian England at the end of the 1850s and into the 1860s. Readers got a peek into Edward's fascination with his future bride, along with his the disappointment he felt regarding his children. But I especially enjoyed Marguerite's narration. I found it interesting to read how this 18 year-old girl struggled to maintain a healthy and happy marriage with a man over thirty years her senior. Marguerite's narration also revealed the struggles that she had to endure as an American in a foreign country. Between others - including her husband - making assumptions about her American nationality, dealing with the British high society's reactions to the American Civil War, and struggling to act as a mediator between Edward and her stepchildren; the 1860s proved to be somewhat difficult for Marguerite. However, being a strong-willed young woman in her own right, she survived.

Also, I found "CASHELMARA" to be the most disturbing tale of the three family sagas written by the author. What made this novel so disturbing? It has to be the marriage between Patrick and Sarah de Salis. Howatch based their marriage on the lives of Edward II and his wife, Isabella. But from what I have read, the private lives of the Plantagenet monarch and his consort were not as disturbing as the marriage between Patrick and Sarah. The novel's third segment, told from Patrick's point-of-view, revealed their courtship and the first four years of their marriage. It also revealed how Sarah's spending and especially Patrick's gambling habits managed to dwindle away his fortune. Their financial problems had only added to the existing strain caused by Patrick's continuing friendship with his childhood friend, Derry Stranahan. But the segment narrated by Sarah also proved to be the novel's nadir in terms of what occurred and how low her marriage to Patrick had sunk. And for Sarah and Patrick, their marriage had sunk to alcoholism and loss of property for him; imprisonment and rape for her. Despite the ugliness that permeated Sarah's segment, the latter also proved to be one of the two most interesting in the novel. 

Like "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE", the novel's last segment proved to be the most difficult for me. Narrated by Sarah and Patrick's oldest child, Ned, I had some difficulty relating to the character. Perhaps Ned was simply too old. After all, he aged from thirteen to seventeen or eighteen years old during this last chapter. But I recall that one of the segments of "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE" had been narrated by a character named Christopher "Kester" Goodwin, who aged from nine to nineteen years old. I had no problems with the Kester character from "THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE", but I did with the Ned de Salis character. Why? Perhaps I did not find him that fascinating. Or perhaps I found his penchant to view his father as a hero, Maxwell Drummond as a villain and his mother as a stooge for Drummond a little too simple for me to stomach. I find it difficult to relate to characters who harbor one-dimensional views about life and other people. And because Howatch ensured that Ned never learned what his mother had endured at the hands of Patrick and the latter's lover/estate manager, Hugh McGowan, I found my ability to relate to him even more difficult.

I have read some reviews of "CASHELMARA' and discovered that a good number of readers managed to enjoy this family saga very much. Only a handful seemed to regard the characters as unsympathetic and not worthy of their interest. I believe that a first-rate author could create a sympathetic character with unpleasant traits, if he or she had a mind to do so. Susan Howatch certainly managed to create some very interesting characters - aside from one - for "CASHELMARA". She also created a first-rate family saga that still remains fresh after forty-one years.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"TOM JONES" (1963) Review

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"TOM JONES" (1963) Review

Recently, I searched my memories for any movies produced outside of the United States that not only won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but I would also consider a personal favorite of mine. Only one came to mind - the 1963 movie, "TOM JONES"

"TOM JONES" turned out to be the second non-Hollywood film that won the coveted Oscar prize. Directed by Tony Richardson, the movie is an adaptation of Henry Fielding's 1749 novel, "The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling", about the coming-of-age and misadventures of an illegitimate young man, raised by a landowner in mid-18th century England. I might as well start from the beginning. Sometime during the 1720s, one Squire Allworthy returned home to his Somerset estate and found an abandoned infant in his bedroom. Demanding to learn the identity of the infant's parents, the Squire learned from his housekeeper and other servants that the child's parents were a local schoolmaster named Partridge and a servant girl named Jenny Jones. Squire Allworthy banished both from the immediate neighborhood and became the baby's new guardian.

Named Tom Jones, the infant grew up to become a charming, handsome and slightly roguish young. He also became friendly with most of the locals, especially his guardian's neighbor, Squire Western. Tom's good looks and charm not only captured the eyes of Squire Western's only child, Sophie, but also Molly Seagrim, the promiscuous daughter of a local poacher named Black George Seagrim. But malignant forces in the form of Squire Allworthy's venomous nephew, Mr. Blifil, the tutors for both young men - Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square, and Tom's own personal vices; eventually lead Squire Allworthy to order the young hero's departure from the Allworthy estate. Tom sets out for London, where more acquaintances and adventures await.

