“ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002) Review

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“ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002) Review

Back in 1998, DC Comics published a graphic novel about a Depression-era criminal enforcer who is betrayed by his employers and forced to hit the roads of the American Midwest with his young son on a quest for revenge. Written by Max Allan Collins, the novel caught the attention of producers Richard and Dean Zanuck and was adapted into film directed by Sam Mendes.

“ROAD TO PERDITION” began during the late winter of 1931, in Rock Island, Illinois. Michael Sullivan serves as an enforcer for Irish mob boss, John Rooney, who seemed to regard him a lot higher than the latter’s unstable son, Connor Rooney. Sullivan is also a happily married man with two sons – Michael Jr. and Peter. However, his relationship with Michael is forced, due to Sullivan’s fear that his older son might turn out to be like him. The Sullivan family attends the wake for one Danny McGovern, a local associate who does bootlegging business with Sullivan family. During the wake, the Rooneys and Sullivan become wary of Finn McGovern, who has expressed suspicions about his younger brother’s death. Connor and Sullivan are ordered by Rooney to talk to Finn.

Connor argues with Finn over the latter’s suspicions about his brother’s death, before killing the latter. Sullivan is forced to gun down McGovern’s men. And this is all witnessed by Michael, who had hidden in his father’s car out of curiosity. Despite Sullivan swearing his son to secrecy and Rooney pressuring Connor to apologize for the reckless action, Connor murders Sullivan’s wife Annie and younger son Peter, mistaking the latter for Michael. He also tries to set up a hit on Sullivan at a speakeasy. But the enforcer manages to kill his would-be murderer first. Sullivan escapes to Chicago with Michael in order to seek employment from Al Capone’s right-hand man Frank Nitti and discover the location of the now hidden Connor. However, Nitti rejects Sullivan’s proposal and informs Rooney of the meeting. The Irish-born mobster reluctantly allows Nitti to recruit assassin Harlen Maguire, who is also a crime scene photographer, to kill Sullivan.

I might as well be frank. The only reason that drew my attention to “ROAD TO PERDITION” was the movie’s Depression-era setting. I have always been fascinated by the 1930s decade, despite Hollywood’s inconsistent portrayal of it in the past 50 to 60 years. The fact that Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law were among the stars in the cast helped maintain my interest until the movie’s release date. However, I still harbor doubts that I would truly enjoy a story about a father and son on the road in early 1930s Midwest or that it would draw any high regard on my part. Thankfully, the movie proved me wrong. Not only did “ROAD TO PERDITION” proved to be both an entertaining character study of various father-and-son relationships, but also a fascinating road trip and crime drama. I once came upon Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel at a bookstore not long after the movie’s initial release. I could not remember exactly what I had read, but I do recall realizing that the movie’s screenwriter, David Self, took a good deal of liberties with Collins’ plot . . . and that he was wise to do so. Enjoyable as the graphic novel was, I could also see that it was not possible to do a complete faithful adaptation of it.

Despite being a combination of a crime drama, a revenge tale and a road trip; the main theme that seemed to permeated “ROAD TO PERDITION” was the relationships between father and son. There is one line in the film uttered by Paul Newman’s John Rooney that pretty much summed up the film:

“Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.”

This certainly seemed to be the case in the relationship between Sullivan and Michael Jr. at the beginning of the film. Sullivan fears that Michael might follow his footsteps into crime, because they share personality traits. Unfortunately, he solves this problem by maintaining an emotional distance from his older son. John Rooney’s relationship with his son Connor is hampered by his lack of respect for the latter, his closer relationship with Sullivan, and Connor’s insecurities. Only Sullivan and Rooney seemed to have a close and easy-going father/son relationship at the beginning of the film, despite a lack of blood connection. And yet, that close relationship ended up being easily shattered thanks to Connor’s act of murder and the determination of both men to protect their own sons. Other gangster films have portrayed the impact of crime on families . . . but not with such complexity.

I believe that “ROAD TO PERDITION” is probably the first motion picture on both sides of the Atlantic that perfectly re-captured the 1930s . . . especially the first half of the decade. One cannot bring up the movie without mentioning the late Conrad Hall, whose brilliant Oscar winning photography re-captured the bleak landscape of Depression-era Midwest. This was especially apparent in the following scenes:

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Richard L. Johnson’s Academy Award nominated art direction and Albert Wolsky’s costume designs also added to the movie’s setting. I especially have to compliment Wolsky for conveying how fashion was in the midst of transforming during that period from the shorter skirts of the 1920s to the longer ones of the 1930s. This was especially reflected in the conservative costumes worn by Jennifer Jason Leigh and other actresses in the movie. Usually I am not in the habit of noticing the sound in any film. But I must admit that I noticed how sound was effectively used in this film, especially in one scene in the second half that featured some brutal murders committed by a Thompson sub-machine gun. Not surprisingly, Scott Millan, Bob Beemer and John Pritchett all received Oscar nominations for Best Sound and Best Sound Editing.

There were aspects of “ROAD TO PERDITION” that I found unappealing or puzzling. The movie is more or less a well paced movie. But there is a period in the film – following Sullivan’s failed attempt to acquire employment with the Capone organization – that it nearly dragged to a halt. Director Sam Mendes seemed so enamored of Conrad Hall’s photography of the Illinois landscape during the Sullivans’ journey from Chicago that he seemed to have lost his hold of the pacing. Also, I found myself wondering what happened to Sullivan’s sister-in-law – the one who had offered them refuge at her lakeside home in Perdition. By the time the enforcer and his son arrived, her house had been abandoned. What happened to her and the house? The movie never explained.

