“THE PUBLIC EYE” (1992) Review

“THE PUBLIC EYE” (1992) Review

Over twenty years ago, I came across a small period drama, while perusing my local video rental store. I never had any intention of watching this movie. In fact, I had never heard of it before . . . despite being a fan of the two leading stars.

I read somewhere that “THE PUBLIC EYE” was inspired by the career of New York Daily News photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig. In fact, some of the photographs featured in the film had been taken by Fellig, himself. But the movie is not a biopic. Instead, “THE PUBLIC EYE” told the story of one Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein, a freelance crime and street photographer for the New York City tabloids, whose work is known for its realistic depiction of the city and all of its citizens. Due to his realistic photography and willingness to resort to any means to snap graphic shots of crime scenes, he is known as “the Great Berzini”.

Sometime during 1942, America’s first year into World War II, Bernzy is summoned by a widowed Manhattan nightclub owner named Kay Levitz. One of local New York mobs is trying to muscle in on her business. Kay asks Bernzy to investigate an individual she considers troublesome. Generally unsuccessful with women, Bernzy agrees to help Kay, as he slowly begins to fall in love with her. Bernzy talks to a few of his contacts, including journalist Arthur Nabler, and tracks down Kay’s troublesome man. Only the latter had been murdered. Bernzy’s activities attract the attention of the New York police, the F.B.I. and two rival mob leaders. Through a connection to a local gangster named Sal, Bernzy discovers that Kay’s husband had got involved with a mob turf war over illegal gas rationing and the Federal government.

“THE PUBLIC EYE” did not make much of an impact on the U.S. movie box office, when it hit the theaters during the fall of 1992. In fact, I do not believe that the studio that released it – Universal Studios – made any effort to publicize it. Worse, the movie eventually garnered mixed reviews. However, I had no idea of all of this until I saw the movie, years later. My first reaction to this lack of attention by Universal and the mixed reviews was surprised. My second reaction was . . . disappointment. Well, I was not that disappointed with the movie’s mixed reviews. After all, I believe in the old adage “to each his own”. But even to this day, I feel slightly disappointed that Universal Studios did very little to publicize this movie. Why? I thought “THE PUBLIC EYE” was a lot better than many assumed it to be – including the studio suits.

Was there anything about “THE PUBLIC EYE” that I disliked? Or found hard to swallow? To be honest . . . no. Let me correct myself – very little. After all, the movie was perfect. A part of me wishes it could have been a little longer than its 99 minute running time. And if I must be honest again, the mystery surrounding the death of Kay Levitz’s tormentor did not last very long. Not much time had passed before the story had revealed the gas rationing scandal behind the tormentor’s murder . . . or the identity of the movie’s main antagonist. Personally, I saw no reason why screenwriter-director Howard Franklin tried to present this plot as some kind of mystery.

And yet . . . I really enjoyed “THE PUBLIC EYE”. In fact, it is a personal favorite of mine. There seemed to be so much that I found enjoyable in this movie. Although Franklin’s plot did not prove to be much of a mystery, I must admit that I enjoyed how the corruption tale provided a strong link to civilian life during America’s early period in World War II. The plot also seemed to provide a strong historical background of life during this time in New York City’s history. I enjoyed how Franklin’s screenplay made such strong connections between the city’s major criminals, the Federal government and the goods rationing that dominated the lives of American citizens during the war. But what I really enjoyed about this movie is its final action sequence that featured a gangland mass murder inside a local Italian restaurant photographed by the main protagonist. Franklin did a superb job in capturing this sequence on film that it still gives me goosebumps whenever I watch it.

