“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

I never understood director Tim Burton’s decision to name his latest film, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. I mean . . . why did he do it? His new movie was not another adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. It was a sequel set thirteen years after the original story. So why use the shortened version of the title from Carroll’s original title? 

Many of you might be wondering why I had just made a big deal about this new movie’s title. For me, it represented an example of what I consider to be the numerous missteps that prevented me from embracing Burton’s new movie. Before I continue, I should confess that I have never been a Tim Burton fan. Never. I can only recall two of his movie that knocked my socks off – 1994’s ”ED WOOD” and the 2007 Golden Globe nominee, ”SWEENY TODD”. I wish I could include”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” in that category, but I cannot. The movie simply failed to impress me.

As I had stated earlier, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” was a sequel to Carroll’s original story. Thirteen years after her original adventures in Wonderland, Alice Kingsleigh has become a nineteen year-old young woman on the verge of accepting a wedding proposal from one Hamish Ascot, the son of her late father’s partner, Lord Ascot. Unfortunately, Hamish is a shallow and self-absorbed young man with very little character. Salvation arrived during Hamish’s very public marriage proposal, when Alice spotted a familiar figure – the same White Rabbit who had previously lured her to Wonderland – scampering across Lord Ascot’s estate.

History repeated itself when Alice fell down into the rabbit hole. However, she soon discovered that Wonderland (orUnderland) had changed during her thirteen years absence. The Red Queen had managed to wreck havoc and assume control over most of Underland, thanks to her new ”champion” – a dragon known as the Jabberwocky. Only the realm of the Red Queen’s sister, the White Queen, has remained beyond the red-haired monarch’s reach. However, that situation threatened to change if the White Queen fails to acquire her own champion. A scroll called “the Oraculum” predicted that Alice will not only be the White Queen’s champion, but she will also defeat the Jabberwocky and end the Red Queen’s reign of terror. But due to her stubborn belief that Underland was and still is nothing but a dream, Alice was reluctant to take up the mantle of the White Queen’s champion.

Judging by the plot I had just described, ”ALICE OF WONDERLAND” should have been an enjoyable movie for me. Granted, Linda Woolverton’s script seemed like a typical ”slay the dragon” storyline that has been used in numerous fantasies. But it still had enough adventure, intrigue and personal angst for me to find it appealing. So, why did it fail to light my fire? Production designer Robert Stromberg created an interesting mixture of Gothic and animated styles for the film’s visuals in both the England and Wonderland sequences. Anthony Almaraz and his team of costume designers created lush and colorful costumes for the cast. And Dariusz Wolski’s photography brought out the best in the movie’s visual styles.

”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” could also boast some first-rate performances from the cast. Johnny Depp gave a wonderfully complicated performance as the Mad Hatter. His Mad Hatter was an interesting mixture of an extroverted personality and pathos, punctuated by bouts of borderline insanity. The Red Queen might possibly be one of Helena Bonham-Carter’s best roles. She struck me as the epitome of childishness, selfishness and cruelty. Crispin was slick, menacing and subtly funny as the Red Queen’s personal henchman, the Knave of Hearts. Anne Hathaway’s delicious portrayal of the White Queen reminded me of a Disney princess on crack. I really enjoyed it. Both Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James (who were both in the 1985 miniseries, ”JEWEL IN THE CROWN”) gave solid performances as Alice’s potential in-laws – the kindly Lord Ascot and his shrewish and bullying wife, Lady Ascot. And Alan Rickman gave voice to the Blue Caterpillar in a deliciously sardonic performance. Despite my positive opinion of most of the film’s technical aspects and performances, it still failed to impress me. Why?

First of all, the movie rested upon the shoulders of Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska as the lead character, Alice Kingsleigh. I understand that Ms. Wasikowska has recently received critical acclaim for her portrayal of a suicidal teen in HBO’s ”IN TREATMENT”. It seemed a pity that she failed to be just as impressive as Alice in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Some people have labeled her performance as ”subtle”. I would call it ”insipid”. Or perhaps just plain boring. I swear I have never come across such a bland and boring performance in my life. No only did Wasikowska managed to make Alice’s battle against the Jabberwocky seem dull, she still came close to putting me to sleep in her character’s moments of triumph in the movie’s finale.

Tim Burton’s direction of ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” proved to be just as uninspiring to me, as Wasikowska’s performance. Actually, I found myself thinking of the 1992 movie, ”DEATH BECOMES HER”. I was not comparing the visual effects between the two movies. Meryl Streep had uttered a word in the 1992 movie that perfectly described my opinion of Burton’s direction. Flaccid. ”FLA-A-A-A-CI-I-ID!” How did a director with Burton’s reputation managed to take a solid fantasy adventure and make it one of the most boring films in recent Hollywood history is beyond me. His direction lacked any pep. Or spark. I had felt as if I was watching a piece of limp lettuce in action. I even began to wonder if Burton’s dull direction had affected Wasikowska’s performance. Then I remembered that actors like Depp and Bonham-Carter managed to rise above his direction. I might as well dump the blame of Wasikowska’s performance on her shoulders. As for Tim Burton . . . what is there to say? His direction simply disappointed me.

I might as well say something about the movie’s 3-D effects. They were not only disappointing to me, but also a waste of time and the extra cash I had to pay for the movie tickets. I did not care for the 3-D effects in ”AVATARS”, but it was an example of technical wizardry in compare to the 3-D photography shown in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Speaking of”AVATAR”, I have one last thing to say in regard to 3-D . . . ’Damn you, James Cameron!”. Seriously. I would like to take the man’s head and bash it through a wall for introducing 3-D to the movie going experience. In the two movies I have seen it in, I found it unimpressive. Worse, I had to pay extra movie because movie theaters are more willing to show the 3-D versions of movies like ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”, instead of the 2-D versions.

