Second Look: “MANDINGO” (1975)

 

SECOND LOOK: “MANDINGO” (1975)

About forty-three years ago, Paramount Pictures released an adaptation of Kyle Onscott’s 1957 novel of the Old South, ”MANDINGO”. This movie, which has developed a reputation as lurid, exploitive and racist, is considered to be one of the worst films to be released in the 1970s. Directed by Richard Fleischer, it starred Perry King, Ken Norton, James Mason, Brenda Sykes, Susan George and Ben Masters. 

However, there are recent film critics who refuse to dismiss ”MANDINGO” as simply lurid trash. They contend that despite its melodramatic tone, the movie offered a portrait of the antebellum South that may have been a lot more accurate than shown in Hollywood movies before or since. I have found two articles on the movie you might find interesting:

““Expect the Truth”: Exploiting History with Mandingo 

NOTCOMING.COM: “Mandingo”

“The Greatest Film About Race Ever Filmed in Hollywood”: Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo

“SLIFR: ‘Mandingo'”

“MANDINGO” (1975) Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI” (2017) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI” (2017) Review

Following the success of the Disney Studios’ first hit STAR WARS film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”, I had assumed that producer-director J.J. Abrams would helm the next chapter in the franchise’s Sequel Trilogy. I was eventually surprised to learn that Lucasfilm president, Kathleen Kennedy, hired writer-director Rian Johnson to both write and direct “EPISODE VIII”

My positive reaction to the news about Johnson being hired by Lucasfilm originated with my reaction to his 2012 film, “LOOPER”. I found Johnson’s 2012 film to be original, ambiguous and well written, if not perfect. I had hoped Johnson would create a better STAR WARS film than J.J. Abrams, who was the creator behind the 2015 movie. Then the movie hit the theaters in December 2017 and I was relieved by the high level acclaim it had received from the critics.

Titled “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”, this 2017 movie picked up immediately after the last scene of the previous Sequel film. Well . . . almost. Actually, “THE LAST JEDI” about an hour before “THE FORCE AWAKENS” ended, or around the same time. The movie opened with the Resistance forces abandoning their base on D’Qar during an attack by the First Order. Resistance pilot Poe Dameron disobeyed General Leia Organa’s order to retreat and led a costly counterattack that destroyed a First Order dreadnought, but following the Resistance’s escape into hyperspace, the First Order managed to track them using a code and continue its attacks. Leia demoted Poe for disobeying her order and leading many of their pilots to their deaths. Following another attack by the First Order, Leia is seriously injured, leaving the Resistance leadership in the hands of her second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Holdo. Meanwhile, Rey, Chewbacca and R2-D2’s arrived at Ahch-To. Rey tried to recruit Jedi Master Luke Skywalker to help his sister Leia and the Resistance. But Luke; disillusioned over his failure to successfully mentor his nephew, Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren; refused to leave Ahch-To. He also refused to train Rey in the ways of the Force. Initially.

Following the opening battle between the Resistance and the First Order, former stormtrooper Finn recovered from the wound he had suffered in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. He discovered that Rey was missing and that the fleeing Resistance was being tracked by the Force Order. Fearful that Rey might return and find herself in a tenuous situation, Finn decided to leave and track her down. Only he was stopped by a maintenance worker named Rose Tico. Grieving over her sister, who had been one of the bomber pilots killed in the opening, Rose believed that Finn was defecting. Once she realized otherwise; she, Finn and Poe devised a secret mission to find a code breaker to disable the First Order’s tracking device. Not long after Rey began her training under Luke, she discovers that she has a Force bond with her enemy, Kylo Ren. And without bothering to tell Luke, Rey and Ren begin communicating with each other.

I have to be brutally honest. I did not like “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Not really. I thought the 2015 movie suffered from too many plot holes and felt like a remake of the 1977 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Being a fan of Rian Johnson’s 2012 movie, “LOOPER”, I had high expectations for “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”. I hoped that the film would improve J.J. Abrams’ work on the previous film. Fortunately, I found a good deal to admire about the film.