The Zanucks, Sam Mendes and the movie’s casting director collected a group of exceptional performers for the cast.“ROAD TO PERDITION” featured solid performances from Ciarán Hinds as the grieving and later murdered Finn McGovern, Liam Aiken as Sullivan’s younger son Peter, and a very entertaining Dylan Baker as the Rooneys’ accountant, Alexander Rance. Both Doug Spinuzza and Kevin Chamberlin were entertaining and memorable as brothel keeper Tony Calvino and his hired bouncer Frank. Stanley Tucci gave a restrained and intelligent performance as Al Capone’s right-hand man, Frank Nitti. Despite portraying the only major female role in the film – namely Annie Sullivan – Jennifer Jason-Leigh let her presence be known as Sullivan’s warm and loving wife, who also happened to know the truth about his real profession.

I realize that many might find this hard to believe, but I first became aware of Daniel Craig, thanks to his very interesting portrayal of Connor Rooney. Someone once complained that Connor never developed as a character. Well, of course not. Any man who would recruit a hophead pimp to kill a very competent hit man like Michael Sullivan Sr. must be a loser. And Craig did a superb job in conveying the character’s insecurities. Jude Law was deliciously creepy as Capone hit man Harlan Maguire, who was not only a very competent killer, but who also seemed to harbor a fetish for photographing dead bodies. Law also had a very good grasp of American dialogue from the 1930s. I was happy to learn that Tyler Hoechlin was still acting. A talent like his should never go to waste. And I must admit that not only he was superb as Michael Sullivan, Jr., he also did a great job in conveying young Michael’s emotional journey throughout the film.

Paul Newman earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the aging Irish gangster, John Rooney. It is a pity that he lost the award, because he was superb as the charming and intelligent Rooney. Newman was also very effective in conveying Rooney’s more intimidating aspects of his character. Although Rooney was not his very last role, it was among his last . . . and probably one of his best. Tom Hanks did not receive any acting nominations for his performance as enforcer Michael Sullivan Sr. Not only am I puzzled, but very disappointed. As far as I am concerned, Sullivan was one of the better roles of his career. He gave a superb performance as the tight-jawed and no-nonsense family man, who also happened to be a first-rate hit man. What I found so amazing about Hanks’ performance is the manner in which he balanced Sullivan’s no-nonsense family man persona and the ruthlessness that made the character such a successful criminal.

If I had to select my favorite Sam Mendes film, it would have to be “ROAD TO PERDITION”. I have never seen“AMERICAN BEAUTY”. And I do not exactly consider his other films better. Yes, the movie has its flaws, including a pacing that nearly dragged to a halt midway. But its virtues – superb direction by Mendes, an excellent cast led by Tom Hanks, and a rich atmosphere that beautifully re-captured the American Midwest during the early years of the Great Depression – made “ROAD TO PERDITION” a personal favorite of mine.

Toad-in-the-Hole

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Below is an article about a traditional English that may (or may not) have been created in the mid 18th century calledToad-in-the-Hole.

 

TOAD-IN-THE-HOLE

Created as a cheap comfort dish, Toad-in-the-Hole originated Alnmouth in Northumberland, England. Toad-in-the-Hole is basically a dish that consists of sausages in Yorkshire Pudding batter. Ironically, the first recipe for the dish consisted of pigeon, not sausages. And that recipe was found in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 cookbook called “The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy”. She called the dish “Pigeon-in-the-Hole”.

How did the dish acquired his name? Well . . . here is an idea. Alnmouth has a golf course which can at certain times of the year be overrun with Natterjack toads. It was at just such a time, that a golf tournament was being played and the leader made his putt, only to have the ball ejected by a toad that had been quietly asleep in the bottom of the cup. Who created the dish? Well . . . on hearing of the players misfortune, achef at the town’s hotel where the players were staying devised the dish, thinking it would resemble a toad rising from the eighteenth, and served it that night. Is this really the truth?

The dish with sausages may have first appeared in 1769. Toad-in-the-Hole became very popular with members of the Royal Philosophers. They enjoyed the dish at least once or twice a year at the Mitre Tavern, the dining club’s chosen dining venue. Toad-in-the-Hole was served alongside such delicacies as venison, fresh salmon, turbot and asparagus.

Below is a recipe for “Toad-in-the-Hole” from the Simplyrecipies.com website:

Toad-in-the-Hole

Ingredients

1 1/2 cup of all purpose flour
1 scant teaspoon Kosher salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp melted butter
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb of bangers (an English sausage made with pork and breadcrumbs), or good quality pork or beef sausage links (in casings)

Preparation

Whisk together the flour with the salt and a pinch of pepper in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour. Pour in the eggs, milk, and melted butter into the well and whisk into the flour until smooth. Cover and let stand 30 minutes.

Coat the bottom and sides of an 8×12 or 9×9 casserole dish with vegetable oil (we use high smoke point grapeseed or canola oil). Place a rack in the bottom third of the oven. Put the empty dish on the rack. Preheat the oven with the dish in it to 425°F.

While the oven is coming to temperature, heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a skillet on medium high. Add the sausages and brown them on at least a couple sides.

