Top Ten Favorite AGATHA CHRISTIE Movies

About two years ago, I had posted my ten favorite movies based upon some of Agatha Christie’s novel. Two years later, my tastes have changed a bit. Here is my new list: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE AGATHA CHRISTIE MOVIES

1. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his debut as Hercule Poirot in this intriguing mystery about the detective’s investigation into the death of a wealthy Anglo-American bride on her honeymoon, during a cruise down the Nile River. Directed by John Guillerman, David Niven co-starred.

2. “Evil Under the Sun” – Peter Ustinov portrays Hercule Poirot for the second time in this witty and entertaining mystery about the detective’s investigation into the murder of a famous stage actress. Guy Hamilton directed.

3. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Poirot investigates the 15 year-old murder of a famous, philandering artist in order to clear the name of his widow, who had been hanged for killing him. David Suchet and Rachael Stirling starred.

4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this classic, all-star mystery about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the death of a mysterious wealthy American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1986) – Joan Hickson stars as Jane Marple in this superb adaptation of Christie’s story about an unusual newspaper announcement that leads curious village inhabitants to a supper party and a murder. John Castle co-starred.

6. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a man disinherits his sole beneficiary and bequeaths his wealth to others just prior to his death, Poirot is called in to investigate. David Suchet and Geraldine James stars.

7. “Towards Zero” (2007) – Geraldine McEwan starred as Jane Marple in this excellent adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel about the investigation of the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman.

8. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot races against time in this haunting tale to prove whether or not a young woman was responsible for the murder of her aunt and the latter’s companion.

9. “Cards on the Table” (2005) – In this fascinating mystery, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a mysterious dinner host named Mr. Shaitana, in which four of the suspects may have committed a previous murder. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker starred.

10. “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980) – Four years before she stepped into the role of television sleuth Jessica Fletcher, Angela Landsbury portrayed Jane Marple in this entertaining mystery about a visiting Hollywood star filming a movie in St. Mary’s Mead. Guy Hamilton directed.

“THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

THE CONSPIRATOR” (2010/11) Review

Throughout Hollywood history, the topic of the American Civil War has proven to be a volatile mix in terms of box office and television ratings. Robert Redford’s new drama about President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination called “THE CONSPIRATOR”proved to be the case. 

Directed by Redford and written by James D. Solomon, “THE CONSPIRATOR” told the story about Civil War veteran Frederick Aiken’s efforts to prevent Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the Lincoln assassination during the spring and summer of 1865. Following the 16th President’s death and near fatal attack upon Secretary of State William H. Seward, a Maryland-born boarding house owner and Confederate sympathizer named Mary Surratt becomes among those arrested in connection to the crime. The Federal government, under the authority of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, is convinced of Mrs. Surratt’s guilt because of her son John’s connections to assassin John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators. Mrs. Surratt’s case was not helped by the fact that they had used her Washington D.C. boardinghouse as a meeting place; or that John managed to evade capture by the Federal authorities following the assassination.

Mrs. Surratt summoned a fellow native of Maryland, U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson, to defend her before a military tribunal. But political pressure from Stanton and others forced Johnson to recruit Aiken to represent Mrs. Surratt at the tribunal. Unfortunately, the 27 year-old Aiken lacked any previous experience inside a courtroom. The young attorney’s initial belief in Mrs. Surratt’s guilt and reluctance to defend her disappeared, as he became aware of possible evidence that might exonerate his client and that she was being used as a hostage and bait to lure her son John to the authorities through foul means.

“THE CONSPIRATOR” proved to be one of those Civil War movies that failed to generate any interest at the box office. Most moviegoers ignored it. Many critics bashed it, claiming it was another of Robert Redford’s thinly veiled metaphors on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I must be honest. I found this particular criticism worthy of some head scratching. Perhaps those critics had been right. But I must admit that I failed to see the metaphor. The manner in which the Army tribunal railroaded Mary Surratt to a date with a hangman’s noose sadly struck me as a very common occurrence throughout history. The wealthy and the powerful have never been reluctant to destroy someone they deemed as a threat or a convenient scapegoat.

Superficially, Mary Surratt seemed like the type of person toward whom I would harbor any sympathy. The Maryland-born woman had been a Confederate sympathizer. I personally found her political and social beliefs abhorrent. Yet, by revealing the lies and manipulations that she had endured at the hands of the Army tribunal and Federal government, both Redford andscreenwriter Solomon did an excellent job in igniting my sympathy. Mary Surratt’s experiences also reminded me that they could happen to anyone – even today. The idea of so much power against one individual or a particular group is frightening to behold, regardless if that individual is a slave, a Confederate sympathizer under arrest or an early 21st century citizen.

Aside from displaying the dangers of absolute powers, “THE CONSPIRATOR” succeeded on two other points – at least for me. I found the movie’s basic narrative well written and paced to a certain degree. Both Redford and Solomon had been wise to focus the movie’s plot on Mrs. Surratt’s case. They could have included the testimonies regarding the other conspirators, but that could have resulted in a great deal of chaos. However, the other defendants’ participation in the conspiracy against the Lincoln Administration was utilized in an excellent sequence that conveyed the events surrounding President Lincoln’s assassination, the attempt on William Seward’s life, John Wilkes Booth’s death and the subsequent arrests. With this excellent introduction, the movie smoothly segued into Frederick Aiken’s efforts to defend Mrs. Surratt.

