Friday, June 30, 2017
"DUMB WITNESS" (1996) Review
There is a belief among fans of the "AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT" series that the episodes and television movies that aired between 1989 and 2001 - ones that featured Arthur Hastings, Chief Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon - were more faithful adaptations of Agatha Christie's novels that the more recent ones that have aired since 2003. I do not know if I agree with this opinion, especially after viewing the 1996 television movie, "DUMB WITNESS".
Screenwriter Douglas Watkinson's script more or less remained faithful to the 1937 novel's main narrative. Surrounded by grasping young relatives is a wealthy elderly woman named Emily Arundell. One night, she is injured after suffering a fall on the staircase of her home. Many believe that she had tripped over a ball by pet fox terrier, Bob. Emily later dies of what many believed to be natural causes before Poirot could meet her. And her estate was unexpectedly left to her companion, Miss Lawson. "DUMB WITNESS" remained faithful to that aspect of Christie's novel. I suspect that many fans of the "POIROT" would be surprised at the number of changes Watkinson and director Edward Bennett made to the story.
I wish I could go into detail about the number of changes Bennett made to Christie's story, but I suspect that would require an essay. I do know that in the novel, Hercule Poirot never met the victim, Emily Arundell. Instead, she had written a letter to him, claiming that someone was trying to kill her. By the time Poirot arrived at her home, she had been dead for some time, due to a delay in the delivery of her letter. The novel was also set in Berkshire. One of Emily's nieces, Therese Arundell, was engaged to a Dr. Donaldson. Hastings ended up with Bob, Emily's pet terrier. And the murderer committed suicide before being exposed by Poirot. Bennett changed the story's setting to England's Lake District, due to rewriting the Charles Arundell character into a motor boat racer and speed demon. Therese did not have a fiance in this movie. Instead, the beau of Emily's companion, Wilhelmina Lawson, is a medical man named Dr. Greinger. Charles Arundell's new profession led to Poirot and Hastings' visit to the Arundell home in order to witness the racer attempt a new speed record. Because of this visit, Poirot met Emily Arundell before she was murdered. And the killer never got the opportunity to commit suicide in order to avoid prison.
I have never read Christie's 1937 novel. But if it turned out to be better than this television adaptation of it, I look forward to reading it. As one would guess, I enjoyed "DUMB WITNESS" very much. It proved to be an enjoyable story that recaptured the provincial charm of the Lake District. The story provided certain elements of rural English life and society in the 1930s that contributed nicely to the story's main narrative. "DUMB WITNESS" provided peaks into early 20th century's penchant for speed due to the rise of motorized vehicles and the Charles Arundell character. It also provided glimpses into British spiritualism, due to the Tripp sisters, Emily's elderly neighbors with an obssession with spiritualism and the occult.
A good number of Christie novels and adaptations have revealed British xenophobia against foreigners - especially in the bigoted attitudes of British characters toward Poirot. But the xenophobic attitude in "DUMB WITNESS" seemed to have grown worse in the characters' attitude toward Emily's nephew-in-law, the Greek-born doctor, Dr. Jacob Tanios. He is married to Emily's other niece, Bella Arundell Tanios. Emily seemed to be the only character who actually liked Dr. Tanios. Poirot seemed to be put off by his brusque manner. One can say the same about Hastings, who also automatically labeled Tanios as Emily's killer. I had this odd feeling that Hastings' lack of tolerance toward Tanios not only originated from the latter's brusque personality, but also the fact that he came from Eastern Europe, which is regarded as the continent's backwater. The interesting aspect about the xenophobic attitude depicted in "DUMB WITNESS" was that it struck me as very disturbing, yet at the same time, not too heavy-handed. Kudos to both the screenwriter and the director.
"DUMB WITNESS" featured some solid performances by the cast. But there were a few performances that I found rather exceptional. David Suchet was impeccable, as usual, in his portrayal of Belgian detective. Hugh Fraser gave one of his better performances as Captain Arthur Hastings, revealing the character's mild xenophobia with great subtlety. Ann Morrish did an excellent job in conveying the strong-willed presence of the elderly Emily Arundell. Julia St. John gave a memorable performance as Emily's mild-mannered niece, Bella, who seemed to be in terror of her foreign-born husband. And I was also impressed by Paul Herzberg's portrayal of Jacob Tanios. He did an excellent job of revealing how his character's brusque manner hid a personality intimidated by the hostility he was forced to face in a foreign country. I am not going to pretend that I am a person that likes having pets. I do not. But I could not help but fall in love with Snubby, the fox terrier, who portrayed Bob, one of the cutest dogs I have ever seen on television or in a movie.
