Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Below is a gallery of images from "ROYAL FLASH", the 1975 adaptation of George MacDonald Fraser's 1970 novel. Directed by Richard Lester, the movie starred Malcolm McDowell, Oliver Reed, Alan Bates, and Britt Ekland:
"ROYAL FLASH" (1975) Photo Gallery
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
"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.
Monday, March 5, 2018
CONFLICTING VIEWS ON THE "NORTH AND SOUTH" TRILOGY
I have been a fan of John Jakes’ "NORTH AND SOUTH" trilogy, ever since I read the first novel - "North and South" when I was in my twenties. After reading all three novels, "North and South" (1982), "Love and War"(1984) and "Heaven and Hell" (1987); I became a fan of the saga, upon which the miniseries are based. Because of my love of Jakes’ saga, I began perusing many websites created by fans of the saga and joined a few Yahoo discussion groups. And what I had discovered about the saga’s fandom has left me feeling not only shocked, but wondering if these fans had any idea what Jakes was trying to convey in his story.
Reading some of the "NORTH AND SOUTH" websites and the Yahoo groups has led me to wonder if the majority of this particular fandom tend to place the saga into the same category as "THE BIRTH OF A NATION" or "GONE WITH THE WIND". In other words, many of these fans tend to view Jakes’ saga with a conservative eye. Either they seemed mistaken by Jakes’ (and producer David Wolper’s) theme behind the saga . . . or they may have decided to ignore it. I suspect the latter.
Now, some might be wondering why I had even bothered to write this article. Frankly, so am I. I doubt that this article will ever change these fans’ perspective on the "NORTH AND SOUTH" trilogy. So why do I bother? To be honest, this article is not about changing their perspective. It is about me expressing my frustration over the fact that I cannot find one fan of the saga who does NOT view it along the same lines as Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel (and David Selznick’s famous screen adaptation). In fact, have yet to encounter a "NORTH AND SOUTH" fan who does not view the saga as some kind of ode to the Old South. Judging from Jakes’ three novels and Wolper’s miniseries adaptations, I certainly do not view it as such.
This conservative attitude has never been more apparent than in my clash with other fans over the role of the slaves owned by the family of one of the saga’s main characters – Orry Main. Aside from the character of Cuffey (portrayed by Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker), these fans try to view the slaves in a sympathetic light by labeling them as "loyal" to the Main family. This is especially true of the two characters – Semiramis (Erica Gimpel) and Ezra (Beau Billingslea). While perusing a "NORTH AND SOUTH" website created by a European-born fan (the site has since disappeared ), I noticed that he had described both characters as "loyal", due to their decision to remain at Mont Royal (the Mains’ South Carolina plantation) after the other slaves had left in the second miniseries, set during the Civil War. What many fans failed to realize was that Semiramis or Ezra had not remained at Mont Royal due to any loyalty to the Main family.
"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" had started with a recently married Brett Main Hazard (Genie Francis) in Washington D.C. at the beginning of the war, and Semiramis acting as her personal servant. Hours before the Battle of Bull Run commenced, Brett received a message from South Carolina that her mother, Clarissa Main (Jean Simmons) had been injured in a barn fire. Brett made the sudden decision to make her way through battle lines in order to return back into Confederate territory and South Carolina. Semiramis accompanied her. The pair eventually reached Mont Royal in the middle of Episode 2. In the following episode, both Cuffey and Ezra separately questioned Semiramis’ decision to remain with Brett. Although the maid refused to acknowledge Cuffey’s question, she gave Ezra a vague answer about wanting to stick by Brett’s side. However, both men seemed to know the true answer. Charles Main. Semiramis had fallen in love with Orry Main’s younger cousin in the previous miniseries, "BOOK I". And both men seemed appalled that she would harbor such feelings for a man who was related to their owner. But whereas Cuffey left Mont Royal (stealing Clarissa Main’s jewels along the way), Ezra remained behind, considering her treatment at the hands of the Mains’ former overseer, Salem Jones (Tony Frank). Even when the Main women – Clarissa, Madeline (Lesley Ann Down) and Brett – had permitted the other slaves to leave. And what was Ezra’s reason for remaining at Mont Royal? He wanted a chance to woo and win Semiramis’ heart. And Semiramis’ reason for remaining behind? She wanted a chance to see Charles Main again . . . on the chance he might return to the family’s plantation. Any loyalty toward the Main family had nothing to do with either slave’s decision to remain. However, many "NORTH AND SOUTH" fans refused to acknowledge this. They simply wanted to believe that the two slaves had remained at Mont Royal, due to some kind of loyalty to the Main family. They especially seemed enamored of the idea of Semiramis remaining loyal to Brett. Judging from their remarks, the idea of a loyal servant . . . especially a black slave . . . seemed very appealing to them.