Some film critic – I forgot his name – once complained that the “noir” atmosphere for “THE PUBLIC EYE” seemed superficial and not particularly engaging. Personally, I loved the movie’s atmosphere. Not because I believe that it permeated with a sense of a “noir” film. I loved it because I thought it permeated with a sense of what life was for the many citizens of New York City during those early years of the war. The movie portrayed how different social groups based on class and ethnic differences are forced to live together in one metropolis during a difficult time in American history. Bernzy’s own background as a Jewish immigrant from Russia and his profession were used against him on several occasions. This especially seemed to be the case with the elitist book publisher who seemed disturbed by the former’s name and the realistic images he took; and Danny, the Irish-born doorman and snob who not only worked at Kay’s nightclub, but also regarded Bernzy as beneath him. Even Kay’s own background as a showgirl led people to regard her as some gold digger who had achieved some social status via marriage to a nightclub owner. This explained how two such diverse people managed to click on an emotional level throughout most of the movie.

Visually, “THE PUBLIC EYE” seemed like a treat. Watching it made me feel as if I had landed right in the middle of Manhattan, circa 1942, thanks to art directors Bo Johnson and Dina Lipton, set decorator Jan K. Bergstrom, and costume designer Jane Robinson, who had created some very interesting costumes for Barbara Hershey. I was especially impressed by the work of production designer, Marcia Hinds, who I believe more than anyone, contributed to the movie’s early 1940s setting and atmosphere.

I had checked Howard Franklin’s filmography and discovered that he had only directed three movies so far. Considering the first-rate performances featured in this film, it seemed a miracle that Franklin’s lack of real experience did not hamper them. I do not know which role I would consider to be my favorite performed by Joe Pesci. But I do know that Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein is one of my top three favorite characters he has ever portrayed. I thought Pesci did a superb job in portraying a character who is not only driven by his ambition for his profession, but also racked with loneliness, due to how others tend to perceive him. Barbara Hershey gave a very subtle and skillfully ambiguous performance as the widowed nightclub owner, Kay Levitz. Hershey’s Kay came off as a warm and compassionate woman who understood Bernzy, due to her own struggles over how others perceive her and at the same time, a reluctantly pragmatic woman who is forced, at times, to sacrifice her self-esteem for the sake of survival.

The movie also benefited from a collection of first-rate performance from major supporting cast members. One of those performances came from Jared Harris, who did an excellent job in conveying the snobbish aspect of his character, the Irish-born Danny, who worked at Kay’s nightclub as a doorman. Stanley Tucci gave a terrific and subtle performance as a low-level mobster named Sal, who provides the final link to Bernzy’s investigation into the gas ration scandal. Jerry Adler, whom I recall from the CBS series, “THE GOOD WIFE”, gave an emotional and complex performance as one of Bernzy’s few friends, a journalist named Arthur Nabler. Both Dominic Chianese and Richard Foronjy were excellent as the two mob warring bosses, Spoleto and Frank Farinelli. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Richard Riehle, Bob Gunton, Tim Gamble, Patricia Healy and Del Close.

I realize that many critics do not have a high opinion of “THE PUBLIC EYE”. Why? Well, I never did bother to learn the reason behind their attitude. Perhaps I never really bothered is because I enjoyed the movie so much. In fact, I fell in love with it when I first saw it. And my feelings for “THE PUBLIC EYE” has not changed over the years, thanks to Howard Franklin’s direction and script, along with a first-rate cast led by Joe Pesci and Barbara Hershey.

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

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“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (1988) Review

Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel, “Appointment With Death” has proven to be a problem over the past 70 years or so. If I must be honest, it is not a great novel. Considering the topic of emotional abuse, it had the potential to be great. But I feel that Christie never achieved what could have been a memorable and haunting tale.

The novel also produced adaptations in the form of a 1945 stage play, a 2008 television movie and a 1988 theatrical release. Of the three adaptations, the 1988 film, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” came the closest in being faithful to novel. Is it the best adaptation? Unfortunately, I have never seen the stage play and have no idea what changes to Christie’s plot had been made. I have seen the 2008 television movie. And honestly? I consider it a colorful travesty. Do I harbor the same opinion of the 1988 film? Well . . . no. It is not a bad film. But I believe it is a far cry from some of the best of the Christie adaptations.

