“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (1987) Review

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“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (1987) Review

Agatha Christie’s 1965 novel is a bit of a conundrum for me. It strikes me as one of the most unusual novels she has ever written. When I first saw the television adaptation for it, I found myself wondering how the director and the screenwriter would handle it. 

“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” beings with Miss Jane Marple arriving in London to spend a holiday at Bertram’s Hotel, a place she used to stay during her youth. Her first reaction to Bertram’s is sheer rapture, as she realizes that the hotel has retained its late Victorian/Edwardian atmosphere after many decades. The plumbing and communication system may have been modernize. Otherwise, the hotel’s atmosphere, interior designs, the food and the style of the hotel’s staff has not changed a whit. But it does not take Miss Marple long to realize that the hotel’s lack of change seemed unusual, considering that most long-standing hotels tend to change over the years. And thanks to an encounter with an old friend named Lady Selina Hazy, Miss Marple also becomes aware of a family drama being played out inside Bertram’s, between an adolescent girl of good family named Elvira Blake and her estranged mother, a famous adventuress and socialite named Bess, Lady Sedgwick. Their relationship seems to be tangled with two men – a Polish-born race car driver named Ladislaus Malinowski, who seemed to be romancing both women; and Bertram’s commissionaire, an Irishman named Michael “Micky” Gorman, whose conversation with Lady Sedgwick is overheard by both Elvira and Miss Marple. Everything comes to a head when one of the hotel guests, a forgetful clergyman named Canon Pennyfeather, disappears on the night the Irish Mail train was robbed; and on the following night, Bertram’s commissionaire, Michael “Micky” Gorman, is shot dead in front of the hotel.

I might as well say it. “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” does not feature one of the best murder mysteries written by Christie. When I first read the novel, it did not take me long to figure out Michael Gorman’s killer. Even worse, the murder does not occur until the last third of the movie. However, one must remember that the title of this particular tale centers around Bertram’s Hotel. If one really wants to enjoy a good mystery in this tale, it can be found in the mysteries that surround the hotel itself – the “old-fashioned” atmosphere, the presence of freewheeling types like Lady Sedgwick and Malinowski in such an archaic establishment, and the sightings of hotel guests like Canon Pennyfeather at recent robbery scenes. The hotel itself proves to be the real mystery that not only captures Miss Marple’s attention, but also the attention of Scotland Yard’s Chief-Inspector Fred “Father” Davy.

I have to give director Mary McMurray credit for exploring the movie’s rich atmosphere of 1950s London and Bertram’s itself. There were other factors in the movie that contributed to its atmosphere, including Jill Hyem’s screenplay, Judy Pepperdine’s costume designs, and especially Paul Munting’s production designs. However, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” has its flaws. Aside from a lackluster murder mystery, the movie also suffered from faded coloring. Looking at the movie, I get the feeling that the actual television movie had been shot with inferior film. And as much as I liked the mystery surrounding the hotel itself, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” also suffered from a slow pacing, thanks to McMurray’s direction. But that seems to be the case for many of the Miss Marple films that starred Joan Hickson.

The strongest virtues of “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” seemed to be its cast. Joan Hickson was marvelous as always as intelligent and observant Miss Marple. Joan Greenwood gave an entertaining portrayal of Miss Marple’s more elegantly dressed, yet gossipy friend, Lady Selina Hazy. I really enjoyed George Baker’s warm, yet colorful performance as Chief Inspector Fred Davy, who not only proves to be just as intelligent as Miss Marple, but also appreciative of her sleuthing skills and a solid afternoon tea. Robert Reynolds’ portrayal of Ladislaus Malinowski seemed like a cliche of Eastern Europeans, despite the sexy overtones. Brian McGrath practically oozed of Irish charm (of a slightly seedy nature) in his performance as murder victim Michael Gorman. Preston Lockwood gave a charming performance as the sweet, yet befuddled Canon Pennyfeather. But the two best performances – in my opinion – came from Caroline Blakiston and Helena Michell as mother and daughter, Lady Sedgwick and Elivra Blake. Lady Sedgwick has always struck me as one of the most colorful characters created by Christie, and Blakiston made the character even richer in her superb performance. And Michell did an excellent job in combining the two contrasting traits of Elivra’s personality makeup – her passionate feelings for Malinowski and her cool, yet conniving ability to manipulate others for her own personal gain.

“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” is not exactly one of the best Miss Marple films I have ever seen. Then again, it is based on one of the oddest Christie novels ever. But if a viewer can overlook the movie’s flaws – especially the disappointing murder mystery – that person might end up enjoying the movie’s atmosphere, the mystery surrounding the hotel itself and especially the performances from an excellent cast led by Joan Hickson.

“Shifting Heirs and the Ferrars Estate”

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“SHIFTING HEIRS AND THE FERRARS ESTATE”

I have been a fan of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility” ever since I saw Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation. In fact, the 1995 movie initiated my appreciation of Austen’s novel and other works. But there is a certain aspect of Austen’s tale that has confused me for years. And it has to do with Edward and Robert Ferrars and their family’s fortune. 

“Sense and Sensibility” told the story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood – the older two of three sisters that encountered love, heartache and romantic obstacles when their father’s death and half-brother’s lack of generosity left them in financial straits. Elinor had fallen in love with Edward Ferrars, the mild-mannered brother of her sister-in-law Fanny; before she, her sisters and mother were forced to leave Norland Park in the hands of half-brother John and Fanny. Unfortunately for Elinor, Edward’s family was determined that he marry an heiress. Later, she discovered that he had been engaged for several years to another impoverished young woman named Lucy Steele, the cousin-in-law of Sir John Middleton, Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin and the family’s benefactor. The younger and more impetuous Marianne fell deeply in love with a young man named John Willoughby. Although the latter harbored feelings for Marianne, he loved the idea of a fortune even more. Willoughby eventually rejected Marianne in order to marry a wealthy heiress, leaving the Dashwoods’ neighbor Colonel Christopher Brandon to console her.