One of the aspects of “THE LAST JEDI” that I truly admired was its visual style. I had nothing against the 2015 movie’s visual style. But if I must be honest, “THE LAST JEDI” took it to another level. Steve Yedlin’s photography struck me as sharp and colorful in scenes that featured the movie’s opening battle; and the duel inside the throne room, aboard Snoke’s starship the Supremacy. Yedlin’s photography assumed a rich and sleek style in the Cantonica sequence that featured the Canto Bight casino and the escaped animals chase scenes, as shown below:

 

However, Yedlin’s photography would have been something of a waste, if it were not for Rick Heinrichs’ production designs and the Art Direction team led by Kevin Jenkins. This was especially the case in Snoke’s blood red throne room aboard the Supremacy, Luke Skywalker’s habitat on Ahch-To and . . . of course, the Canto Bight Casino. What can I say? I really enjoyed the visual aspects of that scene. Between the photography, the visual design and the whole elegant, yet corrupt atmosphere of the scene; I have not been this impressed by a visual setting in a “STAR WARS” scene since the Outlander Club sequence in 2002’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES”.

If I must be honest, I never really had a problem with the acting in “THE FORCE AWAKENS’. Nor did I have a problem with the performances in “THE LAST JEDI”. In fact, I would go as far to say that the performances of three cast members actually improved. One of them was veteran actress, Carrie Fisher. As many know, Fisher passed away during the last week of December 2016. I must admit that I was not that impressed by her portrayal of the aging Leia Organa Solo in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. In “THE LAST JEDI”, she managed to regain a good of her sharp and natural style, despite being missing from the film’s middle acts. Another improvement came from Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of General Armitage Hux, a high-ranking commander of the First Order. Personally, I found his performance in “THE LAST JEDI” rather strident. A bit of that stridency managed to manifest in the film’s first twenty minutes; but otherwise, Gleeson’s performance struck me as good deal more subtle. I thought Gleeson did a first-rate job in conveying Hux’s negative realization that an overemotional man child had become his new leader. Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of the former scavenger/potential Jedi Rey struck me as an improvement over her performance in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Her performance struck me as a lot less labored and more subtle – especially in her scenes with Mark Hamill. However, I still believe that her best performance, so far, was the 2017 Agatha Christie movie, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”.

However, those performances from other returning cast members were just as first-rate as they were in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Oscar Isaac finally received more scenes to strut his stuff as energetic Resistance X-wing pilot and squadron commander, Poe Dameron. Granted, there were moments when he came off as a bit too energetic. Otherwise, I had no problems with his acting. I can also say the same about Adam Driver’s portrayal of the villainous Force user, Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. I have a confession to make. I do not like the Kylo Ren character. But I do believe that Driver provided some excellent acting in this film and did his very best in injecting as much ambiguity as director Rian Johnson would allow. I had feared that when given full reign, Andy Serkis’ voice performance as Supreme Leader Snoke, would go over-the-top. Well, in the Snoke’s throne room scene, it nearly did. But in the end, Serkis eventually kept his performance under control and gave a very sinister performance. Lupita Nyong’o returned to provide the voice of Maz Kanata, the former pilot and smuggler who owned a tavern on Takadona. Her role in “THE LAST JEDI” was brief, the actress provided one of my favorite moments in the film as her character provided information about a code breaker to Finn, Poe and Rose; while fighting off a “union dispute” in the middle of a hologram transmission. As usual, Nyong’o was wonderful. I read somewhere that Johnson had originally planned for the Finn character to remain in a coma throughout most of the film. Eventually, Leia came very close in experiencing that fate. Thankfully, actor John Boyega did not have spend most of the movie lying on a bed or platform. Instead, audiences got to, once again, enjoy Boyega engage in his own kind of magic, as the movie sent his character, former stormtrooper Finn, into new adventures.