Directed by Michael Winner, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” centered on Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the death of a wealthy middle-aged woman named Mrs. Boynton. Actually, the story began several months earlier, in New Jersey, where the recently widowed Mrs. Boynton learned that her late husband left a second will would enable her stepchildren and daughter to enjoy a financially stable life, independent of her. Jealous of the idea of no longer holding any power over her family, Mrs. Boynton blackmailed the family attorney, Jefferson Cope, into destroying the second will, leaving her in charge of the family finances. The family embarks on a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land during the spring of 1937. During the sea voyage between Italy and the Middle East, fellow passenger Hercule Poirot overhears two of Mrs. Boynton’s stepchildren, Raymond and Carol, discussing the possibility of their stepmother’s death. More importantly, Mrs. Boynton is surprised by the appearance of Cope, fearful he might inform her children about her husband’s second will.

Following the characters’ arrival in Petra, Poirot and some of the other characters become aware of Mrs. Boynton’s domineering abuse of her stepchildren and daughter. One of the vacationers, a Dr. Sarah King, falls in love with one of Mrs. Boynton’s stepsons – Raymond. But she becomes frustrated by his inability to break free of his stepmother’s grip. Sarah’s frustrations reflect those of Nadine Boynton, who is near the breaking point over her husband’s inability to break free from his stepmother. Also, the old lady’s stepchildren are becoming increasingly worried over Mrs. Boynton’s poisonous influence over the latter’s only child and their half-sister, Ginerva. Things come to a boil during a one day expedition to an archeology dig outside Petra. A few hours after Mrs. Boynton encourages her family to go for a walk, she is discovered dead. It does not take Poirot very long to figure out that the old lady had been murdered. And he is recruited by the region’s British Army representative, Colonel Carbury, to investigate her death.

As I had earlier stated, “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” is not a bad film. But it is certainly no masterpiece. Let me be frank. It is quite obvious that the look and tone of this production is more akin to television movie feature from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” than a theatrical movie. It is a bit cheap in compare to star Peter Ustinov’s previous two Poirot movies and the 1974 one that starred Albert Finney. Some of cast members seemed to be going through the motions in their performances. This especially seemed to be the case for Carrie Fisher, Nicholas Guest, John Gielgud and sadly, Peter Ustinov. And when the star of the film seemed almost too relaxed or uninterested in his performance or the film, there is potential for disaster. What makes this sad is that Ustinov gave a funny and energetic performance for his next role as Detective Fix in the 1989 miniseries, “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”. Adding to the film’s second-hand look was Pino Donaggio’s very disappointing score. Honestly, it was probably the worst movie score for any Agatha Christie’s production I have ever heard. It seemed to be 1980s pop music at its cheesiest. And allowing a cheesy 80s pop tune to serve as the main score for a movie set in the late 1930s was one of the worst mistakes that Michael Winner and the other film’s producers made.

But all is not lost. At least Winner can claim he directed the better version of Christie’s 1938 novel. The television movie adaptation made twenty (20) years later seemed like a total disaster in compare to this film. And the 1988 movie had more virtues. Although the movie’s production visuals seemed a bit of a comedown from the Christie movies between 1974 and 1982, production designer John Blezard’s work in “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” still struck me as pretty solid. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Alan Cassie and Shlomo Tsafrir’s set designs and David Gurfinkel’s photography during the archeological dig sequence. John Bloomfield’s costume designs also struck me as pretty solid, but not exactly mind-blowing. Despite Michael Winner’s pedestrian direction and the less-than-spectacular production, I have to admit that Winner, Anthony Shaffer and Peter Buckman did a very admirable job of adapting Christie’s novel. I am not saying this because it is more faithful than the 1945 stage play and the 2008 television movie. The three screenwriters made some changes to the plot – including the deletion of one or two characters – but those changes did not harm the story overall.

