Sunday, December 4, 2016

"LAWLESS" (2012) Review

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"LAWLESS" (2012) Review

A Virginia-born writer named Matt Bondurant wrote a historical novel called "The Wettest County in the World" back in 2008. He based the novel on the exploits of his grandfather and two granduncles, who ran a massive moonshine operation during the later years of the Prohibition era, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Four years later, a movie version of Bondurant's novel finally hit the movie screens at the end of the summer. 

Renamed "LAWLESS", the movie began in 1931 in Franklin County, Virgina; where three brothers - Forest, Howard and Jack Bondurant - run a successful moonshine business with the help of their friend, Cricket Pate. The brothers use a bar as a front for their illegal activities. And not only do they provide well-made moonshine to the Franklin County locals, but also to gangsters like Floyd Banner of Chicago. Two people arrive in Franklin County that prove to have a major impact upon the lives the Bondurant brothers. The first to arrive is a Chicago dancer named Maggie Beauford, who is hired as a waitress for their bar and slowly becomes romantically involved with the oldest brother, Forest. Not long after Maggie's arrival, a Federal Special Deputy Charly Rakes arrives in Franklin County and demands that all county bootleggers - including the Bondurants - give him a cut of their profits. Although the other bootleggers surrender to Rakes' intimidation tactics and decide to give him a cut, Forest Bondurant refuses to do the same. Rakes and his men set out to intimidate and terrorize the Bondurants into giving him a cut of their profits. And when that fails, he decides to go after their distillery and destroy it.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the youngest Bondurant - Jack. At the beginning of the story, Jack is an inexperienced and sometimes introverted young man, who is kept out of the family's shine business, aside from acting as a driver for their deliveries. When Rakes gives him a severe beating as a warning to the family, Forest chides Jack for being unable to defend himself. But after Forest is nearly killed by two of Rakes' men, Jack takes matters into his hands and sets with his friend Cricket to deliver a shipment of booze to Floyd Banner in Chicago. Jack returns with profit for the family and himself. But his newly discovered self confidence leads him to make mistakes that not only endanger his family's moonshine operation, but also the lives of Cricket and the girl he loves, a German-American Baptist named Bertha Mannix.

"LAWLESS" turned out to be a very entertaining movie for me. But before I discuss how much I enjoyed the movie, I have to talk about its flaws. I believe that "LAWLESS" had two major flaws. One, director John Hillcoat delivered an unevenly paced movie. The first third of the movie took its time in setting up both the characters and the story. In fact, the pacing was so slow that I was in danger of either falling asleep or losing interest in the movie. I have one last complaint and it deals with the movie's introduction of the Floyd Banner character. I found the introduction of the Banner character rather irrelevant and unnecessary. In the movie, Banner arrived in Franklin County to shoot a competitor, exchange a glance with Jack Bondurant and return to Chicago. I found the entire scene irrelevant and a skimpy excuse to introduce Gary Oldman into the film. Especially since the Floyd Banner role proved to be rather small and serve as nothing more than a plot device to increase Jack's role as a moonshiner.

But once the movie was set up, "LAWLESS" proved to be very satisfying and entertaining. One aspect of the film that I truly enjoyed was the manner in which it recaptured so many details of early Depression-era Appalachian South. Hillcoat did a marvelous job in allowing the movie to permeate with atmosphere. However, Hilcoat did not achieve this superb re-creation on his own. He received help from the likes of cinematogrpher Benoît Delhomme, whose photography of the western Georgia locations struck me as breathtaking; Gershon Ginsburg's beautiful art direction and Chris Kennedy's production designs. I was especially impressed by Margot Wilson's costume designs. For years, Hollywood seemed to have difficulty in re-creating accurate costumes for the early 1930. The movie industry has improved a great deal over the past decade or so. And this was especially apparent in how Wilson's costumes not only accurately reflect the movie's period setting, but also the character and social positions of the characters. An excellent example of this proved to be the costumes worn by Shia Labeouf. He began the movie wearing clean, yet tight fitting clothes - including pants that were obviously too short. During the movie's second half, his wardrobe not only improved, but also became decidedly more flashy, reflecting his personal success in the moonshine business.

