Saturday, May 28, 2016
”THE MOVING FINGER” (1942) Book Review
Published in 1942, ”THE MOVING FINGER” is an Agatha Christie murder mystery about a small English town rocked by a series of poison pen letters that lead to suicide and murder. This particular novel featured the elderly Jane Marple as the story’s chief detective, despite the fact that the character only has a minor role.
Set during the early years of World War II, Jerry and Joanna Burton are disaffected siblings from London society who take a country house in idyllic town of Lymstock, so that Jerry can rest from injuries received in a wartime plane crash. They are just getting to know the town's strange cast of characters when an anonymous letter arrives, rudely accusing the two of not being brother and sister, but lovers. They quickly discover that these letters have been recently circulating around town, indiscriminate and completely inaccurate. One of the letters eventually hits its target, when a local woman commits suicide after receiving hers. The story’s narrator – Jerry Burton – becomes suspicious that the woman’s maid may have witnessed something. Before he can alert the local police, the maid becomes a murder victim.
Author Agatha Christie has been known to admit that ”THE MOVING FINGER” was one of her favorites:
”"I find that another one [book] I am really pleased with is ”The Moving Finger’. It is a great test to re-read what one has written some seventeen or eighteen years before. One's view changes. Some do not stand the test of time, others do."
I wish I could agree with the renowned mystery writer. I really do. However . . . I found ”THE MOVING FINGER” to be very unimpressive. It struck me as pedestrian and rather sloppily written. It seemed as if Mrs. Christie did not put much effort to create a well written story. Even worse, this is supposed to be a Jane Marple novel. Yet, the elderly amateur detective did not even appear in the story, until the sixth chapter and appeared in a few scenes. And the novel only possessed eight chapters. Apparently one of the characters, the vicar’s wife, had decided to summon the one person she felt could solve the case – namely Miss Marple. Unfortunately, Christie used the elderly visitor from St. Mary Mead as a minor,deus ex machine style character. Which I found very disappointing.
The only interest I found in ”THE MOVING FINGER” was the romance between Jerry Burton and Megan Hunter, the twenty year-old daughter of the woman who had committed suicide. I found it interesting, due to Burton being an interesting narrator. However, I also found his condescending attitude toward Megan and the ugly ducking/beautiful swan motif that surrounded her character and their romance barely palatable. All right, I found it damn annoying. But I must say that it was a hell of a lot more interesting that the main mystery. Speaking of which, it was not much of a mystery to me, considering that I was able to guess the identity of the murderer by the third or fourth chapter.
I am major fan of Agatha Christie. I have been one for years – ever since I was thirteen years old. But I must admit that”THE MOVING FINGER” proved to be quite a disappointment to me. It seemed like a hastily written murder mystery, in which the main detective has only a few brief appearance. It also possessed an annoying romance between the novel’s slightly condescending narrator and a gauche twenty year-old. Christie could have done better than this.
Monday, May 23, 2016
"THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" (1937) Review
I realize that many film critics and fans would agree with my suspicion that the 1930s saw a great deal of action films released to theaters. In fact, I believe there were as high number of actions films released back then as they are now. Among the type of action films that flourished during that era were swashbucklers.
One of the most famous Hollywood swashbucklers released during the 1930s was "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA", producer David O. Selznick's 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope's 1894 novel. This tale of middle European political intrigue and identity theft has been either remade or spoofed countless of times over the years. One of the most famous spoofs included George MacDonald Fraser's 1970 Flashman novel called "Royal Flash". But if one asked many moviegoers which adaptation comes to mind, I believe many would point out Selznick's 1937 movie.
Directed by John Cromwell, the movie began with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll's arrival in the kingdom of Ruritania in time for the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. The English visitor's looks attract a great deal of attention from some of the country's populace and eventually from the new king and the latter's two aides. The reason behind this attention is due to the fact that not only are the Briton and the Ruritanian monarch are distant cousins, they can also pass for identical twins. King Rudolf invites Rassendyll to the royal hunting lodge for dinner with him and his aides - Colonel Sapt and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. They celebrate their acquaintance by drinking late into the night. Rudolf is particularly delighted with the bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother, Duke Michael, and drinks it all himself. The next morning brings disastrous discoveries - the wine was drugged and King Rudolf cannot be awakened in time to attend his coronation. Fearing that Duke Michael will try to usurp the throne, Colonel Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the ceremony.