Most of the cast certainly injected a good deal of energy, despite Ustinov, Fisher, Guest and Gielgud’s lethargic performances. I was especially impressed by Jenny Seagrove as the stalwart Dr. Sarah King, David Soul’s sly performance as the Boyntons’ slippery, yet charming attorney Jefferson Cope, and John Terlesky’s earnest performance as Raymond Boynton. As far as I am concerned, both Lauren Bacall and Hayley Mills gave the funniest performances in the film. Bacall’s hilarious portrayal of the rude and pushy American-born Lady Westholme almost reminded me of her performance as the verbose Mrs. Hubbard from 1974’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. However, her Lady Westholme struck me as funnier. And Hayley Mills was equally funny as Lady Westholme’s impromptu traveling companion, the obsequious Miss Quinton. But the engine that really drove “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” turned out to be Piper Laurie’s performance as murder victim, Mrs. Emily Boynton. There were moments with Laurie’s performance became somewhat hammy. But she did a great job in portraying a manipulative and emotionally sadistic woman with a talent for keeping her stepchildren in line. I found her performance very commanding.

Overall, I would not consider “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” to be one of the best movie adaptations of a Christie novel. Heck, I can think of several television movie adaptations that I would view as better. But I believe it is the better of the two adaptations of the 1938 novel. I wish I could say that director Michael Winner and Peter Ustinov’s performance as Hercule Poirot contributed a good deal to this movie’s production. But it was not that difficult for me to see that Winner is at heart, a mediocre director. And Ustinov’s performance seemed at worst, lethargic. And yet, the rest of the cast (aside from two others) and a solid script prevented “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” from sinking into a mire of crap. At least for me.

 

 

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Carrie Fisher (1956-2016) R.I.P.

St. Paul Sandwich

Below is an article about the dish known as St. Paul Sandwich:

ST. PAUL SANDWICH

I am a California girl – born and bred. Yet, a part of me is also a Midwesterner. Most of my family – both paternal and maternal – are from St. Louis, Missouri. And I had spent part of my childhood in the Gateway City. One of my fondest memories of St. Louis is the collection of various Chinese-American fast food joints spread throughout the city. I might as well say it. Some of the best Chinese-American fast food I have ever eaten was in St. Louis. And one of my all time favorite dishes to emerge from these eateries was the St. Paul sandwich.

The origin of the St. Paul sandwich dates back to the early 1940s, when it was created to appeal Midwesterners’ palates. In fact, the sandwich is believed to be an example of early fusion cuisine. According to legend, a cook or chef named Steven Yuen invented the St. Paul sandwich at an eatery called Park Chop Suey in Lafayette Square, a neighborhood near downtown St. Louis. Yuen named the dish after his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Food writers James Beard and Evan Jones believed that the St. Paul sandwich was an early variation of another dish called the Denver sandwich, which originated in the Colorado city around 1907.

The St. Paul sandwich consists of an egg foo young patty; which is made with egg, mung bean sprouts, and minced white onions; between two slices of white bread. Included in the sandwich are dill pickle slices, white onion, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato. The St. Paul sandwich also comes in different combinations and specials that include chicken, pork, shrimp, beef, and other varieties. Originally, the St. Paul sandwich contained four pieces of white bread with chicken and egg stuffed inside. Later, it simply consisted of an egg and hamburger on a bun.

The dish can be found in St. Louis and other cities in Missouri like Jefferson City, Columbia and Springfield. It can also be found in Chinese-American restaurants in California and Oregon, notably at the Lung Fung in the Kenton neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. It is usually served with regional names like “Egg Foo Young on Bun”. I have eaten Chinese-American fast food in Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington D.C. and Chicago and have yet to encounter the St. Paul sandwich in any of these cities.

Below is a recipe for St. Paul sandwich from the Feast Magazine website:

St. Paul Sandwich

Ingredients

Canola oil, for deep-frying
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
¼ cup diced or thinly sliced onion
2 Tbsp diced green bell pepper
3 small cooked shrimp, peeled
3 Tbsp diced or shredded poached chicken
3 pieces cooked beef (1/8 inch thick, 1 inch wide and 1½ inches long)
1 large egg
¼ tsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp mayonnaise
2 slices white bread
Iceberg lettuce leaf
2 thin slices tomato
3 to 4 dill pickle slices

Preparation

Pour about 4 cups oil into a deep-fryer or deep saucepan. Bring to 375ºF.