Another aspect about many of these fans of the trilogy seemed to be their belief that the Mains’ slaves should have been satisfied with their lot as the family’s servants and property . . . as long as they were well treated. In one of the Yahoo groups, one particular fan questioned this belief, expressing doubt that a slave would automatically love his or her master because of well treatment, pointing out that the master (or even mistress) was still robbing that slave of any kind of freedom. And another member responded in the following fashion:
"JESUS! BECAUSE THE SLAVE KNEW NO OTHER REALITY! THEY WERE SLAVES!
HOW WERE THEY SUPPOSED TO KNOW ANOTHER LIFE! AFTER A WHILE, IT HAS
TO AFFECT ONE'S SELF-BELIEF!"
Whoever had posted this response was obviously ignorant of his or her American history. If Southern slaves were unaware of the idea of freedom, why did so many of them escaped or attempted to escape from bondage? And that included famous fugitives such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William and Ellen Craft, Henry Box Brown, Robert Smalls, Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns. Even the "NORTH AND SOUTH" trilogy featured two fugitive slaves – Semiramis’ older brother Priam (David Harris), and Grady (Georg Stanford Brown) – James Huntoon’s slave and Virgilia Hazard’s husband. Although both former slaves had encountered a great deal of bigotry and hardship in the North, neither of them had any inclination to return to their masters and slavery. Instead, both participated in John Brown’s failed raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Another one of the Mains’ slave – an elderly gentleman named Joseph (Harry Caesar) – seemed to be on friendly terms with Clarissa Main. He even seemed concerned for her well-being. Despite the lack of hostility between slave and mistress, Joseph did not hesitate to leave Mont Royal during the summer of 1863, when given the opportunity. Despite the Mains’ decent treatment of their slaves, one of them – a man named Caleb – reminded Orry that Mont Royal had never been their home.
If there is one character in the "NORTH AND SOUTH" trilogy that personified some of these fans’ more conservative view of the saga, it is abolitionist Virgilia Hazard. Virgilia was not the only abolitionist in the story. Her older brother, George and his wife, Constance (James Read and Wendy Kilbourne) were also abolitionists. And Charles Main seemed to have a more liberal view of African-Americans than the others in his family. Judging from his comments to Semiramis, he never seemed to have a high or matter-of-fact opinion of slavery. But Virgilia, portrayed by the wonderful Kirstie Alley, managed to take her views against slavery to great heights. One might as well describe her as a fanatic. She had no tolerance toward all Southerners – especially slave owners. And she was very passionate in her views toward abolition and women’s rights. Many fans hate her . . . even to this day.
One can understand an initial dislike of Virgilia. She was bigoted toward all Southerners and harbored a fanatical view of her political and social beliefs. On the other hand, it is easy to admire her more liberal view toward African-Americans – especially in the mid 19th century – and abolition. This tolerance led her to fall in love and marry Grady. In "BOOK I", George had accused her of marrying the fugitive slave for political reasons. But Constance insisted that she had loved him. Virgilia’s reaction to his death seemed to support Constance’s views. And unlike other unpopular characters such as Ashton Main (Terri Garber), James Huntoon (Jim Metzler), Isabel Truscott Hazard (Wendy Fulton, Mary Crosby and Deborah Rush), Harry Venable (Keith Szarabajka) and Elkhanah Bent (Philip Casnoff); Virgilia was able to face and acknowledge her flaws before her death by a hangman’s noose in Episode 6 of "BOOK II". Not only did her opinions of Southerners ease – personified by her sympathy toward a wounded Confederate officer - she also managed to make her peace with both George (whom she had accused of being a sympathizer toward Southern slave owners) and more importantly, Orry. But many fans have refused to acknowledge this character development in Virgilia. And they continue to blind themselves from her virtues. Because of this, I cannot help but wonder if their dislike of Virgilia had more to do with her liberal views than her personal flaws.
I find it ironic that the only fans of the "NORTH AND SOUTH" trilogy I have come across, seemed to view the saga with a conservative bent. This is especially ironic, considering that John Jakes take on history in the antebellum United States seemed to be a lot more liberal – especially in his criticism of our country’s slave system. Even producer David Wolper managed to capture this view of Jakes’ saga in his three miniseries that aired between 1985 and 1994. Yet, I rarely come across any fan who seemed to view the trilogy in the same manner – especially in regard to their views on the Mains’ slaves and criticism of the Virgilia Hazard character. It almost seemed as if they would prefer to place Jakes’ trilogy in the same political category as Margaret Mitchell’s saga, "Gone With the Wind". And I do not know whether to find this sad . . . or ironic.
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Below are images from "GETTYSBURG", the 1993 adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel about the famous three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania called "The Killer Angels". Directed by Ronald Maxwell, the movie starred Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen:
"GETTYSBURG" (1993) Photo Gallery