In short, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” had all of the hallmarks of a solid and entertaining movie experience for me. It was the continuation of a classic fantasy adventure. Talented actors like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Crispin Glover and Anne Hathaway gave first-rate performances. And I must admit that the movie’s production designs and photography gave it a unique visual style. But all of that could not save a movie hindered by pedestrian 3-D effects, a dull and insipid performance by Mia Wasikowska and an even more insipid direction by Tim Burton. Frankly, I think it is a miracle that this movie managed to become a box-office hit.

“SAD CYPRESS” (2003) Review

“SAD CYPRESS” (2003) Review

Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1940 novel, ”SAD CYPRESS” is a story about Hercule Poirot’s efforts to discover the truth behind the case of a young woman facing conviction for the murder of her ailing wealthy aunt and a lodge keeper’s daughter who has become her aunt’s companion. Directed by David Moore, this 90-minute movie starred David Suchet as the Belgian detective. 

The story began with a doctor from a small town named Peter Lord who hires Hercule Poirot to clear the name of a young woman Elinor Carlisle. Elinor is facing trial for the murder of a young woman named Mary Gerard, the beautiful companion of her late aunt, Mrs. Laura Welman. Through interviews and flashbacks, Poirot learns that Elinor was engaged to Mrs. Welman’s nephew by marriage, Roddy Welman. Unfortunately for Elinor, Roderick (or Roddy) falls in love with Mary. Realizing that marriage to Roddy would be useless, Elinor ends the engagement, freeing him to pursue Mary. But her resentment toward her aunt’s companion fails to fade. And when Mary dies from poisoning during an afternoon tea, suspicion falls upon Elinor and she is arrested for murder. When Poirot and the authorities discover that Mrs. Welman had died of poisoning and was the real mother of Mary Gerard, Elinor is charged with the murder of her aunt.

I have one complaint about ”SAD CYPRESS”. The revelation of the murderer produced a contrived ending to an otherwise first-rate murder mystery. I am not joking. The method in which the two crimes were committed and how Poirot came to the truth seemed rather unbelievable.

With that out of the way, I did find the rest of ”SAD CYPRESS” to be very satisfying. Hell, it was more than satisfying. One, Poirot found himself with a case that seemed nearly hopeless for Elinor Carlisle. Two, it was a case that featured two murders committed in the distant past. I have a soft spot for murder stories that come close to resembling historical mysteries. Three, not only did Poirot play a major role in this story – much stronger than he did in ”THE HOLLOW”, but so did the Elinor Carlisle character. One would think that the Mary Gerard character had a major impact upon the story. And she . . . plot wise. But for me, Elinor Carlisle had a stronger impact. On the surface, she seemed like a pleasant and well-bred young woman who kept her emotion in check. But that was simply a façade. Despite her reserved nature, Elinor’s raging emotions seemed to be felt or sensed by those around her. The impact of her personality gave the story an emotional punch that I found rewarding.

The producers of ”SAD CYPRESS” certainly selected the right actress to portray Elinor Carlisle. Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh was the right woman to project an air of English gentility that masked the personality of a passionate woman who loved just a little too heavily. Especially in scenes that required little or no dialogue, Dermot-Walsh did a superb job in displaying great pathos. Also superb was David Suchet as Poirot. I must admit that ”SAD CYPRESS” featured what I believe to be one of Suchet’s better performances in the role. In this particular movie, his Poirot projected a large array of emotions – frustration, patience, perplexity and cunning – that I have rarely seen in many other Poirot movies.

The rest of the cast struck me as pretty solid. Rupert Penry-Jones proved once again what a chameleon he could be in his dead-on portrayal of Elinor’s fiancé, the supercilious, yet proud and shallow Roderick Welman. Phyllis Logan gave a complex performance as one of the nurses, Nurse Hopkins. Paul McGann was vibrant as the passionate Dr. Peter Lord, the local doctor who was in love with Elinor Carlisle. Kelly Reilly portrayed the story’s catalyst, Mary Gerard. But the character struck me as so bland that I felt Reilly could hardly do anything with the role.

Production designer Michael Pickwoad did a solid job of supporting the movie’s setting of 1937-38 rural England. And Sheena Napier’s costume designs seemed historically accurate and colorful without being too theatrical. Thanks to a first-rate cast led by David Suchet and Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh , along with Dave Moore’s adaptation of Christie’s emotional tale of jealousy and greed, ”SAD CYPRESS” turned out to be one of the better versions of a Christie murder mystery I have seen in the past decade.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Ten “Points” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Ten “Points” Commentary

”BAND OF BROTHERS” finally came to an end in this tenth episode that featured Easy Company’s experiences as part of the U.S. Army of occupation, following Germany’s surrender in Europe. This marked the third episode that featured Richard Winters as the central character and the second with his narration. 

Told in flashback via Winters’ narration, ”Points” opened in July 1945, with Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) enjoying a morning swim in an Austrian lake, while being watched by his best friend, Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston). After the two friends spend a few minutes looking at regimental photos, Winters recalls the experiences of Easy Company during the last days of the war in Europe and their role as part of an occupational force. Two months earlier, the company manages to capture Eagle’s Nest, Adolf Hitler’s high mountain chalet in Berchtesgaden. Following Easy Company’s capture of Berchtesgaden, they receive news of Germany’s surrender to the Allied Forces. Easy’s remaining stay in Germany does not last long. They, and the rest of 2nd Battalion, are sent to Austria as part of the U.S. Army’s occupational force. Easy Company battled boredom, various departures, the death of Private John Janovec (Tom Hardy) in a jeep accident, the shooting of Sergeant Chuck Grant (Nolan Hemmings) by a drunken American soldier, and a mixture of anticipation and anxiety over the possibility of being shipped to the Pacific. The miniseries ended with a visit by a recovered Lynn “Buck” Compton (Neal McDonough) and the revelations of the men’s post-war lives.

