Top Five Favorite Episodes of “THE CROWN” Season One (2016)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season One of the Netflix series, “THE CROWN”. Created by Peter Morgan, the series starred Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth II and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh: 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE CROWN” SEASON ONE (2016)

1. (1.02) “Hyde Park Corner” – Due to King George VI’s poor health, Princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh embark upon a tour of the Commonwealth on his behalf. However, a family tragedy forces the couple to end their tour in Kenya and return home to Britain.

2. (1.05) “Smoke and Mirrors” – This episode focuses on the death of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother and on her own coronation over two months later. Meanwhile, the Queen’s uncle, the Duke of Windsor, clashes with her private secretary, Tommy Lascelles, after being asked not to attend the coronation.

3. (1.08) “Pride & Joy” – While Elizabeth and Philip embark upon a stressful Commonwealth tour in 1954, the Queen’s younger sister Princess Margaret takes on more royal engagements, much to the consternation of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

4. (1.07) “Scientia Potentia Est” – While the Soviet Union tests their new H-bomb, both Prime Minister Churchill and Deputy Prime Minister experience major health crisis, unbeknownst to the Queen. Meanwhile, she becomes aware of her limited education and hires a tutor.

5. (1.06) “Gelignite” – When Princess Margaret and her divorced lover, Peter Townsend, ask Elizabeth’s permission to get married, the latter promises to give her support. Unfortunately, Private Secretary Lascelles and the Queen Mother advise against supporting the marriage.

 

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“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

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“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

I have never been a diehard fan of Southern Gothic fiction. Not really. But there have been some fictional works in that genre that have appealed to me. In fact, if you ask me, I could come up with a pretty good list of Southern Gothic movie and television productions that I have always enjoyed. 

Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, “The Beguiled” aka “A Painted Devil” first came to my attention when I saw the 1971 movie adaptation of the novel years ago. I became an instant fan of the film and read Cullinan’s novel. Then I became a fan of the novel. So when I heard that director Sofia Coppola planned to direct her own film adaptation, I looked forward to it. One, I liked the story. Two, I am a sucker for a good Civil War film, being an amateur historian and movie nut. And I had also learned Coppola had won the Palme d’Or Best Director award (the second woman to do so) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for this film.

Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation had made a few changes to Cullinan’s novel. One, he and the movie’s screenwriters made the story’s leading man an American of Irish descent, instead of the Irish immigrant portrayed in the novel. The story was set in 1863 Mississippi, during the Vicksburg Campaign. And two of the novels’ characters – the 17 year-old biracial Edwina Morrow and the nearly middle-aged Miss Harriet Farnsworth – were merged into a young white schoolteacher named Edwina Dabney. Sofia Coppola’s movie maintained the novel’s portrayal of leading man as an Irish immigrant and Cullinan’s setting – 1864 Virginia, during the Civil War’s Overland Campaign. However, Coppola’s movie followed Siegel’s example by merging the Edwina Morrow and Harriet Farnsworth characters into a schoolteacher.

“THE BEGUILED” began in the woods, near the Farnsworth Seminary, an all girls’ school in 1864 Virginia. When one of its students, a thirteen year-old girl named Amy is searching the woods for mushrooms to pick, she comes across a wounded Union Army soldier named Corporal John McBurney. He had been wounded in the leg before deserting the battlefield. Amy brings McBurney to the school where he falls unconscious. The school’s headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth, decides to heal the corporal’s wounded leg before turning him over to the Confederate Army as a prisoner. But Miss Farnsworth, Amy and the other females inside the school become “charmed” by the Irish-born soldier, as he slowly heals from his wounds. Amy, another student named Alicia and the school’s remaining teacher, Edwina Morrow, become especially captivated by McBurney’s charm. However, McBurney’s presence in the school generate a good deal of jealousy between the young students and the two women before an unexpected incident spirals the entire situation out of control.

Like the 1966 novel and its 1971 adaptation, “THE BEGUILED” took me by surprise in many ways. One of the film’s most noteworthy aspects was Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. I have never seen any of his previous film work. But I must admit that his photography did an excellent job in creating this film’s Old South atmosphere:

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Le Sourd’s cinematography definitely helped setting up the film’s atmosphere, especially due to the lack of any solid score. I also have to give points to Stacey Battat for creating costumes designs indicative to the Civil War period – especially for women and girls. Mind you, I thought some of the costumes may have been slightly anachronistic.

I also cannot deny that “THE BEGUILED” featured some strong performances from the cast. Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst were top-notched, as usual. Kidman did a fine job portraying the no-nonsense and pragmatic headmistress, Martha Farnsworth, who seemed to have little problems with controlling those around her . . . including her only schoolteacher. Despite Martha Farnsworth being her second role as a Southerner (I think), I was surprised that Kidman’s Southern accent wavered a bit. Although Farrell is at least twenty years older than the literary John McBurney, he was free to portray the character as was described in Cullinan’s novel – an Irish immigrant recently recruited into the Union Army upon his arrival in the United States. However, his McBurney’s charm seemed to have more of an edge of desperation, due to his circumstances. And Kirsten Dunst gave a very competent performance as the emotionally repressed Edwina Morrow, a young schoolteacher who finds herself drawn to the handsome McBurney, despite her efforts to ignore him. Dunst also did a competent job in not only conveying Edwina’s growing attraction to McBurney, but also her wariness of being under Miss Farnsworth’s control.