However, no movie is perfect. And “THE CONSPIRATOR” had its own imperfections. My main problem centered on three characters – a close friend of Aiken’s named Nicholas Baker, who was portrayed by Justin Long; actress Alexis Bledel’s portrayal of Aiken’s fiancee, Sarah Weston; and the presence of Oscar winner Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. My only problem with Bledel was that her performance struck me as mediocre. No amount of romantic scenes or beautiful 19th century costumes could alleviate her performance. Justin Long’s presence proved to be a waste of time – at least for me. One, Redford and Solomon included a meaningless scene featuring the aftermath of a nameless Civil War battle with both James McAvoy’s Aiken and Long lying on the ground, wounded. What was the point of this scene? To establish Aiken’s devotion to the Union cause in the form of his friend, Baker? If so, I feel it failed to achieve this. Long was further wasted as one of the two friends who tried to convince Aiken not to defend Mrs. Surratt. Actually, James Badge Dale, who portrayed the young attorney’s other friend, William Hamilton, was used more effectively for this task. Long merely hung around slightly drunk or sober, as he grunted his disapproval toward Aiken. And I cannot understand why Redford even bothered to include his character in the plot. Also wasted was Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Edwin H. Stanton. Aside from convincing Reverdy Johnson not to personally defend Mrs. Surratt, barking instructions to government lackeys following the incidents at Ford’s Theater and Seward’s home, and ignoring Aiken’s attempts to contact him; Kline’s Stanton did nothing. I had expected some kind of confrontation between Aiken and Stanton . . . again, nothing happened.

Fortunately for “THE CONSPIRATOR”, the good outweighed the bad. This was certainly apparent in the rest of the cast. I would never consider Frederick Aiken to be one of James McAvoy’s best roles. But I cannot deny that he did an admirable job in transforming Aiken’s character from a reluctant legal defender to his client’s most ardent supporter. He also infused the right mixture of passion, anger and growing cynicism into his character. I have seen Robin Wright only in a small number of roles. But I do believe that Mary Surratt might prove to be one of her best in a career that has already spanned over twenty years. What truly impressed me about Wright’s performance was her ability to avoid portraying Surratt as some ladylike martyr that barely did or said anything to avoid conviction. Although Wright’s Surratt did suffer, she also conveyed grit and determination to alleviate her situation.

The majority of the cast for “THE CONSPIRATOR” gave solid performances. There were a few I considered standouts among the supporting cast. One of them turned out to be Danny Huston’s intense portrayal of the prosecuting attorney, Joseph Holt. Evan Rachel Wood superbly guided Anna Surratt’s character from a defiantly supportive daughter to a young woman on the edge of despair. Despite a slightly unconvincing Maryland accent, Tom Wilkinson gave an intelligent performance as U.S. Senator Reverdy Johnson. I could also say the same about James Badge Dale’s portrayal of William Hamilton, one of Aiken’s friends, who proved to be a wise adviser. As for actor Toby Kebbell, I have to admit that he made a convincing John Wilkes Booth.

I cannot deny that Robert Redford and screenwriter James Solomon made a few missteps with the plot and at least two characters for “THE CONSPIRATOR”. But as I had stated earlier, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Both director and screenwriter provided moviegoers with a fascinating and frightening look into the abuse of power during a famous historic event. And they were backed by excellent performances from the likes of James McAvoy and Robin Wright. I only hope that one day, audiences might overlook Redford’s current negative reputation as a filmmaker and give “THE CONSPIRATOR” a second chance.

“MILDRED PIERCE” (2011) Review

“MILDRED PIERCE” (2011) Review

When HBO first revealed its plans to air an adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, “Mildred Pierce”, many people had reacted in some very interesting ways. Some seemed thrilled by the idea of a new version of Cain’s story. But there were many who were not thrilled by the idea. And I suspect that this negative response had a lot to do with the first adaptation. 

Sixty-six years ago, Warner Brothers Studios had released its own adaptation of the novel. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie starred Joan Crawford in the title role and Ann Blyth as her older daughter, Veda. The movie received several Academy Award nominations and a Best Actress statuette for Crawford. Due to the film’s success and lasting popularity, many fans and critics viewed it as a definitive adaptation of one of Cain’s works. So, when they learned about HBO’s plans for a new version, many regarded the news with scorn. After all, how could any remake be just as good or superior to the classic Hollywood film?

Was “MILDRED PIERCE” as a miniseries just as good or better than the 1945 movie? I will give my opinion on that topic later. I will say that I truly enjoyed both versions. The miniseries benefited from Todd Haynes serving as the director, one of the producers and one of the writers. Oscar winning actress, Kate Winslet portrayed the title role. The miniseries also possessed a talented supporting cast that included Guy Pearce, Melissa Leo, Brían F. O’Byrne, Mare Winningham, James Le Gros; along with Evan Rachel Wood (“TRUE BLOOD”) and Morgan Turner. And I cannot deny that I found the miniseries’ production designs first-rate, despite a few quibbles. But I have come across a good number of movies or television productions with everything in its favor that still failed to win me over in the end. Fortunately, “MILDRED PIERCE” did the opposite.

Todd Haynes had pointed out that his new miniseries would be more faithful to Cain’s novel than the 1945 movie. And he was good on his word. The biggest differences between the Michael Curtiz movie and Haynes’ new miniseries were the running times and the lack of a murder mystery in the miniseries. That is correct. Monty Beragon was never murdered in the novel and he certainly was not murdered in the new version. There were no flashbacks on Mildred’s life, following her divorce from her first (and third) husband, Bert Pierce. And I am grateful to Todd Haynes for sparing the viewers that nonsense and sticking closer to Cain’s plot. I believed that the murder plot unnecessarily dragged the Curtiz movie. And Haynes’ miniseries was long enough. Due to the lack of a murder mystery, the miniseries retained Cain’s slightly bleaker ending. Much to the dismay of many fans.