The story arc regarding Marianne’s love life proved to be problem-free for me. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Elinor’s story arc. I still have a problem with that obstacle to Elinor’s romantic happiness – namely Edward’s engagement to the manipulative Lucy Steele. In the novel, Mrs. Ferrars disinherited Edward in favor of his younger brother, Robert, after the Ferrars family learned about his engagement to Lucy . . . and he refused to break said engagement. Mindful of Edward’s financial situation and his ambitions to earn a living with the Church of England, Colonel Brandon offers him therectory at the former’s estate, Delaford, for a low salary. This is where “Sense and Sensibility” becomes a bit tricky. The novel concluded Edward’s visit to the Dashwoods’ home, Barton Cottage, in which he not only proposed marriage to Elinor, but also announced that Lucy Steele had broken their engagement in order to elope with Robert. Only . . . the latter remained heir to the Ferrars estate by the novel’s conclusion.

The financial fates of both Edward and Robert seemed to be tied with the character of Lucy Steele. Most of the Ferrars family and Lady Middleton seemed to harbor a high regard for Lucy and her sister, Anne. Yet, when Anne exposed Lucy’s secret engagement to Edward, Mrs. Ferrars disinherited the latter in favor of her younger son, Robert. But after Robert’s elopement to Lucy, he remained heir to the Ferrars estate. And to this day, I can only ask . . . why? Why did Mrs. Ferrars disinherited Edward after he refused to break his engagement to Lucy . . . and fail to disinherit Robert, after he had eloped with the same woman?

In the 1981 BBC adaptation, Edward (portrayed by Bosco Hogan) claimed that Robert’s inheritance became irreversible, despite his elopement with Lucy. Frankly, the explanation given by Austen struck me as rather confusing. The miniseries’ screenwriters Alexander Baron and Denis Constanduros failed to explain why Edward financially paid the price for refusing to break his engagement with Lucy. They especially failed to explain why Robert DID NOT pay the price for marrying her. Is there someone out there who can offer an explanation?

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – Episode Five “1856-1860” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – EPISODE FIVE “1856-1860” Commentary

Following the emotional and ugly incidents from Episode Four, events for both the Hazard and Main families become even uglier, as the United States inches closer to a full blown civil war. The ugliness culminates in a major event in the form of John Brown’s famous October 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry in (then) western Virginia. 

Episode Five, set between 1856 and 1860, opened with Madeline recovering from Justin’s angry reaction to her mysterious disappearance (helping a pregnant Ashton Main acquire an abortion from a low country free black woman). Unbeknownst to Madeline, La Motte’s physician has recommended daily doses of laudenum to keep her “nerves” steady. Due to the laudenum, La Motte will keep Madeline drugged and under control for the next four-and-a-half years. Not long after Madeline’s “recovery”, a pregnant-free Ashton marries fiancé James Huntoon. Several months after the wedding, a bored Ashton unsuccessfully tries to convince Orry to take her on a trip to New Orleans, where Huntoon is giving a pro-secession speech to the city’s inhabitants. Following his speech, Huntoon and three other men – including one Captain Elkhannah Bent – spend some time at a brothel owned by one Madame Conti. Huntoon and Bent exchange a few words, in which the latter spies a photograph of the former’s wedding party. Bent not only recognizes his former classmate Orry Main, but is captivated by Madeline La Motte’s image. During a later conversation with Madame Conti, Bent spots a painting that features the image of a former prostitute of mixed blood that turns out to be Madeline’s mother.

Two years later, Orry and Brett travel to Lehigh Station to visit the Hazards. Unfortunately, the visit goes sour when Orry and Virgilia engage in a quarrel, prompting the latter’s brother to come to her defense. On their way back to South Carolina, the Main siblings encounter Virgilia and Grady, when their train is stopped by John Brown and his men during their raid on Harper’s Ferry. The encounter also leads to a reunion between Orry and Priam, the former Mont Royal slave who had escaped over eleven years ago. Once Orry and Brett’s train is allowed to continue south, Grady and Priam are killed by Virginia militia and Virgilia is captured. She ends up captured and placed in an insane asylum in Washington D.C. Upset over Madeline’s continuing distant behavior and his estrangement from George, Orry gets drunk and quarrels bitterly with Brett over her desire to marry Billy Hazard. The following morning, she leaves Mont Royal to stay with Ashton and Huntoon in Charleston. And Billy arrives in the city to report for duty at Fort Moultrie.

Four major plot lines dominate Episode Five – Bent’s discovery of Madeline’s family history, Orry and George’s quarrel, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and Orry’s quarrel with Brett. This episode featured at least three crowd scenes and a major historical moment. And I must say that director Richard T. Heffron handled all of these major scenes very well, especially the Harper’s Ferry sequence. The sequence featuring Ashton and Huntoon’s wedding reception reminded me of the details Heffron, cinematographer Stevan Larner and production designer Archie J. Bacon put into creating a low country South Carolina social event. These same details provided the episode with a memorable ending, which featured Billy’s arrival in Charleston. But the Harper Ferry’s sequence really struck me as impressive. One of the miniseries’ best cinematic moments featured the sequence’s closing shot of the rear of Orry and Brett’s train disappearing into the night.

