“BEAU GESTE” (1939) Review

 

“BEAU GESTE” (1939) Review

After watching the 1935 movie, “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, I learned that Paramount Pictures had plans to release a series of movies with an imperial setting that featured Henry Hathaway as director and Gary Cooper as star. Following the 1935 film, the next movie on their list proved to be “BEAU GESTE”, a remake of the 1926 adaptation of P.C. Wren’s adventure novel.

“BEAU GESTE” opens with a mystery. A company of French Foreign Legionnaires arrive at one of their outposts, Fort Zinderneuf after receiving word that it had been attacked by Tuareg tribesmen. At first, the fort seems occupied. But a closer inspection by Major Henri de Beaujolais, commander of the relief column, reveals dead bodies mounted for deception. Major de Beaujolais discovers a note on one of the bodies, admitting to the stealing of a valuable sapphire called the “Blue Water”. The story flashes fifteen years back to Victorian England, where it introduces the main characters – Michael “Beau”, Digby, and John Geste; the three adopted brothers of Sir Hector and Lady Brandon, their aunt. Also living at the Brandon estate called Brandon Abbas are Lady Brandon, her ward Isobel Rivers and Augustus Brandon, Sir Hector’s heir. Sir Hector, a spendthrift landowner, has not lived at Brandon Abbas for years. Even worse, his constant spending and gambling has taken a toll on the estate’s income. While playing a game of hide and seek with the other four children, Beau witness an exchange that will have consequences on both himself and his family.

Fifteen years later, the Brandon household learn about Sir Hector’s plans to sell the Blue Water for more funds. When the jewel is brought out for one last look, the lights are extinguished and someone steals the Blue Water. All present proclaim their innocence, until first Beau, and later Digby depart without warning, each leaving a confession that he had committed the robbery. Although reluctant to part from Isobel, with whom he is in love, John leaves England and goes after his brothers. John discovers that Beau and Digby have joined the French Foreign Legion and also enlists. Following the brothers’ reunion at Saida in French Morocco, they are trained by the harsh Sergeant Markoff. Markoff learns about the Blue Water theft from another recruit, a former thief named Rasinoff, after the latter overheard the brothers joking about it. Both Markoff and Rasinoff are convinced that Beau has the gem. Following the recruits’ training, they are divided and sent to separate commands. Markoff is ordered to select men to be sent to Fort Tokotu. Among them are Digby and the Gestes’ two American friends. The remaining men – including Beau and John – are assigned to serve under Lieutenant Martin at Fort Zinderneuf. There, Beau and John face greater dangers from mutinous troops, attacking Tuareg tribesmen and the sadistic Sergeant Markoff.

I had first seen “BEAU GESTE” on television years ago, when I was a child. But for some reason, it failed to appeal to me. For years I avoided the movie . . . even after I learned that several adaptations had been made from P.C. Wren’s novel. I also learned that when this version was first released during the summer of 1939, several critics dismissed it by claiming it was basically a shot-by-shot remake of the famous 1926 version that starred Ronald Colman. Perhaps it is . . . perhaps it is not. I do not know for I have never seen the 1926 film, aside from one or two shots on YOU TUBE. And I do recall that one particular scene from the Colman film never made it to this particular version. But despite the critics’ accusations, the 1939 film not only became a hit, it also became the most famous version of Wren’s novel. As I had stated earlier, “BEAU GESTE” was supposed to be part of series (or trilogy) of Imperial adventures released by Paramount Pictures. Like the 1935 film, “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, all films were supposed to be directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper. Fortunately, Hathaway proved to be unavailable for Paramount’s upcoming production, “BEAU GESTE” and the versatile William Wellman was recruited to helm the film.