Since Haynes had decided to stick a little closer to the novel, the miniseries covered the story’s entire time span of 1931 to 1940. Which meant that“MILDRED PIERCE” gave viewers a bird’s eye view of the Depression‘s impact upon Southern Californians like the Pierce family. Part One began in 1931 with Mildred preparing a pie to sell to one of her neighbors. Husband Bert has joined the ranks of the broke and unemployed, thanks to the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the economic hijinks of his former business partner and friend, Wally Burgan. Bert seemed to spend most of his days engaged with chores like mowing the lawn or in an affair with a neighbor named Maggie Biderhof. Bert’s announcement that he might spend another afternoon and evening with Mrs. Biderhof proves to be the last straw for Mildred. The couple have a heated quarrel that ends with Bert’s departure from the family and eventually, a divorce.

Mildred realizes that she needs a steady income to support their two daughters, Veda and Ray. Unfortunately, Veda lacks any experience for a position outside of customer service. And being enamored of her upper-middle-class status, the idea of being a waitress, maid or housekeeper is abhorrent to Mildred. She also knows that such professions are abhorrent to her pretentious and class-conscious daughter, Veda. After rejecting jobs as housemaid to the future wife of a Hollywood director and waitress at a tea parlor, the realities of the Depression finally leads a desperate Mildred to take a job as waitress at a Hollywood diner. Unfortunately, Veda learns about the new job, which leads mother and daughter to their first major quarrel and Mildred’s decision to make plans to open a restaurant. The quarrel also marked the real beginning of what proved to be the story’s backbone – namely Mildred and Veda’s tumultuous relationship.

As much as I admire “MILDRED PIERCE”, it does have its flaws. I would view some of them as minor. But I consider at least one or two of them as major. One of the small problems proved to be Haynes’ decision to shoot the miniseries in New York, instead of Southern California. Aside from Mildred’s Glendale neighborhood, most of the locations in the miniseries do not scream “Southern California” – including the beach locations. The director claimed that he had chosen the area around New York City, because it was more cost-efficient than shooting around Los Angeles. He also claimed that it would be difficult to find “Old L.A.”within the city today. Speaking as an Angeleno who has spent many weekends driving around the city, I found these excuses hard to swallow. Los Angeles and many other Southern California neighborhoods have plenty of locations that could have been used for the production. And could someone explain how filming around New York was cheaper than Los Angeles?

“MILDRED PIERCE” has received charges of slow pacing and an unnecessarily long running time. I have nothing against “MILDRED PIERCE” being shown in a miniseries format. But I have two quibbles regarding the pacing. One, the sequence featuring Mildred’s job hunt dragged unnecessarily long. Haynes filled this segment with many long and silent shots of a pensive Mildred staring into the distant or dragging her body along the streets of Glendale and Los Angeles. I am aware that Haynes was trying to convey some kind of message with these shots. Unfortunately, I am not intellectually inclined and the sequence merely ignited my impatience. On the other hand, the speed in which Haynes continued Mildred’s story in Episode Three left my head spinning. Aside from the sequence featuring the opening of Mildred’s first restaurant, I felt that the episode moved a bit too fast . . . especially since so much happened to Mildred during the two to three year time span. I would have preferred if Episode Three had a running time of slightly over an hour – like Episodes Four and Five.

Complaints aside, this “MILDRED PIERCE” struck me as truly first-rate. As much as I had enjoyed the 1945 movie, I thank God that Todd Haynes did not add that ludicrous murder mystery into the plot. Cain’s novel was not about Veda getting her comeuppance for being an ungrateful daughter to a hard-working mother. The story was about a resilient woman, who was also plagued by her personal flaws – which she refused to overcome, let alone acknowledge. Some viewers and critics have expressed confusion over Mildred’s continuing obsession over her older daughter. Others have deliberately blinded themselves from Mildred’s flaws and dumped all of the blame for her downfall entirely upon the heads of others – especially Veda. But there have been viewers and critics who managed to understand and appreciate the miniseries’ portrayal of Mildred. I certainly did.

I have never understood the complaints that “MILDRED PIERCE” had failed to explain Mildred’s unwavering obsession over Veda. I thought that Haynes perfectly revealed the reasons behind her obsession. First of all, he revealed those traits that both mother and daughter shared in numerous scenes – aspirations for entry into the upper-class, desire for wealth, snobbery, and a talent for manipulating others. Mildred’s refusal to consider those jobs at a tea parlor and as the pretentious Mrs. Forrester’s maid struck me as signs of her ego blinding her from the precarious state of her family’s financial situation. And when she finally caved in to becoming a waitress at a Hollywood diner, Mildred considered quitting, because her sensibilities (or ego) could not fathom working in such a profession. Her contempt toward others suffering from the Depression after the successful opening of her Glendale restaurant was expressed in a scene with upper-class playboy Monty Beragon. Episode Five revealed her manipulation of Monty into marrying her . . . in order to lure Veda back to her seemed pretty obvious. But one scene not only revealed the core of Mildred’s character, but also the miniseries’ theme. While despairing over her decision to become a waitress at the end of Episode One, Mildred said this to neighbor Lucy Gessler:

“She (Veda) has something in her that I thought I had and now I find I don’t. Pride or nobility or whatever it is. For both my girls, I want them to have all the cake in the world.”

Judging from Mildred’s comments, it was not difficult for me to see that she viewed Veda as an extension of herself and in some degrees, better. I believe that the quote also hinted Mildred’s personal insecurities about living among the upper-class. This insecurity was revealed in a scene from Episode Three in which Mildred appeared at a polo field in Pasadena to pick up Veda, who was bidding her “babysitter” Monty good-bye. So, this argument that Haynes had failed to explain Mildred’s enabling behavior toward Veda simply does not ring true with me.