Although I found screenwriter Nick Cave's introduction of the movie's character, setting and plot rather slow; I must admit that the movie's overall story proved to be well written. I wonder if many critics and moviegoers had suspected "LAWLESS" would end up as some dramatic version of "THE DUKES OF HAZZARD" with plenty of high-octane action and cliched Southern stock characters. Or that it would turned out to be some take on the founding of NASCAR. Thankfully, none of those scenarios came to fruition. "LAWLESS"proved to be an intelligent mixture of a well done family drama and crime saga. First of all, Cave's script not only explored the Bondurants' illegal activities and how it attracted the attention of the law, symbolized in the form of the corrupted Federal officer Charly Rakes. But it also explored the Bondurants themselves - the intimidating Forest, who had developed a reputation for evading death; the easy-going and hard-drinking Howard, who also possessed a hair triggered temper; and youngest brother Jack, whose inexperience, introverted nature and distaste for violence led him to be disregarded by his older brothers as a dependable participant in their moonshine business.

The producers and Hilcoat certainly picked the right actors to portray the Bondurant brothers. I hope that Shia Labeouf will finally shake off his reputation as a mere tool dominated by special effects in over-the-top action films. He did a superb job in slowly developing Jack Bondurant's character from the insecure and immature boy to someone with a lot more confidence. I believe that Forest Bondurant might prove to be one of my favorite roles that Tom Hardy has ever portrayed. He did a marvelous job projecting an intimidating and commanding aura in his character. The character attracted a bit of a in-joke that originated with a local myth that nothing or no one call kill him. It was good to see Jason Clarke again, whom I have not seen in a movie since 2009's "PUBLIC ENEMIES". He was great as the easy going, yet hard drinking middle brother Howard.

I noticed that Australian actress Mia Wasikowska received a higher billing in the movie's credits than Jessica Chastain. I am a bit surprised, considering that her role proved to be smaller. Mind you, I had no problems with her solid portrayal of Jack Bondurant's love, Bertha Minnix. But her performance and role seemed minor in compare to Chastain, who had the juicier role as Chicago showgirl-turned-waitress, Maggie Beauford. Chastain was superb as world weary dancer who left Chicago to escape its chaos and mindless violence, only to find herself in the middle of more chaos in the form of the Bondurants' feud with Charly Rakes. And I was especially impressed with one scene between her and Hardy, as she struggled to suppress news of the rape she had endured at the hands of Forest's attackers. Many critics claimed that Gary Oldman had chewed the scenery in his brief appearance as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner. Aside from one moment when he lost his temper with a subordinate, I found Oldman's performance rather subdued. And he did a pretty good job in his one major scene. I believe that many critics had managed to overlook Guy Pearce's over-the-top performance as Federal deputy, Charly Rakes. With his slicked back hair, shaved eyebrows, exaggerated body language and effiminate manner, Pearce radiated urban eccentricity at its extreme. Yet, for some reason, the performance worked, due to Pearce's ability to infuse a great deal of subtle menace within the exaggerated persona. The movie also benefited from some solid performances from the likes of Dane DeHaan, who portrayed Jack's best friend Cricket Pate; Bill Camp, who portrayed Franklin County's backbone, Sheriff Hodges; and Lew Temple as the morally questionable Deputy Henry Abshire.

I realize that "LAWLESS" is not perfect. I feel that the slow pace in the first third of the film and the unnecessary manner of the Floyd Banner character's introduction prevented it from being a truly first-rate movie. But thanks to Nick Cave's adaptation of Matt Bondurant's tale, solid direction from John Hillcoat and a superb cast led by Shia Labeouf and Tom Hardy, "LAWLESS" still managed to become a fascinating tale of family bonds during the last years of Prohibition . . . and one of my favorite movies of the 2012 summer season.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"ALICE IN WONDERLAND" (2010) Photo Gallery




Below is a photo gallery featuring images of Tim Burton's 2010 movie for Disney, "ALICE IN WONDERLAND".  Based upon Lewis Carroll's 1861 novel, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and 1871 novel, "Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There", the movie starred Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway: 


"ALICE IN WONDERLAND" (2010) Photo Gallery

















































Friday, November 25, 2016

"Crossroads of the Force" [PG-13] - Prologue



The following story is the third in the "Altered Lives" Series (following "Altered Lives" and "The Corellian Connection") about the lives of Anakin, Padme and other SW characters during the period between ROTS and ANH. This third story is called "Crossroads of the Force":



"CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE"

RATING: PG-13 - Violence
SUMMARY: Romance, betrayal and danger surrounds a conference being held on Ord Mantell for the newly formed Rebel Alliance.
FEEDBACK: - Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: All characters and things STAR WARS belong to Lucasfilm. The characters, Romulus Wort aka Darth Rasche, Voranda Sen, Zoebeida Dahl and Igraine Colbert are my creations.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is the third Alternate Universe story in a series of five set between ROTS and ANH. It is set ten years after "The Corellian Connection".