The movie could also boast some surprisingly excellent performances from the younger cast members, who portrayed the school’s students. Elle Fanning gave a decent performance as the adolescent Alicia, whose attraction to McBurney partly stems from her growing awareness of her sexuality. However, there were moments when it seemed she was losing some control of the character. Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, and Emma Howard also gave very competent performances. But I was especially impressed by Addison Riecke’s portrayal of young Marie, an impish student who borrowed Edwina’s earrings for the dinner party with McBurney and managed to manipulatively avoid returning them to the schoolteacher. Excellent performance by the young actress.

Although “THE BEGUILED” possessed some admirable traits, overall I was not that impressed by the film. Frankly, I am at a loss over how Coppola managed to win such a prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps the voters had no idea that the narrative for this film is basically a Southern Gothic tale? Who knows? Coppola had erased so much from Cullinan’s story.

One aspect of “THE BEGUILED” that came to my attention was the lack of background for most of the characters at the Farnsworth Seminary. Now, unless my memory is failing me, the movie only revealed the fact that Edwina Morrow had a father living in Richmond. I believe the movie also touched upon the wartime fate of Amelia’s brothers. I believe. To be honest, I am not that certain. Coppola deleted Martha Farnsworth’s family history – especially her incestuous relationship with her brother. After all, one of the reasons Miss Farnsworth eventually opened up to McBurney was his resemblance to this “much loved” brother. Although the film revealed the existence of Edwina’s father, the screenplay never touched upon his role as a war profiteer or his lack of concern toward his daughter. The movie revealed nothing about Alicia’s family background – especially her prostitute mother who had abandoned her at the seminary. The movie revealed nothing about the remaining students’ backgrounds. McBurney’s discoveries and knowledge of their personal histories played a role in the events that occurred in the movie’s third act. Without the revelations of the female characters’ backgrounds, Coppola resorted to whitewashing the reasons behind their actions in the film’s third act.

Coppola claimed that she wanted “THE BEGUILED” to give a “voice” to the story’s female characters. Why did she make that claim? Each chapter in Cullinan’s 1966 novel was written from the viewpoints of a major female character and NOT . . . from Corporal McBurney’s point of view. Although the 1971 film featured scenes from McBurney’s point of view, it also did the same for the female characters. Also, McBurney was the only major character who lacked an inner monologue. Since the novel and the 1971 film featured the females’ points of view, what on earth was Coppola’s goal? To portray her female characters as ideal as possible? I noticed that neither anger or jealousy played a role in the violence that marked the film’s third act.

Alicia slept with McBurney because she was an adolescent “exploring her growing sexuality”. Not once did Coppola’s screenplay hint how her past experiences with her prostitute mother may have influenced her behavior with the opposite sex. By removing Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous history with her late brother – the one whom McBurney resembled, Coppola removed any possibility of Miss Farnsworth being driven by anger and jealousy over his tryst with Alicia to amputate his leg. By having McBurney behave like a borderline stalker in one scene following his amputation, Coppola justified the females’ decision to kill him with poisonous mushrooms. It seemed as if Coppola’s idea of feminist sensibilities is to portray her female characters with as little flaws as possible. And this led to her portraying the female characters’ decisions in the film’s last hour to be marred by a lack of moral ambiguity of any kind. This decision on Coppola’s part strikes me as cowardly.

If Coppola’s decision to portray her females characters with as little ambiguity as possible was bad enough, she also eliminated the school’s remaining slave, an African-American woman named Matilda (“Mattie”). Coppola gave a reason for this decision in the following statement:

“I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”

What depiction was she referring to? Cullinan’s portrayal of Mattie in the 1966 novel? The only character who saw through McBurney’s charming bullshit and wanted nothing to do with him? Or Hallie (who was renamed) from the 1971 film, who also saw through his charm, despite their occasional bouts of flirting. I had no problems with either Cullinan or Siegel’s depictions of the character. Naturally, some movie reviewers supported Coppola’s decision, including one reviewer from the ALLIANCE OF WOMEN FILM JOURNALIST, who stated:

“The film has been criticized for its lack of comment on the Civil War or slavery. The war is a backdrop, the circumstance that isolated than part of the story. Unlike the 1966 novel and the 1971 movie, there are no African American characters in this film, explained by a single line says they left. Because it is set in the Civil War, it is a valid point but addressing the issue would have taken the focus off the women’s issues that are Coppola’s main point.”

Apparently, Coppola and her supporters do not regard women of color as a part of “women’s issues”. Or perhaps they feel that non-white women are not . . . women. White feminism at its height. If Coppola felt uncomfortable at the idea in exploring a non-white character, why on earth did she adapt Cullinan’s novel in the first place?