One of the first things that struck me about “BEAU GESTE” is that Wellman projected a great deal of energy and atmosphere into the movie. I was so impressed by his direction that I found myself wondering why I had avoided this movie for years. So much seemed right about this film. Now I realize that the opening sequence was supposed to be very similar to the opening sequence of the 1926 film, but I found myself still impressed by how Wellman infused his own gritty style into the scene. In fact, that same gritty style seemed to permeate most of the film – at least the North African sequences. Not only was I impressed by the movie’s opening scene, but also those that featured the doom and gloom that seemed to permeate the troops’ barracks at Fort Zinderneuf, the entire sequence in which the troops plot a failed mutiny against the brutal Sergeant Markoff, the battle against the Tuareg tribesmen at Fort Zinderneuf, and the Geste brothers and their American friends’ final encounter against the Tuaregs at a much-needed oasis. One would notice that I did not include any of the scenes featured at Brandon Abbas. Although they were important to the plot – especially the childhood flashback – I was not exactly dazzled by them. I find it interesting that many moviegoers and film critics have compared “BEAU GESTE” to the usual imperialist adventure films that especially permeated the movie theaters from the mid-to-late 1930s. Superficially, I would agree with them. But there is something about this film that struck a grim and slightly depressing note that many seemed to miss. The Geste brothers’ real adversary turned out to be Sergeant Markoff, not the attacking Tuareg tribesmen. And for me, the narrative seemed to be more about how a family scandal ended up having a senselessly tragic effect upon brotherly love.

I thought Wellman’s direction was more than ably assisted by cinematographers Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout’s outstanding photography. They not only did an excellent job in utilizing Southern California and Southern Arizona locations for French Morocco, but injected their photography with rich atmosphere, as shown in the following images:

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I will admit that I have no memory of Alfred Newman’s score for the film. I certainly would not count it as among the best scores written during the 1930s. But I also have to admit that I found it memorable enough that it remained stuck in my brain for a least a week after I watched it. I was surprised that famous Hollywood icon, Edith Head, designed the costumes. She seemed like an odd choice for a period adventure. After all, “BEAU GESTE” was set briefly in the late 1890s and mainly in the few years before World War I. I do not know enough about men’s fashion or the French Foreign Legion uniforms during that period to judge her work. I can comment on her costumes for Susan Hayward and Heather Thatcher. I see that Head made certain that their costumes reflect the late Edwardian period, but . . . but just barely. The fashions of 1938-39 nearly threatened to taint Head’s work.

“BEAU GESTE” managed to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Brian Donlevy’s portrayal of Sergeant Markoff. And I cannot deny that he gave a superb performance that could have dangerous veered into broad theatricality. But I realized that those theatrical moments were more about Markoff urging the men under his command into fighting mode. However, Donlevy’s more subtle moments really explored Markoff’s venality and what he would do to attain more power.

However, “BEAU GESTE” also featured four future Oscar winners (Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Susan Hayward and Broderick Crawford) and three future Oscar nominees (Robert Preston, J. Carrol Naish and James Stephenson). And their performances reflected the acting talent that made their future glory possible. I never understood recent film critics’ insistence that Gary Cooper could be something of a stiff actor. He was far from stiff as the charming, playful and noble Michael “Beau” Geste. In fact, I would say that he gave the most relaxed performance in the movie. And at the same time, he also skillfully conveyed his character’s emotions throughout the film. I suspect that “BEAU GESTE” proved to be a turning point in Ray Milland’s career. After all, most of the movie is told from the viewpoint of John Geste, the youngest of the three brothers. Milland’s skillful acting and strong presence definitely reflected this turning point in his career. Robert Preston, who was 21 years-old at the time, ironically portrayed the middle brother of this trio, Digby Geste. I suspect the reason he was not cast as John was that Millland was the more experienced actor. And yet . . . I was surprised at how Preston, who was over a decade younger than Milland, managed to skillfully portray a character who was older than Milland’s. More importantly, I was very impressed by how an American actor with British parents, a Welshman, and another American managed to project the image of three close brothers from the British upper classes.

The movie also featured a superb performance from J. Carrol Naish, who portrayed the expatriate Russian thief, Rasinoff. I suspect that Rasinoff had been originally written as a contemptible personality. And yet Naish not only conveyed the character’s low traits, but he also left me feeling slightly sympathetic toward Rasinoff. Susan Hayward portrayed Isobel Rivers, another ward of the Brandons and John Geste’s love interest. Hayward did not have much of a chance to do anything other that look beautiful and convey support to Milland’s character. But she gave a solid performance. Heather Thatcher fared better as the Gestes and Isobel’s guardian, Lady Patricia Brandon. Thatcher expertly conveyed the character’s warmth, charm, and steely determination to keep the family financially solvent by any means possible. Other supporting characters also gave solid performances. They included Broderick Crawford and Charles Barton, who portrayed John’s exuberant American friends Hank Miller and Buddy Monigal; James Stephenson as Major Henri de Beaujolais; Albert Dekker as the mutinous Schwartz; Charles Barton as the noble and doomed Lieutenant Dufour; Harold Huber as the backstabbing Voisin; and a young Donald O’Connor, who I was surprised to find portraying the young Beau Geste.