When the sausages have browned, and the dish in the oven hot, pull the oven rack out a bit, put the sausages in the casserole dish, and pour the batter over the sausages. Cook for about 20-30 minutes or until the batter is risen and golden.

Serve at once.

“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

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“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for the recent biopic, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, I knew I would like it. First of all, the movie was about the development of one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1964 musical “MARY POPPINS”. And two, it featured some very humorous moments that I personally found appealing. Not long after the movie first hit the theaters, I rushed to see it as soon as I possibly could.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, “SAVING MR. BANKS” told the story of “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers‘ two-week stay in 1961 Los Angeles, while filmmaker Walt Disney attempts to obtain from her, the official screen rights to her novels. The development of “SAVING MR. BANKS” began when Australian filmmaker Ian Collie produced a documentary on Travers back in 2002. He saw a potential biopic and convinced Essential Media and Entertainment to develop a feature film with Sue Smith as screenwriter. The project attracted the attention of producer Alison Owen, who subsequently hired Kelly Marcel to co-write the screenplay with Smith. Marcel removed a subplot involving Travers and her son, and divided the story into a two-part narrative – the creative conflict between Travers and Disney, and her dealings with her childhood issues. Because Marcel’s version featured certain intellectual property rights that belonged to the he Walt Disney Company, Owen approached Corky Hale, who informed former Disney composer, Richard M. Sherman of the script. Sherman supported Marcel’s script. Meanwhile, the Disney Studios learned of the script, as well. Instead of purchasing the script in order to shut down the production, they agree to co-produce the movie, allowing Kelly Marcel access to more material regarding the production of “MARY POPPINS”. The Disney Studios approached Tom Hanks for the role of Walt Disney, who accepted. When they failed to secure Meryl Streep for the role of P.L. Travers, they turned to Emma Thompson, who accepted it.

Through the urging of her literary agent, a financially struggling P.L. Travers finally decides to leave her London home, and agreed to meet and negotiate with Walt Disney in Los Angeles over the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” stories, after twenty years. While in Los Angeles, Travers express disgust over what she regards as the city’s unreality and the naivety and overbearing friendliness of its inhabitants like her assigned limousine driver, Ralph. At the Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers collaborates with the creative team assigned to develop the movie – screenwriter/artist
Don DaGradi, Richard and Robert Sherman. She finds their casual manner and their handling of the adaptation of her novels distasteful. And Travers is also put off by Disney’s jocular and familiar personality. She pretty much remains unfriendly toward her new acquaintances and a new set of problems arise between her and the studio. Her collaboration with the Disney Studios also reveals painful memories of her childhood in 1906-07 Australia and memories of her charismatic father, Travers Goff, who was losing a battle against alcoholism; and her mother Margaret Goff, who nearly committed suicide, due to her inability to control Goff’s heaving drinking.

Hollywood politics can be mind-boggling. I learned this valuable lessons, following the reactions to not only the recent historical drama, “THE BUTLER”, but also the reactions to “SAVING MR. BANKS”. The first movie came under fire by conservatives for its historical inaccuracies, when President Ronald Reagan’s son accused that movie of a false portrait of his father. Some four-and-a-half months later, many feminists accused the Disney Studios of not only damaging P.L. Travers’ reputation, but also of historical inaccuracies. Actress Meryl Streep, who had been an earlier candidate for the role of Travers, added her two cents by openly accused Walt Disney of being a bigot on so many levels, while presenting an acting award to Emma Thompson. Since political scandal brought “SAVING MR. BANKS” under heavy criticism for historical accuracy or lack of, I figure I might as well discuss the matter.

Was the movie historically accurate in its portrayal of P.L. Travers? Many criticized the movie’s failure to delve into the author’s bisexuality and relationship with her adopted son. What they failed to realize was that Travers’ sex life and adopted son had nothing to do with her creation of “Mary Poppins” or her dealings with Disney. The movie they wanted was the movie written by Sue Smith. And Alison Owen had put the kibbosh on those storylines long before the Disney Studios got involved. Disney did meet with Travers at her London home. Only he did so in 1959, not 1961. But the movie was accurate about him gaining the movie rights after her 1961 visit. Disney’s 1959 London trip only resulted in his acquiring an option – which gave the filmmaker a certain period of time to acquire the actual film rights. However, Travers’ family, the Goffs, moved to Allora, Queensland in 1905, not 1906 as the movie had suggested.

Was Travers that difficult, as suggested in the movie? I honestly have no idea. Richard Sherman made it clear that he found her difficult to like. I have read somewhere that Travers had managed to alienate both her adopted son and her grandchildren by the time of her death in 1996. And there are also . . . the audio tapes that recaptured Travers’ sessions with Don Di Gradi and the Sherman Brothers in 1961. Tapes that she had requested. She did not come off well in those tapes. Critics also claimed that the movie idealized Disney. Here, I have to keep myself from laughing. Granted, the movie and actor Tom Hanks portrayed the “Disney charm” at its extreme. But the movie also made it clear that Disney was utilizing his charm to convince Travers to sign over the movie rights. And quite frankly, his charm came off as somewhat overbearing and manipulative in some scenes. I perfectly understood Travers’ reaction to the sight of Disney stuffed animals, balloons and fruit baskets in her hotel room. And I certainly sympathize with her reaction to being dragged to Disneyland against her will. I have loved the theme park since I was a kid. But if I had been in Travers’ shoes, I would have been pissed at being dragged to some location against my will.