”Points” proved to be a mildly interesting episode about what it was like for World War II veterans to serve as part of an occupational force in Europe, following Germany’s defeat. Many of the incidents featured in the last paragraph certainly prevented the episode from becoming dull. And thanks to Erik Jendresen and Erik Bork’s screenplay, along with Mikael Salomon’s direction; ”Points” provided other interesting scenes. One featured a tense scene that saw Joe Liebgott (Ross McCall), David Webster (Eion Bailey) and Wayne A. “Skinny” Sisk (Philip Barrantini) assigned to capture a Nazi war criminal. Private Janovec’s conversation with a German veteran at a road checkpoint provided a good deal of subtle humor for me. Another humorous scene featured Winters and Nixon’s encounter with a still resentful Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer), who proved to be very reluctant to salute the now higher ranked Winters. One scene that really grabbed my attention featured most of the 506th regimental officers watching a newsreel about the fierce Battle of Okinawa in Japan. Not only did that scene remind viewers the fate that Easy Company had managed to evade with the surrender of Japan, it also proved to be an unintentional foreshadow to Spielberg and Hanks’ World War II follow-up, ”THE PACIFIC”.

Once again, Damian Lewis gave a subtle, yet exceptional performance as the miniseries’ leading character, Richard Winters. But I was also impressed by Matthew Settle’s fierce portrayal of a frustrated and somewhat tense Ronald Spiers, who struggled to keep Easy Company together, despite their travails as part of an occupying force. And I was pleasantly surprised by Peter Youngblood Hills’ poignant performance in a scene that featured Darrell C. “Shifty” Powers’ private farewell to Winters.

I do have one major complaint about ”Points”. I did not care for the fact that miniseries did not reveal the post-war fates of “all” of the surviving members of Easy Company. The only characters whose lives we learned about were most of those seen in Austria, at the end of the episode . . . but not all. The episode never revealed what happened to Edward “Babe” Heffron or Donald Malarkey, who were also in Austria, by the end of the miniseries. And viewers never learned of the post-war fates of veterans such as William “Bill” Guarnere, Walter “Smokey” Gordon, Joe Toye, Roy Cobb, Les Hashley, Antonio Garcia, and yes . . . even Herbert Sobel.

Despite my major disappointment over how the episode ended, I still enjoyed ”Points”. I would never consider it to be one of my favorite episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. But it did not put me to sleep. However, it still managed to be a satisfying end to the saga.

Richard D. Winters (1918-2011), RIP

“WASHINGTON SQUARE” (1997) Review

 

“WASHINGTON SQUARE” (1997) Review

I suspect there might be a good number of movie fans who have seen William Wyler’s 1949 movie, ”THE HEIRESS”. This film, which led to a second Academy Award for actress Olivia DeHavilland, was based upon both Henry James’ 1880 novel, ”Washington Square”, and the 1947 stage play of the same title. In 1997, another version of James’ novella appeared on the movie screens. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin and Maggie Smith. 

Anyone familiar with James’ tale should know that it told the story of one Catherine Sloper, the plain and awkward daughter of the wealthy Dr. Austin Sloper in antebellum Manhattan, who falls in love with a penniless, yet handsome young man named Morris Townsend against her father’s wishes. If one thinks about it, the plot sounds like a typical costumed weeper in which a pair of young lovers kept apart from outside forces – in this case, a disapproving parent. But James had added a few twists to make this story. One, the story kept many in the dark on whether the penniless Morris actually loved Catherine. Two, Dr. Sloper not only disapproved of Morris, but also harbored deep contempt and resentment toward his daughter’s plain looks and awkward social skills. Her crimes? Catherine’s birth had led to the death of his beloved wife. And his daughter failed to inherit her mother’s beauty and style. After a great of psychological warfare between Catherine, Dr. Sloper, Morris and Dr. Sloper’s sister Lavinia Penniman, the story ended on a surprising note for those who have never read the novel or seen any of the film or stage versions. Those familiar with the tale at least know that it ended on a note of personal triumph for the heroine.

Many movie fans and critics seemed incline to dismiss ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” as a poor remake of the 1949 film. I will not deny that in many respects, ”THE HEIRESS” is superior to ”WASHINGTON SQUARE”. However, I would not be inclined to dismiss the 1997 film as a failure. It still turned out to be a pretty damn good adaptation of James’ novel. In fact, it turned out to be a lot better than I had expected.

Jennifer Jason Leigh did an excellent job of portraying the shy and socially awkward Catherine Sloper. Even better, she managed to develop Catherine’s character from a shy woman to one who became more assured with herself. However, I do have one small quibble regarding Leigh’s performance. She had a tendency to indulge in unnecessary mannerisms that would rival both Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett.

Maggie Smith gave an illuminating performance as Catherine’s silly and romantically childish aunt, Lavinia Sloper Penniman. I found myself very impressed by Ben Chaplin’s portrayal of Catherine’s handsome and charming suitor, Morris Townsend. The actor struck a perfect balance of charm, impatience and ambiguity. And his verbal battles with Albert Finney’s character left me spellbound. Judith Ivey gave an intelligent performance as Catherine’s other aunt, the sensible and clever Elizabeth Sloper Almond. I especially enjoyed one scene that featured a debate between Catherine’s father and Aunt Elizabeth over her relationship with Morris.

But in my opinion, Albert Finney gave the best performance in the movie as Catherine’s aloof and slightly arrogant father, Dr. Austin Sloper. The interesting thing about Finney’s performance was that he able expressed Dr. Sloper’s concern he felt over the possibility of Catherine becoming the victim of a fortune hunter. At the same time, Finney perfectly balanced Sloper’s concern with the character’s lack of affection or warmth toward his daughter. My favorite scene with Finney featured an expression of disbelief on his face, as his character noticed Lavinia’s enthrallment over Catherine and Morris’ musical duet.

If there is one aspect of ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” that impressed me more than Wyler’s 1949 adaptation was Allan Starski’s production designs. Under Holland’s direction, Starski worked effectively with costume designer Anna B. Sheppard, Jerzy Zielinski’s photography and the visual effects supervised by Pascal Charpentier to transport moviegoers back to antebellum New York City. In fact, the movie’s late 1840s setting struck me as superior to that shown in the 1949 movie. And because of this, the movie managed to avoid the feeling of a filmed play.