Overall, I would say that "DUMB WITNESS" was an entertaining adaptation of Christie's novel. Thanks to director Edward Bennett and screenwriter Douglas Watkinson and a cast led by David Suchet, it was a solid and classy affair that also provided a surprisingly deeper look into British xenophobia.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Here is the second article on moral ambiguity found in the STAR WARS saga:
"The Moral Landscape of the STAR WARS Saga"
The Jedi Order – Part One
In the introduction, I had spoken of the majority of STAR WARS fans’ dislike of the saga’s Prequel Trilogy. Granted, this might be arrogant of me to make this suggestion, but I suspect that some of that dislike may have been centered on George Lucas’ ambiguous view of the major characters and their actions.
This dislike of the Prequel Trilogy’s ambiguity seemed very apparent in the fans’ view of the Jedi characters. Many of them complained that George Lucas had ruined the Jedi, making them more fallible and ambiguous than they had been portrayed in the Original Trilogy. Judging from their reaction, I found myself wondering if many of them simply referred the Jedi’s portrayal, as was shown in the first two Original Trilogy films. A good example of this came in the form of the aged Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi’s description of his old Order in "A NEW HOPE":
"For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times, before the Empire."
On one level, Obi-Wan’s description of the Jedi during the Old Republic had been correct. The Jedi Order followed a mandate in which its members acted as diplomats, investigators, bodyguards and eventually, military leaders for the citizens of the Republic. In reality, they followed the mandate established by the Republic’s governing body, the Galactic Senate. Obi-Wan went on to describe the Order’s destruction in a few words:
"A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force."
Judging from the words mentioned above and from what I have read from many blogs, articles and message boards, many fans ended up making the assumption that the Jedi Knights and Masters were ideal and selfless individuals who were barely capable of making any mistakes. When Lucas painted them as individuals with flaws that allowed Chancellor Palpatine to exploit in order to lead the Order to its destruction, many became angry and appalled. It seemed as if Lucas had destroyed their ideals. However, the last movie of the Original Trilogy - "RETURN OF THE JEDI" - marked the first time that the Jedi were portrayed in a less than personable light. In this particular movie, soon-to-be Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker discovered that both Obi-Wan and Yoda had lied to him about his father's fate and identity. So, it was not that surprising to me that Lucas had continued this path with his unflattering portrayal of the Jedi in the Prequel Trilogy. Personally, I found the Jedi a lot more interesting in the second trilogy. And I find it hard to believe that such ideal personalities actually exist – at least in real life. And in fiction, these ideal characters tend to strike me as boring and one-dimensional. Thanks to Lucas, the Jedi were presented as anything but one-dimensional.
Many fans have expressed the belief that if Anakin Skywalker had rigidly followed the Jedi Code, he could have avoided becoming a Sith Lord and instead, become the ideal Jedi Knight he was allegedly destined to become. I cannot say that I agree with this belief. I have my own ideas of the mistakes Anakin made that led him to become Darth Vader. But I will discuss that matter later in the article. Right now I want to focus on the views of the Jedi.
One of those views centered on how one should regard the Force – which is described as a binding, metaphysical and ubiquitous power in the Universe or perhaps beyond. In one of the first conversations between Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his padawan (or apprentice) Obi-Wan Kenobi in "THE PHANTOM MENACE", moviegoers learn that there seemed to be more than one viewpoint on how the Force should be regarded:
OBI-WAN : I have a bad feeling about this.
QUI-GON : I don't sense anything.
OBI-WAN : It's not about the mission, Master, it's
QUI-GON : Don't center on your anxiety, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration
here and now where it belongs.
OBI-WAN : Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future...
QUI-GON : .....but not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the
living Force, my young Padawan.
Obi-Wan, along with other Jedi like Master Yoda, seemed to believe in what is known as the Unifying Force - in other words, they focused on the flow of time as a whole, in which visions of the future were of particular significance. Qui-Gon, on the hand, was a firm believer in supporting of what was known as the Living Force - which is viewed as "living in the moment" or relying heavily on instincts and concentrated more on sensitivity to living things; rather than fulfilling destiny, which was one of the main traits of the Unifying Force. There are STAR WARS who believe that by ignoring the Unifying Force philosophy, Qui-Gon failed to sense the danger that Anakin represented. Others believe that Yoda, Mace Windu and other Jedi Masters failed to prevent the Clone Wars that gave rise to the Galactic Empire, because they had ignored the Living Force philosophy and instead, lost themselves in looking toward the future rather than observing the occurrences unraveling in front of them before it was too late.