Break bean sprouts by crushing them lightly in the palm of your hand. Place in medium mixing bowl. Add onion, green pepper, shrimp, chicken and beef. Stir to combine.

Beat egg lightly with a fork in a small bowl. Mix in cornstarch. Pour egg mixture over the sprouts mixture. Stir well.

Place egg mixture in a shallow metal ladle 4¼ inches wide (big enough to hold it all).

Test the heat of the oil by throwing in a bean sprout. The sprout will immediately pop to the top if the oil is hot enough.

When oil is hot enough, gradually lower full ladle into hot oil, but don’t allow top of egg mixture to drop into the oil. The egg patty will cook in the ladle. Some hot oil will seep over the edges of the ladle. Cook until almost done, 2 to 3 minutes, then spoon a little of the hot oil over the top of the patty to finish the cooking.

Transfer egg patty to a slotted spoon. If any egg mixture drips out, return the patty to the ladle and place in the hot oil for an additional minute. The patty should be uniformly browned and sealed.

Spread mayonnaise on one slice of bread. Top with the iceberg lettuce and tomato slices. Slide the cooked egg patty onto the other slice of bread. Garnish with pickles. Close the sandwich. Wrap bottom in waxed paper and serve immediately.

Tester’s note: If you do not have a deep fryer, you can use a skillet, but the texture will not be the same. Heat 1 Tbsp oil in a 6-inch skillet; sauté the onion and green pepper over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the shrimp, chicken and beef and then the egg-cornstarch mixture; cook, stirring constantly, until the egg is scrambled.

“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” (1978) Review

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“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” (1978) Review

I have noticed in the past decade or so, there have been an increasing number of television and movie productions that either featured the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (aka King Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson), either as supporting characters or lead characters. Actually, only one production – the 2011 movie, “W.E.” – featured them as leads. And yet . . . with the exception of the 2011 movie, the majority of them tend to portray the couple as solely negative caricatures.

There have been other productions that portrayed Edward and Wallis as complex human beings. Well . . . somewhat complex. Television movies like 1988’s “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” and 2005’s “WALLIS & EDWARD” seemed to provide viewers with a highly romanticized view of the couple. Perhaps a bit too romanticized. And there was Madonna’s 2011 movie, “W.E.”, which seemed to offer a bit more complex view of the couple. But I thought the movie was somewhat marred by an alternate storyline involving a modern woman who was obsessed over the couple. I have seen a good number of productions about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Yet, for my money, the best I have ever seen was the 1978 miniseries, “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”.

Adapted by Simon Raven from Frances Donaldson’s 1974 biography, “Edward VIII” and directed by him, the seven-part miniseries is basically an account of Edward VIII Abdication Crisis in 1936 and the pre-marital romance of the king and American socialite, Wallis Simpson, that led to it. The story began in 1928, when Edward Windsor was at the height of his popularity as Britain’s Prince of Wales. At the time, the prince was courting two women – both married – Mrs. Freda Dudley Ward and Thelma Furness, Viscountess Furness. Some two or three years later, Thelma introduced Edward to Ernest and Wallis Simpson, a pair of American expatriates living in London. The couple became a part of the Prince of Wales’ social set. But when Thelma left Britain in 1934 to deal with a family crisis regarding her sister Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, Edward and Wallis grew closer. By the time Thelma returned to Britain, Wallis had become the Prince of Wales’ official mistress. And both Thelma and Mrs. Dudley Ward found themselves unceremoniously dumped.

The miniseries eventually continued with the couple’s growing romance between 1934 and 1935, despite disapproving comments and observations from some of the Prince of Wales’ official staff and members of the Royal Family. But the death of King George V, Edward’s father, led to the prince’s ascension to Britain’s throne as King Edward VIII. By this time, Edward had fallen completely in love with Wallis. And despite the opinion of his family, certain members of his social set and the British government, he became determined to marry and maker her his queen in time for his coronation.