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PROLOGUE

17BBY - MOS EISLEY, TATOOINE

Two men slowly descended the ramp of a small star cruiser. The younger man regarded Obi-Wan Kenobi with deep brown yes that radiated hope. "Have you changed your mind, Obi-Wan? About Coruscant?"

The former Jedi Master heaved a regretful sigh. "I'm afraid not, Ferus. I have already taken a great chance by searching for you and helping you search for your friends, Roan Lands and that Garen fellow."

"But the more Jedi we find, the better chance we will have in creating a strong resistance against the Empire," Ferus protested. Several weeks ago, Obi-Wan had learned that Jedi Knight Siri Tachi's former padawan had survived the Jedi Purge. Obi-Wan decided to chance leaving Tatooine for the planet of Bellasa. There, he found both Ferus Olin and a young boy named Trevor Flume hiding from Imperial authorities. From then on, the trio set upon a series of adventures that included the rescue of Ferus' friend and business partner, Roan Lands; encounters with Boba Fett, a young bounty hunter whose father Obi-Wan had first fought on Kamino so many years ago; participation in a resistance movement against the Empire on Acherin; and the rescue of former Jedi Knight Garen Muln on Ilum. Following Garen's rescue, the trio and the Acherin resistance group set up a clinic at the Nixor Spaceport for the malnutrition Garen.

Obi-Wan gave the younger man a shrewd look. "Surely our experiences on Bellasa and Acherin have convinced you of the futility of such a movement? Now is not the time to confront the Empire, Ferus. We lack the manpower and the arms."

"And you believe that hiding out on Tatooine will help matters?" Ferus retorted.

A deep silence filled the small hangar occupied by the two men. A shaft of sunlight filtered through one of the hangar's windows, illuminating the gold highlights in Ferus' brown hair. For a brief moment, Obi-Wan had to restrain himself from reacting to the young man's impudence. Until he realized that Ferus would understand better if he revealed the truth. Well . . . most of the truth. Obi-Wan took a deep breath. "Ever since the beginning of the Jedi Purge, Master Yoda and I have been in contact with my old master . . . Qui-Gon Jinn." He paused. "At least, Qui-Gon's ghost."

Ferus frowned. "How is that possible? Once a Jedi dies, he or she becomes one with the Force and loses the individual identity. Are you saying that it's possible to retain one's identity following death?"

"Qui-Gon has done it," Obi-Wan stated simply. "And he is now teaching both Master Yoda and myself." He gave Ferus an intense stare. "I could teach you how to contact Qui-Gon's ghost. And he can help you learn to retain your identity in the afterlife."

After a long pause, Ferus replied, "I'm sorry, Obi-Wan. Perhaps another time." The former glanced away in disappointment, as the other man continued, "I believe it is more important to find any surviving Jedi Knights."

"And confront the Emperor?" Obi-Wan sadly added. He sighed. "I see."

Ferus stiffened slightly. "Do you? I cannot help but wonder how your former padawan would have reacted to your suggestion. I cannot see him living in some remote corner of the galaxy, learning how to become a ghost."

Annoyed by the younger man's righteous tone, Obi-Wan replied sharply, "I assure you that searching for missing Jedi Knights is the last thing on Anakin's mind."

"Anakin is alive?" Ferus' deep brown eyes bored sharply into Obi-Wan's.

Obi-Wan cursed himself inwardly for his slip of the tongue. He, Master Yoda and Bail Organa had promised each other to maintain silence on the Skywalker family's situation. More importantly, Obi-Wan had not been able to reveal Anakin's brief stint as a Sith apprentice. Especially since Ferus already knew about the identity of Sidious' present 'emissary' - Darth Rasche.

"To be honest, I'm not quite certain anymore," Obi-Wan finally answered. "He was last seen by Solipo Yeb, the former senator of Andalia. According to an acquaintance of mine, Anakin had given Senator Yeb passage from Corellia to Avaram about a year ago. It seems he has become a freight pilot . . . and an occasional smuggler." He spoke the last words with slight distaste.

