“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.

 

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“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” (2013) Review

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” (2013) Review

It is believed by many that the 1976 novel, “Curtain”, was the last one written by Agatha Christie that featured Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Not quite. “Curtain”, which Christie wrote during World War II, was the last Poirot novel to be published. The 1972 novel, “Elephants Can Remember” proved to be the last Poirot novel written by the author. 

Forty-one years following its publication, “Elephants Can Remember” was adapted as an 89-minute television movie for the last season of ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. Although the movie’s screenwriter, Nick Dear, retained a great deal of Christie’s novel; he embellished the story by adding a present day murder. He also either deleted or merged some supporting characters.

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” begins with Adriande Oliver attending a literary luncheon in London, when a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Burton-Cox approaches her. Knowing that Mrs. Oliver is the godmother of her son Desmond’s fiancée, Celia Ravenscroft, Mrs. Burton-Cox wants to know if the young woman’s parents had died via a murder-suicide or a double suicide. Some ten or fifteen years earlier, the bodies of Mrs. Oliver’s close friend Margaret Ravenscroft and General Alistair Ravenscroft were found near their manor house in Overcliffe. The original police investigation revealed that both had bullet wounds and that a revolver found between their bodies bore the fingerprints of the married couple. This made it impossible for the police to prove whether The Ravenscrofts’ deaths were a case of double suicide or if it was a murder-suicide. Following her encounter with Mrs. Burton-Cox, Mrs. Oliver contacts Celia Ravenscroft, who asks her to look into the case.

Mrs. Oliver seeks the help of Hercule Poirot, but he has his own case to solve. The latter is requested by an old friend, a psychiatrist named Dr. Willoughby, to investigate the murder of his father, who operated the Willoughby Institute for psychologically troubled patients. While investigating the elder Dr. Willoughby’s death, Poirot discovers a connection between his case and the Ravenscrofts’ case. Apparently, Mrs. Ravenscroft’s sister, Dorothy Jarrow, had been a patient of Dr. Willoughby senior before the couple’s deaths. Following this discovery, he decides to help Mrs. Oliver with her mystery as well.

Cold cases have featured in some of the most interesting novels that Agatha Christie had written throughout her career. Four of her most interesting novels about cold cases were “Five Little Pigs” (1942)“Ordeal by Innocence” (1958)“Hallowe’en Party” (1969)“Nemesis” (1971) and “Sleeping Murder” (1976). I wish I could say the same about “Elephants Can Remember”. But if I must be brutally honest, I have never read the novel. But thanks to this 2013 television adaptation of the novel and the Wikipedia website, I found myself familiar with its plot. As for the production itself . . . well, it seemed pretty solid to me.

I know what you are thinking. Pretty solid? Why not first-rate or excellent? To be perfectly honest, “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” did not exactly blow my mind. My problem with the film is I feel that Nick Dear’s additions to Christie’s story may have slightly undermined its dramatic impact. “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” had the potential to be a poignant mystery about the past. However, by adding both a murder and attempted murder to the story may have undermined this poignancy.

As I have earlier pointed out, “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” was not the first “cold case” mystery written by Christie. And to be perfectly honest, three of those “cold case” mysteries like “Ordeal by Innocence”“Nemesis” and “Sleeping Murder” did feature additional “present-day” murders to their narratives. But those murders were all about the killers’ attempts to prevent from being exposed after a period of time. In the case of “Hallowe’en Party”, it featured a good number of additional murders – both past and present – that were all about preventing the exposure of the murderer. I thought the addition of another murder and attempted murder in “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” had taken away some of the emotional impact of the Ravenscrofts’ deaths. This addition also made the plot a bit more confusing than necessary.

Despite Nick Dear’s major change in Christie’s story, I still managed to enjoy “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER”. The story managed to remain somewhat intriguing. But there were other aspects of the television movie that I enjoyed. Thanks to Jeff Tessler’s production designs and Miranda Cull’s art direction, “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” proved to be a very attractive looking production. Gavin Finney’s cinematography also added to the production’s attractive look. But there were times when his photography looked slightly fuzzy and ended up irritating me.

“ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER” also featured some first-rate performances. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker were wonderful, as always, as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and mystery writer Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. There were three other performances that also impressed me. Iain Glen gave a very interesting performance as Poirot’s charming, yet adulterous friend, Dr. Willoughby. Greta Scacchi was marvelous as always as the snobbish, yet mercenary Mrs. Burton-Cox. I was also impressed by Alexandra Dowling’s complicated performance as the mysterious secretary, Marie McDermott, who was having an affair with Dr. Willoughby. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Vanessa Kirby, Elsa Mollien, Adrian Lukis, Ferdinand Kingsley, Claire Cox, Caroline Blakiston and Vincent Regan.

Yes, I had a few quibbles about “ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER”. My quibbles mainly focused on some of the additions that screenwriter Nick Dear made to Agatha Christie’s plot. But despite it, I still managed to enjoy the teleplay, thanks to John Strickland’s direction and a solid cast led by David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker.

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” (2003) Review

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” (2003) Review

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS”. That is the name of this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel. Who would have thought that a story with a title straight from a nursery rhyme would lead me to view it as one of the best screen adaptations of a Christie novel I have ever seen?

I just gave the game away in the last paragraph, did I? I gave my opinion of “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” right off the bat. My recent viewing of “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” made me realize two things – a) it is a well-written and melancholic story with tragic overtones; and b) it is one of the finest Christie adaptations I have ever seen. Hmmm . . . I think I may have repeated myself. Well, I cannot help it. I feel that strongly about this movie.

The story began with Hercule Poirot receiving a visitor – a wealthy young woman from Canada named Lucy Lemarchant, who admitted to being the only child of a famous artist named Amyas Crale. According to her, Crale had been murdered fifteen years ago and Lucy’s mother, Caroline, ended up being arrested, convicted and executed for the murder. Years later, Lucy read a letter from Caroline in which the latter claimed her innocence. Despite his doubts, Poirot agreed to investigate Crale’s death. He ended up interviewing five other people who had been at the Crales’ house party fourteen years earlier – five people whom Poirot dubbed “the Five Little Pigs”:

*Phillip Blake – a stockbroker and old childhood friend of Amyas Crale
*Meredith Blake – a reclusive former amateur herbalist and Philip’s brother
*Elsa Greer (Lady Dittisham) – a spoiled society lady who had once been Crale’s mistress and subject
*Angela Warren – a disfigured archaeologist and Caroline Crale’s younger sister
*Cecilia Williams – Lucy and Angela’s devoted governess

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” turned out to be one of those rare Agatha Christie stories in which most of the drama occurred in distant past. What started as a cold case involving the murder of a philandering, yet talented artist, ended as a tale of sad regrets and family tragedy. This was emphasized in the movie’s finale with one last flashback featuring Crayle and Caroline enjoying happier times with their daughter before murder and tragedy struck. That last scene made me realize that the murderer – in an act of emotion – had not only killed the artist, but destroyed a family.

Another one of the movie’s major assets turned out to be its cast. David Suchet gave his usual competent portrayal of Belgian-born sleuth, Hercule Poirot. But I must admit that one of his finest moments – not only in the movie, but during the entire series – came when he exposed the murderer. Suchet did an excellent job of revealing Poirot’s emotional outrage toward the murderer, without any histrionics whatsoever.

There were certain cast members that I believe stood out. Toby Stephens gave a surprisingly poignant performance as Philip Blake, Aymas Crale’s boyhood friend, who harbored a secret passion for the painter. Julie Cox portrayed Aymas’ young mistress, Elsa Bell (the future Lady Dittisham) with an interesting mixture of arrogance and innocence. And Aidan Gillen’s portrayal of Aymas Crale as a self-involved, occasionally immature and passionate man seemed spot-on for a character that was supposed to be a talented artist. But my favorite performance came from Rachael Stirling, who portrayed Aymas’ long suffering wife, Caroline. The interesting thing about her performance – at least to me – was that she seemed to be at the center of the story. In the end, it was Stirling – along with Suchet – who carried the film. And she managed to do this with a very subtle performance.

I also have to give kudos to cinematographer Christopher Gunning for his lush photography in the 1920s flashbacks. And costume designer Sheena Napier did a solid job of creating costumes for two eras – the mid 1920s and the late 1930s/early 1940s. But the movie’s real gems turned out to be Kevin Elyot’s adaptation of Christie’s sad and tragic tale and Paul Unwin’s direction. Thanks to the both of them, “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” ended up being one of the best cinematic adaptations of an Agatha Christie novel I have ever seen.