“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” is not perfect. I do have a few complaints about the production. I realize that screenwriter Simon Raven wanted to ensure a complex and balanced portrayal of both Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. But there were times when I found his characterization a bit too subtle. This was most apparent in his portrayal of Edward’s admiration of the fascist governments of Germany and Italy. It almost seemed as if Raven was trying to tiptoe around the topic and I found it rather frustrating. On the other hand, Raven’s portrayal of Wallis at the beginning of her romance with Edward struck me as a bit heavy-handed. Quite frankly, she came off as some kind of femme fatale, who had resorted to deceit to maneuver Edward’s attention away from his other two mistresses – Freda Dudley Ward and Lady Furness, especially when the latter was in the United States visiting her sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. The production’s screenplay did indicate that Lady Furness may have conducted a flirtation with the Prince Aly Khan on the voyage back to Great Britain. Yet, Raven’s screenplay seemed to hint that Wallis’ machinations were the main reason Edward gave up both Mrs. Dudley Ward and Lady Furness.

Otherwise, I have no real complaints about “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”. Ten or perhaps, twenty years ago, I would have complained about the last three or four episodes that focused on Edward’s determination to marry Wallis and the series of political meetings and conferences that involved him, her, her attorneys, the Royal Family, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the king’s equerries, politicians, lawyers and journalists. Now, I found it all rather interesting. What I found interesting about these scenes were the various reactions to Wallis Simpson. Many of them – especially the Royal Family, the equerries and Baldwin – seemed to regard her as some kind of “Jezebel” who had cast some kind of spell over Edward. In its worst form, their attitude came off as slut shaming. The majority of them tend to blame her for Edward’s occasional lapses of duty and ultimate decision to abdicate. As far as I can recall, only two were willing to dump equal blame on Edward himself – Royal Secretary Alexander Hardinge and Elizabeth, Duchess of York, later queen consort and “Queen Mother”.

Another reason why I found this hardened anti-Wallis attitude so fascinating is that the Establishment seemed very determined that Edward never marry Wallis. I understand the Royal Marriages Act 1772 made it possible for the British government to reject the idea of Wallis becoming Edward’s queen consort, due to being twice divorced. But they would not even consider a morganatic marriage between the couple, in which Wallis would not have a claim on Edward’s succession rights, titles, precedence, or entailed property. I am not saying that both Edward and Wallis were wonderful people with no flaws. But . . . this hostile attitude toward the latter, along with this hardened determination that the couple never marry struck me as excessive. Were the British Establishment and the Royal Family that against Edward marrying Wallis, let alone romancing her? It just all seem so unreal, considering that the pair seemed to share the same political beliefs as the majority of the British upper class. And considering that Wallis was descended from two old and respectable Baltimore families, I can only conclude that the British Establishment’s true objection was her American nationality.

Although the political atmosphere featured in “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” seemed very fascinating to me, the social atmosphere, especially the one that surrounded Edward, nearly dazzled me. “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” is one of the few productions on both sides of the Atlantic that did a superb job in conveying the look and style of the 1930s for the rich and famous. This was especially apparent in the miniseries’ first three episodes that heavily featured Edward’s social life between 1928 and 1936. First, one has to compliment Allan Cameron and Martyn Hebert’s production designs for re-capturing the elegant styles of the British upper classes during the miniseries’ setting. Their work was ably enhanced by Ron Grainer’s score, which he effectively mixed with the popular music of that period and Waris Hussein’s direction, which conveyed a series of elegant montages on Edward’s social life – including his royal visit to East Africa with Thelma Furness, the weekend parties held at his personal house, Fort Belevedere; and the infamous 1936 cruise around the Adriatic Sea, aboard a yacht called the Nahlin. But if there was one aspect of “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” that truly impressed me were Jennie Tate and Diane Thurley’s costume designs. When any costume designer has two leading characters known as major clothes horses, naturally one has to pull out all the stops. Tate and Thurley certainly did with their sumptious costume designs – especially for actress Cynthia Harris – that struck me as both beautiful and elegant, as shown in the images below:

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that I was I was not surprised to learn that they had won BAFTAs for their work. Come to think of it, Cameron and Herbert won BAFTAs for their production designs, as well. Which they all fully deserved.