First of all, I do not believe that Qui-Gon had ever ignored the Unifying Force. It was he who had sensed Anakin might be the Chosen One that would bring balance to the Force in the future. He was also the one who sensed there was something else behind the situation regarding Naboo’s troubles with the Trade Federation. And when Obi-Wan reminded him that Yoda believe that the Jedi should be mindful of the future, Qui-Gon reminded his padawan that one should not be mindful of the future "at the expense of the moment". And I agree. I see nothing wrong in anticipating what the future will bring, but not to the point where it would blind me from being aware of the present. I also believe that the Jedi Order’s blinding attachment to the Unifying Force philosophy and inability to be aware of the present may have contributed to not only their downfall, but also Anakin’s downfall. Many STAR WARS fans would disagree with me. Not all, mind you; but many.
I am not saying that the Jedi Order was responsible for Anakin’s downfall. I believe that Anakin bears most of the responsibilities, due to the choices he had made in his life. But I believe that the Jedi did not help matters, considering how they trained their acolytes. One of the problems I had with the Jedi was their method in dealing with attachments. Their order had a rule against any of their members forming emotional attachments. They believed that such attachments can be destructive. Anakin’s murder of the Tusken Raiders in retaliation of his mother’s death in "ATTACK OF THE CLONES"; and his decision to help Palpatine massacre the inhabitants of the Jedi Temple in "REVENGE OF THE SITH" seemed to ably support the Jedi’s belief. However, I believe that the Jedi were not completely right.
Yes, I believe that emotional attachments can be destructive, as shown in "ATTACK OF THE CLONES" and "REVENGE OF THE SITH". But they can also have positive effects, as shown in "RETURN OF THE JEDI". Many fans have criticized Lucas for failing to make a clear statement on the effects of love and emotional attachments. They claimed that Anakin’s downfall in the Prequel Trilogy contradicted Lucas’ message in the Original Trilogy about the positive effects of love and attachments. I believe that they had failed to take into account that there are no clear answers on how emotional attachments can affect someone. It all depends upon the situation or the moment. The problem with the Jedi was that they were either too stupid or too blind to consider that when it comes to forming or letting go of attachments, it all depended upon the moment. Instead, they adhered to a more narrow view on the subject. They believed that all attachments had a negative effect upon an individual and to become a Jedi disciple, one must let go of all attachments. Unfortunately, the Jedi never knew how to let go of attachments – correctly - or even know when was the right time to let go of attachments. In other words, they never taught their disciples and initiates on how to let go. Instead, they enforced this belief through a rule.
Some fans have claimed that Anakin’s late entry into the Jedi Order at the age of nine, instead of as a toddler, made it difficult for him to let go of his attachments. I disagree. I do not believe that age had anything to do with Anakin's inability to let go of attachments. I believe that no one in the Jedi Order had ever really taught him how to deal with emotional attachments. Why? Because I believe that many Jedi Knights and Masters had never really learned how to deal with their own emotional attachments. I also believe that Jedi failed to consider that everyone is bound to form some kind of attachment in life. Including Jedi Masters, Knights and padawans. After all, most of them had been with the Order since they were toddlers. It was only natural that they would consider the Temple as their own and end up forming attachments to the Order and their fellow disciples. In order for them to learn to let go of attachments, I believe they needed to acknowledge that they had attachments in the first place. Even within the Jedi Order. And considering the circumstances between Luke, Vader/Anakin and Palpatine in "RETURN OF THE JEDI", I believe that the Jedi failed to acknowledge one other lesson. No one can simply let go of an attachment at the drop of a hat. There is a time when one must learn to let go . . . . and not to let go of an attachment. This is one lesson that the entire Jedi Order – Anakin Skywalker included – had failed to learn.
I believe I better put an end to this article before I continue to ramble. I realize that I have more to say about the Jedi Order than I had originally intended. In the next article; I hope to go into more detail about the Jedi Order, and especially the actions - questionable or otherwise - of some of its members.