Despite my complaint about Haynes’ decision to shoot “MILDRED PIERCE” in New York, I must admit that I found myself impressed by Mark Friedberg’s production designs. The miniseries’ setting did not have a Southern California feel to me, but Friedberg certainly did an excellent job of re-creating the 1930s. He was ably supported by Peter Rogness’ art designs and Ellen Christiansen’s set decorations. But aside from Friedberg’s work, the biggest contribution to the miniseries’ Thirties look came from Ann Roth’s costume designs. Not only did she provide the right costumes for the years between 1931 and 1940, she also ensured that the costumes would adhere to the characters’ social positions and personalities. For example, both Roth and Haynes wisely insisted that Kate Winslet wear the same dowdy, brown print dress during Mildred’s job hunt in Episode One. One last person whom I believe contributed to the miniseries’ look and style was cinematographer Edward Lachman. If I must be honest, I was more impressed by Lachman’s photography of various intimate scenes reflecting the characters’ emotions or situations than any panoramic shot he had made. I was especially impressed by Lachman’s work in Episode One’s last scene and the Episode Five sequence featuring Veda’s betrayal of Mildred.

Along with Todd Haynes’ direction, it was the cast led by the uber-talented Kate Winslet that truly made “MILDRED PIERCE” memorable. First of all, the miniseries featured brief appearances from the likes of Richard Easton and Ronald Guttman, who each gave a colorful performance as Veda’s music teachers during different periods in the story. Hope Davis was deliciously haughty as the Los Angeles socialite-turned-movie producer’s wife with whom Mildred has two unpleasant encounters. In the 1945 movie, Eve Arden portrayed the character of Ida Corwin, which was a blend of two characters from Cain’s novel – Mildred’s neighbor Lucy Gessler and her diner co-worker Ida Corwin. The recent miniseries included both characters into the production. Fresh on the heels of her Oscar win, Melissa Leo gave an engaging performance as Mildred’s cheerful and wise friend/neighbor, Lucy Gessler, who provided plenty of advice on the former’s personal life. Aside from a two-episode appearance in the last season of “24”, I have not seen Mare Winningham in quite a while. It was good to see her portray Mildred’s blunt and business-savy friend and colleague, Ida Corwin.

At least three actors portrayed the men in Mildred’s life – James LeGros, Brían F. O’Byrne and Guy Pearce. Although his sense of humor was not as sharp as Jack Carson’s in 1945, I must admit that LeGros managed to provide some memorably humrous moments as Wally Burgan, Mildred’s business adviser and temporary lover. Two of my favorite Wally moments turned out to be his reaction to the news of Mildred’s breakup from her husband and to the revelation of her romance with Monty Beragon. Brían F. O’Byrne earned an Emmy nomination as Mildred’s ex-husband, Bert Pierce. What I admired by O’Byrne’s performance was the gradual ease in which he transformed Bert’s character from a self-involved philanderer to a supportive mate by the end of the series. But the most remarkable performance came from Guy Pearce, who won a well-deserved Emmy for his performance as Monty Beragon, Mildred’s Pasadena playboy lover and later, second husband. Thankfully, Pearce managed to avoid portraying Monty as some one-note villain and instead, captured both the good and the bad of his character’s nuance – Monty’s friendly nature, his condescension toward Mildred’s class status, his seductive skills that kept her satisfied for nearly two years, his occasional bouts of rudeness and the hurt-filled realization that Mildred had used him to win back Veda.

Two remarkable young actresses portrayed Veda Pierce, the heroine’s monstrous and talented older daughter. Morgan Turner portrayed Veda from age eleven to thirteen and I must say that she did a first-rate job. In the first three episodes, Turner convincingly developed Veda from a pretentious, yet still bearable eleven year-old to an ambitious girl in her early teens who has developed a deep contempt toward her mother. My only problem with Turner’s performance were the few moments when her Veda seemed too much like an adult in a child’s body. Evan Rachel Wood benefited from portraying Veda between the ages of 17 and 20. Therefore, her performance never struck me as slightly odd. However, she miss the opportunity to portray the development of Veda’s monstrous personality. But that lost opportunity did not take away Wood’s superb performance. Despite the awfulness of Veda’s character, I must hand it to the young actress for injecting some semblance of ambiguity. Aside from portraying Veda’s monstrous personality, Wood did an excellent job of conveying Veda’s frustration with Mildred’s overbearing love and the end of her own ambitions as a concert pianist.

I have been a fan of Kate Winslet since I first saw her in 1995’s “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. There have been and still are many talented actors and actresses with the ability to portray multifaceted characters. But I believe that Winselt is one of the few who are able to achieve this with great subtlety. Her portrayal of Glendale housewife-turned-entrepreneur Mildred Pierce is a prize example of her talent for acting in complex and ambiguous roles. Superficially, her Mildred Pierce was a long-suffering and hard-working woman, who overcame a failed marriage to become a successful entrepreneur . . . all for the love of her two daughters. Winslet not only portrayed these aspects of Mildred’s character with great skill, but also conveyed the character’s darker aspects, which I had already listed in this article. She more than earned that Emmy award for Best Actress in a Miniseries.

Although many have expressed admiration for “MILDRED PIERCE”, these same fans and critics seemed to have done so with a good deal of reluctance or complaints. I will be the first to admit that the miniseries has its flaws. But I do not find them excessive. This reluctance to express full admiration for “MILDRED PIERCE” culminated in its loss for the Best Miniseries Emmy to the British import,“DOWNTON ABBEY”. I had objected to this loss on the grounds that the British drama – a television series – was nominated in the wrong category; and that I believe “MILDRED PIERCE” was slightly superior.

Flawed or not, I believe that Todd Haynes did a superb job in adapting James M. Cain’s novel. He wisely adhered to the literary source as close as possible, allowing viewers a more complex and ambiguous look into the Mildred Pierce character. Also, Haynes had a first-rate cast led by the incomparable Kate Winslet. As much as I love the 1945 movie, I must admit that this recent miniseries turned out to be a superior production. My admiration for Todd Haynes as a filmmaker has been solidified.