But there were minor scenes in Episode Five that proved to be gems. I was especially impressed by Heffron’s direction of Bent’s conversation with Madame Conti regarding Madeline’s mother. The scene was greatly helped by fine performances from Philip Casnoff and Elizabeth Taylor. Another fine dramatic scene featured Orry’s quarrel with Virgilia and George Hazard. All of the actors – especially Patrick Swayze, Kirstie Alley and James Read – did well in this scene. However, there were moments when the acting threatened to get a bit hammy. Another good dramatic scene appeared in the midst of the Harper’s Ferry sequence – namely Orry and Brett’s confrontation with Virgilia, Grady and Priam. I was especially impressed by Georg Stanford Brown and David Harris’ performances in this scene. Johnny Cash made an appearance as abolitionist John Brown. He did a pretty good job, even if I had a little difficulty in accepting Cash’s Upper South accent, while portraying a man from Connecticut. Kirstie Alley came back true to form in a scene featuring Virgilia’s reunion with Congressman Sam Greene, portrayed by David Odgen Stiers. And both actors gave fine and subtle performances. Swayze, who seemed to be very busy in this episode, got to shine one last time in the scene featuring Orry’s quarrel with Brett. Not only did Swayze gave an exception performance, but so did Genie Francis, who gave her best performance in the entire six-episode miniseries. However, the one scene that really stuck with me featured Ashton’s attempt to coerce Orry into taking her on a trip to New Orleans. Not only did it provide some excellent performances from both Swayze and Terri Garber, but also an interesting moment that exposed Orry’s own hypocrisy regarding the secessionist movement.

I have already discussed cinematographer Stevan Larner and production designer Archie J. Bacon’s work in this episode. Bill Conti continued his fine work as the miniseries’ composer. But of course, I want to discuss Vicki Sánchez’s gorgeous costumes . . . again. I could wax lyrical about her work, but I believe the following images can express how I feel:

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My favorite costume is Sánchez’s re-creation of a Charles Worth gown for Constance Hazard:

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The episode was marred by one major problem regarding the story’s timeline. When Ashton asked for Madeline’s help regarding her pregnancy in Episode Four, she informed the latter that her wedding to James Huntoon was scheduled for the following spring . . . of 1857. Yet, following Madeline’s recovery from her husband’s brutal treatment, Orry paid a visit to the La Motte plantation – Resolute – and announced that Ashton and Huntoon were scheduled to get married in a few days. Mind you, all of this was happening three months following Charles Main and Billy Hazard’s West Point graduation . . . in September 1856. So . . . what happened? When did Ashton and Huntoon rescheduled their wedding six to seven months earlier? Or is this merely another blooper regarding the story’s time line?

The painting of Madeline’s mother that had grabbed Bent’s attention in New Orleans struck a negative note within me. Madeline was born in the mid-1820s. This means that her mother must have been working for Madame Conti either between the late 1810s or the early-to-mid 1820s. The image of Madeline’s mother looked like this:

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First of all, the gown looked tacky. I cannot be more brutally frank. Second, both the gown and the hairstyle did not reflect the fashions of the 1820s. Instead, the painting looked as if it had been created during the 1840s or the 1850s. I do not know who created this painting, but I believe it was poorly made. And the miniseries’ producer and production designer should have insisted upon something that accurately reflected the decade of Madeline’s birth.

I have one last complaint. One of the best sequences from John Jakes’ 1982 novel featured Charles Main’s experiences in Texas and his conflict with Elkhannah Bent during the late 1850s. In Episode Five, Bent had met Huntoon in New Orleans.  In the novel, the city was a jumping off point for Army personnel traveling to and from Texas.  One could easily assume that Bent was on his way to Texas. After all, “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” did confirm that Charles had served under Bent during this period. So, why did producer David Wolper and the screenwriters avoided the sequence? Episode Five could have included Charles’ experiences in Texas and ended the episode with the Harper Ferry’s incident. The remainder of Episode Five – including Orry and Brett’s quarrel, her flight to Charleston and Billy’s arrival in South Carolina – could have been included in Episode Six, allowing that episode to be extended. After all, the final episode of the 1977 miniseries,“ROOTS” had been extended past ninety minutes.

Despite my complaints, Episode Five proved to be a fine penultimate episode for the miniseries. It featured some excellent acting by the cast, well directed dramatic scenes by Richard T. Heffron and a first-rate re-creation of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. In the following episode, the Civil War is about to crash upon the lives of the Hazards and the Mains.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” (1983) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” (1983) Review

The third movie and sixth episode of George Lucas’ original STAR WARS saga, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”, has become something of a conundrum for me. It was the first STAR WARS movie that immediately became a favorite of mine. But in the years that followed, my opinion of the film had changed. 

Directed by Richard Marquand, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” picked up a year after “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” left off. The movie begins with the arrival of the Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious and his apprentice, Darth Vader to the Empire’s new Darth Star, which had been in construction above the moon of Endor. Luke Skywalker, Jedi-in-training and Rebel Alliance pilot, finally construct a plan to rescue his friend, Han Solo, from the Tatooine gangster Jabba the Hutt. His plan nearly fails, despite help from Princess Leia Organa, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca and his droids C3-P0 and R2-D2. Despite the odds against them, the group of friends finally succeed in rescuing Han and killing Jabba.

Following the Tatooine rescue, Luke returns to Dagobah to finish his Jedi training with Jedi Master Yoda. However, Luke discovers Yoda on the verge of death from old age. When the old Jedi Master finally dies, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ghost appears and verifies what Luke had learned on Bespin in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” – that Darth Vader is his father, Anakin Skywalker. Obi-Wan insists that Luke has to kill his father in order to destroy the Sith Order, but the latter is reluctant to commit patricide. Eventually, Luke returns to the Rebel Alliance rendezvous point, and volunteers to assist his friends in their mission to destroy the the Death Star.