Holland and screenwriter Carol Doyle’s adaptation of James’ novel seemed a lot closer to the original source than the earlier version. At least the movie’s last twenty minutes adhered closer to the novel. I suspect that the movie’s first ten to fifteen minutes – which focused upon an embarrassing childhood incident regarding Catherine and her father’s birthday party – had been the screenwriter’s invention. Personally, I found this sequence rather unnecessary. Doyle could have easily used brief dialogue to reveal the origin of Dr. Sloper’s coldness toward Catherine. But in the end, Doyle’s screenplay basically followed James’ novel.

But after watching the movie’s last twenty minutes, I found myself wishing that Doyle and Holland had followed Wyler’s adaptation and the 1947 stage play. The movie nearly fell apart in the last twenty minutes, thanks to a decision on Holland’s part. Most of the dramatic moments in ”WASHINGTON SQUARE” appeared in the last half hour – Catherine’s realization of her father’s dislike, Morris’ rejection of her after discovering her decision to endanger her inheritance, Dr. Sloper’s death, the reading of his will and Morris’ second attempt to woo Catherine. Out of all these scenes, only Catherine’s reaction to her father’s will generated any real on-screen dramatics. All of the other moments were performed with a subtlety that robbed filmgoers of any real drama. The fact that I could barely stay awake during Catherine’s final rejection of Morris told me that Holland made a serious mistake in guiding her cast to portray these scenes in a realistic manner. There is a time for realism and there is a time for dramatic flair. And in my opinion, those final scenes in the last half hour demanded dramatic flair.

Despite my disappointments in the movie’s last half hour, I must admit that I managed to enjoy ”WASHINGTON SQUARE”. It may not have been just as good as or superior to 1949’s ”THE HEIRESS”. But I believe that it still turned out to be a pretty damn good movie.

 

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

I have read several novels about the historic event known as the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-1858 (aka The Indian Mutiny, or aka the First War of Indian Independence). And the main characters in each novel have been British. I have not seen one movie about the event. And after seeing 2005’s ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”, I still have not seen one movie about the Sepoy Rebellion. But this is the first movie I have seen that touches upon the subject. 

Actually, ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is really a prelude to the Sepoy Rebellion itself. Directed by Farrukh Dhondy, it is based upon the life of Mandey Pandey, an Indian sepoy (soldier) of the British East India Company, who served as the catalyst for the 1857-58 rebellion. The movie began with Pandey facing execution for violently protesting against the use of new rifles issued by the East India Company. Pandey, along with his fellow soldiers believe that the rifles’ cartridges have been greased by animal fat – beef, pork or both. Since many Hindus and Muslims view this as an abhorrent, they consider the cartridges an insult to their religious beliefs. Pandey’s conflict with the Company (East India Company) rule also manifests in a few violent clashes with an aggressive and bigoted British officer named Hewson. In the end, not even Pandey’s friendship with his company’s sympathetic commander, Captain William Gordon, can save him from being convicted and executed by the regimental commander. His execution eventually inspired other sepoys to view him as a martyr and continue the major revolt against British rule he has instigated.

I have been aware of ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” for nearly two years – ever since I read about it on theWikipedia site. But I never thought I would get a chance to view it, until I discovered that Netflix offered the movie for rent. And if I have to be perfectly honest, it is a pretty damn good film. However, it is not perfect. I suspect that it is not historically accurate. This does not bother me, considering that most historical dramas are not completely accurate. However, I have one minor and one major complaint about the movie. My minor complaint centered on the occasionally melodramatic dialogue of the British characters. Aside from Toby Stephens, who portrayed William Gordon and Coral Beed, who portrayed the daughter of the regimental commander, Emily Kent; I was not that impressed by the British cast. I found them rather hammy at times. However, I had a real problem with the occasional musical numbers that interrupted the story’s flow. The last thing I wanted to see in a costumed epic about a historical figure are three to five minute musical numbers. They seemed out of place in such a film.

But if I have to be honest, there was one musical number that did not interrupt the story’s flow. It featured a dance number in which a group of courtesans – led by a woman named Heera. Heera’s performance attracted the drunken attention of Pandey’s main foe, Lieutenant Hewson. And Pandey found himself in a fight against the British officer to prevent the latter from pawing and sexually assaulting Heera. But that was simply one of many interesting dramatic scenes featured in ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”. Another featured a tense moment in which Pandey attempts to help Gordon convincing the other sepoys that the cartridges used in the new rifles are not greased with animal fat, by loading the rifle. However, this action backfires when Pandey eventually becomes convinced that he had been wrong. But the cartridges and Pandey’s reaction to them turn out to be the tip of the iceberg in the conflict between the growing resentment of the sepoy and the British rulers.

Although most of the movie centered on the dark aspects of the British Empire, it did touch upon one aspect of Indian culture with a negative note – namely the funeral practice of sati. Pandey and Gordon had saved a young Indian widow from the sati funeral pyre and Gordon spent the rest of the film saving her from being killed by her in-laws. However, the movie is about Mangal Pandey and the negative aspects of British imperial rule by 1850s India. The movie featured the corruption generated by the East India Company’s production of opium in India and its trade in China. The movie also featured the continuation of the slave trade in which Indian women are used as sexual slaves for the Company’s officer corp. This introduced one the movie’s major characters, the courtesan named Heera, who bluntly expressed her view on the Indian male population who willingly sign up to serve the East India Company’s army. When Pandey expressed his contempt toward women like her for selling their bodies, she responded with equal contempt at all of those who ”sold their souls” to the East India Company. All of the resentment over British rule and the distrust regarding the new Enfield rifles and the greased cartridges finally spilled over in an ugly encounter between Pandey and Lieutenant Hewson. Their second encounter became even uglier when Hewson and a group of fellow officers pay Pandey a visit at the regiment’s jail to brutally assault the imprisoned sepoy even further. Violence finally spilled over when Pandey convinced the other sepoys to mutiny. And after he is executed, the mutiny at the Barrackpore will inspire other sepoys throughout many parts of India to rebel against British rule.