“MAD MEN” RETROSPECT: (1.07) “Red in the Face”

 

“MAD MEN” RETROSPECT: (1.07) “Red in the Face”

Due to some sense of nostalgia, I decided to break out my “MAD MEN” Season One DVD set and watch an episode. The episode in question turned out to be the seventh one, (1.07) “Red in the Face”

After watching “Red in the Face”, it occurred to me that its main theme centered around some of the main characters’ childish behavior. I say “some of the characters”, because only a few managed to refrain from such behavior – Sterling Cooper’s co-owner Bert Cooper; Office Manager Joan Holloway; and Helen Bishop, a divorcée that happens to be a neighbor of the Drapers. I do not recall Cooper behaving childishly during the series’ last four seasons. Helen Bishop merely reacted as any neighbor would when faced with a situation regarding her nine year-old son and a neighbor. As for Joan, she had displayed her own brand of childishness (of the vindictive nature) in episodes before and after “Red in the Face”. But in this episode, she managed to refrain herself.

I cannot deny that I found this episode entertaining. And I believe it was mainly due John Slattery’s performance as Roger Sterling, Sterling-Cooper’s other owner. In scene after scene, Slattery conveyed Roger’s penchant for childishness – proposing an illicit weekend to Joan, resentment toward the female attention that Don Draper managed to attract at a Manhattan bar, making snipes at the younger man’s background during an impromptu dinner with the Drapers, making sexual advances at Betty Draper, and gorging on a very unhealthy lunch. That is a lot for one episode. Roger’s behavior served to convey a middle-aged man stuck in personal stagnation. Even worse, he has remained in this situation up to the latest season. And Slattery managed to convey these tragic aspects of Roger’s character with his usual fine skills.

Jon Hamm fared just as well with another first-rate performance as the series’ protagonist, Don Draper. In “Red in the Face”, Hamm revealed Don’s immature and bullying nature behind his usual smooth, charismatic and secretive personality. This was especially apparent in a scene that Hamm shared with January Jones, in which Don accused his wife Betty of flirting with Roger. And Don’s less admirable nature was also apparent in the joke that he pulled on Roger in the episode’s final scenes. Speaking of Betty, January Jones also did a top-notch job in those scenes with Hamm. She also gave an excellent performance in Betty’s confrontation with Don, following the dinner with Roger; and her conversation with neighbor Francine about her desire to attract attention. I have noticed that most of the series’ fans seemed to regard Betty as a child in a woman’s body. Granted, Betty had her childish moments in the episode – especially during her confrontation with neighbor Helen Bishop at a local grocery store. But I have always harbored the opinion that she is no more or less childish than the other main characters. This episode seemed to prove it. One last performance that stood out came from Vincent Kartheiser as the young Accounts executive Pete Campbell. To this day, I do not understand why he is the only major cast member who has never received an acting nomination for an Emmy or Golden Globe. Because Kartheiser does such a terrific job as the ambiguous Pete. His complexity seemed apparent in “Red in the Face”. In one scene, he tried to exchange a rather ugly wedding gift for something more dear to his heart – a rifle. His attempt to exchange the gift seemed to feature Pete as his most childish. Yet, he also seemed to be the only Sterling Cooper executive who understood the advertising value of John F. Kennedy’s youthful persona during the 1960 Presidential election.

Earlier, I had commented on how screenwriter Bridget Bedard’s use of childish behavior by some of the main characters as a major theme for “Red in the Face”. I have noticed that once this behavior is apparent; Roger, Don, Betty and Pete are left humiliated or “red in the face” after being exposed. Betty’s decision to give a lock of hair to Helen Bishop’s nine year-old son in (1.04) “New Amsterdam” led to a confrontation between the two women at a grocery store and a slap delivered by Betty after being humiliated by Helen. If I had been Betty, I would have admitted that giving young Glen a lock of her hair was a mistake, before pointing out Glen’s habit of entering a private bathroom already in use. And Pete’s decision to trade the ugly-looking chip-and-dip for a rifle led to being berated over the telephone by his new wife, Trudy. Only a conversation with Peggy Olson, Don’s secretary, about his fantasies as a hunter could alleviate his humiliation. During the Drapers’ dinner party with Roger, the latter noted that Don’s habit of slipping his “Gs” indicated a rural upbringing – a revelation that left Don feeling slightly humiliated. And after accusing Betty of flirting with Roger, she retaliated with a snide comment about his masculinity. Don tried to retaliate by calling her a child, but Betty’s stoic lack of response only fed his humiliation even more. However, he did get even with Roger by setting up the latter with a cruel practical joke that involved a falsely inoperative elevator and a heavy lunch that included oysters and cheesecake. Although the joke left Don feeling smug and vindicated, I was left more convinced than ever of his penchant for childish behavior. Aside from feeling humiliated by a pair of young females’ attention toward Don, Roger managed to coast through most of the episode without paying a price for his behavior. In the end, he suffered the biggest humiliation via his reaction to Don’s joke – by vomiting in front of prospective clients.

“Red in the Face” featured many scenes that I found entertaining – especially the impromptu dinner party given by the Drapers for Roger Sterling. But if I must be honest, I did not find it particularly impressive. Although “Red in the Face” offered viewers a negative aspects of four of the main characters, I do not believe it did nothing to advance any of the stories that began at the beginning of the season. I must also add that Betty’s confrontation with Helen Bishop seemed out of place in this episode. While watching it, I had the distinct impression that this scene, along with Betty and Francine’s conversation, should have been added near the end of “New Amsterdam”. By including it in “Red in the Face”, it almost seemed out of place.