I was not kidding when I stated that “RETURN OF THE JEDI” was the first STAR WARS movie to become a personal favorite of mine. I disliked “A NEW HOPE” when I first saw it. It took me nearly a decade to get over my dislike and embrace it. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” creeped me out a bit, due to its dark plot, the revelation of Darth Vader’s true identity and Han’s unhappy fate. The movie has become one of my two favorites in the franchise. But I loved “RETURN OF THE JEDI” from the beginning. By then, I finally learned to embrace Lucas’ saga. And the positive ending with no potential of a sequel made me equally happy. And yet . . . my feelings toward the movie gradually changed. Although I still maintained positive feelings toward the movie, I ceased to regard it as my personal favorite from the STAR WARSfranchise.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” did have its problems. One, the movie featured both a second Death Star and Luke’s return to Tatooine. For me, this signalled an attempt by George Lucas to recapture some of the essence from the first movie, “A NEW HOPE”. In other words, I believe Lucas used the Death Star and Tatooine to relive the glory of the first movie for those fans who had been disappointed with “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. And there is nothing that will quickly turn me off is an artist who is willing to repeat the past for the sake of success.

Tatooine proved to be an even bigger disappointment, especially since I have never been fond of the sequence at Jabba’s palace. I never understood why it took Luke and his friends an entire year to find Han. Boba Fett had made his intentions to turn Han over to Jabba very clearly in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. So, why did it take them so long to launch a rescue? Exactly what was Luke’s rescue plan regarding Han in the first place? Not long after she arrived with Chewbacca, Leia made her own attempt to free Han from the carbonite block and failed. Had Luke intended for this to happen? Had he intended to be tossed into a pit with a Rancor? Were all of these minor incidents merely parts of Luke’s plan to finally deal with Jabba on the latter’s sail barge? If so, it was a piss-poor and convoluted plan created by Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” also featured the development of Luke’s skills with the Force. Since the movie made it clear that he had not seen Yoda since he departed Dagobah in order to rescue Han, Leia and Chewbacca from Bespin; I could not help but wonder how Luke managed to develop his Force skills without the help of a tutor. I eventually learned that Luke honed his Force skills by reading a manual he had found inside Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Tatooine hut. Frankly, I find this scenario ludicrous. Luke’s conversation with Obi-Wan’s ghost on Dagobah featured one major inconsistency. Obi-Wan claimed that Owen Lars was his brother, in whose care he left Luke. Considering Obi-Wan’s unemotional response to Owen’s death in “A NEW HOPE”, I found this hard to believe and could not help but view Obi-Wan’s words as a major blooper. Especially since Obi-Wan had reacted with more emotion over Luke’s reluctance to become a Jedi and kill Darth Vader.

Many fans have complained about the cheesy acting and wooden dialogue found the Prequel Trilogy movies. These same fans have failed to notice similar flaws in the Original Trilogy movies, including “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Especially“RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Mind you, the movie did feature some first-rate performances. But none of it came from Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. I really enjoyed Ford and Fisher’s performances in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. But I feel they really dropped the ball in “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. They seemed to be phoning in their performances and the Leia/Han ended up rather wooden and unsatisfying to me. This was especially apparent in the scene in which Leia, after learning the truth about Vader’s identity, seemed too upset to answer Han’s demanding questions about her conversation with the departed Luke. Both Fisher and Ford really came off as wooden in that scene. When I had first saw “RETURN OF THE JEDI”, I despised the Ewoks. My feelings for them have somewhat tempered over the years. But I still find them rather infantile, even for a STAR WARS movie. Although I no longer dislike the Ewoks, I still find that village scene in which C3-P0 revealed the past adventures of Luke and his friends very cheesy and wince-inducing. Unlike the past two films, the camaraderie between the group seemed forced . . . and very artificial. The Ewok village scene also revealed a perplexing mystery – namely the dress worn by Leia in this image:

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For years, I have wondered why Leia would carry such a dress with her, during the mission to Endor. I eventually learned that the Ewoks created the dress for her, after she became their guest. And I could not help but wonder why they had bothered in the first place. Luke and Han did not acquire new outfits from the Ewoks after they became the latter’s guests. And how did the Ewoks create the dress so fast? Within a matter of hours?

Thankfully, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” had plenty of virtues. One of those virtues turned out to be Mark Hamill, who gave the best and probably the most skillful performance in the movie as Luke Skywalker. Unlike the previous two movies, Luke has become a more self-assured man and Force practitioner, who undergoes his greatest emotional journey in his determination to learn the complete story regarding his family’s past and help his father overcome any remaining connections to the Sith. He was ably supported by James Earl Jones (through voice) and David Prowse (through body movement), who skillfully conveyed Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker’s growing dissatisfaction with the Sith and himself.“RETURN OF THE JEDI” also marked the real debut of Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of politician and Sith Lord Palpatine aka Darth Sidious. Although the actor achieved critical acclaim for his portrayal of Palpatine in the Prequel Trilogy movies, I must say that I was impressed by his performance in this film. McDiarmid was in his late 30s at the time, but I he did a first-rate job in portraying Palpatine as a powerful and intelligent Sith Lord and galactic leader, whose skills as a manipulator has eroded from years of complacency and arrogance. Billy Dee Williams returned as ex-smuggler Lando Calrissian, who has joined the Rebel Alliance cause. Although his portrayal of Lando did not strike me as memorable as I did in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, I believe he did a very solid job – especially in the Battle of Endor sequence. I finally have to comment on the Jabba the Hutt character, who proved to be very memorable thanks to Larry Ward’s voiceovers and the puppeteer team supervised by David Barclay.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” also featured some first-rate action scenes. The best, in my opinion, was the speeder bike sequence in which Luke and Leia chased a squad of Imperial stormtroopers on patrol through the Endor forest. This sequence was actually shot in the Redwood National Forest in California. The combined talents of Lucas, Marquand’s direction, Alan Hume’s photography, the ILM special effects, Ben Burtt’s sound effects (which received an Oscar nomination) and especially the editing team of Sean Barton, Marcia Lucas and Duwayne Dunham made this sequence one of the most exciting, nail biting and memorable ones in the entire saga. But there were other scenes and sequences that impressed me. Despite my dislike of the entire sequence featuring the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, I cannot deny that the scene aboard Jabba’s sail barge proved to be entertaining. Even the ground battle between the Imperial forces and the Rebel forces (assisted by the Ewoks) proved to be not only entertaining, but also interesting. The idea of the Ewoks utilizing the natural elements of Endor to battle and defeat Imperial technology provided an interesting message on the superiority of nature. And if I must be honest, I found the destruction of this second Death Star to be more exciting than the first featured in “A NEW HOPE”.