I was not exaggerating when I say that most of the performances by the British cast members came off as over-the-top. A prime example was Ben Nealon’s portrayal of Pandey’s main nemesis, Lieutenant Hewson. One could say that Nealon was at a disadvantage from the start. His character was just as one-dimensional as many non-white characters that could be found in old Hollywood movies with a similar setting. However, Coral Beed, who portrayed Emily, the daughter of the Barrackpore commander, fared better. In a way, Emily came off as another cliché from the British Imperial literature of the 20th century – the young, open-minded English girl who is not only sympathetic to the Indians, but also interested in their culture. But Beed managed to portray this cliché without coming off as a second-rate version of the Daphne Manners character from 1984 miniseries, ”THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN”. Fortunately, most of the Indian cast did not engage in hammy acting. However, there was one exception – the actor who portrayed the “Untouchable” sweeper who mocked Pandey for demonstrating the new Enfield rifle. I do not know his name, but gave the hammiest performance in the entire movie. I felt as if I was watching an Indian version of a court jester perform. Perhaps that was director Dhondy’s intent. If it was, it did not work for me. However, I found myself very impressed by Rani Mukherjee’s performance as Pandey’s love interest, the courtesan Heera. Mind you, I found the idea of a devout Hindu like Pandey becoming romantically involved in a prostitute – especially one used to service British officers hard to believe. But I must admit that Mukherjee and actor Aamir Khan (who portrayed Pandey) had a strong screen chemistry. And the actress did give a very charismatic performance.

Finally we come to the movie’s two lead actors – Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. And both actors gave superb performances. Aamir Khan is considered one of India’s biggest stars. He is at times compared to George Clooney. Well, he deserves the comparison. Not only is he a handsome man, but he also possesses a dynamic screen presence and is a first-rate actor. And he did an excellent job of developing Mangal Pandey’s character from the loyal sepoy who seemed to be satisfied with his life, to the embittered rebel whose actions instigated a major uprising. Khan conveyed this development with great skill and very expressive eyes. Toby Stephens was equally impressive as the British East India officer, Captain William Gordon. One might find his character a little hard to digest, considering that he is portrayed as being very sympathetic to the Indian populace and their culture (save for the sati ritual) with hardly any personal flaws. Fortunately, Stephens is skillful enough as an actor to rise above such one-dimensional characterization and portray Gordon as an emotionally well-rounded individual.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is not perfect. It has its flaws, which include some hammy acting and questionable historic accuracy. But its virtues – an interesting and in-depth study of a man who made such an impact upon both Indian and British history; superb acting – especially by the two leads Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens; and a rich production made it a movie worth watching. It is rare for a Westerner to view or read a story relating to the Sepoy Rebellion from the Indian point-of-view. I am aware that other movies, novels and history books have focused on the topic from a non-British POV. But “MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” was my first experience with this point-of-view and I believe that director Ketan Mehta and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy did a pretty solid job.

“WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” (1999) Review

“WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” (1999) Review

Eleven years have passed since the BBC first aired ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS”, the 1999 adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 novel. And despite the passage of time, it has a sterling reputation as one of the best adaptations of a literary source in recent years. 

Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Nicholas Renton, ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” told the story of Molly Gibson, the young daughter of a local village doctor during the last decade of the Georgian era. The four-part miniseries struck me as Molly’s coming-of-age story. She and her widowed father lived an idyllic life until two things occurred. One, her father married a woman she disliked, a former governess named Hyacinth “Claire” Kirkpatrick. And two, Molly fell in love with one Roger Hamley, the scientifically-minded younger son of a local squire.

If Dr. Gibson had his way, Molly would have never experienced any coming-of-age. But after one of his apprentices became romantically interested in her, he became determined to keep her in a state of perpetual adolescence. But his actions merely ensured that he would fail. First, he arranged for Molly to become the companion to Mrs. Hamley, the sickly wife of the squire. This gave Molly the opportunity to form an emotional attachment to the Hamley, befriend and fall in love with younger son, Roger. Then Dr. Gibson committed another act that defeated his purpose. He married former governess Hyacinth Kirkpatrick in order to provide Molly with a stepmother. This action backfired, since Molly never warmed up to the selfish and socially ambitious older woman. However, she did befriend the new Mrs. Gibson’s rebellious and more worldly and daughter, Cynthia Kirkpatrick. Not only did both Kirkpatrick women managed to disrupt the Gibson household, but Molly’s relationship with Cynthia would open her eyes to a great deal more about relationships and life in general – both the good and bad.

Other subplots abounded in ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS”. Molly had a first-hand look into the conflict between the loveable, yet impatient and slightly selfish Squire Hamley and his more genteel older son, Osbourne. At first, the Hamleys seemed to regard Osbourne as the key to the family’s return to its former glory. But Osbourne’s scholastic troubles and excessive spending (for a secret French wife for whom he provided a private household) ended up disappointing Squire Hamley. Instead, he transferred his hopes to his younger and more studious son, Roger; who seemed to be on the verge of making a name for himself as a naturalist in Britain’s scientific community.

Another subplot centered on Cynthia Kirkpatrick. The French-educated and very beautiful young woman seemed to have struck both the Gibson family and the village of Hollingford with the force of a whirlwind. Cynthia projected a sexuality and worldliness that attracted nearly every male around her – including Roger Hamley. Unfortunately for Molly, Mrs. Gibson’s plans for her daughter included an ambitious marriage to the older Hamley sibling, Osbourne. But when the intensely pragmatic woman discovered that the older Hamley sibling’s health was in a precarious state, she encouraged Cynthia to set her sights on Roger. And considering his feelings for her, Cynthia had no trouble in achieving her mother’s goals with an engagement. Cynthia also had a secret that eventually affected Molly. Five years before, she had become secretly engaged to Lord Cumnor’s land agent, Mr. Preston. The latter’s insistence on a wedding date and Molly’s involvement on Cynthia’s behalf led the doctor’s daughter to become a target of village gossip.