“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

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“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

When I was in my early teens, I had shifted my attention from Nancy Drew mysteries to those novels written by Agatha Christie. And I have not stopped since. I confess that this shift in reading material was the result of seeing the 1978 movie, “DEATH ON THE NILE”, for the first time. Properly hooked on Christie’s works, I focused my attention on her 1934 novel, “Murder in Three Acts”, also known as “Three Act Tragedy”.

I have seen two adaptations of Christie’s 1934 novel. The first was television adaptation in the mid 1980s, titled “MURDER IN THREE ACTS”, which starred Christie veteran Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. Although I enjoyed it, I had hoped to see an adaptation of the novel in its original 1930s setting. I had to wait many years before the ITV series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” granted my wish with an adaptation that not only retained the original setting, but also the original title, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”.

The story begins on the coast of Cornwall, where Hercule Poirot attends a dinner party at the home of famed stage actor, Sir Charles Cartwright. The latter’s guests also include:

*Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange – Sir Charles’ old childhood friend and a nerve specialist
*Lady Mary Lytton-Gore – a Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles, who is from an impoverished old family
*Hermione “Egg” Lytton-Gore – Lady Mary’s young daughter, with whom Sir Charles is in love
*Muriel Wills – a successful playwright also known as Anthony Astor
*Captain Freddie Dacres – a former Army officer and gentleman gambler
*Cynthia Dacres – Captain Dacres’ wife and a successful dressmaker
*Reverend Stephen Babbington – the local curate and Sir Charles’ Cornish neighbor
*Mrs. Babbington – Reverend Babbington’s wife near Sir Charles’s home in Cornwall.
*Oliver Manders – a young Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles’, who is interested in Egg
*Miss Milray – Sir Charles’ secretary

The guests gather in Sir Charles’ drawing-room for a round of pre-dinner cocktails. The party is marred when one of the guests, Reverend Babbington, collapses and dies after drinking his cocktail. An inquest rules his death as a result from natural causes. However, Sir Charles believes that Reverend Babbington may have been murdered, but Poirot is not convinced. About a month or so later, Poirot is vacationing in Monte Carlo, when he encounters Sir Charles. The latter reveals via a newspaper article that Dr. Strange had died from similar circumstances, while hosting a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire. Most of the guests who had attended Sir Charles’ party had also been there, with the exception of Mrs. Babbington and Miss Milray. Unlike Reverend Babbington, Sir Bartholomew’s death has been ruled as a homicide. Both Poirot and Sir Charles return to Britain to investigate the two deaths.

Although “Three Act Tragedy” was one of the first Christie novels I had read, it has never been a favorite of mine. I liked it, but I did not love it. Screenwriter Nick Dear made some changes to the story that I either found appropriate or did not bother me. Dear removed characters like society hound like Mr. Satterthwaite and stage actress Angela Sutcliffe (and one of Sir Charles’ former lovers). I did not miss them. One change really improved the story for me. One aspect of the novel that I found particularly frustrating was the minimized presence of Poirot. The lack of Poirot almost dragged the novel into a halt. Thankfully, Dear avoided this major flaw by allowing Poirot’s presence to be a lot more prominent. He achieved this change by making Poirot a friend of Sir Charles and removing the Mr. Satterthwaite. Dear also made one other major change in Christie’s story, but I will get to it later.

Visually, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” is a gorgeous movie to watch. Peter Greenhalgh, who had passed away last year, provided the production with a colorful photography that I found particularly beautiful. My only complaint about Greenhalgh’s photography is that it struck me as a little fuzzy at times to indicate the story’s presence in the past. Another dazzling aspect of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were the production designs created by Jeff Tessler, who more orless served as the production designer for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” between 2005 and the series’ end in 2013. Judging by the admirable way he managed to re-create not only the movie’s 1930s setting, but also various locations, only tells me that he had been doing something write. I certainly had no complaints about the costumes designed by Sheena Napier. Like Tessler, she worked for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” for a long period of time . . . even longer than Tessler. Although I am no expert on early 20th century fashion, I thought Napier excellent job in creating costumes for the production’s setting and the different characters.