When the movie first flashed back to Travers’ Australian childhood, I had to suppress an annoyed sigh. I really was not interested in her childhood, despite what the movie’s title had indicated. But the more the movie delved into her childhood and made the connections to her creation of the “Mary Poppins” and the development of the 1964 movie, the more I realized that Kelly Marcel had written a brilliant screenplay. By paying close attention to the story during my second viewing of the movie, I noticed the connections between the tragic circumstances of Travers’ childhood, “Mary Poppins”and her 1961 Los Angeles visit. Some of the connections I made were the following:

*Travers’ aversion of Southern California weather, which must have reminded her of Australia and her childhood

*Her aversion to pears, which reminded her of Travers Goff’s death

*Her aversion to a Mr. Banks with facial hairs

*Her aversion to Mr. Banks’ cinematic personality

*Her aversion to the color red, which may have also reminded her of Mr. Goff’s death

*Her reaction to the Sherman Brothers’ song – “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank”, which brought back painful memories of an incident regarding her father at a local fair

*Her Aunt Ellie, whom she re-created as Mary Poppins

I also have to compliment the movie’s visual re-creation of both 1961 Southern California and Edwardian Queensland, Australia. Production designer Michael Corenblith had to re-create both periods in Travers’ life. And if I must be honest, he did an exceptional job – especially in the 1961 scenes. His work was ably supported by Lauren Polizzi’s colorful art direction, and Susan Benjamin’s set decorations. I also enjoyed Daniel Orlandi’s elegant and subtle costumes for the movie. I was amazed by his re-creation of both Edwardian and mid-20th century fashion, as seen in the images below:

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I found John Schwartzman’s photography very interesting . . . especially in the 1961 sequences. Unlike other productions that tend to re-create past Los Angeles in another part of the country (2011’s “MILDRED PIERCE”), “SAVING MR. BANKS” was shot entirely in Southern California. But what I found interesting about Schwartzman’s photography is that he utilized a good deal of close-up in those exterior scenes for Beverly Hills and Burbank in an effort to hide the changes that had occurred in the past 50 years. But as much as he tried, not even Schwartzman could hide the fact that the Fantasyland shown in the movie was the one that has existed since 1983. Mark Livolsi’s editing did a solid job in enabling Schwartzman to hide the changes of time for the Southern California exteriors. But I also have to commend Livolsi for his superb editing of one particular sequences – namely the juxtaposition of the 1961 scene featuring the Sherman Brothers’ performance of the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” song and the 1906 scene of the bank-sponsored fair in Allora. Thanks to Livolsi’s editing, John Lee Hancock’s excellent direction and Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Travers Goff, this sequence proved to be the most mind-blowing and unforgettable in the entire movie.

Since I had mentioned Colin Farrell, I might as well discuss the cast’s performances. Emma Thompson won the National Board of Review award for Best Actress for her superb portrayal of the very complex P.L. Travers. She did a superb job in capturing both the author’s bluntness, cultural snobishness and imagination. The movie and Thompson’s performance also made it perfectly clear that Travers was still haunted over her father’s death after so many decades. One would think Tom Hanks had an easier job in his portrayal of filmmaker Walt Disney. Superficially, I would agree. But Hanks did an excellent job in conveying some of the more annoying aspects of Disney’s character behind the charm – especially in his attempts to win over Travers. And two particular scenes, Hanks also captured Disney’s own private demons regarding the latter’s father. Colin Farrell gave one of the best performances of his career as Travers’ charming, yet alcoholic father, Travers Goff. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Allora Fair scene. Bradley Whitford was cast as Disney Studios animator/screenwriter Don DaGradi. He not did a first-rate job in portraying DaGradi’s enthusiasm as a Disney employee, but also in portraying how that enthusiasm nearly waned under the weight of Travers’ negative reactions to the project. Both Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak were cast as the songwriting brothers – Richard and Robert Sherman. And they both did excellent jobs in capturing the pair’s contrasting personalities. Schwartzman was deliciously all pep and enthusiasm as the extroverted and younger Richard. And yet, he very subtlely conveyed the younger Sherman’s anxieties in dealing with the difficult Travers. Novak struck me as very effective in his portrayal of the more introverted and intense Robert. And he was also very subtle in portraying the older Sherman’s own penchant for bluntness, especially in one scene in which the songwriter openly clashed with Travers. Ruth Wilson managed to give a very memorable performance as Travers’ long-suffering mother, Margaret Goff. She was especially impressive in one tense scene that featured Mrs. Goff’s suicide attempt. And Paul Giamatti was simply marvelous as Travers’ fictional limousine driver, Ralph. He managed to be both sweet and charming, without being saccharine. The movie also featured solid performances from Annie Rose Buckley, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Rachel Griffiths and Ronan Vibert.

I must admit that I still feel angry over how “SAVING MR. BANKS” was deprived from any Academy Award nominations, aside from one for Thomas Newman’s score. And if I must be brutally honest, I did not find his score particularly memorable. I was more impressed by John Lee Hancock’s direction, the movie’s visual styles, the performances from a superb cast led by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks; and especially the Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith screenplay. And considering how so much talent was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts, I do not think I can take Hollywood’s politics seriously anymore. It seems a travesty that this superb film ended up as a victim of Hollywood’s flaky politics.