While watching "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA", it became easy for me to see why it has become regarded as one of the best swashbucklers of the 1930s. Selznick, its array of credited and uncredited screenwriters, and director John Cromwell did an excellent job of transferring Anthony Hope's tale to the screen. This certainly seemed to be the case from a technical point-of-view. Selznick managed to gather a talented cast that more than did justice to Hope's literary characters. The movie also benefited from Alfred Newman's stirring score, which received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. Lyle R. Wheeler received the first of his 24 Academy Award nominations for the movie's art designs, which exquisitely re-created Central Europe of the late 19th century. His works was enhanced by Jack Cosgrove's special effects and the photography of both James Wong Howe and an uncredited Bert Glennon. And I was very impressed by Ernest Dryden's re-creation of 1890s European fashion in his costume designs.
The performances featured in "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" struck me as outstanding. Not only was Mary Astor charming as Duke Michael's mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, she also did an excellent job in conveying Mademoiselle de Mauban's love for Michael and her desperation to do anything to keep him safe for herself. C. Aubrey Smith gave one of his better performances as the weary and level-headed royal aide, Colonel Sapt, whose love for his country and the throne outweighed his common sense and disappointment in his new king. David Niven gave the film its funniest performance as junior royal aide, Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. Not only did I find his comedy style memorable, but also subtle. Raymond Massey's performance as King Rudolf's illegitimate half-brother, Duke Michael, struck me as very interesting. On one hand, Massey smoldered with his usual air of menace. Yet, he also did an excellent job of conveying Michael's resentment of his illegitimate status and disgust over his half-brother's dissolute personality.
However, I feel that the best performances came from Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I read that the latter originally wanted the dual roles of Rassendyll and King Rudolf . . . and was disappointed when Colman won the roles. But he received advice from C. Aubrey Smith to accept the Rupert of Hentzau role, considered the best by many. Smith proved to be right. Fairbanks gave the best performance in the movie as the charming and witty villain, who served as Duke Michael's main henchman, while attempting to seduce the latter's mistress. Madeleine Carroll could have easily portrayed Princess Flavia as a dull, yet virtuous beauty. Instead, the actress superbly portrayed the princess as an emotionally starved woman, who harbored resentment toward her royal cousin Rudolf for years of his contemptuous treatment toward her; and who blossomed from Rassendyll's love. Although I believe that Fairbanks Jr. gave the movie's best performance, I cannot deny that Ronald Colman served as the movie's backbone in his excellent portrayals of both Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and Ruritania King Rudolf V. Without resorting to any theatrical tricks or makeup, Colman effortlessly portrayed two distant cousins with different personalities. "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" marked the third movie I have seen starring Colman. I believe I am finally beginning to realize what a superb actor he truly was.
Before my raptures over "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" get the best of me, I feel I have to point out a few aspects of the movie that I found troubling. Selznick International released three movies in 1937. Two of them had been filmed in Technicolor and one, in black-and-white. I do not understand why Selznick had decided that "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" would be the only one filmed in black-and-white. This movie practically begged for Technicolor. Surely he could have allowed either "A STAR IS BORN" or "NOTHING SACRED" in black-and-white. For a movie that is supposed to be a swashbuckler, it seemed to lack a balanced mixture of dramatic narrative and action. During my viewing of the movie, I noticed that aside from Colonel Sapt forcing the royal lodge's cook, Frau Holf, into drinking the rest of the drugged wine; there was no real action until past the movie's mid-point. And speaking of the action, I found it . . . somewhat tolerable. The minor sequence featuring Rupert's first attempt at killing Rassendyll, the latter's efforts to save King Rudolf from assassination at Duke Michael's castle near Zenda, and the charge led by Sapt at the castle struck me as solid. But I found the sword duel between Rassendyll and Rupert rather disappointing. Both Colman and Fairbanks spent more time talking than fighting. I found myself wondering if the constant conversation was a means used by Cromwell to hide the poor choreography featured in the sword fight.