The lack of Mattie/Hallie in Coppola’s adaptation raised other problems. One, the slave woman’s presence allowed both Cullinan and Siegel to portray the school’s other occupants with a level of ambiguity that Coppola lacked the guts to face. I wonder if Mattie’s presence would have robbed Coppola the opportunity to explore her fantasies regarding Southern white women. Mattie was one of two characters who knew why Martha Farnsworth was willing to amputate McBurney’s leg in the novel. In Don Siegel’s movie, she was the only one. This knowledge led to an interesting scene between the two women in both the novel and the 1971 film. In both the novel and the Siegel film, Mattie/Hallie was the person who actually prepared the poisoned mushrooms for McBurney . . . and she did it out of her own anger toward the Union soldier. Without the slave woman, who prepared the mushrooms in this film? Edwina Morrow, who had been serving as the establishment’s cook, following the slaves’ departure? At the time, she was busy enjoying lustful relations with McBurney. Miss Farnsworth? Did she know how to cook? The movie never established this.

“BEGUILED” did feature scenes of the students and the two teachers engaged in household and garden duties. First of all, none of them looked as if they knew what they were doing. Second of all, since they were such abysmal housekeepers, how did they managed to keep their clothing looking so pristine? Without the benefit of servants?

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Judging from the costumes worn in the above image, Dunst and her younger co-stars do not look as if they are dressed for household duties. Instead, they seemed to be dressed for Sunday church services in the mid 19th century, an afternoon tea party or a picnic. At least other Civil War movie and television productions have their Southern female characters dressed more realistically . . . even the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. I find it difficult to believe that Miss Farnsworth and her fellow inhabitants were capable of keeping their daily clothes looking so pristine – with or without a servant. All of the look like figures in some Southern belle fantasy.

For me, there were other problems in Coppola’s adaptation. I had a problem with her characterization of McBurney. Both the novel and the 1971 presented the character as something of a snake-tongued charmer. Farrell’s interpretation seemed to present McBurney more as an obsequious man who resorts to slavish politeness, instead of charm, to win over the school’s inhabitants. Farrell had the skill to convey McBurney’s charm, but it seemed as if Coppola had somehow held him back. Worse, the movie barely touched upon the Civil War, despite the presence of a Union soldier. I also did not understand why Coppola maintained the character of Emily Stevenson, and yet transferred Emily’s “pro-Confederate” personality to a character created for the film. Why did she do that? Why did she film this movie in Louisiana? Coppola retained the setting from the novel – Virginia 1864. Yet, she shot the film in the Deep South – a region that looked nothing like Virginia. Coppola could have changed the setting to the Deep South or shoot the film in the Upper South. She did neither. I also need to rephrase my comments regarding Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. Although I admired his exterior shots in the film, I cannot say the same about his interior shots. Quite frankly, I could barely see a damn thing, even when a scene was set during the daytime.

I am still at a loss on how Sofia Coppola thought she could improve both Thomas Cullinan’s novel and Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation. Granted, the cast – including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst – gave competent performances. But Coppola stripped away so much from this story. She stripped away a lot of the characters’ ambiguity. She stripped away an important character who had the misfortune – at least in the director’s eyes – to be an African-American. Which meant that she stripped away the topic of slavery and to a certain extent, even the war itself. In the end, “THE BEGUILED” seemed like a Southern Gothic tale with barely any life. It struck me as a shell of Cullinan’s novel and Siegel’s own adaptation. After watching this film, I found myself asking why Coppola felt she could adapt the 1966 novel in the first place, considering that she seemed incapable of exploring it with any semblance of real honesty.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set During the 1600s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the 1600s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET DURING THE 1600s

1. “The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge” (1974) – Richard Lester directed this adaptation of the second half of Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers”. The movie starred Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway.

2. “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1977) – Richard Chamberlain portrayed duel roles in this loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1847-50 novel, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”. Directed by Mike Newell, the movie co-starred Jenny Agutter, Patrick McGoohan and Ralph Richardson.

3. “The Three Musketeers” (1973) – Richard Lester directed this adaptation of the first half of Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers”. The movie starred Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway.

4. “Adventures of Don Juan” (1948) – Errol Flynn starred in this swashbuckling movie as the infamous Spanish nobleman and fencing master for King Philip III and Queen Margaret of Spain’s court, who comes to the aid of the couple when another nobleman plots to steal the throne from them. Vincent Sherman directed.

5. “The New World” (2005) – Terrence Malick wrote and directed this cinematic look at the founding of the Jamestown, Virginia settlement. The movie starred Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale.

6. The Three Musketeers” (1948) – George Sidney directed this adaptation of Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1844 novel. The movie starred Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Lana Turner and June Allyson.

7. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (2005) – Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson starred in this adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 historical novel about a Dutch housemaid; her employer, painter Johannes Vermeer; and the creation of his famous 1665 painting. Peter Webber directed.

8. “The Wicked Lady” (1945) – Margaret Lockwood starred in this adaptation of Magdalen King-Hall’s 1945 novel, “Life And Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton”. Directed by Leslie Arliss, the movie co-starred James Mason and Patricia Roc.