Not only is Gaskell’s novel considered a masterpiece by literary critics, but this 1999 adaptation turned out to be highly regarded by television critics and viewers, as well. Some critics consider it to be the best adaptation of a Gaskell novel. Other critics believe it might be a toss-up between ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” and the 2007 miniseries, ”CRANFORD”. The 1999 miniseries certainly won its share of television awards. And if I must be honest, those awards were well-deserved. ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” provided a complex and in-depth peek into an English village society during the last decade of the Georgian era through the eyes of Molly Gibson. I must admit that I have rarely come across a movie or television series set during the 1820s or the 1830s. And I would certainly consider ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” among the best. Screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Nicholas Renton did a marvelous job in drawing the audience into Molly’s world.

The setting and story of ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” – or at least most of them – seemed to perfectly represent this precarious stage in Britain’s history in which the country found itself balanced between the static world of the Georgian period and the social and scientific upheavals that ushered in the Victorian Age. Davies and Renton manifested this in Molly’s coming-of-age story, which included her father’s reluctance to allow her to develop into an adult and her relationship with Cynthia. The screenwriter and the director also manifested this precarious stage in the relationship between Squire Hamley and his two sons – Obsbourne and Roger. As for the latter, many believe that Gaskell based his character on her distant cousin, the naturalist Charles Darwin who became a prominent figure in the Victorian Age’s scientific community.

Davies and Renton also did an excellent job of exploring the in-depth emotions of familial and romantic love in ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” also explored the in-depth emotions of familial and romantic love. Molly’s close relationship with her father – fully explored in Episode One – eventually grew weaker due to Dr.Gibson’s attempts to keep her close and at an adolescent stage. I found it interesting that although Squire Hamley grew to adore Molly, he made it clear to the doctor that he would never consider her – the daughter of a country doctor – as a suitable wife for either of his sons. Yet, Roger Osborne ended up married to a young French woman beneath his social station, and Roger eventually became engaged to Dr. Gibson’s step-daughter, Cynthia and married to Molly by the end of the series. Already, Victorian Britain’s social upheavals – at least in ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” – had began to rear its head. Cynthia’s love life, which turned out to be the best plotline in the story – also turned Molly’s life upside-down and forced her onto the path of adulthood.

The miniseries’ greatest virtue turned out to be the collection of complex supporting characters that gave ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” its energy and drive. For me, this was especially true of five characters – Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson (Francesca Annis), Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon), Osborne Hamley (Tom Hollander), Mr. Preston (Iain Glen) and Cynthia Kirkpatrick (Keeley Hawes). When the miniseries focused upon these characters, I found myself fascinated by the story. Each character struck me as so complex that it seemed a pity that none of them was the main character. Michael Gambon won both a BAFTA TV Award and a Royal Television Society Award for his portrayal of the likeable, yet socially rigid and selfish landowner, who seemed determined to return his family to its former glory, via one or both of his sons. I must admit that Squire Hamley was truly a fascinating and complex character. Although I liked him a lot, there were times I could have happily strangle him for viewing his sons as instruments for his familial ambitions and inability to truly understand them at times. Francesca Annis earned a nomination for her portrayal of the self-absorbed and social climbing Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson. One would, at first, be inclined to label Hyacinth as an “evil” stepmother. But Annis’ performance made it clear that Hyacinth was not at all one-dimensional. She also managed to inject a good deal of pathos into her character, allowing one to understand that some of Hyacinth’s behavior stemmed from a sense of survival for herself and her family, due to years spent in the social wasteland as a governess and underpaid schoolteacher.

Tom Hollander gave a very affecting and sympathetic performance as the poetic Osborne Hamley, the squire’s elder son who constantly disappointed his father. From other articles and reviews of ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS”, many tend to view Osborne as a weak and self-involved man. I never got that impression from Hollander’s complex portrayal. Instead, I saw a man whose only real weakness was an inability to admit to his father that he had made a socially inacceptable marriage. It was this weakness that led to scholastic problems at the university and monetary problems. Iain Glen’s Mr. Preston seemed to be the villain of the story – at least on a superficial level. His Mr. Preston tried to coerce Cynthia into honoring her promise to marry him after five years. Superficially, Glen portrayed Mr. Preston as a smug and slightly arrogant man, who seemed obsessed with Cynthia. However, thanks to his complex performance, he revealed to audiences that Mr. Preston had been nothing more than a victim of Cynthia’s capricious and selfish behavior. As for Cynthia, Keely Hawes gave a delicious performance as Molly’s sexy and very likeable step-sister. What I found interesting about Hawes’ Cynthia is that the character possessed a talent for avoiding responsibility for her actions, along with an inability for returning love . . . yet, seems quite capable of winning the affections of everyone around her. Except for Dr. Gibson. The rest of the cast included Bill Paterson, who gave a charming, yet complex performance as Dr. Gibson; along with Barbara Flynn and Deborah Findlay as the Misses Brownings, and Rosamund Pike as Lady Harriet Cumnor, who all gave solid performances.

Justine Waddell did a good job in carrying the four-part miniseries and making Molly Gibson a very likeable leading character. Yet, there were times when Waddell’s Molly came across as a bit too ideal for my tastes. Aside from her quick temper, she seemed to lack any real personal flaws. One could name her naivety as a flaw. But that particular state of mind is something the average human being will always experience during his or her lifetime. Overall, Molly was . . . nice, but not what I would call an interesting lead character. Her reaction to her father’s new marriage and her involvement with Cynthia’s problems with Mr. Preston seemed to be the only times I truly found her interesting. I certainly could not say the same about Squire Hamley’s younger son, Roger. In fact, I did not find him interesting at all. To me, Roger was simply aBORING character. Perhaps Anthony Howell was not at fault and did all he could with the role. The actor certainly portrayed Roger as a likeable and compassionate man. But the character was just boring. If I had been Gaskell or even Davies, I would have portrayed Roger as a more complex and interesting character. Or allow Molly to fall in love with a more interesting character. Alas, neither happened. Roger’s only flaw seemed to be a habit of falling in love with women on a superficial level.