I do not think I would ever view "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA" as one of my favorite swashbucklers of all time. But despite some of the disappointing action sequences, I still believe that its drama and suspense, along with a superb cast led by Ronald Colman, made it a first-rate movie and one of the best produced by David O. Selznick.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Below are images from "THE MONUMENTS MEN", George Clooney's World War II historical drama about the recovery of priceless art. Based on the book "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History" by Robert M. Edsel, the movie was directed and starred Clooney:
"THE MONUMENTS MEN" (2014) Photo Gallery
Friday, May 6, 2016
JANEWAY'S DECISION IN "STAR TREK VOYAGER" (3.04) "The Swarm"
Over an hour ago, I had just finished watching the early Season Three "STAR TREK: VOYAGER" episode, (3.04) "The Swarm". And after watching it, I was reminded on why I have disliked it so much for so many years.
Although most of the story focused around Kes' efforts to save the Doctor's degrading matrix, the B-plot focused around Voyager's efforts to cut short fifteen months of their journey by trespassing through the territory of a species named by Voyager's crew asthe Swarm. Now, Chief of Security, then Lieutenant Tuvok tried to remind Captain Kathryn Janeway that the territory belonged to these aliens and that they had every right not to allow other travelers through their space. After two seasons, Janeway decided to adopt the "Maquis way" and ignore Tuvok. Instead, she labeled the Swarm as "bullies" - as if that was a sufficient reason for Voyager to commit trespassing - and led the ship into "the Swarm's" space.
I am quite certain that most Trek fans would disagree with me, but I found Janeway's actions to be more of a "bully" than the Swarm. If some aliens had decided to trespass into Federation space, despite Starfleet's decision to ban them, I bet that both Janeway and Chakotay would be among the first to defend Starfleet's decision. But being the arrogant Starfleet officers they were, I guess they decided that they simply lacked the patience to add fifteen months to a journey that already left Voyager with 68 or 69 years left to reach Earth. Fifteen months against 68 or 69 years. Hmmmm. Was Janeway's effort to ignore "the Swarm's" wishes really worth it? Personally . . . I do not think so.
During the series' the first two seasons, Janeway struggled to rigidly stick to Starfleet protocols. In "The Swarm", she decided to drop this command style and adopt Chakotay's method of utilizing "the Maquis way". This decision eventually led to Janeway's disastrous alliance with the Borg during their war against Species 8472.
I have read both Jim Wright and Julia Houston's reviews of this particular episode. Wright practically celebrated Janeway's decision to ignore Tuvok's advise and trespass into the Swarm's territory. Frankly, I was not surprised. During the show's first three seasons, Wright had made it clear that he disliked Tuvok. In fact, I can only wonder if his dislike of Tuvok had blinded him to Chakotay's constant taunting of the Vulcan during the show's first season. Apparently, anything that would cut the Vulcan down to size seemed to satisfy him. And I also noticed that he also seemed to enjoy a vicarious thrill in Janeway telling the Swarm to go fuck themselves. Perhaps her aggressive move brought back memories of the "good old days" of Captain James T. Kirk's arrogant"gunboat diplomacy" attitude toward various species hostile toward the Federation.
Then I read Julia Houston's review. Although she seemed to believe that Tuvok was right in advising Janeway not to invade the Swarm's territory, a small part of her felt a "twinge of imperialistic satisfaction" that Voyager did it anyway. Apparently, the Swarm's attitude to keeping invaders at bay irked her. What can I say? I get the feeling that deep down, she was just as thrilled as Wright.
Frankly, I found Janeway's decision a little repellent. Then again, I have never cared for any of the other Starfleet captains' arrogant attitude toward other aliens. It was this same attitude that led Starfleet to ignore the Dominion's wishes and invade their space in the Gamma Quadrant in "STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE". A decision that led to a brutal two-year war against the Dominion. I also recalled an "STAR TREK: ORIGINAL SERIES" episode called (1.23) "A Taste of Armageddon" in which Jim Kirk forced two societies to end their war by destroying the computers that had conducted the war, and insisted that Federation society was better than theirs. This act forced the two warring aliens to turn to the Federation in the end. That episode had repelled me just as much as Janeway's decision in "The Swarm". Kirk's intent may have been noble, but the manner in which he stopped a war that had no impact upon the Federation struck me as the arrogant moves of a bully.