Looking back on “BEAU GESTE”, I found myself wondering why I had ignored it for so long. For a movie that was supposed to be one of your typical imperialist adventures that celebrated European occupation, it proved to be – at least for me – a lot more. Instead of an imperialist adventure, I found myself watching a mixture of a family drama, a psychological thriller and a tragedy. William Wellman did an excellent job of rising “BEAU GESTE” above the usual imperialist nonsense. And with an excellent cast led by Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston; the movie proved to be a lot more.

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Top Favorite WORLD WAR I Movie and Television Productions

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July 28, 2014  marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war:

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR I MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1 - Paths of Glory

1. “Paths of Glory” (1957) – Stanley Kubrick directed Kirk Douglas in this highly acclaimed anti-war film about French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack. Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready co-starred.

2 - Lawrence of Arabia

2. “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning film about the war experiences of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence. The movie made stars of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.

3 - All Quiet on the Western Front

3. “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) – Lew Ayres starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel about the experiences of a German Army soldier during World War I. Lewis Milestone directed.

4 - The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles

4. “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (1992-1993) – George Lucas created this television series about Indiana Jones’ childhood and experiences as a World War I soldier. Sean Patrick Flannery and Corey Carrier, George Hall
and Ronny Coutteure starred.

5 - Gallipoli

5. “Gallipoli” (1981) – Peter Weir directed this acclaimed historical drama about two Australian soldiers and their participation in the Gallipoli Campaign. The movie starred Mark Lee and Mel Gibson.

6 - The Dawn Patrol 1938

6. “The Dawn Patrol” (1938) – Errol Flynn and David Niven starred in this well made, yet depressing remake of the 1930 adaptation of John Monk Saunders’ short story, “The Flight Commander”. Directed by Edmund Goulding, the movie co-starred Basil Rathbone.

7 - La Grande Illusion

7. “La Grande Illusion” (1937) – Jean Renoir co-wrote and directed this highly acclaimed war drama about French prisoners-of-war who plot to escape from an impregnable German prisoner-of-war camp. Jean Gabin starred.

8 - Shout at the Devil

8. “Shout at the Devil” (1976) – Lee Marvin and Roger Moore starred as two adventurers in this loose adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s novel, who poach ivory in German controlled East Africa on the eve of World War I. Directed by Peter Hunt, the movie co-starred Barbara Parkins.

9 - Biggles - Adventures in Time

9. “Biggles: Adventures in Time” (1986) – Neil Dickson and Alex Hyde-White starred in this adventure fantasy about an American catering salesman who inadvertently travels through time to help a British Army aviator during World War I. John Hough directed.

10 - A Very Long Engagement

10. “A Very Long Engagement” (2004) – Jean-Pierre Jeunet wrote and directed this very long romantic war drama about a young French woman’s search for her missing fiancé who might have been killed in the Battle of the Somme, during World War I. Audrey Tautou starred.

“LIFE OF PI” (2012) Review

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“LIFE OF PI” (2012) Review

It has been a while since Hollywood went into a tizzy over a movie directed by Ang Lee. His latest opus turned out to be “LIFE OF PI”, an adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 fantasy-adventure novel. The movie earned at least eleven nominations and won at least four, including a second Best Director Academy Award for Lee. 

“LIFE OF PI” begins in early 21st century Canada; when a local writer is advised to interview a middle-aged immigrant from Puducherry with a very interesting story to tell. Pi Patel then proceeds to tell the writer about his family and childhood in Puducherry. According to Patel, his father owned a zoo and it was there he first met the zoo’s new Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. When Patel was 16 years old, his father announces his intention to move the family to Winnipeg, Canada. There, he plans to sell the zoo animals and live. Pi, saddened by the idea of leaving his family and his new love, does not tell the news very well.