9. “Forever Amber” (1947) – Otto Preminger directed this adaptation of Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 novel about the rise of a 17th century English orphan. Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde starred.

10. “The Crucible” (1996) – Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder starred in this adaptation of Arthur Miller’s 1953 stage play about the Salem Witch Trials. The movie was directed by Nicholas Hytner.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

When news of Twentieth Century Fox releasing its own version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”, many people groaned. In a way, I could understand their reaction. This new movie would mark the fifth adaptation of the novel – the second theatrical version. However, being a major fan of Christie’s story about a murder aboard the famed trans-European train, I was among those who did not groan. 

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who also starred as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Jerusalem 1934, where Poirot has been asked to solve the theft of a valuable artifact from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After achieving his goal, Poirot boards a boat that conveys him to Istanbul in Turkey. Among his fellow passengers is a British governess named Mary Debenham and a Afro-British former-Army soldier-turned-physician named Dr. John Abuthnot. Poirot plans to remain in Istanbul for a few days of rest. But he receives a telegram, summoning him to London to solve another case. Monsieur Bouc, a young friend of his who happens to serve as a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, manages to acquire a berth in one of the second-class compartments in the Calais coach of the Orient Express.

Both Poirot and Bouc are surprised to discover that the Calais coach is unusually full for the winter season. A day following the train’s departure from Istanbul, one of the passengers – an American “businessman” named Samuel Rachett – informs Poirot that he had received death threats and wants to hire the Belgian detective to serve as his bodyguard. Due to his instinctive dislike of Rachett, Poirot refuses the offer. During the second night of the train’s journey, the Orient Express becomes stranded somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, thanks to an avalanche. The following morning, Rachett’s dead body is discovered with a dozen stab wounds. Bouc asks Poirot to discover the killer’s identity. Since each train car was locked at night, Poirot has focused his suspicions on those who were inside the Calais coach:

*Mary Debenham
*Dr. John Abuthnot
*Hector McQueen, Rachett’s secretary
*Edward Masterman, Rachett’s English valet
*Mrs. Caroline Hubbard, a middle-aged American tourist
*Pilar Estravados, a Spanish-born missionary
*Princess Dragomiroff, an exiled Russian princess
*Hildegarde Schmidt, Princess Dragomiroff’s German maid
*Biniamino Marquez, a Spanish-born automobile salesman
*Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat/acclaimed dancer
*Countess Helena Andrenyi, Count Andrenyi’s German-born wife
*Gerhard Hardman, a German scholar
*Pierre Michel, the Calais coach’s car attendant

Not long after he begins his investigation, Poirot discovers Rachett’s true identity – a gangster named Lanfranco Cassetti, who had kidnapped a three year-old heiress named Daisy Armstrong two years earlier. After Daisy’s parents had paid the ransom, Cassetti killed young Daisy and fled the United States. It becomes up to Poirot to discover which Calais coach passengers have connections to the Armstrong kidnapping case and find the killer.

What can I say about this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel? Of the five versions of “Murder on the Orient Express”, I have only seen four. But I am not here to discuss the other three versions I have seen . . . only this new adaptation.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not a perfect movie. Well to be honest, I have yet to see a perfect adaptation of Christie’s novel. But there were a few aspects of this film that I did not like. Most of those aspects had a lot to do with camera shots. I did not like how Branaugh had allowed his passengers to board through the dining car at the end of the train. Honestly? I did not care for that tracking shot of Poirot making his way through the train . . . with the camera focused on him through the windows. I found it rather distracting and slightly confusing. Nor did I care for how Branaugh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot the scene featuring the discovery of Rachett’s body. From the moment when the victim’s valet discovered the body to Dr. Abuthnot examined it and conveyed his prognosis, Branaugh and Zambarloukos did the entire scene from a high angle shot from above in which I could barely, if at all, see the victim’s body. I found it very frustrating to watch. And rather unnecessary. I have one last complaint and it concerned a character. Namely . . . Count Rudolph Andrenyi. In Christie’s novel, Count Andrenyi was described as a hot-blooded Hungarian and a diplomat. In “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the Count remained a hot-blooded Hungarian. But for some reason, Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green had decided to change his profession from a diplomat to a professional dancer. Why? Other than showing Count Andrenyi in a fight with two men at the Sirkeci train station, I saw no earthly reason to change the character’s profession. Worse, while being questioned by Poirot, the latter brought up the matter of a diplomatic passport. Why would Poirot bring up this matter to a man who was a professional dancer?