“THE MOVING FINGER” (1985) Review

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“THE MOVING FINGER” (1985) Review

I might as well put my cards on the table. I am not a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel, “The Moving Finger”. I do not regard it as one of the author’s more remarkable works. In fact, I have difficulty in viewing it as mediocre. When I first learned about the 1985 adaptation of the film, I did not bother to get my hands on a video or DVD copy.

In the end, I found myself viewing the 1985 television movie, due to it being part of a box set of Jane Marple movies. Before I express my opinion of it, I might as well reveal its plot. “THE MOVING FINGER” is basically a murder mystery set in a small English town. A brother and sister from London named Gerry and Joanna Burton purchase a house in the small, quiet town of Lymstock; in order for Jerry to fully recover from injuries received in a plane crash. After settling in and meeting their neighbors, the two siblings become the latest victims of a series of anonymous poison pen letters. Unbeknownst to the Bartons and other citizens of Lymstock, the vicar’s wife, Mrs. Maude Calthrop, summons her old friend, Miss Jane Marple, to help the police find the letters’ writer. However, not long after Miss Marple’s arrival at Lymstock, the poison pen letters take a murderous twist. Mrs. Angela Symmington, the wife of local solicitor Edward Symmington, is found dead after receiving a letter. The coroner rules her death as suicidal. Only Miss Marple believes Mrs. Symmington had been murdered. And it took a second death – the obvious murder of the Symmingtons’ maid – for the officials to realize she had been right about the first murder.

One of the aspects about Christie’s 1942 novel that I found so unremarkable was the actual murder that took place. It had been very easy for me to figure out the murderer’s identity, while reading the novel. In fact, I managed to do so before I was halfway finished with the novel. I wish I could say that Julia Jones’ adaptation made it a little more difficult for anyone to guess the murderer’s identity before the movie’s final denouement. But I cannot. Jones and director Roy Boulter made it easy for anyone to identify the killer, thanks to some very awkward camera directions. To make matters worse, both Jones and Boulter made the mistake of closely adapting Christie’s novel. Which meant both followed the novel’s narrative in which one of the characters openly approached the killer before Jane Marple could expose the latter’s identity to the police. Actually, Miss Marple used one of the characters to entrap the killer. And I hate it when this form of narrative is used in a murder mystery in which the audience is supposed to be unaware of the killer’s identity.

Another complaint I have regarding “THE MOVING FINGER” has to do with the romance between the dashing former pilot Gerry Burton and the victim’s oldest child, twenty year-old Megan Hunter. Actually, I have mixed feeling about the portrayal of this particular romance. On one hand, I liked the fact that Megan occasionally challenged Jerry’s patronizing attitude toward her. And the two actors portraying Jerry and Megan actually clicked on screen. On the other hand, I DID find his attitude patronizing. The Jerry-Megan romance almost seemed like a second-rate version of the Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle pairing in “PYGMALION”/“MY FAIR LADY” tale. Matters were made worse when Jerry dragged Megan to London for a day of shopping, dining and dancing. I realize that Christie and later, Jones were trying to make this sequence romantic. I found it tedious, patronizing and an unoriginal take on both “MY FAIR LADY” and “Cinderella”.

Thankfully, there was another major romance featured in “THE MOVING FINGER” that struck me as a lot more mature and satisfying. I am referring to the romance between Jerry’s sister, Joanna Burton and the local doctor, Welsh-born Dr. Owen Griffith. Unlike the Jerry-Megan romance, I did not have to deal with some immature take on “PYGMALION”. The worst Joanna and Owen had to deal with was the latter’s sister Eryl, who not only seemed slightly disapproving of Joanna, but who was also infatuated with widow of the murdered woman, Edward Symmington. In fact, the romances featured in this story seemed to offer an hint on what made “THE MOVING FINGER” enjoyable for me – the portrayal of village life in Lymstock. The movie also featured interesting characters that included the solicitor Edward Symmington and his high-maintenance wife Angela, their attractive nanny Elsie Holland, local gossip and art collector Mr. Pye, and the Reverend Guy Calthrop and his wife Maud – both friends of Miss Marple. Forget the murder mystery and enjoy the story’s strong characterizations and romances. It made “THE MOVING FINGER” a lot more bearable for me.

Paul Allen’s production designs struck me as solid. I thought he and his team did a pretty good job in re-creating an English village in the early-to-mid 1950s. I found Ian Hilton’s photography very attractive and colorful . . . even after 29 years. Christian Dyall created some very attractive costumes for the cast – especially for Sabina Franklyn, who portrayed the sophisticated Joanna Barton. If I have one complaint, it is the hairstyle worn by
Deborah Appleby, who portrayed Megan Hunter. Quite frankly, I found her mid-1980s hairstyle in the middle of a production set in the 1950s rather startling. And I am not being complimentary.