The family books passage aboard a Japanese freighter called the Tzimtzum. During the voyage, the Tzimtzum begins to founder during a heavy storm, while Pi is on deck. Before he can find his family, a crew member throws him into a lifeboat. As the ship begins to sink, a zebra leaps into the lifeboat and injures himself. The rest of Pi’s family along with other passengers and crewmen die as the Tzimtzum sinks. Once the storm is over, Pi discovers that other animals had made their way into the lifeboat – an orangutan and a hyena. The hyena angers Pi by killing the zebra and then the orangutan. Before he can do anything about it, the tiger Richard Parker suddenly emerges from under the lifeboat’s tarp and kills the hyena. Pi is left alone with Richard Parker, in which the two continue the journey as wary adversaries. By the time their journey ends on the Mexican coastline, they have become friends before Richard Parker disappears into the jungle.

When I first saw the trailer for “LIFE OF PI”, I did not want to see it. Period. Despite my knowledge that the movie had been directed by Ang Lee – of whom I am a fan – I did not want to see it. I did not want to see a movie about a boy surviving God knows how many days in a lifeboat with a tiger. End of story. When the movie was finally released in theaters, I went out of my way to avoid it . . . despite the positive press from the film critics. And even when it accumulated so many Golden Globe and Academy Awards nominations, I still refused to see it. I finally came around and saw “LIFE OF PI” when it was finally released on DVD. Did I regret missing it while it was in the theaters? Hmmmmm . . . not really. But I must admit that it was a pretty damn good film.

One . . . it had a good story. Lee, along with screenwriter David Magee did an excellent job in setting up Martel’s story on screen. The movie devoted at least a good half hour into Pi’s family background and his childhood. They especially took care in revealing his parents’ philosophies – something that would profoundly affect his harsh ocean journey from Puducherry to Mexico. They also did an excellent job in utilizing the literary device of the flashback, using middle-age Pi’s interview with a journalist. In fact, I believe that this device, along with Pi’s first-person (whether he was the 16 year-old boy or the middle-aged man) narration help keep the story alive for me.

There were other aspects of “LIFE OF PI” that impressed me. Mychael Danna won a much deserved Academy Award for writing the movie’s score. Mind you, I could not remember it for the likes of me. But I do recall how perfectly it meshed with the film’s narration. I also have to commend the beautiful visual effects created by the now bankrupt Rhythm & Hues Studios. Their visuals – especially of the animals featured in this movie – struck me as breathtaking. Although some of the animals, like those featured in Pi’s lifeboat, seemed real; while others like the meerkats on the floating island seemed more artistic than real. I especially enjoyed the sequence in which Pi’s lifeboat encountered a breaching Humpback whale and the school of dolphins.

I can see many shaking their heads over my review so far. How could I have enjoyed this movie so much, if I did not regret missing it in the theaters? Remember my reason why I originally avoided the film in the first place? I did not want to see a movie about a boy and a tiger in a lifeboat. While watching the movie, I found myself wishing that the entire sequence featuring Pi and “Richard Parker” could be shorter. It almost seemed to go on . . . forever. This sequence also brought back some not-so-pleasant memories of Tom Hanks and a volleyball named Wilson in the 2000 film, “CASTAWAY”. I felt relieved when Hanks’ character was finally rescued by a freighter in that movie. While watching “LIFE OF PI”, I eventually fell asleep before Pi and “Richard Parker” reached the floating island of the meerkats and Mexico. I woke up just in time to witness the escape from the meerkats island. Why did it have to take so long? I realize that the movie was about Pi’s emotional and spiritual journey. But did it have to take so long? Oh well. It was still a damn good movie that ended on a very satisfying note.

From what I had read, Ang Lee personally selected 17 year-old Suraj Sharma to portray the 16 year-old Pi. And I must say that Sharma gave a stupendous performance. Along with Lee’s direction and the visual effects, Sharma really made that movie. He did an excellent job in conveying Pi’s journey from innocence to heartbreak to spiritual maturity. And I am astounded that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate him for a Best Actor award. What in the hell were they thinking? I realize that the competition was pretty tough for 2012, but still . . . he should have been considered among the top three nominees.