Despite the barrage of action scenes, there were a few dramatic scenes that I found impressive. The best one proved to be the confrontation between Luke, Vader and Palpatine aboard the second Death Star. Luke and Papatine’s battle of wills over Vader’s soul not only provided some interesting performances from Hamill, Earl Jones/Prowse and McDiarmid; it also resulted in one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in the movie. Another excellent dramatic scene featured Luke’s discussion with Obi-Wan’s ghost regarding Vader’s true identity. Both Hamill and Alec Guinness gave excellent performances in the scene. It also, rather surprisingly, revealed the flawed aspect of the Jedi’s righteous nature for the very first time.

After the release of the six STAR WARS movies produced by George Lucas, I realized that I no longer regarded “RETURN OF THE JEDI” as the best in the saga. Unfortunately, I now rate it as the least most satisfying film in the saga, so far. Certain plot holes and some weak performances made it impossible for me to view it with such high esteem. Yet, I cannot say that I dislike the film. In fact, I still enjoyed it very much, thanks to a first-rate performance by Mark Hamill, who really held the movie together; some excellent action sequences and a surprising, yet satisfying twist that ended the tale of one Anakin Skywalker. Despite its flaws, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” still managed to be a very satisfying movie.

“THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS” (2010) Review

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“THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS” (2010) Review

Anyone who has read Agatha Christie’s 1925 novel, “The Secret of Chimneys”, will be disappointed by the 2010 television adaptation that stars Julia McKenzie as Miss Jane Marple. The television movie bears little resemblance to the novel. But that does not mean one should completely dismiss the movie. 

Although a long time fan of Christie’s novels, I have never read “The Secret of Chimneys”. Familiar with many of the author’s novels, I knew that the former was not one that featured Jane Marple. I did not care. I have come across other Miss Marple television movies in which the literary source did not feature her as the main character. However, I was surprised to learn that the 2010 movie bore very little resemblance to the original novel. Then again, I should not have been surprised. The forces behind the adaptations of Christie novels seemed to have a penchant for changing the plots and sometimes, even the murderer’s identities, whenever the whim struck them. And this whim certainly went into full gear for “THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS”.

Written by Paul Rutman, the plot for “THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS” begins in the 1930s, when an Austrian named Count Ludwig Von Stainach first visited Chimneys, the estate of the 9th Maquis of Caterham to attend a diplomatic ball. During that visit, a famous diamond belonging to Lord Caterham, is stolen; leading to the beginning of the decline of his family’s fortunes. Over twenty years later, Jane Marple, who is related to Lord Caterham’s family, visits Chimneys for a weekend house party when she learns that it is being considered to become a part of National Trust. Also attending the house party held by Lord Caterham is a local ambitious Member of Parliament (M.P.) named George Lomax, who wants to marry the aristocrat’s younger daughter, Lady Virginia Brent; older daughter Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent, and National Trust advocate Miss Hilda Blenkinsopp. However, the main reason behind the house party proves to be the visiting Count Von Stainach, whom Lomax wants Lord Caterham to entertain in order to sign a deal for iron ore that post-World War II England desperately needs. Unbeknownst to everyone else, Lady Virginia has met and fallen in love with a young man named Anthony Cade, who has decided to crash the party in order to prevent her from marrying Lomax. However, the house party takes a dark turn when someone shoots and kills Count Von Stainach in one of the manor’s secret passages. And since Anthony was the first to stumble across the count’s body, he becomes “Suspect Number One”.

Knowing that “THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS” was not an original Jane Marple mystery, I had no idea on what to expect from this television series. Thankfully, the movie proved to be a surprisingly entertaining film filled with some humor, strong characterizations, plenty of romance – both charming and poignantly sad, and two very puzzling mysteries. Although one mystery surrounded the disappearance of the Brents’ diamond and the other featured the murder of Count Von Stainach, both proved to be connected to one another. I have read the synopsis of Christie’s 1925 novel. I must admit that it read more like a political thriller than a murder mystery. And a part of me felt somewhat relieved that screenwriter Rutman did not attempt a faithful adaptation of the novel. Some have claimed that Anthony Cade, who was featured as the main investigator in the novel, had been pushed into the background. I cannot agree with this assessment. Instead of the story’s main investigator, Cade was used as one half of the movie’s main love story and the main suspect of Von Stainach’s murder. Rutman did a very good job in utilizing the Cade character, while replacing him with Miss Marple as the main investigator.

There were technical aspects of “THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS” that I certainly enjoyed. Chris Seager’s photography struck me as beautiful. The movie’s photography displayed its filming locations – Hatfield House for the exterior shots and Knebworth House for the interior shots – with beautifully sharp colors. Miranda Cull contributed to Seager’s photography with her art designs for the movie’s interiors shot inside Knebworth House. And Sheena Napier did an excellent job of designing costumes for the movie’s characters. This is a movie filled with upper-class or aristocratic characters who have seen better times, financial. This means that Napier’s costumes had a mid-century elegance that seemed slightly worn, and did not come off as expensively glamourous.