Thankfully, I managed to enjoy “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” a great deal, despite its flaws. Thanks to Branaugh and a first-rate crew, the movie radiated a sharp rich elegance that struck me as different as the previous adaptations. And I have to give credit to cinematographer Zambarloukos for this look. There were others who had contributed to the film’s look and style. I especially have to commend production designer Jim Clay for his re-creation of the Orient Express – along with the help of the art direction team led by Dominic Masters and set decorator Rebecca Alleway:

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I doubt that the film’s re-creation of the famous luxury train at Longcross Studios was completely accurate. But I must admit that I was more than impressed by how people like Clay, Masters and Alleway still managed to re-create the style and ambiance of the famous train. My admiration for their work at Longcross also extends to their re-creation of the famous Sirkeci railway station. I found it rich in detail and atmosphere . . . and if I must be honest, slightly mind blowing:

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I suspect that none of crewmen who worked on “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” will receive any recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their work. Pity. As for Patrick Doyle’s score, I must be honest and admit that I did not find it particularly memorable. In fact, I found Doyle’s occasional use of 1930s tunes more memorable than his original work.

How did I feel about Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green’s treatment of Christie’s novel? Aside from my nitpick about the Count Rudolph Andrenyi character, I had no problems with it. Yes, I realize that both Branaugh and Green had made some changes to Christie’s story. But you know what? So did the other versions I have seen. And there were no real changes to the plot, aside from allowing the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping to occur two years previously, instead of more. Most of the changes were made to some of the characters, instead of the plot. For instance:

*Although Hector McQueen had remained Rachett’s secretary, he was discovered to be embezzling from the latter.
*John Abuthnot is portrayed as an Afro-British doctor, who is also a former Army sniper, instead of a British Army colonel stationed in India
*Swedish-born missionary Greta Ohlsson becomes the Spanish-born missionary Pilar Estravados, whose name was borrowed from Christie’s 1938 novel, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”
*Italian-born car salesman Antonio Foscarelli becomes the Spanish-born salesman Biniamino Marquez
*Monsieur Bouc is portrayed as a much younger man, who profession is dependent upon family connections

As one can see, the changes in characterizations is based upon changes in ethnicity and nationality. Hell, I had more of a problem with the changes made by the Count Andrenyi character than I did with the above changes. And if I must be honest, I found the changes made to the John Abuthnot character rather impressive and interesting. Despite these changes, he remained intensely in love with Mary Debenham and protective of her. Another change I noticed is that Branaugh and Green had allowed Poirot to question the suspects in different parts of either the Calais coach, the dining car, the Pullman lounge car and various spots outside of the stranded train. I must admit that I found this variation in minor locations around the train rather refreshing. Watching Poirot question most of the suspects (with the exception of Princess Dragonmiroff and Hildegarde Schmidt) inside the Pullman coach had struck me as a bit repetitive in the 1974 and 2010 versions.

I would not be surprised if certain Christie fans and film critics had accused Branaugh of political correctness. Not only did the screenplay pointed out Dr. Abuthnot’s race via characters like Gerhard Hardman, but also Biniamino Marquez’s ethnicity via Hector McQueen. Considering that the movie is set in 1934, I did not mind. More importantly, it would have been odd if someone had not commented on Dr. Abuthnot’s race or Senor Marquez’s nationality. In fact, in Christie’s original novel, some characters made a big deal over the nationalities of the other suspects.

The important thing is that despite these changes, Michael Green’s screenplay more or less adhered to Christie’s novel. And he did so with style and a good deal of pathos in the film’s last half hour that I found more than satisfying. I was especially surprised by how the film treated Poirot’s character in the end. In the novel and previous adaptations, Poirot had remained on the train after solving the murder. Not in this adaptation. After exposing the crime and reporting his findings to the police in Brod, Poirot left the train. And I was thrilled. As I have stated numerous times, if I had been Poirot, I would have left that train myself.

I must admit that I had experienced a few qualms when I learned that Kenneth Branaugh had cast himself as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The large moustache he had utilized for his performance did not comfort me, until I realized that it matched the description of the literary Poirot’s moustache. I have stated in the past that I believe that British actors with a Continental background – like Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet – tend to give more believable portrayals of Poirot than English speaking actors. Branaugh ended up proving me wrong. He gave a very charming and energetic performance as Poirot, without wallowing in the occasional moments of hammy acting. I also enjoyed how he portrayed Poirot’s development in the story from a charming and intelligent man seeking a little peace before his next case to the slightly outraged man who found himself conflicted over how to handle the consequences of Rachett’s murder.

There were other performances that I found very interesting. One came from Johnny Depp, who gave an effectively slimy portrayal of the former kidnapper-turned-murder victim. His performance really impressed me, especially in one particular scene in which Rachett requested Poirot’s services as a bodyguard. Depp displayed his versatility as an actor by conveying his character’s attempt at friendliness and a sinister form of intimidation. I also appreciated Michelle Pfieffer’s portrayal of the extroverted Caroline Hubbard, which I found both humorous and sexy. And yet, Pfieffer’s finest moment came near the film’s end, when Poirot exposed her character’s deep secret. She gave a very emotional and effective performance. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley portrayed the two suspects that Poirot had first encountered – namely Dr. John Abuthnot and Mary Debenham. It is interesting that the literary versions of this pair proved to be more hostile (and bigoted) toward Poirot than the other passengers. In this version, both are more friendlier toward Poirot, yet both maintained a subtle wariness toward his presence. I also enjoyed how Odom and Ridley managed to convey more complexity into their performances, when confronted with their lies by Poirot and their willingness to fiercely protect each other.