The cast also benefited from excellent supporting performances from Irrfan Khan, who was excellent as the mature Pi. Rafe Spall was charming as the Canadian writer who interviewed Pi. Tabu gave an emotionally satisfying performance as Pi’s mother Gita Pitel. And I was certainly impressed by Adil Hussain’s commanding portrayal of Pi’s father, Santosh Patel. Gérard Depardieu was certain memorable as the Tzimtzum’s unpleasant cook. And James Saito added a great deal of intensity to the heartbreaking scene featuring an interview between Pi and the older Japanese insurance investigator. It was good to see him again.

What else can I say about “LIFE OF PI”? It was a beautiful and heartbreaking adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel. Once again, Ang Lee proved to the world that when he puts his heart and soul into a film, he can create something beautiful. And he was ably supported by an excellent cast led by the very talented Suraj Sharma, Rhythm & Hues Studio’s visual effects and Mychael Danna’s score. I do not think I would ever love this movie. I am sorry, but I could not deal with so many minutes devoted to a boy and a tiger in a boat. But I must say that I enjoyed it very much.

Favorite Movies and Television Set During the EARLY AMERICA Period

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Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions set during the Early America Period (1783-1828):

 

FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION SET DURING THE EARLY AMERICA PERIOD

1

“John Adams” (2008) – Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney deservedly won both Emmys and Golden Globes for their excellent portrayals of John and Abagail Adams in this excellent seven-part miniseries about the 2nd U.S. president.

2

“The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer on his way home from market, who helps a runaway slave evade her master.

3

“Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – This adventure conveyed the experiences of Davy Crockett and George Russel with keelboat riverman Mike Fink and river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Picturesque and a lot of fun. Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeff York starred.

4

“Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne DeCarlo starred in this entertaining costume romp about a Boston-born entertainer who falls for a pirate with a secret identity as a respectable New Orleans aristocrat. Directed by Fredrick De Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend, Robert Douglas, Andrea King and Elsa Lancaster.

5

“Interview With a Vampire” (1994) – Neil Jordan directed this fascinating adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel about a pair of vampires during a period of 200 years. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst, Antonio Banderas and Christian Slater co-starred.

6

“Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in the PBS movie about a Detroit teen who is transported back in time to 1822 South Carolina, where he finds himself about to participate in a slave revolt instigated by one Denmark Vessey.

7

“Sleepy Hollow” (1999) – Tim Burton directed Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in this adaptation of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

8

“The Seekers” (1979) – This adaptation of John Jakes’ 1975 novel about the Kent family’s experiences from 1794 to 1814. Randolph Mantooth, Timothy Patrick Murphy and George Hamilton starred.

9

“Many Rivers to Cross” (1955) – Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker starred in this western-comedy about a footloose frontiersman in early Kentucky, who is targeted by a spirited spinster for marriage. Directed by Roy Rowland.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” (2006) Review

As far as I know, Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro has directed at least two movies during his long career. One of them was the 1992 movie, “A BRONX’S TALE”, which I have yet to see. The other was the 2006 espionage epic called “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”

Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” told the fictionalized story about the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and counter-intelligence through the eyes of one man named Edward Wilson. Edward, the product of an East Coast aristocratic family and a C.I.A. official, has received an anonymous package during the spring of 1961. The famous C.I.A operation, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba had just failed. Inside the package is a reel-to-reel tape that reveals two unidentifiable people engaged in sex. Suspecting that the tape might reveal leads to the failure behind the Cuban operation, Edward has the tape investigated. The results lead to a possibility that the operation’s failure may have originated very close to home. During Edward’s investigation of the reel tape and the failure behind the Bay of Pigs, the movie reveals the history of his personal life and his career in both the C.I.A. and the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) during World War II.

Many film critics and historians believe that the Edward Wilson character in “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is loosely based upon the lives and careers of American intelligence officers, James Jesus Angelton and Richard M. Bissell, Jr.. And there might be some truth in this observation. But if I must be frank, I was never really concerned if the movie was a loose biography of anyone associated with the C.I.A. My concerns mainly focused on whether “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” is a good movie. Mind you, I had a few quibbles with it, but in the end I thought it was an above-average movie that gave moviegoers a peek into the operations of the C.I.A. and this country’s history between 1939 and 1961.