“THE MOVING FINGER” featured some excellent performances from the cast. Joan Hickson gave her usual above-average performance as the modest elderly sleuth, Jane Marple. However, due to the amount of romance and village intrigue, her appearance seemed a bit toned down. Michael Culver gave an excellent performance as the grieving widower, Edward Symmington. I found his performance very realistic and complex. Sandra Payne was another who gave a first-rate performance as the equally complex Eryl Griffith. Sabina Franklyn gave a very attractive performance as the sophisticated Joanna Barton. Not only did she click well with Martin Fisk, who portrayed the mature and subtle Dr. Griffith, but also with Andrew Bicknell, who gave a very charismatic portrayal of the attractive Jerry Burton. Bicknell also created a very nice screen chemistry with Deborah Appleby, who portrayed the gawkish Megan Hunter. I wish I could be just as complimentary about Appleby’s performance. There were times when her performance seemed solid. Unfortunately, there were times when she came off as wooden. And Richard Pearson was a delight as the gossiping Mr. Pye.

I could have easily dismissed “THE MOVING FINGER” as a loss. Thanks to Christie’s original novel, it does not possess a scintillating murder mystery. In fact, I was able to solve the mystery halfway into the story, when I first read the book. In the end, the story’s excellent portrayal of village life in the early 1950s and a pair of entertaining romances made “THE MOVING FINGER” enjoyable to watch in the end. The movie also benefited from some excellent performances from a cast led by Joan Hickson.

Chicken Marengo

ChickenMarengo
Below is a small article about a dish that was created in the early 19th century called Chicken Marengo. The dish is associated with a battle fought during the Napoleonic Wars: CHICKEN MARENGO

Chicken Marengo is a dish that is surrounded by a great deal of myth. The dish consisted of a chicken sautéed in oil with garlic and tomato, and garnished with fried eggs and crayfish. It is similar to Chicken à la Provençale, but with the addition of egg and crayfish. The latter ingredients are traditional to Chicken Marengo, but are now often omitted. The original dish was named to celebrate the Battle of Marengo, a Napoleonic victory that was fought on June 14, 1800.

According to popular myth, Chicken Marengo was first created after Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the Austrian army at the Battle of Marengo, south of Turin, Italy. His personal chef Dunand foraged in the town of Marengo for ingredients, because the supply wagons were too distant. Dunand created the dish from what he could gather. According to this story, Napoleon enjoyed the dish so much he had it served to him after every battle. When Durand received better supplies, later on; he substituted mushrooms for crayfish and added wine to the recipe. Napoleon refused to accept it, believing that a change would bring him bad luck.

This colorful story, however, has been proven to be a myth. Alan Davidson writes that there would be no access to tomatoes at that time, and the first published recipe for the dish omits them. Also, according to The Old Foodie blog, Dunand did not become Napoleon’s chef until after the event. And the dish was not mentioned in contemporary accounts or cookbooks until nearly two decades later.

Below is a recipe for “Chicken Marengo” from the Epicurious.com website:

Chicken Marengo

Ingredients

4 (6-ounce) skinless boneless chicken breast halves
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large portabella mushrooms, stems and gills discarded and caps thinly sliced
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 (14- to 15-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
1/2 cup beef or veal demi-glace*
1/2 cup water

Preparation

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F.

Pat chicken dry, then combine flour, salt, and pepper in a large sealable plastic bag and add chicken. Seal bag and shake to coat, then remove chicken, knocking off excess flour. Arrange in one layer on a plate.

Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy ovenproof skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté chicken, smooth sides down, until golden, about 2 minutes. Turn over and sauté one minute more. Scatter mushrooms around chicken and transfer skillet to oven, then bake, uncovered, until chicken is just cooked through, five to ten minutes.

Transfer chicken to a plate, then add shallot, garlic, and thyme to skillet (handle will be hot) and sauté over moderately high heat, stirring, one minute. Add wine and boil, stirring and scraping up brown bits, until reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, demi-glace, and water and simmer until mushrooms are tender and sauce is reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Season with pepper.

Return chicken to skillet and simmer, turning, about one minute.

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (2002) Review

The fandom surrounding the 2002 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” has always struck me as somewhat a fickle affair. When the movie first hit the theaters over eleven years ago, many critics and film fans had declared the movie a major improvement over its predecessor, 1999’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Some even went out of their way to declare it as the second best STAR WARS movie ever made. Another three to five years passed before the critics and fans’ judgement went through a complete reversal. Now, the movie is considered one of the worst, if not the worst film in the franchise.

Well, I am not going to examine what led to this reversal of opinion regarding “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Instead, I am going to reveal my own opinion of the movie. Before I do, here is the plot. Set ten (10) years after “THE PHANTOM MENACE”, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” begins with the Republic on the brink of a civil war, thanks to a former Jedi Master named Count Dooku. Disgruntled by the growing corruption of the Galactic Senate and the Jedi Order’s complacency, Dooku has formed a group of disgruntled planetary systems called the Separatists. the Galactic Senate is debating a plan to create an army for the Republic to assist the Jedi against the Separatist threat. Senator Padmé Amidala, the former queen of Naboo, returns to Coruscant to vote on a Senate proposal to create an army for the Republic. However, upon her arrival, she barely escapes an assassination attempt.

The Jedi Order, with the agreement of Chancellor Palpatine and the Senate, assigns Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and his padawan (apprentice) of ten years, Anakin Skywalker, to guard Padmé. A contracted assassin named Zam Wessell makes another attempt on Padmé, but is foiled by Obi-Wan and Anakin. They chase her to a Coruscant nightclub, where they capture her. During their interrogation of Wessell, she is killed by her employer with a poisonous dart. The Jedi Council orders Obi-Wan to investigate the assassination attempt and learn the identity of Wessell’s employer. The Council also assigns Anakin as Padmé’s personal escort, and accompany her back to her home planet of Naboo. Obi-Wan’s investigation leads to a cloning facility on the planet of Kamino, where an army of clones are being manufactured for the Republic and Zam Wessell’s employer, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett. Not long after their arrival on Naboo, Anakin and Padmé become romantically involved, while aware of the former’s status as a member of the Jedi Order.