The performances featured in “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were first-rate. I did not find anything exceptional about David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot, but I thought he gave his usual more-than-competent performance. Martin Shaw gave a very solid performance as the charming, yet intelligent Sir Charles Cartwright, who was the first to sense something wrong about the first murder. I was also impressed by how the actor conveyed his character’s insecurity over a romance with a much younger woman. Kimberly Nixon seemed like a ball of fire, thanks to her portrayal of the vibrant and charming Egg Lytton-Gore, who found herself torn between two men. I also enjoyed Art Malik’s portrayal of the extroverted Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange. Although there were times when his performance struck me as a touch too jovial. Ronan Vibert gave a rather insidious, yet oddly charming performance as “gentleman” gambler Captain Freddie Dacres. The one performance that really impressed me came Kate Ashfield who gave a very interesting performance as playwright Anthony Astor aka Miss Muriel Wills. Ashfield did an excellent job in recapturing Miss Wills’ secretive, yet uber observant personality. The production also featured solid performances from Anastasia Hille, Tom Wisdom, Anna Carteret, Suzanne Bertish, and Tony Maudsley.

I do have a complaint about “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I really wish that Nick Dear had not changed the murderer’s main motive for the killings. I have heard rumors that there are two different versions of the story’s resolution. My literary version of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” questioned the murderer’s sanity, making the murders a lot more interesting to me. Unfortunately, Nick Dear used the other resolution, one that struck me as a lot more mundane and not very interesting. Too bad.

Aside from changing the killer’s motive for the murders, I rather enjoyed “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I am thankful that screenwriter Nick Dear had made Hercule Poirot’s presence in the story more prominent than it was in the novel. After all, he is the story’s main investigator. But despite excellent acting and solid direction by Ashley Pearce, I would never regard it as one of my favorite productions from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It was simply a pretty good adaptation of a solid Christie novel. There is nothing else for me to say.

“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

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“TRUMBO” (2015) Review

I tried to think of a number of movies about the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Hollywood Blacklist I have seen. And to be honest, I can only think of two of which I have never finished and two of which I did. One of those movies I did finish was the 2015 biopic about Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo.

Based upon Bruce Alexander Cook’s 1977 biography, the movie covered fourteen years of the screenwriter’s life – from being subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 to 1960, when he was able to openly write movies and receive screen credit after nine to ten years of being blacklisted by the Motion Picture Alliance for the Protection of American Ideals. Due to this time period, it was up to production designer Mark Rickler to visually convey fourteen years in Southern California – from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. I must say that he, along with cinematographer Jim Denault and art directors Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal did an excellent job by taking advantage of the New Orleans locations. That is correct. Certain areas around New Orleans, Louisiana stood for mid-century Los Angeles, California. But the movie also utilized a few locations in Southern California; including a residential house in northeastern Los Angeles, and the famous Roosevelt Hotel in the heart of Hollywood. And thanks to Denault’s cinematography, Rickler’s production designs not only made director Jay Roach’s “Southern California” look colorful, but nearly realistic. But one of my minor joys of “TRUMBO” came from the costume designs. Not only do I admire how designer Daniel Orlandi re-created mid-20th century fashion for the film industry figures in Southern California, as shown in the images below:

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I was especially impressed by Orlandi’s re-creation of . . . you guessed it! Columnist Hedda Hopper‘s famous hats, as shown in the following images:

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I have read two reviews for “TRUMBO”. Both reviewers seemed to like the movie, yet both were not completely impressed by it. I probably liked it a lot more than the two. “TRUMBO” proved to be the second movie I actually paid attention to about the Blacklist. I think it has to do with the movie’s presentation. “TRUMBO” seemed to be divided into three acts. The first act introduced the characters and Trumbo’s problems with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, leading to his being imprisoned for eleven months on charges of contempt of Congress, for his refusal to answer questions from HUAC. The second act focused on those years in which Trumbo struggled to remain employed as a writer for the low-budget King Brothers Productions, despite being blacklisted by the major studios. And the last act focused upon Trumbo’s emergence from the long shadow of the blacklist, thanks to his work on “SPARTACUS” and “EXODUS”.