Do not get me wrong. I am a big fan of the STAR TREK franchise. I always have been a fan and I always will be one. But there are some aspects of the STAR TREK franchise (both movies and television) that has turned me off. One of those aspects was the habit of Starfleet captains making arrogant decisions against the wishes of those aliens they sometimes encounter. Decisions that the Federation would have definitely resented if some group of aliens had done the same to them. I guess that in their view, what is good for the Federation (or Starfleet) was not good for those other aliens. I find such attitudes rather distasteful.
Monday, May 2, 2016
"DARK SHADOWS" (2012) Review
I have never been a die hard fan of director Tim Burton. Honestly. In fact, I can only think of one or two of his movies that really impressed me. Okay, I can think of four . . . including his 2012 opus, "DARK SHADOWS".
At least three Burton films have really impressed me in recent years. Two of them were his 2007 Oscar-nominated film, "SWEENEY TODD" and his 2014 biopic, "BIG EYES". I did not love either film. And I have no desire to see either of them again. But they did impress me. The third Burton film that managed to impress me was his big screen adaptation of the 1966-71 ABC television series, "DARK SHADOWS". I had originally reacted with mild interest when I first heard about. I have never seen the old television series. And to be honest, I have no real desire to watch it. It was the humor featured in the trailer for Burton's 2012 film that led me to go see it.
"DARK SHADOWS" told the story of Barnabas Collins, the 18th century scion of a wealthy Colonial family, who is transformed into a vampire by a scorned lover named Angelique Bouchard, who also happened to be a Collins family servant and a witch. After transforming him into a vampire, Angelique led a lynch mob that captures Barnabas and buries him alive in a chained coffin in the woods. Two hundred years later in 1972, a group of construction workers accidentally free Barnabas, before he feeds on them. He later makes his way back to the Collins manor and finds it inhabited by his mid 20th century descendants; family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, her 15 year-old daughter Carolyn Stoddard, Elizabeth's brother Roger Collins, his 10 year-old son David; and their servants who are caretaker Willie Loomis and David's governess, Victoria Winters, who is a reincarnation of Barnabas' lost love, Josette du Pres. One last occupant is David's live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman.
Barnabas convinces Elizabeth of his identity when he reveals a secret room behind the fireplace. The room contains a vast treasure that can help the Collins family restore the family business. However, Elizabeth makes him promise to never reveal his identity as a vampire to the rest of the family. All seemed to be well for the Collins family, until Angelique, who has used magic to extend her life, discovers that Barnabas has been released from his coffin. Angelique has also used her own fishery business to bankrupt the family. Upset that Barnabas has returned, Angelique tries to win back his affections through sex. However, Barnabas makes it clear that he does not love her. And Angelique goes out of her way to ensure the destruction of Barnabas and his immediate family.
"DARK SHADOWS" is not perfect. I am quite aware that it is not ensemble piece, despite the likes of Michelle Pfieffer and Helena Bonham-Carter in the cast. I also realize that is basically about Barnabas Collins. But I do believe that two or three supporting characters were barely used in the story. And those characters proved to be young David Collins, Dr. Julia Hoffman (portrayed by the marvelous Helena Bonham-Carter) and Roger Collins, portrayed by the woefully underused Jonny Lee Miller. And I wish the movie had explained how Angelique managed to survive and not age for two centuries. From what I had read, this was never explained in the television version either. I also found the revelation of Carolyn Stoddard as a werewolf near the end of the movie, very contrived. Either screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had failed to hint this revelation or I simply failed to notice any his hint(s). And I also found the movie's pacing slightly uneven three-quarters into the story. I suspect that Burton and his screenwriter, Seth Grahame-Smith, were in such a hurry to get rid of Roger Collins and Dr. Hoffman that the pacing somewhat became off-kilter.