I could discuss the aspects of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that seem to repel a good number of fans. But that would take a separate article and I am not in the mood to tackle it. There were some aspects that I personally found questionable. One of those aspects was the handling of the character Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas. When Kamino Prime Minister Lama Su had informed Obi-Wan that a Sifo-Dyas had ordered a clone army for the Republic, I assumed that Count Dooku had impersonated his former colleague, following the latter’s death. It seemed so simple to me. Yet, a novel called “Labyrinth of Evil” revealed that the Jedi Master had been tricked into ordering the army by Chancellor Palpatine before being murdered by Dooku. Now, I realize that I am actually criticizing the plot of a novel, instead of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, but every time I watch this movie, I find myself wishing that Dooku had ordered the clone army, while impersonating Sifo-Dyas. But I do have a few genuine complaints. Physically, Daniel Logan made an impressive young Boba Fett. However, it was pretty easy for me to see that the kid was no actor. Oh well. I also wish that Lucas and screenwriter Jonathan Hales had proved a longer scene to establish the antipathy that seemed to be pretty obvious between Anakin Skywalker and his stepbrother, Owen Lars. Instead, their scenes together merely featured some low-key dialogue and plenty of attitude from both Hayden Christensen and Joel Edgerton. Oh well. And if I must be honest, Count Dooku’s lightsaber duel against Obi-Wan and Anakin on Geonosis proved to be rather lackluster and short.

Many fans have complained about the love confession scene between Anakin and Padmé at the latter’s Naboo lakeside villa. Although, I have a problem with the scene, as well; my complaint is different. Many believed that the scene made Anakin look like a sexual stalker. Frankly, I have no idea how they came to that conclusion. It seemed obvious to me that Lucas had based the Anakin/Padmé romance on something called courtly love. However, it was also obvious to me that Christensen seemed incapable of dealing with the flowery language featured in courtly love. I am not stating that he is a bad actor. There were many scenes in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” that made it clear to me that he is a first-rate actor. But . . . the movie was shot when he was 19 years old. It is obvious that he was too young to handle such flowery dialogue. He was not the first. I still have memories of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy’s questionable attempts at the fast dialogue style from movies of the 1930s and 40 featured in the 2007 movie, “ATONEMENT”. Like Christensen before them, they were too young to successfully deal with an unfamiliar dialogue style.

Despite the above flaws, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” remains one of my top two favorite STAR WARS movies of all time. Why? One, I love the story. Many fans do not. I do. It has an epic scale that some of the other movies in the franchise, save for “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, seemed to lack. And I feel that Lucas and Hales did an excellent job of allowing the story to flow from a simple political assassination attempt to the outbreak of a major galactic civil war. During this 142 minute film, the movie also featured some outstanding action, romance between two young and inexperienced people, a mystery that developed into a potential political scandal, family tragedy that proved to have a major consequence in the next film and war. The best aspect of “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – at least for me – were the complex issues that added to the eventual downfalls of the major characters.

Naturally, Lucas provided some outstanding action sequences in the movie. I mean . . . they really were. I would be hard pressed to select my favorite action scene from the following list:

*Coruscant chase scene
*Obi-Wan vs. Jango Fett fight scene on Kamino
*Obi-Wan tracks the Fetts to Geonosis
*Anakin’s search for the kidnapped Shmi Skywalker on Tatooine
*Anakin and Padmé’s arrival on Geonosis
*The Geonosis arena fight sequence
*The outbreak of the Clones War

Earlier, I had complained about Obi-Wan and Anakin’s lackluster duel against Count Dooku. But . . . Dooku’s duel against Jedi Master Yoda more than made up for the first duel. I thought it was an outstanding action sequence that beautifully blended the moves of both CGI Yoda figure and actor Christopher Lee’s action double. More importantly, this duel between a Jedi Master and his former padawan beautifully foreshadowed the conflict between another master/padawan team in the following movie.

However, “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” was not simply an action film with little narrative. It had its share of excellent dramatic moments. Among my favorites are Anakin and Obi-Wan’s rather tense quarrel over the Jedi mandate regarding Padmé’s protection; Chancellor Palpatine’s pep talk to Anakin before the latter’s departure from Coruscant; Anakin and Padmé’s conversation about love and the Jedi mandate; Obi-Wan’s conversations with diner owner Dexter “Dex” Jettster, Count Dooku and especially his tense encounter with Jango Fett; Jedi Masters Yoda and Mace Windu’s conversation about the Clone Army; and finally Anakin and Padmé’s poignant declaration of love. But if I had to choose the best dramatic scene, it would Anakin’s final conversation with his dying mother, Shmi Skywalker. Not only was the scene filled with pathos, drama and tragedy; both Christensen and actress Pernilla August gave superb performances in it. Many fans have complained about the Anakin/Padmé romance in the film. I suspect a good number of them have a problem with Padmé falling in love with a future Sith Lord, especially after he had tearfully confessed to slaughtering the Tusken Raiders responsible for his mother’s death. Perhaps they wanted a modern-style love story, similar to the one featured in the first trilogy. Or they had a problem with the love confession scene. Although I had a problem with the latter, I definitely did not have problem with the romance overall. One, I never believed it should be an exact replica of the main romance featured in the Original Trilogy. And two, it featured other scenes building up to the romance that I found more than satisfying – especially Anakin and Padmé’s Naboo picnic and their declaration of love, while entering the Geonosis arena.