I first saw the Best Picture Oscar winner, "TOM JONES", on television, when I was in my early teens. And I immediately fell in love. Mind you, my love for the movie has not blinded me from its flaws that are featured in the last ten minutes. It felt so rushed. And it seemed as if director Tony Richardson had retold Henry Fielding's tale with a great deal of detail and atmosphere, before he lost his impatience and rushed the last few minutes of the movie's narrative. Richardson and screenwriter John Osbourne never allowed the audiences to witness Lawyer Dowling's revelation to Squire Allworthy of the details in the letter written by the Squire's late sister, Mrs. Bridget Allworthy Blifil. Instead, they allowed the Mrs. Waters character to break the fourth wall and inform the audiences of the letter's contents. I found this very frustrating, especially since the audience was denied the Squire's immediate reaction. I also found the appearance of Lieutenant Norton, the Army officer whom Tom prevented from harming Mrs. Waters on the journey to London. By some bad coincidence, Norton managed to rejoin the Army and ended up leading the detail that escorted Tom to a public execution. For me, this is coincidence of the cheap kind. But as I had stated earlier, my complaints are few.

Overall, "TOM JONES" strikes me as a beautiful and lively film to watch. I have the feeling that it ushered in a new style for period movies on both sides of the Atlantic. One, the movie lacked the gloss that marred the realism of most costume dramas before 1963. Richardson approached the story's earthiness, sexuality and violence with a great deal of realism without any overindulgence. Prime examples of the director's approach could be found in famous scenes like Tom and Mrs. Waters' lusty supper at the Upton Inn, Tom and Mr. Partridge's colorful entry into mid-18th century London, and the fox hunt sequence that still delivers quite a cinematic punch after fifty years. Richardson also utilized a filming style used in comedies from the silent era with great effect in scenes that included Squire Allworthy's discovery of the infant Tom and the romantic chaos that ensued following Mr. Fitzgerald's erroneous interruption of Tom and Mrs. Waters' nocturnal activities at Upton.

I have to express my admiration for John McCorry's costumes. I believe they perfectly reflected the fashions for all classes in Britain of the 1740s, without any pesky 20th century influences. Both Ralph W. Brinton's production designs and Josie MacAvin's set decorations conveyed Richardson's earthy and realistic view of mid-18th century Britain. Brinton and MacAvin earned Oscar nominations, along with Ted Marshall for his art direction. "TOM JONES" was filmed mainly in the rural areas of Somerset and Dorset. And Walter Lassally's photography captured the beauty of the English countryside with a natural elegance and zest that I found very appealing. It seemed a pity that he was not recognized with an Oscar nomination. I feel he deserved it . . . especially for his work on the fox hunt and London arrival sequences. On the other hand, John Addison won the Best Score Oscar for his work on the film. I cannot deny that I found his music for the film truly outstanding. It beautifully captured the spirit and atmosphere of the movie's setting. Despite my pure satisfaction of Addison's score, a part of me still wishes that Elmer Bernstein had won that Oscar for the "HOW THE WEST WAS WON" score.

I read somewhere that Albert Finney found the character of Tom Jones something of a bore. If he did find the character boring, it is a credit to his acting skills and perseverance that his boredom never appeared in his performance. In fact, I believe he gave a sparkling, charismatic and star-making portrayal of one of the most charming and roguish characters in English literature . . . and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination for his work. I have no idea how Susannah York felt about the character of Sophie Western. For me, it does not matter. She was a delight, as far as I am concerned. More importantly, she infused a great deal of fire into her performance, reminding viewers that despite the well-mannered and elegant appearance, she is her father's daughter. Speaking of Squire Western, Hugh Griffith seemed to be having a ball, portraying the lively and somewhat coarse landowner, Squire Western. It was not surprising to learn that he had earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance. Three other cast members earned Oscar nominations - Edith Evans, who gave an energetic performance as Squire Western's caustic and snobbish sister; Diane Cilento, whose portrayal of Molly Seagrim seemed to be an interesting mixture of sexiness and desperation; and Joyce Readman, who radiated a more mature sexiness in her portrayal of Mrs. Waters, Tom's famous companion at the Upton Inn. 

I do wish the Academy had considered Joan Greenwood for a nomination. I was very impressed by her subtle, yet malevolent portrayal of the lustful, yet insidious Lady Bellaston. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of George Devine, who gave a solid and heart-warming performance as Squire Allworthy; David Tomlinson as the sexually aggresive Lord Fellamar; Jack MacGowran as Tom's faithful companion, Partridge; and George A. Cooper as Sophie's hot-headed cousin-in-law, Mr. Fitzpatrick. Four other performances struck me as noteworthy. One came from Rachel Kempson, who not only gave a brief, yet solid performance as Bridget Allworthy Blifil, but also happened to be Richardson's mother-in-law. The second one belonged to well-known character actor David Warner. "TOM JONES" not only featured his film debut, but also featured the first of many villainous roles he would portray over the years. Also in the movie was Julian Glover, who also made an impressive film debut in "TOM JONES" as a villain, namely Lieutenant Northerton. And Richardson's sister-in-law, Lynn Redgrave, made her film debut in a brief scene as a maid at Upton Inn.

I read somewhere that Tony Richardson was never satisfied with his work on "TOM JONES". According to cinematographer Walter Lassally, an unsatisfied Richardson tinkered a bit too much with the movie's editing during the post-production period. Perhaps that is why the movie is not particularly perfect. But neither Richardson's unsatisfied tinkering or Albert Finney's boredom with the main character could mar what became one of my favorite Oscar winning movies of all time . . . or cause Richardson to lose his Best Director Oscar. After half a century, "TOM JONES" has lost none of its magic.

Monday, December 12, 2016