I have only one real complaint about “TRUMBO”. Someone once complained that the movie came off as uneven. And I must admit that the reviewer might have a point. I noticed that the film’s first act seemed to have a light tone – despite Trumbo’s clashes with Hollywood conservatives and HUAC. Even those eleven months he had spent in prison seemed to have an unusual light tone, despite the situation. But once the movie shifted toward Trumbo’s struggles trying to stay employed, despite the blacklist, the movie’s tone became somewhat bleaker. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured the screenwriter’s clashes with his family over his self-absorbed and strident behavior towards them and his dealings with fellow (and fictional) screenwriter Arlen Hird. But once actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger expressed interest in ignoring the Blacklist and hiring Trumbo for their respective movies, the movie shifted toward a lighter, almost sugarcoated tone again. Now, there is nothing wrong with a movie shifting from one tone to another in accordance to the script. My problem with these shifts is that they struck me as rather extreme and jarring. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a movie directed by two different men.

Another problem I had with “TRUMBO” centered around one particular scene that featured Hedda Hopper and MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer. In this scene, Hopper forces Mayer to fire any of his employees who are suspected Communists, including Trumbo. The columnist did this by bringing up Mayer’s Jewish ancestry and status as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. This scene struck me as a blatant copy of one featured in the 1999 HBO movie, “RKO 281”. In that movie, Hopper’s rival, Louella Parsons (portrayed by Brenda Blethyn) utilized the same method to coerce – you guess it – Mayer (portrayed by David Suchet) to convince other studio bosses to withhold their support of the 1941 movie, “CITIZEN KANE”. Perhaps the filmmakers for “TRUMBO” felt that no one would remember the HBO film. I did. Watching that scene made me wonder if I had just witnessed a case of plagiarism. And I felt rather disappointed.

Despite these jarring shifts in tone, I still ended up enjoying “TRUMBO” very much. Instead of making an attempt to cover Dalton Trumbo’s life from childhood to death, the movie focused upon a very important part in the screenwriter’s life – the period in which his career in Hollywood suffered a major decline, due to his political beliefs. And thanks to Jay Roach’s direction and John McNamara’s screenplay, the movie did so with a straightforward narrative. Some of the film’s critics had complained about its sympathetic portrayal of Trumbo, complaining that the movie had failed to touch upon Trumbo’s admiration of the Soviet Union. Personally, what would be the point of that? A lot of American Communists did the same, rather naively and stupidly in my opinion. But considering that this movie mainly focused upon Trumbo’s experiences as a blacklisted writer, what would have been the point? Trumbo was not professionally and politically condemned for regarding the Soviet Union as the epitome of Communism at work. He was blacklisted for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Also, the movie did not completely whitewash Trumbo. McNamara’s screenplay did not hesitate to condemn how Trumbo’s obsession with continuing his profession as a screenwriter had a negative impact upon his relationship with his family – especially his children. It also had a negative impact with his relationship with fellow screenwriter (the fictional) Arlen Hird, who wanted Trumbo to use his work for the King Brothers to express their liberal politics. Trumbo seemed more interested in staying employed and eventually ending the Blacklist. I came away with the feeling that the movie was criticizing the screenwriter for being more interested in regaining his successful Hollywood career than in maintaining his politics.

“TRUMBO” also scared me. The movie scared me in a way that the 2010 movie, “THE CONSPIRATOR” did. It reminded me that I may disagree with the political or social beliefs of another individual; society’s power over individuals – whether that society came in the form of a government (national, state or local) or any kind of corporation or business industry – can be a frightening thing to behold. It can be not only frightening, but also corruptive. Watching the U.S. government ignore the constitutional rights of this country’s citizens (including Trumbo) via the House Committee on Un-American Activities scared the hell out of me. Watching HUAC coerce and frighten actor Edward G. Robinson into exposing people that he knew as Communists scared me. What frightened me the most is that it can happen again. Especially when I consider how increasingly rigid the world’s political climate has become.

I cannot talk about “TRUMBO” without focusing on the performances. Bryan Cranston earned a slew of acting nominations for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo. I have heard that the screenwriter was known for being a very colorful personality. What is great about Cranston’s performance is that he captured this trait of Trumbo’s without resorting to hammy acting. Actually, I could say the same about the rest of the cast. Helen Mirren portrayed the movie’s villain, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper with a charm and charisma that I personally found both subtle and very scary. Diane Lane gave a subtle and very convincing performance as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, who not only stood by her husband throughout his travails, but also proved to be strong-willed when his self-absorption threatened to upset the family dynamics. Louis C.K., the comic actor gave a poignant and emotional performance as the fictional and tragic screenwriter, Arden Hird.