"I see." Ferus' face became expressionless. "In other words, seeking Anakin's help would be a complete waste of time."

Obi-Wan heaved another sigh. "Perhaps not. I am certain that Anakin might consider helping . . ."

"No, I'm afraid that you may have been right the first time, Obi-Wan," the younger man insisted. "That searching for missing Jedi would be the last thing on Anakin's mind. Obviously, being a freight captain and smuggler is a more profitable endeavor."

A retort hovered on the tip of Obi-Wan's tongue. He considered reminding Ferus that the latter had left the Jedi Order, while still a padawan . . . in order to form a business partnership with Roan Lands. But the former Jedi Master also recalled that an incident between Anakin and Ferus had precipitated the latter's departure from the Order. And he remembered that Ferus' business with Lands involved finding new identities for those who had exposed corporate wrongdoings. Since the creation of the Empire, the two partners seemed determined to create a Jedi sanctuary on an asteroid near Ilam. It would seem pointless to remind Ferus of his defection from the Jedi Order. Especially since it would pale in comparison with Anakin's defection. And if Ferus knew the truth about his former apprentice, his low opinion of Anakin would only strengthen. 

Obi-Wan took a deep breath. "Well, it seems that the matter is closed." He started toward the hangar's exit. Then he paused, as whirled around to face the younger man. "But what if you do happen to encounter Anakin? What then?"

After a brief hesitation, Ferus shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, Obi-Wan. Perhaps I might suggest that he join Roan and me in our endeavor. I simply don't know."

The younger man's voice hinted reluctance. Which did not surprise Obi-Wan. Both Anakin and Ferus had never respond well to one another. Come to think of it, Anakin's relationship with Romulus Wort - now Darth Rasche - had been equally strained. "I am sure that the both of you will decide upon the right course," Obi-Wan added. "As for this decision to go to Coruscant . . ."

"According to Galen, Fay-Tor might be there," Ferus said, interrupting the older man. "I must find out for myself."

"But to take the boy into danger with you," Obi-Wan argued. "Are you sure that is wise?" He referred to Ferus' young companion, a young orphan named Trevor Flame, who had remained aboard the starship.

Ferus quickly dismissed Obi-Wan's fears. "Do not worry about Trevor. As you have seen, he is quite capable of handling himself. Besides, I cannot think of no finer companion."

Nodding, Obi-Wan replied, "If you believe so." Then he fell silent. The two men reached the hangar's entrance. Beyond the opened doors, pedestrians rushed along one of Mos Eisley's narrow streets. "Well . . . this is where we part." Obi-Wan held out his hand to the other man. "Take care, Ferus. And be careful."

A smile touched Fergus' lips, as he shook Obi-Wan's hand. "I will. And I suggest that you do the same."

"Oh, and please do keep in touch." Obi-Wan sighed. "May the Force be with you."

Ferus gravely replied, "May the Force be with you, Obi-Wan. Good-bye." He turned away and strode back to the starship, inside the hangar.

Obi-Wan covered his head with his cloak's hood and slipped into the crowd that thronged the narrow street. Several minutes later, he glanced up in the sky and saw Ferus' starship zoom into the stratosphere. He wondered if he would ever see the younger man, again.


END OF PROLOGUE

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"LOST" RETROSPECT: (5.02) "The Lie"

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"LOST" RETROSPECT: (5.02) "The Lie"

Season Five of ABC's "LOST" has always struck me as the series' Odd Man Out. It is not the first season to break the rules of the series' format. Season Four not only featured flashbacks, but also flash forwards. But Season Five seemed to be all over the place. And I believe this was due to the cast being split up for the first half of its season. 

Before I talk about the season's second episode, (5.02) "The Lie", I feel I should do a recap of what led to its events. As many of the show's fans know, at least five of the original Oceanic Flight 815 survivors made it off the island. They were Dr. Jack Shephard, Kate Austen, Sayid Jarrah, Sun-Hwa Kwon, and Hugo "Hurley" Reyes. Five others inhabitants also managed to leave - including Claire Littleton's son Aaron, who was born on the island; Desmond Hume, who had been stranded on the island for three years; former Others leader Benjamin Linus, who left around the same time as the Oceanic survivors; Frank Lapidus, an airline pilot who had been hired to join an expedition traveling to the island aboard a freighter called the Kahana; and John Locke, whose later departure would be revealed in details in a future episode. The Season Four finale, (4.12 - 4.14) "There's No Place Like Home", viewers discovered that the original five survivors, Desmond and young Aaron were floating in a Zodiac raft, when they were picked up by a yacht owned by Desmond's love, Penny Widmore. While Desmond and Frank remained aboard Penny's yacht; Jack, Kate, Sayid, Sun, Hurley and young Aaron arrived on Fiji with a cover story about Oceanic 815's crash and how they ended there. They became known as "the Oceanic Six". 