It is a pity that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was marred by a handful of prominent flaws. It really had the potential to be a well-made and memorable film. One of the problems I had were most of the characters’ emotional repression. Are we really supposed to believe that nearly every member of the upper-class in the country’s Northeast region are incapable of expressing overt emotion? I am not claiming that the performances were bad. Frankly, I was very impress by the performances featured in the movie. But the idea of nearly every major character – especially those born with a silver spoon – barely speaking above an audible whisper, due to his or her priviledged background, strikes me as more of a cliché than interesting and/or original characterization. I never understood what led Edward to finally realize that the man he believed was the genuine KGB defector Valentin Mironov, was actually a double agent. He should have realized this when the real Mironov had arrived several years earlier. The circumstances that led Edward to seek evidence inside one of the fake defector’s struck me as rather vague and far-reaching on screenwriter Eric Roth’s part. My main problem with “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its pacing. It was simply TOO DAMN SLOW. The movie has an interesting story, but De Niro’s snail-like pacing made it difficult for me to maintain my interest in one sitting. Thank goodness for DVDs. I feel that the only way to truly appreciate “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” without falling asleep is to watch a DVD copy in installments.

However, thanks to Eric Roth’s screenplay and Robert De Niro’s direction, “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” offered plenty of scenes and moments to enjoy. The moment of seduction at a Skull and Bones gathering that led Edward into a loveless marriage with Margaret ‘Clover’ Russell struck me as fascinating. It was a moment filled with passion and sex. Yet, the circumstances – namely Margaret’s pregnancy – forced Edward to give up a college love and marry a woman he did not truly love. I also enjoyed how De Niro and Roth used flashbacks to reveal the incidents in Edward’s post-college life and C.I.A. career, while he persisted into his investigation of the mysterious tape in the movie’s present day (1961). I was especially impressed by De Niro’s smooth ability to handle the transition from the present, to the past and back without missing a beat.

There were two scenes really stood out for me. One involved the Agency’s interrogation of the real Soviet defector, Valentin Mironov. I found it brutal, somewhat bloody and rather tragic in a perverse way. The other scene featured a loud and emotional quarrel between Edward and Margaret over the latter’s demand that Edward should convince his son not to join the C.I.A. What made this quarrel interesting is that after twenty years of a quiet and repressive marriage, the two finally revealed their true feelings for each other. But the best aspect of “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” was its depiction of how a decent, yet flawed allowed his work in intelligence and his position of power within the intelligence community warp his character. The higher Edward rose within the ranks of the C.I.A., the more he distanced himself from his family with his lies and secrets, and the more he was willing to corrupt himself in the name of national security . . . even to the extent of disrupting his son’s chance for happiness.

“THE GOOD SHEPHERD” must be one of the few large-scale movie productions, whose photography and production designs failed to give the impression of an epic. I found Robert Richardson’s photography rather limited, despite the numerous settings featured in the plot. So much of the movie’s scenes featured an interior setting. Yet, even most of the exterior scenes seemed to reflect a limited view. In the end, it was up to the movie’s 167 minute running time and 22 years time span that gave “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” an epic feel to it.

Robert De Niro and the casting team did a pretty good job in their selection of the cast. The only one I had a problem with was actor Lee Pace, who portrayed a fictionalized version of C.I.A. director Richard Helms named . . . Richard Hayes. I have always viewed Pace as an outstanding actor, but he spent most of his scenes smirking on the sidelines or making slightly insidious comments to the Edward Wilson character. I believe Roth’s screenplay had failed to give substance to his role. But there were plenty of other good supporting performances. I was especially impressed by Oleg Shtefanko’s subtle, yet insidious portryal of Edward’s KGB counterpart, Stas Siyanko aka Ulysses. Director Robert De Niro, John Sessions, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci and Tammy Blanchard all gave solid performances. Eddie Redmayne held his own with both Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie as the Wilsons’ intimidated and resentful son, Edward Wilson, Jr. Michael Gambon was his usual competent self as an MI-6 spymaster named Dr. Fredricks. Gambon was also lucky to give one of the best lines in the movie.