Charlotte Salt, Jonas Armstrong, Ruth Jones and Matthew Horne. Anthony Higgins, whom I have not laid eyes upon in years, gave a charming performance as the elegant, yet extroverted Count Ludwig Von Stainach. But there were performances that really caught my eye. One of them came from Stephen Dillane, who gave a deliciously twisted performance as the slightly eccentric Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Fitch. Another performance that impressed me came from Adam Godley, whom I last saw on USA Network’s “SUITS”. I thought he perfectly portrayed the ambitious, yet controlling politician George Lomax. I rather liked Dervla Kirwan’s portrayal of Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent, Lord Caterham’s older daughter. I felt Kirwan did an excellent job in portraying a woman who is struggling to deal with the possible erosion of a lifestyle she had known all of her life. Edward Fox is another I have not seen in years. But I felt that he, along with Dillane and Julia McKenzie gave the best performances in the movie. Fox’s Maquis of Caterham proved to be a skillful portrayal of an elderly, yet sad man whom seemed unable to stop grieving over a recently deceased wife.

Julia McKenzie has received some criticism for her portrayal of Jane Marple over the past three to four years. Apparently, many fans believe she seemed a bit too robust and young to be portraying the elderly sleuth. McKenzie, who is in her early 70s, is old enough. And quite frankly, I have enjoyed her portrayal just as much as I have Joan Hickson and Geraldine McEwan’s. McKenzie simply has a different, slightly less incoherent style in approaching the Miss Marple character. And not only did I enjoyed it in “THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS”, but also in her other Miss Marple movies.

I would not exactly view “THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS” as one of the best Miss Marple mysteries I have seen on television. But thanks to some solid direction from John Strickland, a surprisingly first-rate script written by Paul Rutman and some superb performances from a cast led by Julia McKenzie, I ended enjoying it very much.

“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

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“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

During my recent viewing of the 1965 movie, “SHENANDOAH”, I came to the surprising conclusion that it proved to be entirely different than what I had assumed it would be. But it is not surprising that it would take several years for the movie to be appreciated by today’s audiences than it was back in 1965. 

Like I said, “SHENANDOAH” is an unusual film. Set in 1864, during the U.S. Civil War, the movie is about the efforts of a sardonic Virginia farmer and widower named Charlie Anderson to prevent his sons from fighting in the war. Although, he is sympathetic toward the travails his neighbors face from the Union Army’s presence in the Shenandoah Valley, he feels no obligation to fight on behalf of a state he believes had never help him maintain his farm. Nor does he support the Confederacy’s pro-slavery stance. His neighbors seem willing to tolerate his pacifist stance, although a few like Pastor Bjoerling occasionally make barbed comments.

Not long after his only daughter’s wedding to neighbor and Confederate Army officer Sam and the birth of his first grandchild, Charlie’s family fortunes take a turn for the worse. His youngest son, 16 year-old Boy, is captured by Union soldiers, while playing with his close friend Gabriel, a neighbor’s slave. Boy had been wearing a Confederate Army kepi cap he had earlier found. When Gabriel informs the Anderson family of the news; Charlie, most of his sons and daughter Jennie leave to look for Boy. They leave James and his wife Ann at the farm with their young baby.

While watching the first twenty to thirty minutes of “SHENANDOAH”, one gets the impression of watching a warm family comedy-drama with a Civil War setting. I almost felt as if I were watching “THE WALTONS” in a 19th century setting. There are very few characters in uniform. The movie featured the Anderson family at home, at work and a mildly amusing scene of them arriving late at church during the beginning of the sermon. And when the war did infringe upon their lives, the family usually responded in humorous ways – namely their boisterous fight with a state official and soldiers trying to acquire horses for the army, and a stand-off between Anderson’s sons and a group of army recruiters. By the time Charlie and his family set out to find the missing Boy, I felt certain that their adventures would be exciting, topped by a happy ending. Charlie and the rest of the Andersons got their happy ending. . . but at great costs, thanks to the Union Army, the Confederate Army and a group of deserters. The movie’s growing dark tones and anti-war sentiments really took me by surprise, considering its earlier tone. But what really took me by surprise is that the movie’s changing tone had been gradual, thanks to director Andrew V. McLaglen and screenwriter James Lee Barrett.

There were scenes in “SHENANDOAH” that really impressed me. I enjoyed those scenes with Charlie’s conversations with his future son-in-law, Sam, and his daughter-in-law Ann; due to their heartwarming nature, Charlie’s outlooks on both his family dynamics and dealing with marriage, and fine performances from James Stewart, Doug McClure and Katherine Ross. However, his conversation with Union Army officer Colonel Fairchild really impressed me, thanks to Stewart and George Kennedy’s performances, and the way the two men managed to emotionally connect on the horrors of war and fear of losing their sons. Boy’s escape with a group of Confederate soldiers from a riverboat struck me as rather exciting. In one of the movie’s earlier scene, Jennie Anderson had encouraged Gabriel to run away from his master. Not only did Gabriel run, he eventually joined the Union Army. This is probably why I found Gabriel’s reunion on the battlefield with a wounded Boy emotionally satisfying. The friendship and warmth the two boys felt for each other had not wavered, despite finding themselves within the ranks of the opposite armies. And I was amazed at how both Philip Alford and Eugene Jackson Jr. managed to convey the close friendship of the two characters with hardly any words. However, I feel that the movie’s two best scenes were featured in the Andersons’ local church. The first church scene proved to be a very funny affair, thanks to actor Denver Pyle’s skillful conveyance of Pastor Bjoerling’s irritated reaction to the Andersons’ late arrival in the middle of his sermon. The second church scene, which ended the film, was a beautifully acted and emotional that surprisingly left me in tears. It had the perfect mixture of relief, happiness and a little pathos that followed the emotionally draining aspects of the movie’s second half. Even after nearly five decades, many people still talk about it.