Saturday, June 17, 2017
Below is a gallery featuring photos from "AUSTRALIA", Baz Luhrmann's 2008 World War II historical drama. The movie starred Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman:
"AUSTRALIA" (2008) Photo Gallery
Sunday, June 11, 2017
"CALIFORNIA" (1947) Review
I am a history nut. And one of my favorite historical periods that I love to study is the Antebellum Era of the United States. One of my favorite topics from this period is the California Gold Rush. I also love movies. But despite this love, I have been constantly disappointed by Hollywood's inability to create a first-rate movie about Gold Rush.
I may have to take back my comment about Hollywood's inability to produce a first-rate movie or television production about the Gold Rush. There were at least three that managed to impress me. Unfortunately, the latest film about the Gold Rush that I saw was Paramount Pictures' 1947 film, "CALIFORNIA". And it did not impress me.
Directed by John Farrow, "CALIFORNIA" told the story of how California became this country's 31st state. The story, written by Frank Butler and Theodore Strauss, is told from the viewpoints of a handful of characters - a female gambler/singer named Lily Bishop, a former U.S. Army officer-turned-wagon train guide named Jonathan Trumbo, a former slave ship captain and profiteer named Captain Pharaoh Coffin, and a Irish-born farmer named Michael Fabian. The movie starts in 1848 Pawnee Flats, Missouri in which female gambler Lily Bishop is ordered by the town's female citizens to leave, when someone accuses her of cheating. She manages to join a wagon train bound for California, due to the generosity of a westbound emigrant named Michael Fabian. Unfortunately, the wagon train's guide, Jonathan Trumbo and a few other emigrants object to Lily's presence on the train. Lily and Trumbo become attracted to each other, but the latter's refusal to face his feelings get in the way. Before the wagon train can reach the Sacramento Valley, a traveler reveals the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill to the emigrants. Despite Trumbo's efforts, the emigrants abandon the train and rush toward the goldfields. Lily departs with another gambler named Booth Pannock, who injured Trumbo with a whip. By the time the latter reaches the Sacramento Valley with Fabian, he discovers that Lily and Pannock are employed by a former sea captain-turned-businessman Captain Pharaoh Coffin at his saloon in Pharaoh City.
Trumbo learns from the former emigrants that Pharaoh not only control the countryside - including the goldfields - that surround Pharaoh City. He also realizes that he is still in love with Lily, despite her growing relationship with Pharaoh. Lily realizes that despite her attempt to view Pharaoh as a man worthy of her love, he is still a ruthless and manipulative tyrant determined to take control of the entire California territory. Even worse, Pharaoh is haunted by his past as a slave ship captain and has a tendency to lapse into psychotic ramblings. Matters between Trumbo and Pharaoh becomes even more heated when the former decides to organize political opposition to Pharaoh by convincing Fabian to run as a delegate for the Monterey convention on statehood. As supporters for California statehood, both Trumbo and Fabian could end Pharaoh's dreams of a West Coast empire.
One of the descriptions of "CALIFORNIA" described it as an "epic" account of how California became a state. It occurred to me that this could have been the perfect narrative for a two-to-three hour film or a miniseries. But a historical epic crammed into a 97-minute film? It finally hit me that the narrative for "CALIFORNIA" was simply too much and too vague for a 97-minute Western. The movie could have worked well if the story had been about a wagon train trek to California . . . or the Gold Rush experiences of the main characters . . . or simply a political drama about California becoming a state. But to cram all three potential narratives into a movie with the running time of a B-oater was just ridiculous. And if I must be brutally frank, this short running time, combined with so many subplots and an inability to focus on one particular theme really damaged this film. Another aspect about "CALIFORNIA" that really turned me off was the amount of songs featured in it. There were times - especially in the film's first five to ten minutes - when I wondered if I was watching a Western or a musical. The movie's opening sequence featured some overblown tune about pioneers with a montage of westbound emigrants on the Oregon and California trails. To make matters worse, not long after the dispersed Fabian-Trumbo wagon train reach California, audiences are subjected to another pretentious musical montage about those same pioneers being caught up in the search for gold.