I never thought I would say this, but I thought Josh Gad gave the most complex performance as Rachett’s secretary, Hector McQueen I have ever seen on screen. Thanks to Gad’s first-rate performance, his McQueen literally oozed with moral ambiguity – especially in the film’s second half. Another interesting performance came from Derek Jacobi, who portrayed Rachett’s English valet, Edward Masterman. I was particularly impressed at how Jacobi conveyed his character’s nervousness in being caught in a slip of character by Poirot. And there was Penelope Cruz’s performance as the Spanish missionary, Pilar Estravados. Cruz’s portrayal of the missionary was a far cry from the literary character by portraying her not only as intensely religious, but also intense and slightly intimidating. I found her performance very interesting. Judi Dench gave a very imperious and entertaining performance as the elderly Princess Dragonmiroff. The movie also featured first-rate performances from the rest of the cast that included Olivia Colman, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Willem Dafoe, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton and yes, Sergei Polunin. I may not have liked the change made to the Count Andrenyi character, but I cannot deny that Poluin gave an effective performance.

I recently learned that 20th Century Fox given approval for a sequel to “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. It may not have been a major box office hit, but it was financially successful. Personally, I am glad. I really enjoyed this new take on Christie’s 1934 novel. And I was not only impressed by the cast’s excellent performances in this film, but also by Kenneth Branaugh’s direction and his superb portrayal of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. If a sequel is being planned, I cannot wait to see him reprise his portrayal of the famous literary sleuth.

 

Peggy Olson’s Promotion in “MAD MEN” (1.13) “The Wheel”

PEGGY OLSON’S PROMOTION IN “MAD MEN” (1.13) “THE WHEEL”

Many fans of the show have made a big deal of Peggy Olson’s promotion in the “MAD MEN” Season One finale, (1.13) “The Wheel”. Actually, many have focused upon Peggy’s upward mobility from the secretarial pool to her new position as one of Sterling-Cooper’s copywriters – a professional. I had just finished watching this episode and another thought came to mind. 

It finally occurred to me that the firm’s Creative Director, Don Draper, had given Peggy that promotion in order to spite Pete Campbell, an Accounts executive who wanted to fill in the position of Head of Accounts. When Pete learned that the firm’s two partners – Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling – had directed Don to find a new Head of Accounts for the firm, he made sure to inform Don that he had acquired the Clearsil account due to his father-in-law being an executive of that company. One could say that Pete was simply being an asshole by trying to shove the achievement in Don’s face. But I think that it was simply another tactic of Pete’s to win Don’s approval and gain the promotion to Head of Accounts.

Unfortunately for Pete, the tactic backfired. I suspect that Don – feeling satisfied and perhaps a little smug over winning the Kodak account – decided to strike back at Pete for the latter’s blackmail attempt in the previous episode, (1.12) “Nixon vs. Kennedy”. Pete had not only discovered that Don was an identity thief, but also the latter’s real name. But when Pete informed Bert Cooper, the latter dismissed the former’s revelation and maintained Don’s employment at Sterling Cooper. In an act of vengeance, Don promoted Peggy to copywriter and handed the Clearisil account over to her in order to embarrass Pete. He also found someone else – namely Herman “Duck” Phillips. It was one of the most childish and despicable acts I have ever seen on that show. And yet, because Pete was unpopular with many of the series’ fans, a good number of them failed to notice that Don had used Peggy to get back at Pete.

I find it amazing that both the critics and fans have accused both Betty Draper (Don’s first wife) and Pete of being immature characters. Time and again, Don had proven he could be just as childish or even more so than either of these two or any other character in the series. But so many had been blinded by his “man’s man” facade and good looks that they have failed to realize how emotionally stunted Don could truly be.

“NEMESIS” (1987) Review

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“NEMESIS” (1987) Review

Although not highly regarded by many Agatha Christie fans, I have always been a long time fan of her 1971 novel, “Nemesis”. It possessed a slow, melancholic air about it that has always impressed me. As far as I know, there have been a radio adaptation of the novel and two television movie adaptations. One of the latter was a BBC production that aired in 1987. 

“NEMESIS” began with the death of a millionaire named Jason Rafael, whom Miss Jane Marple had first met in Christie’s 1964 novel, “A Caribbean Mystery”. Through his will, Rafael charges Miss Marple to solve a crime that he believes remain unsolved – the murder of his ne’er do well son Michael’s former fiancée, Verity Hunt. If Miss Marple is successful, she will inherit £20,000. Rafael arranges for Miss Marple to join a bus tour of famous British homes and gardens that includes one Miss Elizabeth Temple, the headmistress of a famous girls’ school that Verity had attended; a Professor Winstead, a psychiatrist who had examined Michael Rafael to judge whether the latter was capable of murder; a young woman named Miss Cooke, whom Miss Marple had spotted in St. Mary’s Mead; and the latter’s companion, a Miss Barrow. Accompanying Miss Marple is her nephew/godson Lionel Peel, a character created by screenwriter T.R. Bowen. During one stop of the bus tour, Miss Marple meets a Mrs. Lavinia Glynne and her two spinster sisters – Clotilde and Anthea Bradbury-Scott. Miss Marple learns that Rafael had arranged for the three sisters to take care of her during the tour’s more physically challenging segments. She also discovers that at least two of the sisters – Clotilde and Anthea – knew both Verity and Michael very well, since the former’s parents knew the Bradbury-Scotts before their deaths.