Despite my satisfaction with “SHENANDOAH”, there were some aspects of it that I found troubling. Most of my dissatisfaction came from the movie’s historical portrait of its setting. One of the Union soldiers that captured Boy proved to be black. The Union Army was not integrated in 1864. In fact, I do not believe it was ever integrated during the four years of the Civil War. And for the likes of me, I could not see how all of Charlie’s six sons could have avoided military service during the war’s first three years. His sons, especially Jacob, seemed to have minds of their own. I figured if they really wanted to fight in the war – whether for the Confederacy or the Union – they would have left the farm and join the military. I could not understand how someone as strong-willed as Jacob (who was the oldest) could have allowed his father to prevent him from joining the Confederate Army. And even if all the boys had wanted to remain on the farm, they would have been subjected to the military draft. The Confederacy had enacted the military draft about a year before the Union. And the Andersons were not rich or owned any slaves. I have one last complaint – a minor one at that. Some of the acting by the supporting characters in minor roles sucked. Period. I found their performances rather wooden and could not understand how they managed to get roles in an “A” production like“SHENANDOAH”.

Flaws or not, I can honestly say that “SHENANDOAH” is one of the better Civil War movies I have ever seen. Instead of telling the story of the war from one side or the other, it told the story about a family that desperately tried to avoid being dragged into the chaos and tragedy of war . . . and failed. Thanks to a well-written script written by James Lee Bennett and a talented cast led by the even more talented James Stewart, director Andrew V. McLaglen crafted an excellent story about the Civil War that proved to be more emotional and surprising than I could ever imagine.

“THE BUTLER” (2013) Review

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“THE BUTLER” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for “THE BUTLER”, I resisted the urge to see it. I have nothing against films about the African-American experience. I could not wait to see Quentin Tarantino’s pre-Civil War opus, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. But there was something about the trailer for “THE BUTLER” that turned me off. It had that dignified, pretentious aura that marred “THE KING’S SPEECH” and “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” for me. I was determined to avoid it. But thanks to my family, I could not avoid it in the end. 

Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Danny Strong, “THE BUTLER” was loosely inspired by the life of former White House butler, Eugene Alley. Now, when I say “loosely inspired”, I meant it. Contrary to what many have claimed, the movie was not based upon Allen’s life. Actor-turned-screenwriter Danny Strong read an article in the The Washington Postcalled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Will Haygood. Inspired by Allen’s 34 years as a White House butler, Strong created the character of Georgia-born Cecil Gaines, who witnessed the murder of his sharecropper father by the plantation owner who also raped his mother. The estate owner’s elderly mother reassigns Cecil to being a house servant. Another decade pass before Cecil decides its time to leave the cotton plantation. He makes his way for parts unknown, but the Great Depression in the form of hunger and unemployment leads him to break into a pastry shop for food. The shop’s servant, Maynard, helps him get a job and later, recommends him for a job at a Washington D.C. hotel. During his two decades at the hotel, Cecil marries a woman named Gloria and they conceive two sons, Louis and Charlie. Then in 1957, Cecil is hired for a butler position at the White House and spends the next three decades working there. His job not only gives Cecil the opportunity to meet seven U.S. presidents, but also threatens his marriage to Gloria and creates tension between him and his activist older son, Louis.

In the end, I am glad that I saw “THE BUTLER”. It turned out to be a lot better than I had assumed. I have to give kudos to Danny Strong for creating a fascinating story that mingled history with personal drama. And Lee Daniels did a fabulous job of transforming Strong’s tale to the screen. More importantly, “THE BUTLER” managed to avoid that annoying and pretentious air that have tainted a good number of historical dramas in the past. Except in perhaps two scenes. Watching “THE BUTLER” reminded me of an old NBC miniseries that aired back in 1979 called “BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE”, which told the story of a mother/daughter pair named Margaret Rogers and Lillian Rogers Parks, who worked as White House housemaids between 1909 and 1961.

What really impressed me about the plot for “THE BUTLER” is how Cecil’s past and profession had such an impact upon his adult life. Witnessing his mother’s rape and his father’s death seemed to have an impact upon Cecil’s psyche. In a way, these events led him to develop an obsequious personality that served him well,professionally. But his obsequiousness also led him to fear and oppose his son Louis’ participation in the Civil Rights movement for many years. I must admit that those sequences featuring Louis’ involvement with the Freedom Riders during the early and mid 1960s struck me as both fascinating and harrowing. Cecil and Louis’ estrangement deepened when younger son Charlie was killed during the Vietnam War . . . and Louis failed to appear at the funeral for personal reasons. And as I had earlier pointed out, Cecil’s job also had an impact on his marriage to Gloria. She resented how his profession kept him away for long hours, leading her to contemplate an adulterous affair with a neighbor.

As much as Daniels and Strong emphasized the impact of Cecil’s job upon his private life, they allowed the audiences glimpses of his interactions with not only the presidents who occupied the White House during his tenure, but also with his fellow servants – especially Carter Wilson and James Holloway. The movie featured interactions between Cecil and five U.S. presidents – Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. If I had to select my favorite presidential segment, it would have to be Cecil’s interactions with Johnson, whose penchant for the occasional racial slur I had learned about, years ago. I found those scenes hilarious and sardonic – especially Carter’s sarcastic reaction to Johnson’s announcement about the Civil Rights bills. There were three scenes I found particularly interesting – Cecil’s eavesdropping of Reagan’s discussion with GOP politicians regarding South Africa’s apartheid policy, Kennedy’s revelation of his knowledge regarding Louis’ arrests and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement; and Nixon’s appearance (when he was Vice-President) in the servants’ work room in an effort to recruit their votes during the 1960 Presidential Election. I also enjoyed the private moments between Cecil and his two colleagues that eventually spread to his home, when they began spending off hours with him and his family.