“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” featured some solid and outstanding performances from the supporting cast. Cheri Lunghi and Kika Markham, who portrayed Edward’s two previous mistresses Thelma Furness and Freda Dudley Ward; along with Andrew Ray and Amanda Reiss as the Duke and Duchess of York; gave very charming performances. I could also say the same for Trevor Bowen, Patricia Hodge and Charles Keating as Duff Cooper, Lady Diana Cooper and Ernest Simpson. Veterans such as Peggy Ashcroft, Marius Goring, Maurice Denham and Jesse Matthews provided skillful gravitas to their roles as Queen Mary, King George V, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Aunt Bessie Merryman (Wallis’ aunt). And Nigel Hawthorne gave a warm and intelligent performance as Walter Monckton, who served as an adviser for both Edward and Wallis. And if you pay attention, you might spot Hugh Fraser portraying Anthony Eden in one particular scene.

But there were four performances that really impressed me. One came from John Shrapnel, who portrayed the King’s Private Secretary Alexander Hardinge. It seemed as if Shrapnel had the unenviable task of portraying a man who seemed bent upon raining on Edward’s parade . . . for the sake of the country and the Empire. There were times when I found his character annoying, yet at the same time, Shrapnel managed to capture my sympathy toward Hardinge’s situation. I was also impressed by David Waller, who portrayed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Waller also portrayed the politician in the 1988 television movie, “THE WOMAN HE LOVED”. But I felt more impressed by Waller’s performance in this production. I came away not only with Baldwin’s dislike of Wallis and frustration with Edward; but Waller also made me realize how much of a politician Baldwin truly was . . . especially when the latter tried to convince Wallis to disavow Edward.

The true stars of “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” proved to be the two leads – Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris. Of all of the actresses I have seen portray Wallis Warfield Simpson aka the Duchess of Windsor, I would say that Harris is the best I have ever seen. Not once did the actress succumb to hammy or heavy-handed acting . . . even when Simon Raven’s screenplay seem bent upon portraying the American-born socialite as some kind of gold digger in the first episode, “The Little Prince”. The late Art Buchwald and his wife Ann had recalled meeting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at one of the latter’s dinner parties in post-World War II Paris. Although their recollection of Edward was not that impressive, they seemed very impressed by Wallis, whom they described as a cool, yet charming and savy woman. And that is exactly how Harris had portrayed the future Duchess. More importantly, Harris revealed – especially in the last three episodes – that Wallis was more than a cool and witty woman. She was also a complex human being. Edward Fox won a BAFTA for his portrayal of King Edward VIII, the future Duke of Windsor. As far as I am concerned, he more than deserved that award. I was really impressed by how Fox portrayed Edward as a complex individual, instead of some one-note hedonist, as many productions were inclined to do in the past decade. Fox recaptured all of the warmth, charm and charisma of the future Duke of Windsor. And the same time, the actor revealed his character’s frustration with his emotionally distant parents, his occasional bouts of immaturity, insecurity, self-absorption and single-minded love for Wallis. On one hand, Fox managed to skillfully express dismay at the economic conditions of the country’s working-class and in other scenes revel in his character’s luxurious lifestyle with abandonment. The actor’s performance struck me as a great balancing act.

If I must be honest, the real reason why I managed to enjoy “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” to this day is that it is almost a balanced portrayal of the British monarch and his lady love. Simon Raven, director Waris Hussein and a talented cast led by Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris managed to convey both the good and bad about the infamous royal pair without resorting to the cliches that have been apparent in other past and recent productions.

“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015): Party on Soldier Island

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Below are some animated GIFs that I had found on Tumblr. They featured scenes from Episode 3 of the BBC’s 2015 miniseries, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”, which was adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel:

“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015): PARTY ON SOLDIER ISLAND

In the scene below, the remaining four survivors of the ten strangers lured to U.N. Owen’s isolated island house party, decide to release stress through alcohol and drugs found in the possession of one of the guests who had been earlier killed . . .

“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.

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”.

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.