I could never regard “Red in the Face” as one of the best episodes of Season One or the series. But I cannot deny that thanks to performances by John Slattery, Jon Hamm, January Jones and Vincent Kartheiser, I found it entertaining.

FRANCHISE RANKING: The “STAR WARS” Movies

Below is my ranking of the six movies in the “STAR WARS” franchise:

FRANCHISE RANKING: The “STAR WARS” Movies

1a. “Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) – In this second movie of the Original Trilogy, Luke Skywalker takes advanced Jedi training from former Jedi Master Yoda and his friends are relentlessly pursued by Darth Vader as part of his plan to capture Luke. One of my top two favorite STAR WARS movies. (TIE)

1b. “Episode II – Attack of the Clones” (2002) – The second movie of the Prequel Trilogy featured Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker sharing a forbidden romance with Senator Padmé Amidala; while his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi, makes an investigation of a separatist assassination attempt on Padmé which leads to the discovery of a secret Republican clone army. My other favorite STAR WARS movie. (TIE)

2. “Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” (2005) – In the last Prequel Trilogy movie, Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker concludes his journey to becoming a Sith Lord, following three years of fighting the Clone Wars and puts his friendship with Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi and his marriage at risk. Very intense.

3. “Episode I – The Phantom Menace” (1999) – In the first Prequel Trilogy, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi investigate the Trade Federation’s takeover of the planet of Naboo and meet nine year-old Anakin Skywalker for the first time.

4. “Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977) – This is the first movie in the Original Trilogy and the first to be released in the theaters. It tells the story of farmboy Luke Skywalker, who leaves his home planet and teams up with other rebels, while trying to save Princess Leia from the evil clutches of Darth Vader.

5. “Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” (1983) – The last Original Trilogy movie featured the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt and the Rebels’ attempt to destroy the Second Death Star. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker tries to get his father to reject his role as the Emperor’s apprentice.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” (2011) Review

Below is my review of the Science-Fiction/Western movie, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” (2011) Review

Ever since its release during the last month of July, many have been contemplating on the box office failure of the highly anticipated movie, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. I could go over the many theories spouted about its failure, but I would find that boring. I am simply aware that the movie only earned $34 million dollars short of its budget. And all I can say is that I find this a damn pity.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” had some big names participating in its production. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford were the movie’s stars. The cast also included well known names such as Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Keith Carradine, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown. Jon Farveau, the director of the two successful “IRON MAN” movies, helmed the director’s chair. At least five of the screenwriters – Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby – have been associated with projects like “LOST” and the “STAR TREK”. And big names in the film industry such as Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg acted as some of the producers. But despite all of this “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” remained one of the flops of this summer. Again, pity. I realize that I keep using the word “pity” as a response to the movie’s failure. But I cannot help it. I really enjoyed“COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it has become one of my favorite movies from the summer of 2011.

The movie was based upon the 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. It told the story of an alien invasion that occurred in the New Mexico Territory in 1873. The story focused upon a mysterious loner that awakens in the desert, injured and wearing a strange bracelet shackled to his wrist. He wanders into the town of Absolution, where the local preacher, Meacham treats his wound. After the stranger subdues Percy Dolarhyde, who has been terrorizing the populace, Sheriff Taggart recognizes the loner as Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw, and tries to arrest him. Jake nearly escapes, but a mysterious woman named Ella Swenson knocks him out. Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde, a rich and influential cattleman, arrives with his men and demands that Percy be released to him. He also wants Jake, who had stolen Dolarhyde’s gold. During the standoff, alien spaceships begin attacking the town. Percy, Sheriff Taggart and many townsfolk are abducted. Jake shoots down one ship with a device concealed in his wrist band, ending the attack. Realizing that the bracelet that Jake wears stands between them and the aliens, Colonel Dolarhyde, Meacham and Ella convinces Jake to help them find the aliens and the kidnapped townspeople, despite the fact that he has no memory of his own identity, let alone of any previous encounters with the aliens. Their expedition leads them Jake’s former gang and a band of Chiricahua Apaches, who have also been victims of the aliens.

“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” is not perfect. It has its flaws. To be honest, I can think of one or two flaws. Perhaps one. Although I understood that the aliens were taking the gold found near Absolution to power their starship, the script never made it clear on why they were taking the populace, as well. The only thing that the script made clear was that the kidnapped populace were being experimented upon. When it comes to human experimentation of reasons behind an invasions, many plots for alien invasion movies and television series tend to be rather weak in this area, including some of the best in this genre. And my other problem was that the script failed to reveal how Ella, who turned out to be another alien whose people had been destroyed by the invaders, ended up on Earth.

But despite these flaws, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” really impressed me. I thought that Jon Favreau did an excellent job in combining action with the film’s dramatic moments. And his eye for location, greatly assisted by Matthew Libatique’s photography of the New Mexican countryside, gave the movie’s visuals a natural grandeur. In my review of “SUPER 8”, I had commented that it reminded me of an old “STAR TREK VOYAGER” episode. I cannot say the same for “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. But it did remind me of a “STAR TREK VOYAGER”fanfiction story called “Ashes to Ashes”. At least Jake’s experiences with the aliens before the movie began. And“COWBOYS AND ALIENS” must be the only alien invasion movie I can think of that was set before the 20th century. It occurred to me that if the two most famous adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel, “War of the Worlds” had been given its original setting, this would not have been the case. Unless someone knows of another alien invasion movie with a pre-20th century setting. Ever since I first saw the trailers for “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”, I wondered how the screenwriters would combine the two genres of Science-Fiction and Westerns. Hell, I wondered if they could. Mixing Jake’s history as an outlaw with his experiences with the aliens did the trick. At least I believe so. More importantly, “COWBOYS AND ALIENS” provided plenty of opportunities for character development – and that includes the supporting cast.