Despite my high regard for Christie’s novel, I must admit that I am not a major fan of the 1987 adaptation. I managed to enjoy the movie. But I would never regard it as one of my favorite adaptations that featured the Jane Marple character. I have at least three problems with this production. One, “NEMESIS” seemed to move at an incredibly slow pace. Granted, many of the “MISS MARPLE” television movies were guilty of slow pacing. But there were times when it seemed that a snail moved faster than the pacing for this film. Another problem I had with “NEMESIS” is that the story does not feature many suspects. Not really. It seemed pretty obvious in the story that most of the characters that knew Michael Rafael and Verity Hunt – Elizabeth Temple, Professor Winstead, an Archdeacon Brabazon and Lavinia Glynne – made improbable suspects. That only left the two remaining Bradbury-Scott sisters, Clotilde and Anthea, Miss Cooke and Miss Barrow. Actually, Bowen’s screenplay tried to include Michael Rafael as a suspect by placing him in the area when Elizabeth Temple was killed. But that did not really work for me.

Which leads me to my third problem with this production . . . namely Michael Rafael. In Christie’s novel, the latter had been in prison for a decade, convicted of Verity Hunt’s murder (and possible the murder of a local girl named Nora Brent). However, Bowen changed matters by allowing Michael to roam free as a suspect who had never arrested or convicted. Worse, he had Michael roaming the streets of London as a homeless man, acting as some kind of advocate for many of London’s homeless. Every time the story focused on Michael, I had to reach for my remote and push the fast forward button. It was either that or allow the Michael Rafael sequences put me to sleep. Not even Bruce Payne’s performance could keep me interested. If I must be more brutally frank, I thought the 2007 adaptation handled its changes of the Michael Rafael character a lot better. I wish that Bowen had adhered to Christie’s original story by allowing Michael to remain in prison, if he was that intent upon closely following the novel.

However, “NEMESIS” was not a terrible movie. Despite its shortcomings, it proved to be pretty solid adaptation. Bowen and director David Tucker did an admirable job in adapting Christie’s novel for the television screen. More importantly, they did an equally admirable job of adhering to the novel with very few changes. Although I am not particularly thrilled with the changes done to the Michael Rafael character, I have to admit that I liked the addition of the Lionel Peel character. He strongly reminded me of the Arthur Hastings character and actually managed to somewhat assist Miss Marple in her investigation.

The best aspect of “NEMESIS” is that it did not deviate from the novel’s theme . . . namely love. I read another review of the movie that tried to hint that the changes in Bowen’s screenplay emphasized on the topic of decay. Recalling Christie’s original novel, it was an argument that I found hard to accept. More than anything, I believe love played a major role in this story. Due to a series of interviews with other characters in the story, Miss Marple came to the conclusion that Verity Hunt was a much beloved young woman. In fact, her observation led her to question the stark condition of Verity’s resting place. The love Verity shared between Michael Rafael had led to her murder and emotionally ruined his life. The love theme that seemed to permeate the screenplay convinced me that both Bowen and Tucker to maintain the melancholic air that made the novel so interesting . . . and haunting.

I certainly had no problems with the production’s performances. Joan Hickson gave one of her best performances as the truth-seeking Jane Marple. In fact, this particular movie featured one of my favorite Hickson moments on film . . . the moment in which Miss Marple confronts the murderer and reveals the latter’s motive and methods. “NEMESIS” also featured superb performances from Margaret Tyzack, Anna Cropper and Valerie Lush, who portrayed the very interesting Bradbury-Scott sisters. Despite my complaints about the Michael Rafael character, I cannot deny that Bruce Payne gave a very intense performance as the hard-luck drifter. Both Roger Hammond and Patrick Godfrey nearly made a perfect screen team as Jason Rafael’s pair of solicitors, Mr. Broadribb and Mr. Schuster. Peter Tilbury gave an entertaining performance as Miss Marple’s mild-mannered nephew (or godson), Lionel Peel. And I found Helen Cherry’s portrayal of the former school headmistress, Elizabeth Temple, very poignant. Another poignant performance came from Liz Fraser, who portrayed the mother of the missing and presumed dead Nora Brent. The movie also featured solid performances from Ann Queensberry, Jane Booker, Alison Skilbeck, John Horsley and Peter Copley.

I suppose I should be grateful that “NEMESIS” did not prove to be a narrative mess, like the 2007 adaptation of the same novel. Yes, it possessed flaws that made it difficult for me to regard it as one of my favorite Miss Marple adaptations. But it still managed to somewhat closely follow the 1971 novel and maintain its melancholic air. And it also featured excellent performances from a cast led by Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. On a whole, it proved to be a pretty damn good movie.