Other memorable performances caught my attention as well. Elle Fanning did an excellent job portraying Trumbo’s politically passionate daughter, who grew to occasionally resent her father’s pre-occupation with maintaining his career. Michael Stuhlbarg did a superb job in conveying the political and emotional trap that legendary actor Edward G. Robinson found himself, thanks to HUAC. Both John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave colorful and entertaining performances as studio head Frank King and Trumbo’s fellow convict Virgil Brooks, respectively. Stephen Root was equally effective as the cautious and occasionally paranoid studio boss, Hymie King. Roger Bart gave an excellent performance as fictional Hollywood producer Buddy Ross, a venal personality who seemed to lack Robinson’s sense of guilt for turning his back on the blacklisted Trumbo and other writers. David James Elliot gave a very interesting performance as Hollywood icon John Wayne, conveying the actor’s fervent anti-Communist beliefs and willingness to protect Robinson from Hedda Hopper’s continuing hostility toward the latter. And in their different ways, both Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel gave very entertaining performances as the two men interested in employing Trumbo by the end of the 1950s – Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger.

I noticed that “TRUMBO” managed to garner only acting nominations for the 2015-2016 award season. Considering that the Academy Award tends to nominate at least 10 movies for Best Picture, I found it odd that the organization was willing to nominate the likes of “THE MARTIAN” (an unoriginal, yet entertaining feel-good movie) and “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” (for which I honestly do not have a high regard) in that category. “TRUMBO” was not perfect. But I do not see why it was ignored for the Best Picture category, if movies like “THE MARTIAN” can be nominated. I think director Jay Roach, screenwriter John McNamara and a cast led by the always talented Bryan Cranston did an excellent job in conveying a poisonous period in both the histories of Hollywood and this country.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

I just realized something. I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1932 novel, “Peril at End House”. I find this ironic, considering that I have seen the 1990 television movie adaptation of this novel at least three or four times. One of these days, I will get around to reading Christie’s novel and comparing it to the television adaptation. Right now, I am going to focus on the latter.

Directed by Renny Rye and adapted by Clive Exton, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” is the first full-length television movie aired on “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It is also about Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s efforts to prevent the murder of a young socialite, during his vacation in Cornwall. The movie begins with Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings arriving at a Cornish seaside resort for their vacation. While conversing with socialite Magdala “Nick” Buckley on the resort’s grounds, Poirot notices that someone had fired a bullet into the brim of her floppy hat. Poirot exposes the bullet hole to Nick, who finds it difficult to believe that someone wants to kill her. She points out that aside from her house – End House – has no real assets. Poirot decides to investigate her inner circle, who includes the following:

*Charles Vyse – Nick’s cousin and an attorney
*Mr. and Mrs. Croft – an Australian couple that has leased the lodge near End House, who had suggested Nick make a will six months earlier
*Freddie Rice – a close friend of Nick’s, who is also an abused wife
*Jim Lazarus – an art dealer in love with Nick
*Commander George Challenger – a Royal Navy officer who is also attracted to Nick

Poirot eventually advises Nick to invite a relative to stay with her for a few weeks. Nick invites her distant cousin Maggie Buckley. Unfortunately, someone kills Maggie, after she makes the mistake of wearing Nick’s dress shawl during an evening party. Even worse, the killer eventually achieves his/her goal by sending a box of poisoned chocolates to Nick, while she was recuperating at a local hospital.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” possessed a certain plot device that Christie had used in several of her novels. I would describe this plot device. But to do so would spoil the rest of the story. It took me years to spot this plot device. And I should be surprised that I have not come across anyone else who has spotted it. And yet . . . I am not. The fact that it took me several years to spot this particular plot device only tells me that Christie has utilized it with great effect in some of her more interesting and well-written mysteries. Thankfully, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be one of those well-written mysteries.

I must admit that Clive Exton did a pretty damn good job in adapting Christie’s novel for the television screen. He stuck very closely to the original novel’s plot . . . with a few changes that did no harm to the overall movie. Both Exton and Rye presented a well-paced production to the audiences. They set up the story with Poirot and Hastings’ arrival to Cornwall and continued on with without any haste or dragging feet. The only time the movie threatened to put me to sleep occurred between the story’s second murder and the revelation of the killer . . . . when the story threatened to ground to a halt. I have one last problem – namely the appearance of Chief Inspector Japp. I realize that Japp did appear in the novel. But his appearance merely dealt with Poirot’s request that he investigate the Crofts, whom the Belgian detective suspected of being forgers. The cinematic Japp immediately appeared following Maggie Buckley’s death as the main police investigator. And Cornwall is not under Scotland Yard’s main jurisdiction.