Due to Molly’s idealistic personality and Roger’s dull one, I found their romance very unsatisfying. Renton handled their blossoming friendship rather nicely in Episode One. However, Roger took one look at Cynthia in Episode Two and immediately fell in love. Worse, he left England for Africa after proposing marriage to her. Roger did not return to Hollingford until past the middle of Episode Four. This left Renton and Davies at least a half hour or so to develop Roger’s romance with Molly and get them married. And how did he fall in love with her? Roger took one look at Molly wearing a sophisticated ball gown and hairstyle (courtesy of Lady Harriet) and fell in love. Ironically, he fell in love with Molly in the same manner he had fallen in love with Cynthia. That did not bode well with me. Many have praised Davies for providing a memorable ending to Gaskell’s story, considering that she died of a heart attack before completing the novel’s last chapter. I would have found it romantic myself, if I had not found the couple’s romance rushed and unsatisfying. I realize that ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” is not solely about Molly and Roger’s romance. I also realize that the romance was nothing more than one of the story’s subplots. But that does not excuse what I saw as a poorly dramatized romance that began and ended on a hasty note.

I also found the miniseries’ early sequence – Molly’s first meeting with her future step-mother at Lord Cumnor’s estate – somewhat unnecessary. I can only assume that this sequence was supposed to establish Hyacinth Kirkpatrick’s selfish nature and Molly’s dislike of her. Yet, by the time the series ended, I had the feeling that the impact of Molly’s relationship with her stepmother did not seem as strong as I had earlier believed it would, while watching Episode One. Most of Molly’s problems seemed to be centered around Cynthia’s relationships with both Roger and Mr. Preston.

Thankfully, ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” has more to offer than just an interesting tale and excellent performances. Production designer Gerry Scott did a solid job in bringing the late Georgian Era back to life in a small, English village. And if I must be honest, I adore Deirdre Clancy’s costumes. I found them colorful and strongly reminiscent of the late 1820s and early 1830s. Cinematographer Fred Tammes did justice to the miniseries’ early 19th century setting. He made Hollingsford look like a very colorful place to live and southern Africa very exotic, yet desolate.

I wish I could say that I found ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” to be a complete delight. But due to a leading female character that I found too idealistic and her unsatisfying romance with a very dull character in the miniseries’ last quarter, I cannot make that claim. And as I had stated earlier, I found the early sequence featuring Molly’s first meeting with her future stepmother a bit unnecessary. But the virtues outweighed the flaws. ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” conveyed an interesting coming-of-age story, thanks to the leading character’s interactions with some well-written supporting characters. It also provided viewers with a tantalizing look into the changing social mores of Britain, as it prepared to transcend from the Georgian Era to the Victorian Age.

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

 

“DEATH ON THE NILE” (1978) Review

Four years after the success of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, producer John Bradbourne focused his attention upon adapting another Agatha Christie novel for the screen. In the end, he decided to adapt Christie’s 1937 novel, ”DEATH ON THE NILE”

Instead of bringing back Sidney Lumet to direct, Bradbourne hired journeyman action director John Guillermin to helm the new film. And instead of re-casting Albert Finney, Bradbourne hired Peter Ustinov for the pivotal role of Belgian private detective, Hercule Poirot. It would turn out to be the first of six times he would portray the character. The ironic thing about ”DEATH ON THE NILE” is that although ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” had received more acclaim – the point of being regarded as the finest adaptation of any Christie novel – my heart belongs first and foremost to the 1978 movie.

One might ask – how can that be? ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” is highly regarded by critics and moviegoers alike. It even managed to collect a few Academy Awards. And its story – a revenge plot that centered around the past kidnapping of a five year-old child – has a great deal of pathos and depth. Yet . . . my favorite Christie movie is still ”DEATH ON THE NILE”. Its production never struck me as over-the-top as the 1974 movie. And I believe that it perfectly matched the movie’s plot about Poirot’s efforts to solve the murder of a wealthy Anglo-American heiress during a luxury cruise down the Nile River. Most importantly, because the actor portraying Poirot came from Central European stock, he WAS NOT inclined to portray the detective in an exaggerated manner that British and American actors like Finney and Tony Randall were prone to do. But if I must be honest, I simply enjoyed the movie’s adaptation and Guillermin’s direction.

As I had stated earlier, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” centered around the murder of an Anglo-American heiress named Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, during a cruise down the Nile River. A vacationing Hercule Poirot did not take very long to discover that most of the passengers either bore a grudge against the heiress or wanted something she possessed. The suspects included Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet’s former best friend who was once engaged to her new husband Simon Doyle; Linnet’s American attorney Andrew Pennington, who has been embezzling money from her inheritance before her marriage; a wealthy American dowager and kleptomaniac Mrs. Marie Van Schuyler, who has an eye for Linnet’s pearls; Miss Bowers, Mrs. Van Schuyler’s companion, whose father had been ruined by Linnet’s father; Salome Otterbourne, an alcoholic novelist who is being sued for libel by Linnet; Rosalie Otterbourne, Mrs. Otterbourne’s embittered, yet devoted daughter; James Ferguson, a young Communist who resents Linnet’s wealth; Dr. Ludvig Bessner, a Swiss clinical doctor whose methods that Linnet has spoken against; and Louise Bourget, Linnet’s French maid that is being prevented from marrying a man who lives in Egypt. Also on the cruise are Simon Doyle, Jacqueline’s former fiancé; Colonel Race, a friend of Poirot and a fellow detective, who is acting as a representative for Linnet’s British attorneys; and Poirot. Most of them had a reason to kill Linnet Doyle . . . and the opportunity to kill her, save one.