And it seemed such a pity. "CALIFORNIA" really had a first-rate cast. Barbara Stanwyck, whom I consider to be one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood film history, was perfectly cast as the bad good-woman Lily Bishop. After all, this was a role that she had played to perfection in previous films. A good number of critics felt that the Welsh-born Ray Milland was miscast as Jonathan Trumbo. I would have agreed that he seemed miscast on paper. But . . . watching this movie made me remember that Trumbo was not some frontiersman who had been raised on the Western plains. He was an educated man, probably born and raised on the East Coast, and a former Army officer. And Milland not only pulled it off, he also proved to be a first-rate action man and generated a great deal of heat with Stanwyck, especially in scenes in which their characters engaged in some kind of psuedo-masochistic courtship. I was surprised to see that George Coulouris also had a strong screen chemistry with Stanwyck. He also did a great job in portraying the ruthless, yet slightly psychotic Captain Pharaoh. Although, I feel that the portrayal of his madness went over-the-top in one of the movie's final scenes. And Barry Fitzgerald was perfect as the compassionate, yet strong-willed farmer, Michael Fabian. His character could have been a one-note good guy, but Fitzgerald infused a good deal of charm and energy into the role, making it one of my favorites in the movie. The movie also featured solid supporting performances from Albert Dekker, Frank Faylen, Gavin Muir and yes . . . even Anthony Quinn. I am reluctant to include Quinn, because of his limited appearance in the movie. He still managed to give an excellent performance.
"CALIFORNIA" had other virtues. One glance at the movie's opening scenes pretty much told me that this was a beautiful looking movie. And the man responsible for the film's sharp and colorful look was cinematographer Ray Rennahan, who had already won two Oscars for his work on 1939's "GONE WITH THE WIND" and 1941's "BLOOD IN THE SAND". The artistry that Rennahan poured into his previous work was pretty obvious in the photography for "CALIFORNIA", as shown in the images below:
The movie also featured excellent work from the team responsible for the art direction, Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier; and the two set decorators, Sam Comer and Ray Moyer. I also enjoyed the costumes designed by Edith Head (for Stanwyck and the movie's other actresses) and Gile Steele (for Milland and the movie's other actors). Both Head and Steele did a pretty solid job of re-creating the fashions of the late 1840s, even if I did not particularly found them mind blowing. I certainly enjoyed Victor Young's lively score for the movie. However, I have mixed feelings for the songs written by Earl Robinson and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. I found the songs written for the movie's montages - "California" and "The Gold Rush" rather pompous and overblown. But I have to admit that two of their other songs - "I Should 'A Stood in Massachusetts" and "Lily-I-Lay-De-O" very entertaining.
I have come across reviews of the movie that accused John Farrow of uninspired or flawed direction. Mind you, I found nothing particularly special about his direction. I thought he did a solid job. But I doubt that he or any other director could have risen about the rushed and overstuffed screenplay penned by Frank Butler and Theodore Strauss. If the pair had stuck to one particular theme for this movie, the latter could have been a decent and entertaining piece of work. Instead, audiences were left with an overblown and pretentious story stuffed into a movie with a 97-minute running time. What a shame! What a shame.
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
Below is a list of my top five favorite Season One episodes from the AMC series about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, "HELL ON WHEELS". Created by Joe and Tony Gayton, the series stars Anson Mount, Colm Meany, Common and Dominique McElligott:
TOP FIVE FAVORITE "HELL ON WHEELS" Season One (2011-2012) Episodes
1. (1.07) "Revelations" - Financier Thomas C. Durant and widower Lily Bell leave the "Hell on Wheels" camp to travel to Chicago for different reasons. Thomas Moore and his Irish gang finds former slave Elam Ferguson in the tent of prostitute Eva.
2. (1.02) "Immoral Mathematics" - Vengeance seeking former Confederate Cullen Bohannon fights for his life, as he tries to evade camp security officer Thor "the Swede" Gundersen after killing one of the Union men who had murdered his wife during the Civil War. Joseph Black Moon track down the Cheyenne braves (including his brother) responsible for the attack on the surveyors' camp.
3. (1.10) "God of Chaos" - In the season finale, Cullen tracks down a former Union soldier named Harper, whom he believes was one of the men who killed his wife. Durant and Lily conspire to gain arriving investors' interests. And Elam and Eva express different views on what their future should be.
4. (1.09) "Timshel" - Cullen, Elam, Joseph Black Moon and a squad of soldiers find the Cheyenne responsible for the attack on the surveyor camp that led to the death of Lily's husband and for the derailment of a train.
5. (1.04) "Jamais Je Ne T'oublierai" - Cullen initiates his search for Harper. Lily finally arrives at the "Hell on Wheels" camp, following the Cheyenne attack on the surveyor's camp and the death of her husband. Elam becomes involved with a prostitute named Eva.