The cast certainly proved to be first-rate. There have been British actors who have appeared in Westerns before. Come to think of it, Daniel Craig is not even the first James Bond actor who has appeared in a Western. But he is the only one I can recall who appeared in a Western as an American-born character. And if I must be blunt, the man takes to Westerns like a duck to water. More importantly, both Craig’s super performance and the screenwriters made certain that his Jake Lonergran did not come off as some cliché of the “Man With No Name” character from Sergio Leone’s DOLLAR TRILOGY”. Craig made him a man determined to learn of his past, while dealing with the sketchy memories of a past love and his attraction toward Ella.

The character of Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde seems like a far cry from Harrison Ford’s usual roles. His Colonel Dolarhyde was not the solid Jack Ryan type or the rough, yet dashing Indiana Jones persona. In one of his rare, offbeat roles, Ford’s Colonel Dolarhyde was a ruthless, no-nonsense man who ruled his ranch and the town of Absolution with an iron fist. And Ford did a first-rate job of diluting Dolarhyde’s distasteful ruthlessness into something more . . . human and warm. I wondered how I would take Olivia Wilde’s performance as the mysterious Ella Swenson, who seemed determined to get Jake to help the rest of Absolution’s citizens find the aliens. After seeing the movie, I enjoyed her performance very much. She had a strong chemistry with Craig. More importantly, she gave a solid performance and possessed a strong screen presence. But I really enjoyed about Wilde’s performance was that she conveyed an other world quality about Ella that strongly hinted her role as an alien who landed on Earth to find the invaders who had destroyed most of her race.

The supporting cast was led by the likes of Sam Rockwell, who competently portrayed Absolution’s insecure saloon keeper, Doc; and Adam Beach, who gave a deliciously complex performance as Dolarhyde’s right-hand man, Nat Colorado. And actors such as Paul Dano as Dolarhyde’s s raucous son, a serene Clancy Brown, Noah Ringer (from “THE LAST AIRBENDER”), who portrayed the sheriff’s grandson, and a solid Keith Carradine gave firm support.

I do not know what else I could say about “COWBOYS AND ALIENS”. I find it a pity that it failed to become a box office hit. Because I really enjoyed it. The screenwriters, along with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a first-rate cast led by Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and fine direction by Jon Favreau made it one of my favorite films of the summer of 2011.

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

 

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

Not long after ITV aired its premiere of Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame’s successful series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, the BBC announced its plans to air an updated version of the old 1970s television classic, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. The news took me by surprise. I had naturally assumed that the series’ creators Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins decided to revive the series in response to the news about “DOWNTON ABBEY”. Had I been wrong? I do not know. Did it really matter? I do not think so. 

The new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” picked up six years following the old series’ finale. The London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place in the Belgravia neighborhood is no longer occupied by any member of the Bellamy family. A Foreign Office diplomat and his wife – Sir Hallam Holland and Lady Agnes Holland – have returned to Britain and inherited the Eaton Place townhouse. The couple hired former parlourmaid Rose Buck, now running her own agency for domestic servants, to find them staff as they renovate the house to its former glory. The Hollands are forced to deal with the arrivals of Sir Hallam’s mother, Maud, Dowager Lady Holland and her Sikh secretary Amanjt Singh; and Lady Agnes’ sister, Lady Persephone Towyn – all of whom cause major stirs within the new household. The three-episode series spanned the year 1936 – covering the death of King George V, the Battle of Cable Street and King Edward VIII’s abdication.

Because it came on the heels of the critical darling, “DOWNTON ABBEY”“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” received a good share of negative criticism from the media and television viewers. And if they were not comparing it to the series written by Julian Fellowes, they were comparing it to the old “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” from the 1970s. Among the negative press it received was a report of a brief clash between Marsh and Fellowes regarding the two series. If I must be honest, I was just as guilty as the others for I had believed the negative press without having seen the series. But my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch it.

I did have a few problems with “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. It had its moments of over-the-top maudlin, courtesy of screenwriter Heidi Thomas. I suppose I should not have been surprised. Thomas had served as screenwriter for 2007’s“CRANFORD” and its 2009 sequel. And she managed to inject plenty of wince-inducing sentiment into those productions, as well. I also found Rose Buck’s hunt for the Hollands’ new staff rather tiresome. It dominated the first half of Episode One, “The Fledgling” and I nearly gave up on the series. And I also found the cook Clarice Thackeray’s encounter with society photographer Cecil Beaton disgustingly sentimental. But . . . the encounter led to one of the best cat fights I have seen on television, so I was able to tolerate it. I have one last problem – namely the series’ three episode running time. Three episodes? Really? I would have given it at least five or six. Instead, the three episodes forced the first series to pace a lot faster than I would have liked.

For me, the virtues of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” far outweighed the flaws. First of all, I was delighted that Marsh, Atkins and Thomas had decided to set the new series in the 1930s. I have been fascinated with that decade for a long time. It witnessed a great deal of potential change and conflict throughout Europe – including changes within Britain’s Royal Family that had a major impact upon the nation. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” did an excellent job in conveying how these changes affected ordinary Britons and the Holland household in particular. Many had complained about the strong, political overtones that permeated “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. I, on the other hand, loved it. The political overtones not only suited the series’ 30s setting but also jibed with the fact that one of the major characters happened to be a diplomat from the Foreign Office, with friendly ties to a member of the Royal Family.

Production wise, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” looked gorgeous. Designer Eve Stewart did a superb job in re-creating London in the mid-1930s for the series. Along with set decorator Julia Castle, she converted 165 Eaton Place into a wealth of Art Deco eye candy. Amy Roberts’ costumes – especially for Keeley Hawes and Claire Foy – were outstanding and contributed to the series’ 1930s look. My only complaint regarding the series’ production is the series’ theme and score. Quite frankly, the only memorable thing about Daniel Pemberton’s work was that I found it too light for my tastes. It suited Heidi Thomas’ occasional forays into sentimentality very well. Unfortunately.