But despite its flaws, I still managed to enjoy "DARK SHADOWS" very much. First of all, I was dazzled by Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography. He gave it a rich, blue-tinted look that really contributed to the film's setting and tale. This was especially apparent in the prologue that introduced the Collins family's American origins and Barnabas Collins. Delbonnel's photography also enhanced Rick Heinrichs' production designs. Heinrichs did a beautiful job in re-creating both the mid and late-18th century Maine, along with the same location in 1972. And I feel he was ably supported by Chris Lowe's art direction team, John Bush's set decorations and Colleen Atwood's beautiful costume designs.
Although I was somewhat critical of Grahame-Seth's screenplay, I do not believe it was not a complete waste. In fact, I thought it was wise of him to center the main narrative around Barnabas Collins. The latter's attempts to assimilate into the early 1970s had me shaking with laughter. And Grahame-Seth was wise to not only enrich Barnabas' love for Josette du Pres and later, Victoria Winters; but also his concerns for his family. Family seemed to be very important to Barnabas, which allowed Grahame-Seth to focus more on Victoria and the Collins family . . . even Roger. Barnabas' concerns for his family also made his conflict with Angelique Bouchard even more pressing. I am also glad that both Burton and Grahame-Seth's portrayal of Barnabas was complex. They allowed him to feed on other human beings without labeling him as evil. Barnabas feeds on the blood of others to survive, just as we humans feed on other living beings - both animals and plants. He does not like feeding on others anymore than he likes being a vampire. There is no taint of one-dimensional morality that has marred television series like "BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER", "ANGEL" and "CHARMED". Several critics and many of the old television series also criticized Burton's film for not being a close adaptation of the show. I find their criticisms a little irrelevant, due to the fact that I have yet to see a film adaptation of a television series to be that particularly close to its original source.
The cast for "DARK SHADOWS" is first-rate. Even those performers forced into roles that were not fully explored did a great job. It was nice to see Burton's willingness to use again, actor Christopher Lee, who had a brief appearance as the top fisherman of Collinsport, Maine. I have never seen Jonny Lee Miller portrayed such a negative role like Roger Collins. And despite the minimal exposure, he did a great job of expressing Roger's shallowness and lack of concern for his son and other members of the family. Helena Bonham-Carter was hilariously entertaining as young David Collins' live-in psychiatrist, who developed a crush on Barnabas. It wsa nice to see Jackie Earle Haley again, who was also rather funny as the Collins family's caretaker, Willie Loomis. I wish I could say something nice about Bella Heathcote. But her performance as Victoria Winters struck me as a little too ethereal and . . . wooden. Gulliver McGrath gave a sweet performance as young David Collins, but he did not strike me as particularly memorable.
For me, the best performances came from lead actor Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer, Eva Green and Chloë Grace Moretz. The latter has certainly grown a lot since I first saw her in "KICK ASS", six years ago. I found her take on the fifteen year-old Carolyn Stoddard to be very eccentric (in a positive way). She also seemed to be a younger version of Michelle Pfieffer, who portrayed her imperious mother, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. I thought that Pfieffer was spot on as the indomitable matriarch of the Collins family, who hid her ruthlessly passionate and maternal nature behind a reserved facade. Eva Green nearly scared me out of my wits with her frightening portrayal of Angelique Bouchard, the witch who developed an obsessive love for Barnabas. Apparently, Angelique's love and hatred proved to be so strong that she continued to slowly destroy the Collins family, long after Barnabas was locked in a coffin. Johnny Depp has portrayed some memorable characters over the years. But I must admit that his take on the Barnabas Collins character has proven to be one of my favorites. The man was superb. I could describe his performance with as many adjectives as possible. But it would take a great deal of my time. All I can say is that I believe he was perfect.
I realize that "DARK SHADOWS" had disappointed many fans of the old 1966-71 television series. And I must admit that I found a few aspects of Seth Grahame-Smith's screenplay rather questionable. But "DARK SHADOWS" proved to be an entertaining movie thanks to Tim Burton's direction, the story's concentration on the Barnabas Collins, Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography and the excellent cast led by the always talented Johnny Depp.