The first half of Season Five seemed to be divided into two major time period. The episodes and scenes featuring the survivors back on the island are set during the time following the Oceanic Six's departure from the island and how they dealt with the various inhabitants they encountered, while flashing back and forth through time. Rather confusing . . . eh? The episodes and scenes featuring the Oceanic Six focused on their lives nearly three years after being off the island and Benjamin Linus' efforts to get them to return. "The Lie" continued the story of the Oceanic Six during the latter period of those three years and the efforts of the island castaways to survive the constant shifts in time, which seemed to have caused a good deal of upheaval for them. 

In this particular episode, Hurley finds himself labeled as a fugitive, when the police blames him for the deaths of two men whom Sayid had killed in the previous episode, (5.01) "Because You Left". With a barely conscious Sayid as his companion, Hurley appears at the Reyes family home and seeks refuge from the police with his parents. During his stay, he reveals to the latter the truth behind the lies concocted by Jack Shephard for the media and Oceanic Airlines. Meanwhile, Jack, who is forced to deal with withdrawal symptoms, and Ben try to round up the other Oceanic Six members and John Locke for their return to the island. According to former Other and island inhabitant, Eloise Hawking, Ben has seventy (70) hours to get them on a plane for the South Pacific. In the previous episode, two men had approached Kate for a blood sample to determine Aaron Littleton's bloodline. Fearful that Aaron might be taken away from her, Kate decides to go on the run with the toddler. However, a visit from Sun-Hwa Kwon prevents her from doing so. And when Kate tells her about the two men, Sun suggests that she takes excessive steps to prevent them from taking Aaron.

"The Lie" also featured the further adventures of those castaways left behind. Unlike those who had managed to leave the island, their story is set two to three years earlier - following Ben Linus and the Oceanic Six's departure. "Because You Left" revealed that when Ben left by turning that Frozen Donkey Wheel inside the DHARMA Orchid Station, those left behind found themselves flashing back and forth through time. In "The Lie", the remaining castaways attempt to start a fire at the old beach camp. Daniel, who had instructed a past Desmond Hume to find Eloise Hawking, join the others before they are attacked by the Others with a barrage of flaming arrows. Fortunately for James "Sawyer" Ford and Juliet Burke, John Locke comes to their rescue before they can be killed.

Wow! That seemed a lot for one particular episode. Was "The Lie" supposed to part of a two-part episode with "Because You Left"? If not, one could easily describe this episode as convoluted. There seemed to be at least three . . . perhaps four story arcs going on. At least a few of the episode's story arcs seemed to relate to its title. Hurley and Sayid's stay at the Reyes home and the former's confession to his mother about the lies Jack had concocted for the media and Oceanic Airlines seemed to be one. I could also say the same about the story arc featuring Kate's anxiety over losing Aaron. And Daniel did fail to tell Sawyer and Juliet that he had instruct the past Desmond to pay a visit to Eloise Hawking. The episode's title seemed to suggest there were consequences in the Oceanic Six's lies about their survival of the Flight 815 crash, their time on the island and return to civilization. But honestly, these consequences only seemed apparent in two story arcs - Hurley's survival guilt and Kate's anxiety over losing Aaron. 

The consequences of Oceanic Six's lies seemed to stem in the episode's flashback aboard Penny Widmore's yacht, where Jack presented the story he planned to tell Oceanic Airlines and the media. There were two very interesting reactions to his revelations. Hurley seemed very reluctant to accept Jack's lies, making it clear that he found them unnecessary. But . . . being Hurley, he caved in from Jack's pressure to accept the false story for them to tell Oceanic Airlines and spent the next three years being haunted by his decision and the lies, until he finally confessed them to his mother. Another interesting reaction to Jack's suggestion came from Kate, who seemed unusually quick to accept it. Did Kate believe that his suggestion enabled her to pretend to be Aaron's mother? This seemed rather surprising to me when"LOST" was still on the air, considering that between the time she helped Claire Littleton give birth to Aaron in (1.20) "Do No Harm" and Oceanic Six's flight from the island in (4.14) "There's No Place Like Home, Part III", Kate had expressed very little interest in Claire or Aaron. Yet, nearly three years later found Kate willing to flee from Los Angeles with Aaron, due to her fear that the courts would have a legal reason to take him away from her. These two story arcs seemed to have the strongest connections to the episode's title. 