At least three performances impressed me. John Tuturro was very memorable as Edward’s tough and ruthless deputy, Ray Brocco. For once, De Niro’s insistence upon minimilist acting worked very well in Tuturro’s favor. The actor did an excellent job in portraying Brocco’s aggression with a very subtle performance, producing an interesting contrast in the character’s personality. I realize that Angelina Jolie had won her Oscar for “GIRL, INTERRUPTED”, a movie that had been released at least seven years before “THE GOOD SHEPHERD”. But I sincerely believe that her portryal of Edward’s long suffering wife, Margaret, was the first role in which she truly impressed me. She tossed away her usual habits and little tricks in order to give a very mature and subtle performance as a woman slowly sinking under the weight of a loveless and repressive marriage. And I believe that Jolie has not looked back, since. The task of carrying the 167-minute film fell upon the shoulders of Matt Damon and as usual, he was more than up to the job. And while there were times when his performance seemed a bit too subtle, I cannot deny that he did a superb job of developing the Edward Wilson character from a priviledge, yet inexperienced college student to a mature and emotionally repressed man who was willing to live with the negative aspects of his profession.

I do not believe that “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” will ever be considered as a great film. It has a small number of flaws, but those flaws were not as minor as they should have been – especially the slow pacing that threatened to put me to sleep. But I cannot deny it is damn good movie, thanks to Robert De Niro’s direction, Eric Roth’s screenplay and a talented cast led by Matt Damon. Five years have passed since its release. It seems a pity that De Niro has not directed a movie since.

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (2008) Review

 

 

 

“APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” (2008) Review

Looking back on the number of Agatha Christie movie adaptations I have seen, I find it surprising that only a handful of Christie titles have been adapted for the movies or television more than once. One of those titles happened to be the author’s 1938 novel called ”Appointment With Death”

The most well known adaptation before the 2008 one had been produced and directed by Michael Winner some twenty years earlier. Released in 1988, the movie starred Peter Ustinov in his last appearance as the Belgian-born sleuth, Hercule Poirot; and is not considered among the best of Christie adaptations before the premiere of ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” around 1989. The production values of the 1988 version of ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” almost had a cheap, B-movie quality about it. Nevertheless, I feel that it is a masterpiece in compare to this recent version that starred David Suchet as Poirot.

”APOINTMENT WITH DEATH” told the story of Hercule Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a wealthy, middle-aged American woman named Lady Boynton (Mrs. Boynton in the novel). But screenwriter Guy Andrews made so many changes from Christie’s original tale that it would seem pointless for me to recap the plot. One, the victim is not a widow. Instead, she is in the middle of a second marriage to a British peer and archeologist named Lord Boynton. Only Lennox Boynton is her stepson by marriage . . . and his name has become Leonard. The others – Carol, Raymond and Ginerva (Jinny) – had been adopted before her marriage to Lord Boynton. And yes, Jinny is no longer her child by blood. Lady Boynton never spent time as a warden for a women’s prison. Instead, she was an astute businesswoman. The character of Nadine, Lennox’s wife, did not appear in this adaptation. Jefferson Hope was transformed from the Boynton family’s attorney, into an American traveler with business ties to Lady Boynton. Dr. Gerard’s nationality and profession had been changed from French psychologist to British medical doctor. The American-born Member of Parliament, Lady Westholme, became British-born world traveler Dame Celia Westholme. And former nursery governess Miss Amabel Pierce, became known as “Nanny”; Lady Boynton’s nervous and very reluctant henchwoman in the abuse of the murder victim’s many adopted children. Andrews also added a new character – a Polish-born nun, who had befriended Jinny, named Sister Agnieszka. However, Dr. Sarah King remained intact – in both characterization and profession. The story’s setting is changed from Petra to Syria. The novel featured a single killer. This movie featured two killers . . . and a different motive. These changes allowed Andrews to give the murderers a fate straight from the finale of 1937’s ”Death on the Nile”.