When talking about the acting in any STAR WARS movie, one has to consider the franchise’s occasional, yet notorious forays into cheesy dialogue. And if I must be frank, I have yet to encounter one actor able to rise above the cheesiness. But despite the cheesy dialogue, the saga has provided some first-class performances. They were certainly on display in“ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Ewan McGregor became the saga’s new leading actor following the promotion of his character, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Jedi Knight. And he did an excellent job as the straight-laced knight who continued to be wary of his padawan of ten years. McGregor also handled his action scenes with the same amount of grace he handled his performance. Instead of a stoic monarch, Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala has become a Senator for her home planet of Naboo. This has allowed Portman to portray her character with more force and vibrancy, much to my relief. And Padmé’s romance in this film allowed Portman to inject a good deal of passion into her performance. Hayden Christensen took over the role of Jedi padawan Anakin Skywalker with a great deal of criticism. Much of the criticism against him came from two scenes – Anakin’s confession of love for Padmé and a comment regarding a dislike of Tatooine’s sandy terrain. I do not understand the criticism about the sand line, since I have no problems with it. I have already expressed my complaints about the love confession scene. But I still felt that Christensen did an excellent job in portraying a 19 year-old Anakin, who lacked any real experience in romance and at the same time, harbored frustration and a good deal of angst regarding his Jedi master’s tight leash upon him. And at the same time, the actor did an excellent job in conveying the more intimidating (and scary) side of his character.

“ATTACK OF THE CLONES” featured other first-rate or solid performances. Ayesha Dharker gave a solid performance laced with amusement as Padmé’s successor as Naboo’s ruler, Queen Jamillia. Ahmed Best returned as Gungan Jar Jar Binks, now Naboo’s political representative for the Galactic Senate in a downsized role. Rose Byrne had a brief appearance as one of Padmé’s handmaidens, Dormé. Frankly, I found Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse’s roles as Owen and Beru Lars equally brief. However, both Edgerton and Christensen still managed to convey some hostility between the two stepbrothers with very little dialogue. Jimmy Smits’ performance as Prince/Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan, future stepfather of Princess Leia Organa, was brief, yet solid.

The more impressive performances from Samuel L. Jackson, who was given a lot more to do in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially in the last third of the movie. And if there is one thing about Jackson, once a director gives him an inch, he will take it and give it his all. He certainly did in the Geonosis sequence. Christopher Lee made his first appearance in the STAR WARS as former Jedi Master Count Dooku. He was elegant, commanding and very memorable in the role. I could probably say the same about Temuera Morrison, who was marvelous as the bounty hunter, Jango Fett. This was especially in the Obi-Wan/Jango confrontation scene on Kamino. Both Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels returned to portray droids R2-D2 and C3PO. Baker did a good job, as usual. But Daniels was really hilarious as finicky Threepio, who found himself in the middle of a battle with crazy results. And I will never forget his line – “Die Jedi dog! Die!”Pernilla August returned to portray Shmi Skywalker and probably gave one of the best performance in both the Prequel Trilogy and the saga overall. I found her portrayal beautiful and poignant. Both she and Christensen brought tears to my eyes. When I first saw “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, I was surprised to see Jack Thompson in the role of Cliegg Lars, Shmi’s husband and Anakin’s stepfather. I must say that he gave a wonderfully gruff, yet poignant performance. And finally, there was Ian McDiarmid. Oh God! He was just wonderful. It is a pity that his role only made brief appearances in the film. I really enjoyed the actor’s take on his character’s subtle manipulations of others.

Watching “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”, it occurred to me that it was one of the most beautiful looking films in the franchise. Between David Tattersall’s photography, Ben Burtt’s editing, Gavin Bocquet’s production designs and the art designs created by a team led by Peter Russell, my mind was blown on many occasions by the film’s visual effects. I was especially impressed by the work featured in the Naboo scenes (filmed in Italy), the Coruscant sequences and especially those scenes set on the water-logged planet, Kamino. And yet, there is one scene that I always found memorable, whenever I watched the movie:

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But one cannot discuss a Prequel Trilogy movie without bringing up the name of costume designer Trisha Biggar. Her work in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” – especially the costumes worn by Natalie Portman – blew the costumes she made for“THE PHANTOM MENACE” out of the water. For example:

Padme 6

Padme 4

Padme 1

The Hollywood movie industry should be ashamed of itself for its failure to honor this woman for her beautiful work.

What else can I say about “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”? It is not perfect. I have never seen a STAR WARS movie that I would describe as perfect. But my recent viewing of this film has reminded me of how much I love it. Even after eleven years or so. To this day, I have George Lucas to thank, along with the talented cast and crew that contributed to this film. To this day, I view “ATTACK OF THE CLONES” as one of the two best films in the franchise.

Top Five Favorite “HELL ON WHEELS” Season One (2011-2012) Episodes

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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

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

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 - a

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

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

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.

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