Unlike ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, not all of the characters featured in Christie’s 1937 novel appeared in the 1978 film. Which did not bother me, since the deleted literary characters had struck me as the least interesting. Ironically, many of these deleted characters had the strongest motives to murder Linnet Doyle in the novel. Only Jacqueline de Bellefort, Andrew Pennington and Mrs. Van Schuyler made the transition from novel to movie with their motives intact. Another change from the novel resulted in ALL of the suspects either harboring a reason to kill Linnet. Although, I must admit that I found Jim Ferguson’s motive rather slim. Political and economical repugnance toward an obvious capitalist like Linnet Doyle as a motive seemed to be stretching it a bit to me. And most of the suspects, as Poirot revealed, had an opportunity to commit the deed. Perhaps screenwriter Anthony Schaffer (who did not receive credit for his work on the ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” screenplay) may have went a bit too far with this scenario. But if I must be perfectly honest, I have nothing against these changes. In fact, they made the movie a little more entertaining for me.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” had a first-rate cast that had obviously enjoyed themselves. This especially seemed to be the case with Bette Davis, who portrayed Mrs. Van Schuyler. The literary version of the character seemed to be a humorless tyrant. Davis’ version of the character possessed a sly, yet malicious sense of humor that she constantly used to torment her long suffering companion, Miss Bowers. Yet, Davis also gave Mrs. Van Schuyler a sense of privilege to make her slightly autocratic. Another performance that I found highly entertaining, although flamboyant, belonged to Angela Landsbury (the future Jane Marple and the future Jessica Fletcher) as the alcoholic has-been novelist, Salome Otterbourne. Did Landsbury’s portrayal of Mrs. Otterbourne struck me as over-the-top? Yep. In spades. Did I care? Not really. Why? Because the literary version of Salome Otterbourne struck me as even more over-the-top . . . and less likeable. Whereas Angela Landsbury gaven a flamboyant performance, George Kennedy gave a far more restrained one as Andrew Pennington, Linnet Doyle’s embezzling American attorney. One of my favorite scenes involving Kennedy featured a moment when Pennington reacted to Simon Doyle’s admission of a lack of business skills. Anyone could see Pennington’s idea of dealing with the more gullible Doyle instead of Linnet, gleaming in Kennedy’s eyes.

In my review of the James Bond movie, ”MOONRAKER”, I had accused Lois Chiles of giving a slightly wooden performance. Granted, I would never view her as an exceptional actress, I must admit that she gave a much better performance in ”DEATH ON THE NILE”, as the wealthy and slightly autocratic Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. The amazing thing about Chiles’ performance was that she could have easily portrayed Linnet as a one-note bitch. Instead, the actress managed to successfully convey more complexities into her character, also revealing a charming woman, a good friend (somewhat), and a warm and passionate spouse. Simon MacCorkindale gave a solid performance as the straight-forward Simon Doyle – Jacqueline’s former fiancé and Linnet’s new husband. MacCorkindale not only conveyed Simon’s charm, but also the character’s simple nature, lack of imagination and an inability to realize how much he had truly hurt his former fiancée. If it were not for Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot, I would have declared Mia Farrow’s performance as the spurned Jacqueline de Bellefort as the best one in the movie. Instead, I will simply state that I believe she gave the second best performance. Emotionally, her Jacqueline seemed to be all over the map – angry, resentful, passionate, vindictive, remorseful and giddily in love. Yet somehow, Farrow managed to keep the many facets of Jackie’s personality in control and not allow them to overwhelm her. I especially enjoyed her interactions with Ustinov, as she portrayed a reluctant disciple to his mentor. The pair had an interesting and strong screen chemisty.

I could also say the same about Ustinov’s interactions with David Niven, who portrayed fellow detective Colonel Race. Niven’s portrayal was charming and at the same time, very humorous. The interesting thing is that Ustinov used to be Niven’s batman (personal servant to a commissioned military officer) during World War II before the pair became good friends. This friendship permeated their scenes together. But more importantly, Peter Ustinov took the role of Hercule Poirot and made it his own. Just as David Suchet would do nearly two decades later. Ustinov managed to inject his own brand of humor into the role without wallowing in some caricature of the Continental European. More importantly, I believe that Ustinov did an excellent job of conveying Poirot’s intelligence, sense of justice and formidable personality.

Like its 1974 predecessor, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” could boast a superb production, thanks to the crew that John Bradbourne had hired. Anthony Powell designed the movie’s costumes, evoking an era set during the early 1930s. I must admit that I found that interesting, considering that the novel had been published in 1937 and possibly written in 1936. Although a good deal of the movie was filmed on location in Egypt, I had been surprised to learn that many of the scenes aboard the S.S. Karnak had been filmed in England – both interiors and exteriors. It was a credit to both cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designers Peter Murton, along with Brian and Terry Ackland-Snow that the film managed to convey the movie’s setting of a small and exclusive Nile River steamboat with such clarity and elegance.

”DEATH ON THE NILE” was not without its flaws. Well, I can only think of one at the moment. Actor I.S. Johar portrayed the S.S. Karnak’s unnamed manager. Unfortunately, Johar’s portrayal of the steamboat’s manager invoked strong memories of the many actors and actresses of non-European descent that found themselves stuck in comic relief roles during the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. And ”DEATH ON THE NILE” had been filmed in 1977 and released in 1978. Johar found himself stuck in a clichéd and humiliating role and I suspect that Guillermin, Schaffer and Bradbourne are to blame for allowing such a role in the film.

But you know what? Despite that one major complaint, ”DEATH ON THE NILE” ended up becoming my favorite adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. It may not be considered the best among film critics and moviegoers. But then again, I have never been inclined to blindly follow popular opinion.