I have to make one thing clear regarding the changes made by Guy Andrews. I have nothing against a writer making changes from a literary source to accommodate a screen adaptation. There are some things that do not translate well to the screen. But I feel that most of the changes made by Andrews did NOT serve the movie’s plot very well. In fact, I would say that the opposite happened. Despite its B-movie atmosphere; the 1988 movie seemed like an elegant affair in comparison to this 2008 version. Mind you, the latter had some virtues. David Suchet gave a subtle performance as Hercule Poirot. Peter Greenhalgh’s photography struck me as beautiful and rich in colors. Even Sheena Napier’s costume designs managed to capture the mid-to-late 1930s quite well. Elizabeth McGovern’s portrayal of a British or Irish female seemed surprisingly competent, despite her being American-born. Both Tim Curry (as Lord Boynton) and John Hannah (as Dr. Gerard) gave entertaining performances. And I also felt impressed by Christina Cole (Dr. Sarah King) and Mark Gatiss (Leonard) performances as well. So, why do I have such a low opinion of this movie?

My main beef with ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” was the changes made to the story. I simply found them unnecessary. The change in the story’s setting from Petra to Syria, created a small confusion. In the 1930s, part of Syria was under British control and the other half was under French control. Yet, the movie featured a very British Colonel Carbury (portrayed by Paul Freeman), who had French troops under his command. Confusing. And was it really necessary to include characters like Lord Boynton and Sister Agnieszka, who did not exist in the novel? No. Lord Boynton was nothing more than a red herring created to distract viewers of the teleplay. And Sister Agnieszka was used to include a subplot that was never in the novel and had nothing to do with the main narrative. Was it necessary to change the number of murderers from one to two? Again . . . no. By changing the number of murderers, Andrews changed the motive behind the victim’s murder from preserving a secret to an act of revenge. Worse, by changing the number of murderers and motive, Andrews complicated the plot to such a ridiculous level that by the end of the story, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Even more ridiculous was the convoluted method used by the killers to bump off Lady Boynton. Was it necessary to include a subplot about the sex slave trade, which had nothing to do with Lady Boynton’s murder? I would say no. Especially since the subplot was never included in Christie’s novel.

In the novel, Mrs. Boynton inflicted a great deal of psychological abuse upon her step-children and her daughter, Jinny. This movie had Lady Boynton bullying a hired nanny – Nanny Taylor – into inflicting physical abuse upon the many children she had adopted over the years – including Raymond, Carol . . . and Jinny. Was the change necessary? I certainly do not believe it was. Both the novel and the 1988 film made it painfully obvious how harmful Mrs. Boynton’s psychological abuse was upon her stepchildren. Apparently, Andrews, director Ashley Pierce and the producers thought it was not dramatic enough and decided to be more drastic by including physical abuse. To emphasize the horror of Lady Boynton’s domestic situation, they allowed Nanny Taylor to fall into a catatonic state following her employer’s death out of guilt. I found these changes unnecessary. I found the idea of Nanny Taylor remaining with the family after the children became adults irrelevant. And if I must be brutally honest, I was not that impressed by Angela Pleasance’s slightly hammy performance as the tormented nanny.

In a review of “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the 2010 version of Christie’s 1934 novel, I had complained about the religious themes that permeated that movie. Apparently, ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not the first movie in the series to emphasize religion. The same happened two years earlier in ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH”. As I had stated earlier, one of the new characters turned out to be a Polish-born Catholic nun. I had to endure a sanctimonious conversation between her and Ginerva. Lord Boynton’s archeological quest turned out to be a search for John the Baptist’s head. I had never heard of anything so ridiculous. How was anyone supposed to figure out whether the head of John the Baptist or some citizen of the region had been found? And to make matters worse, once Lord Boynton thought he had found the object of his quest, he had Sister Agnieszka lead the rest of the party into a prayer over said skull. The scene struck me as too ludicrous to believe. The over-the-top choral music that permeated Stephen McKeon’s score did not help matters.

When it comes to adapting a novel or play for the screen, I have no problems with screenwriters making changes to the story or any of the characters . . . if those changes manage to serve the film. After all, some aspects of a novel or play do not translate well into film. But the changes I found in ”APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” struck me as unnecessary. They not only failed to serve the movie’s plot, I found them convoluted and over-the-top. The addition of a religious theme simply made matters worse. The movie had a few virtues – including a solid performance from David Suchet. But not even he could save the amount of damage inflicted upon this movie.