Doberge Cake

Below is an article about the dessert known as the Doberge Cake

DOBERGE CAKE

For years, I have heard about New Orleans, Louisiana being something of a “foodie town”. But after learning about the origins of this latest dish, I am finally beginning to realize that this might be true. And what is the latest dish I just learned had originated in New Orleans? Namely a dessert known as the Doberge Cake.

The Doberge Cake is actually an adaptation of a Hungarian dessert known as the Dobos TorteBeulah Levy Ledner was the daughter of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants who had settled in St. Rose, Louisiana in the late 19th century. By the beginning of the Great Depression, she had moved to New Orleans where she started her own bakery business from her home in 1931. Sometime between 1931 and 1933, Ledner created her own version of the Dobos Torte.

Ledner kick started the Doberge Cake by following the recipe of the Dobos torte with layers of Genoise cake. But instead of spreading each layer of cake with buttercream and topping the whole thing with a layer of hard caramel glaze; Ledner spread each cake layer with a custard filling and iced the whole cake with buttercream and a thin layer of fondant icing. The traditional flavors used for a Doberge cake are chocolate, lemon or caramel. Many times, the cakes are made with half chocolate pudding and half lemon pudding.

A man named Joe Gambino purchased the name of the cake, the recipe and the retail shop from Ledner in 1946. She also promised that she would not reopen in New Orleans for five years. After a few years of illness, Ledner reopened her bakery in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, under the name of “Beulah Ledner, Inc.” As her business and popularity grew, her son, Albert, designed and built a new building for a new machine to mass-produce sheet cakes using his mother’s recipes. Ledner opened another bakery on May 21, 1970 and operated it until she retired in 1981 the age of 87 and sold her business and the Doberge recipe to Maurice’s French Pastries. The latter continues the business of baking and selling Doberge cakes in Metairie.

Below is a recipe for the Doberge Cake from the Genius Kitchen website:

Doberge Cake

Ingredients – Genoise Cake
3⁄4 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, separated, whites stiffly beaten
1 cup milk
3 teaspoons baking powder
3 1⁄2 cups cake flour (measured after sifting)
scant teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preparation – Genoise Cake
Cream the butter, sugar and salt until smooth.
Add egg yolks, one at a time, and blend until smooth.
Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with milk.
Beat until blended. Add vanilla and lemon juice.
With a spatula, fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Grease 9-inch cake pans.
Pour ¾ cup batter into each pan, spreading evenly over bottom.
Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes.
Repeat process until batter is completely used, to make eight thin layers.

Ingredients – Chocolate Pudding
2 cups granulated sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons cornstarch
2 kitchen spoons cocoa (heaping spoonfuls)
4 tablespoons bitter chocolate
4 eggs (whole)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 cups milk

Ingredients – Lemon Filling
1 1⁄4 cups white sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons flour
1⁄8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1⁄2 cups cold water
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons sweet butter
2 teaspoons lemon peel, finely shredded
1⁄3 cup fresh lemon juice

Preparation – Pudding and Custard
Stir all dry ingredients together in a saucepan, then add the remaining ingredients.
Cook over medium heat until thick, stirring constantly.
Remove from fire to cool.

Ingredients – Chocolate Buttercream Icing
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1⁄2 lb oleo, softened (margarine)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cocoa
1 ounce bitter chocolate, melted

Ingredients – Chocolate Icing
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
4 semi-sweet chocolate baking squares, melted
1⁄4 cup butter
3⁄4 cup cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

Ingredients – Lemon Frosting
6 ounces cream cheese, softened, room temperature
3 cups icing sugar
1 teaspoon lemon peel, finely shredded
1⁄4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1⁄4 teaspoon lemon extract

Preparations – Chocolate Butter Cream Icing
Cream sugar and oleo, then add cocoa, then the melted chocolate and vanilla.
If too thick, add a little hot water, very slowly, until the consistency is right.

Preparations – Chocolate Icing
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and let it come slowly to a boil, then boil about 10 minutes until it thickens.
Beat until thick enough to spread.

Preparation – Lemon Frosting
Beat cream cheese, icing sugar until fluffy.
Add 1 tsp lemon peel, 1/4 tsp vanilla extract and 1/4 tsp lemon extract and beat till smooth.

Cake Assembly
To assemble the cake, place one layer on bottom of a cake platter. Pour 1/2 cup of lemon filling on top of 1/2 of the cake. Spread Chocolate pudding on the other half of the cake.
Repeat the above procedure with the remaining cake layers and filling.
Top with final layer of cake with both the chocolate pudding and lemon filling.
Cover cake with plastic wrap and put in fridge for 2 hours till well chilled.
Spread Lemon Frosting on the sides and top of the lemon half the cake.
Spread chocolate butter cream icing on top and sides of the cake’s chocolate side.
Cover and chill inside the refrigerator.
Then cover the chocolate side with the Chocolate Icing.
Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.