However, I had trouble making any connections between the Oceanic Six's lies and the other story arcs. If there were any connections, they struck me as a bit weak - in the case of Ben's visit to Eloise Hawking and the butcher shop that was holding Locke's body, or barely non-existent - the remaining survivors' travails with time traveling. Mind you, I found both story arcs fascinating. Ben's visit with Ms. Hawkings eventually played out in a near future episode. And the story arc surrounding those left behind on the island proved to be action-filled and very exciting. But again, their story arcs seemed to have a stronger connection to the island incidents in "There's No Place Like Home" than the Oceanic Six's lies. Speaking of the latter, I do have to give Horowitz, Kitsis and director Jack Bender for injecting a good deal of mystery regarding the island inhabitants' time traveling experiences, along with both drama and action. I am sure that many viewers were on the edge of their seats over the identities of the castaways' attackers - especially the two uniformed men who tried to kill Sawyer and Juliet.

But the crux of the episode seemed to be all about the climax over Hurley's emotional dilemma over his return to Los Angeles, along with his guilt over leaving behind many of his fellow castaways. I have rather mixed feelings about this particular story arc. On one hand, I thought Hurley's confession to Mrs. Reyes about the island seemed like an emotional payoff of his survivor guilt that first manifested in the flash forward scenes from the Season Four episode, (4.01) "The Beginning of the End". But Horowitz and Kitsis undermined this emotional payoff by having Hurley turning himself in to the authorities, after Ben Linus confronted him about returning to the island. What was the point of that? Ben gave him the opportunity to finally return to the island and put his mind at ease over leaving some of his fellow castaways behind . . . and "poof" . . . he decides to ignore Ben's offer? Even after Ana-Lucia Cortez's ghost had warned him to avoid the police?

There are some who believe that "The Lie" is an unevenly paced episode. Perhaps. I thought the episode featured too many story arcs. And if it was supposed to be the second half of a two-part episode, I wish that show runners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindehof had not given the two episodes different titles . . . with different themes. Their actions only left me in a conundrum over whether "The Lie" is a two-part episode or not. Regardless, the opening episodes of Season Five struck me as unevenly handled, despite some very memorable scenes and performances, especially from Jorge Garcia.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY" (2006) Review

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"THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY" (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie's 1931 novel, "The Sittaford Mystery". And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read "The Sittaford Mystery"

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. "THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY" revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain's new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter's elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest. 

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby's surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan's death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan's wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple's help.

"THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY" strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie's original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie's denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide. 

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings - unnecessary, as far as I am concerned - that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer's identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer's identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock's last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, "PYSCHO". I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie's production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie's setting - a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan's home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland's cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform "THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY" into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in "THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY" proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan's portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole "verbose elderly lady" act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie's last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan's performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan's right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan's past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film's production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town's local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story's main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety. 

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like "THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY". I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie's novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast's acting - including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan's.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

"LIFE WITH FATHER" (1947) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "LIFE WITH FATHER", the 1947 adaptation of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crose's 1939 play, which is an adaptation of Clarence Day's 1935 novel. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie starred William Powell and Irene Dunne: 


"LIFE WITH FATHER" (1947) Photo Gallery

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

"The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS"

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"THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS"

Look … I liked the latest “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. I honestly do. Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films. But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim. It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture. It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture. 

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”??? Really? It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise. Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media. In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s 2015 adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series. I will not deny that the movie had some flaws. Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws. But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie. And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed. And entertained. It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie. But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source. Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves. Warner Brothers barely publicized the film. Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard. And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show. Ritchie had made changes for his film. In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

I find this incredibly pathetic. One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation. Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism. This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen. We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise. We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated. We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH” can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity. God help us.