Production-wise, “THE BUTLER” is a beautiful movie to behold. Andrew Dunn’s photography provided sharp and colorful images of Cecil’s life throughout the 20th century. Tim Galvin’s production designs certainly benefited from Dunn’s work. Then again, Galvin did a superb job in recapturing those 80-odd years of Cecil’s life with great accuracy. This was especially apparent in the period featuring Cecil’s first decade as a butler for the White House – between the late 1950s and early 1970s. I can also say the same about Ruth E. Carter’s work as the film’s costume designer. Not only were they beautiful to look at, I was also impressed by how she recaptured the fashion styles of each period featured in the movie. Here are a few examples of Carter’s designs:

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As much as I had enjoyed “THE BUTLER”, I cannot deny that it had its share of flaws. Earlier, I had complimented the movie for its lack of pretentiousness – except in two scenes. One of those scenes that seemed to reek of pretentiousness featured Cecil’s interaction with President Eisenhower. The scene began with Eisenhower ordering the U.S. Army troops to protect the lives and rights of a group of African-American high students integrating a Little Rock, Arkansas high school. The scene eventually segued into Eisenhower reminiscing about his late father to Cecil. And although the scene’s drama was portrayed in a straightforward manner by Forest Whitaker and Robin Williams, it seemed to reek of sentimentality and pretentiousness that I found annoying. Another scene that I found off-putting proved to be Cecil’s encounter with President Nixon in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The entire scene seemed to have come straight from Cinematic Nixon 101. It featured a slightly drunk Nixon, lounging on a White House sofa, while spouting self doubts about his political abilities and integrity. I found the scene boring, pretentious and very unoriginal. In fact, I would swear I had seen similar views of Nixon in at least two other films.

I would even go as far to say that the movie’s main weakness seemed to be its portrayals of the U.S. Presidents featured. For some reason, most of the actors who portrayed those presidents in the movie seemed to be miscast. I had nothing against Robin Williams’ performance as Dwight D. Eisenhower. But I took one look at him and was reminded of the character’s predecessor – Harry S. Truman. Really. Liev Schreiber struck me as being at least ten to fifteen years too young to be portraying Lyndon B. Johnson. And yet . . . he did such as great job as Johnson that I am willing to allow the issue of his age to slide. John Cusak was not only too young, but also too slender for his role as Richard M. Nixon. In my opinion, he was definitely the wrong actor for the job. As for Alan Rickman . . . hmmm. Well, if I must be honest, I found his portrayal of Ronald Reagan very effective in a subtle way. The only other piece of casting that seemed to be spot on proved to be James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. Not only did he give a pretty good performance, but his Boston accent seemed decent. “THE BUTLER” also featured the appearances of two First Ladies – Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Kelly did a solid job as Jackie Kennedy, especially in one scene that featured the First Lady’s return to the White House after the death of her husband. And Fonda gave a very entertaining performance as the ambitious and slightly controlling Nancy Reagan.

Since I am on the subject of acting, I might as express my views on those performances by the main cast. “THE BUTLER”featured some solid work from cast members such as Colman Domingo, who portrayed the White House maitre d that hired Cecil in a rather funny scene; Clarence Williams III, who gave a poignant portrayal of an elderly man who first trained Cecil to become a professional waiter; Yaya DaCosta, who did an excellent job of developing the character of Carol Hammie (Louis’ girlfriend) from a college student to a hardened activist; Vanessa Redgrave, who gave a brief, yet memorable performance as the elderly mother of the elderly plantation owner who caused havoc within the Gaines family during the 1920s; Alex Pettyfer, as the temperamental landowner, who managed to be effectively scary with very little dialogue; and Mariah Carey, who was surprisingly effective as Cecil’s victimized mother. It was great to see Cuba Gooding Jr., who gave a very entertaining performance as the fast-talking White House head butler Carter Wilson, who becomes a long-time friend of Cecil’s. Lenny Kravitz gave a subtle performance as Cecil’s other White House colleague, the more educated James Holloway. And Terrence Howard gave an excellent performance as the Gaines’ somewhat sleazy neighbor, Howard, who becomes interested in Gloria. He was especially brilliant in one scene in which his attempts to seduce Gloria into having an affair with him.

But in my opinion, the best performances came from the movie’s three leads – Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo. This is the third or fourth time I have seen British-born Oyelowo portray an American character. And I am still amazed at his grasp of an American accent. More importantly, he did a wonderful job in his portrayal of Louis Gaines, Cecil’s older son who becomes hardcore activist over the years, aging from 17 years old to a man in his late 60s. While watching “THE BUTLER”, I found myself wondering how many years have passed since Oprah Winfrey had a major role in a movie. The last major role I could recall was her performance in the 1998 drama, “BELOVED”. Watching her portray Cecil’s strong-minded wife, Gloria, reminded me how much of a superb actress she really is. There were two scenes that reminded me how skillful she really is – her bedroom rant against the demands of Cecil’s job and her angry response to Louis and Carol’s derogatory comments about actor Sidney Poitier. I really do not know what to say about Forest Whitaker’s performance in the title role. Personally, I feel that if went on about Whitaker’s performance in this movie, this article would stretch even longer. The man was brilliant. He really was. Whitaker did a superb job in developing Cecil from the 35-40 something obsequious butler to the 90 year-old man, looking back on his life and career. And I believe that Cecil Gaines is one of the best roles of his career. It would be a crime if he never receive an Academy Award for his performance.

I have noticed that “THE BUTLER” has received some mixed reviews from the movie critics. And most of these reviews seemed to be in the extreme from high praise to accusations of clumsy direction from Lee Daniels or equally clumsy writing from Danny Strong. I am not going to pretend that “THE BUTLER” is a perfect movie. It has its flaws. But I feel that its virtues more than outweighed its flaws. And thanks to Daniels’ direction, Strong’s screenplay and a superb cast led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, I feel that “THE BUTLER” is one of the best historical dramas I have seen in years.