The production values for “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be top-notch. Rye shot the film’s exterior scenes in Salcombe, Devon; instead of the county of Cornwall. I found that curious. However, both he and cinematographer Peter Bartlett certainly took advantage of the movie’s setting with Bartlett’s photography of Salcombe’s charming, Old World style. This was especially apparent in the movie’s opening sequence that featured Poirot and Hasting’s arrival by airplane. Actually, production designer Mike Oxley did an excellent job of recreating an English vacation resort in the early 1930s. The production practically reeked of the Art Deco style of that time period. However, I was especially impressed by Linda Mattock’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by those costumes worn by actresses Polly Walker, Pauline Moran and Alison Sterling. My only complaints about the movie’s visual styles were the actresses’ hairstyles. No one seemed capable of re-creating the early 1930s soft bob. The actresses either wore a chignon or in the case of Sterling, a Dutch Boy bob made famous by actress Louise Brooks in the late 1920s.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” featured some solid performances by the cast. David Suchet gave his usual excellent portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was especially impressed by the on-screen chemistry he managed to produce with Polly Walker. The latter gave a standout performance as the killer’s main target, Madgala “Nick” Buckley. Walker did an excellent job of transforming Nick from the charming “Bright Young Thing” to a wary and frightened woman, who realizes that someone is trying to kill her. Alison Sterling was also excellent as one of Nick’s closest friends, “Freddie” Rice. Next to Walker’s Nick, Sterling gave an interesting and skillful portrayal of the very complex Freddie. Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson were also excellent as Arthur Hastings, Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. All three, along with Suchet, managed to re-create their usual magic. The movie also featured solid performances from Paul Geoffrey (whom I found particularly convincing as an early 30s social animal), John Harding, Christopher Baines and Elizabeth Downes. I found the Australian accents utilized by Jeremy Young and Carol Macready, who portrayed the Crofts, rather wince inducing. But since their accents were supposed to be fake in the first place, I guess I had no problems.

For some reason, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” has never become a big favorite of mine. It is a well done adaptation of Christie’s novel. And I found it visually attractive, thanks to the movie’s production team. The movie also featured some excellent performances – especially from David Suchet, Polly Walker and Alison Sterling. Naturally, it is not perfect. But that is not the problem. I cannot explain my lack of enthusiasm for “PERIL AT END HOUSE”. I can only assume that I found nothing particularly mind blowing or fascinating about its plot. It is simply a good, solid murder mystery that has managed to entertain me on a few occasions. Perhaps . . . that is enough.

“THIRD GIRL” (2008) Review

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“THIRD GIRL” (2008) Review

Looking back on her career, I suspect that Agatha Christie was not at the top of her game as a novelist during the last decade-and-a-half of her life. There were a handful of novels during the period of 1960-1976 that I found unique. However, her 1966 novel, “Third Girl” was not one of them.

I take that back. I did find “Third Girl” rather unique . . . to a certain extent. I thought Christie did a pretty good job in re-capturing the Swinging Sixties atmosphere in her novel. Unfortunately, her streak of conservatism and a too complex plot made it difficult for me to truly savor this story. Forty-two years after the novel’s initial release, ITV network adapted the novel as a television movie for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. Since the series is usually set in 1930s, screenwriter Peter Flannery changed the novel’s mid-1960s setting in accordance with the rest of the series. I was slightly disappointed by this change in setting, because I was slightly impressed by Christie’s portrayal of mid-Sixties London. But . . . I pushed my aside my disappointment and decided to see how Flannery and director Dan Reed adapted Christie’s story.