Not being that familiar with the original “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” series from the 70s, I did not find myself comparing the old cast with the new one. First of all, I thought the new cast did just fine – including the recurring characters. Blake Ritson gave a subtle performance as Prince George, Duke of Kent and youngest living brother to King Edward VIII. I noticed that Thomas took great care to ensure that Ritson’s Duke of Kent would be critical of Wallis Simpson’s pro-Nazi sympathies. I found this interesting, considering of his past reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. Speaking of Mrs. Simpson, I was slightly disappointed by Emma Clifford’s portrayal of the future Duchess of Windsor. The actress portrayed Mrs. Simpson as some kind of negative archetype of American women found in many British productions – gauche and verbose. This portrayal seemed completely opposite of how Mrs. Simpson had been described in the past – cool and tart. Edward Baker-Duly was given a more ambiguous character to portray – namely German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop – which allowed him to give a more subtle performance.

I found the casting for the Holland servants very satisfying. Many have complained that Jean Marsh’s role as Rose Buck seemed woefully reduced in compared to the old production. If her role had been reduced, I did not mind. After all, Rose was a familiar figure and I believe it was time for the lesser-known characters to shine. As much as I had enjoyed Adrian Scarborough’s solid yet nervous butler, Mr. Pritchard, and Anne Reid’s tart-tongued cook Clarice Thackeray; I found myself impressed by Neil Jackson’s cool portrayal of the ambiguous chauffeur Harry Spargo. I thought he did a great job in conveying the changing passions of Harry, without resorting to histronics. Ellie Kendrick did an excellent job in her portrayal of the young and very spirited housemaid, Ivy Morris. Although Art Malik seemed a bit noble as the Dowager Lady Holland’s Sikh secretary, Mr. Amanjit, I believe that he managed to come into his own when his character befriended the German-Jewish refugee Rachel Perlmutter in Episode Two, “The Ladybird”. Like Scarborough and Red, Helen Bradbury gave solid performance as Frau Perlmutter. However, there were a few moments when she managed to inject a great deal of pathos into her performance, making it a pity that she only appeared in one episode. Heidi Thomas’ portrayal of the Hollands’ servants really impressed me. She managed to portray them as multi-dimensional characters, instead of the one-dimensional portrayals that marred the characterizations of the servants featured in Series One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”.

Heidi Thomas certainly did a marvelous job with her characterizations of the members of the Holland family. I had noticed that most fans and critics were impressed by Eileen Atkins’ portrayal of the Maud, Dowager Lady Holland. I cannot deny that she did a superb job. Atkins was overbearing, intelligent, wise and impetuous. But . . . the Lady Holland character also struck me as a remake of the Dowager Countess of Grantham character from “DOWNTON ABBEY” . . . who struck me as a remake of the Countess of Trentham character from “GOSFORD PARK”. In other words, the Lady Holland character struck me as being a somewhat unoriginal character. One could almost say the same about the Sir Hallam Holland character, portrayed by Ed Stoppard. Many fans have complained about his “noble” personality and penchant for political correctness – especially in his handling of Lotte, the orphaned daughter of Holland maid, Rachel Perlmutter, and his distaste toward the British Fascist movement. However, Stoppard did an excellent job in making Sir Hallam a flesh-and-blood character. And this came about, due to Stoppard’s opportunity to reveal Sir Hallam’s reaction to the conflict between his mother and wife, making him seem like a bit of a pushover.

But for me, the two most interesting characters in the series proved to be Lady Agnes Holland and Lady Persephone Towyn, the two daughters of an impoverished Welsh peer. In their unique ways, the two sisters struck me as very complex and ambiguous. At first glance, Keeley Hawes’ portrayal of Lady Agnes Holland seemed like a cheerful, slightly shallow woman bubbling with excitement over establishing a new home in London. Hawes’ performance, along with Thomas’ script, even managed to inject some pathos into the character after the revelations about Lady Agnes’ past failures to maintain a successful pregnancy. But once her mother-in-law and rebellious sister became a permanent fixture in her house, the cracks in Lady Agnes’ personality began to show. Thanks to Hawes’ superb performance, audiences were allowed glimpses into the darker side of Lady Agnes’ personality. After watching Series One of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”, many would view Lady Agnes’ younger sister – Lady Persephone – as the series’ villain. And she seemed so perfect for the role, thanks to Claire Foy’s brilliant performance. Her Lady Persephone was a vain, arrogant and temperamental bitch, who treated the Hollands’ staff like dirt – save for Harry Spago, with whom she conducted an affair. At first, it seemed that Harry managed to bring out Lady Persephone’s softer side, especially in her ability to emphasize with his woes regarding the country’s social system. Harry also introduced her to the British Fascist movement. But whereas he ended up finding it repellent, Lady Persephone became even more involved . . . to the point that she developed a relationship with the German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, before following him back to Germany.

I am not going to pretend that the new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” is an exceptional series. Because I do not think that it is. Basically, it is simply a continuation of the old series from the 1970s. I thought that its running time was ridiculously short – three episodes. It could have benefited from at least two or three more episodes. And screenwriter Heidi Thomas marred it even further with a good deal of over-the-top sentimentality, especially in the first and third episodes. However, Thomas managed to tone down that same sentimentality in the characters. Nor she follow Julian Fellowes’ mistake in“DOWNTON ABBEY” by portraying the servants as one-dimensional characters. And the cast, led by Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes, were first rate. But what really worked for me was the 1930s setting that allowed Thomas to inject the political turmoil that made that era so memorable. I only hope that Thomas will continue that setting in the second series.“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” may not have been perfect, but I believe it was a lot better than a good number of critics and fans have deemed it.