“THIRD GIRL” begins with a slightly high-strung heiress seeking Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s help in regard to a murder she believes she may have committed. However, she takes one look at Poirot and decides he may be too old to help her before leaving. Since his friend, novelist Ariadne Oliver, had been the one to recommend him to the girl, Poirot seeks information on the latter’s identity from the novelist. According to Mrs. Oliver, the name of Poirot’s visitor is Norma Restarick, who happens to be the “third girl” in a trio of young women sharing an apartment (flat). Mrs. Oliver happens to be a neighbor and met all three roommates at a party in the building. Norma’s other two roommates are Claudia Reece-Holland, who is the secretary to Norma’s father, Andrew Restarick; and Frances Cary, an actress and acquaintance of Norma’s love interest, artist David Baker. Both Poirot and Mrs. Oliver discover that Norma believes she had murdered her former nanny, Lavinia Seagram, who had also lived in the building. Poirot also discovers a good deal about Norma’s family background. Her estranged father, Andrew, had abandoned his family for South Africa, twenty years ago; and his now estranged with his daughter. Norma also has an elderly great-uncle, Sir Roderick Horsfield, who is romancing his secretary and is near blind. Sir Roderick is also staying at the family estate on Norma’s largess. Poirot begins to suspect that Norma might be innocent of Lavinia Seagram’s murder. More importantly, she might be the target of the real murderer’s machinations.

With the change in the story’s setting and the various changes made to Christie’s story, I was prepared to dislike “THIRD GIRL”. In fact, I had failed to warm up to the movie when I first saw it. One, I did not care for the change in the story’s setting from the mid-1960s to the late 1930s. Two, Flannery and director Dan Reed changed the number of murderers in the story. And I did not care for that. I thought this latest change unnecessarily complicated the story. Three, Reed and Flannery decreased the number of murder victims and gave the Norma Restarick character a new love interest. I did not like that. Four, I noticed that drugs DID NOT play a role in Norma’s victimization. And five, I also noticed that Flannery had changed the name of the murder victim. Then I re-read Christie’s novel . . . and realized that Reed and Flannery had actually improved the story. My latest reading of the novel made me realize that Christie’s plot was even more unnecessarily complicated that Flannery’s screenplay. I also realized that once again, Christie had fallen back on her conservative outlook by giving Norma a very safe and conformist love interest . . . one who did not really pay a major role in the story. I realized that I did not mind the changes regarding the victim(s), the lack of drugs and Norma’s love interest. However, I still wish that “THIRD GIRL” had been set in the 1960s.

Despite my disappointment in the movie’s setting, I actually managed to enjoy “THIRD GIRL” during my latest viewing. I do not consider it to be one of the best movie adaptations from the series. But it struck me as a hell of a lot better than the novel. And despite the movie being set in the 1930s, I must admit to being impressed by Jeff Tessler’s production designs, which did a pretty good job in re-creating the late 1930s. I also have to say the same about Andrea Galer’s tasteful costume designs, along with Miranda Cull and Nic Pallace’s art designs. And cinematographer Paul Bond beautifully captured their work in glorious color photography. I have only two quibbles . . . namely the makeup created by Alison Elliott and her team, and the hairstyles designed for cast members Clemency Burton-Hill, Matilda Sturridge and Tom Mison. I have only word to describe them . . . UGH!

I will give credit to Reed’s direction for the excellent performances featured in “THIRD GIRL”. David Suchet as Hercule Poirot was excellent, as usual. I can also say the same for Zoë Wanamaker’s entertaining portrayal of the colorful novelist Ariadne Oliver. More importantly, both Suchet and Wanamaker created the same electrifying screen chemistry that was obvious in their previous work together. Jemima Rooper gave an emotional and satifying performance as the seemingly neurotic Norma Restarick, without resorting to histronics worthy of an amateur. I was also impressed by James Wilby’s cool and subtle portrayal of Norma’s estranged father, Andrew Restarick. And Peter Bowles, whom I first remembered from the television series “TO THE MANOR BORN”, gave the most entertaining performance as Norma’s blunt and outgoing great-uncle, Sir Roderick Horsfield. The movie also featured fine performances from the likes Clemency Burton-Hill, Matilda Sturridge, Tom Mison, Lucy Liemann and John Warnaby.

“THIRD GIRL” is not perfect. Nor do I consider it to be one of the better Poirot adaptations I have seen. However, my initial impression of the movie has changed following two more viewings. One, it is a handsome-looking production. It also featured excellent performances from a cast led by David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. More importantly, after a recent reading of Christie’s 1966 novel, I now realize that the changes featured in director Dan Reed and Peter Flannery’s adaptation, actually improved Christie’s story.