“THE LAST JEDI” featured first-rate performances from newcomers like Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, Benicio del Toro and yes, even Mark Hamill. Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo is another character that I am not particularly fond of. But I must that actress Laura Dern gave her usual competent performance as the Resistance leader forced to step in when Leia fell into a coma. Benicio del Toro gave a very sly and entertaining performance as a sly and treacherous codebreaker found himself a prisoner on Canto Bight. Kelly Marie Tran proved to be the newest addition to the Star Wars mythos as a Resistance mechanic named Rose Tico, who found herself grieving her sister Paige, following the latter’s death around the film’s beginning. Tran gave a very strong performance as the emotional, yet strong-willed and determined Rose. She also managed to form a solid screen chemistry with Boyega and Isaac. Technically, “THE LAST JEDI” proved to be Hamill’s second appearance in the Sequel Trilogy. However, he only appeared briefly in the 2015’s last scene without any dialogue. Thankfully, Hamill was able to strut his stuff as the older and somewhat embittered Luke Skywalker. Although his characterization in this film proved to be controversial, I cannot deny that Hamill gave a superb performance, as usual. It seemed a pity that he never had any scenes with Boyega. I would have given my right arm to watch those two share a scene together.

Is there anything else about “THE LAST JEDI” that I enjoyed? Honestly? No. Despite the fine performances, the excellent photography and superb production and art designs, I was not impressed by the movie. In fact, my opinion of the film proved to be lower than my feelings about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. And I never thought that would be possible. I had two major problems about the film – the narrative and characterizations written by the director, Rian Johnson.

One of the main problems I had with “THE LAST JEDI” proved the length of time between it and “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Judging from the film’s opening, the Resistance had fled its base on D’Qar and engaged in that opening battle against the First Order before Rey, Chewbacca and R2-D2 arrived on Ahch-To. Why did Johnson decide to begin the movie with such a small time frame? I have no idea. But thanks to this time frame, I found some of the events in the movie rather questionable.

According to the film’s opening crawl, the First Order had “decimated” the Republic and took military control of the galaxy. I found this hard to swallow. Yes, the First Order used their Star Killer weapon to destroy the New Republic’s capital and a few planets in the same system. But the Republic was spread all over the galaxy. Also, the First Order had suffered two major defeats near the end of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” – at Takodana, where it was searching for the BB-8 droid and the map to Luke Skywalker; and the destruction of the Star Killer weapon and its base. The last defeat proved to be a severe one for the First Order. Why would the entire galaxy surrender to the First Order when its super weapon, the Star Killer base and God knows how many troops and personnel were destroyed by the Resistance? I can understand the First Order licking its wounds and eventually conquering the rest of the Republic and going after the Resistance – but not so damn soon. Not within a space of one or two days.

The time frame produced another problem. After Snoke had punished General Hux for the Resistance’s destruction of the First Order’s new starship, the Dreadnought; the general informed his leader that he had used a new tracking device to follow the Resistance fleet through hyperspace. How exactly did this happen? When did Hux find the time – between the First Order’s defeat at Takodano, the destruction of the Star Killer’s base and the Resistance’s abandonment of their D’Qar base – to connect a tracking device to the Resistance convoy? When? I checked the Wookiepedia website on this hyperspace tracker, I discovered that it simply provided nothing more than a vague description. The website also failed to describe how Hux managed to have it planted in the first place. That is when I began to wonder if this tracking device was nothing more than a deus ex machina created by Johnson to keep the First Order on the heels of the Resistance fleet.

I have other problems regarding the First Order’s pursuit of the Resistance. One, how did the Resistance’s bomber fleets managed to drop bombs on the the dreadnought ship . . . in space . . . where there is no gravity? Would it have not been more sufficient for them to use the torpedo launchers of their X-wing fighter ships? Once the First Order managed to somewhat catch up with the Resistance fleet, it just basically kept its distance, while taking potshots at various Resistance ships; claiming that their enemy moved too fast for them to sufficiently destroy its convoy. What???? Did Hux fail to notice that the Resistance convoy was not particularly moving that fast? And whether the Resistance convoy was moving too fast or not, neither Hux, Snoke or Kylo Ren even bother to consider ordering part of the First Order’s fleet to jump into light speed ahead of the Resistance . . . and box the latter into a trap?

Rian Johnson’s handling of the Resistance proved to be equally problematic. A conflict has developed among the franchise’s fans on who was right – General Leia Organa or Commander Poe Dameron – regarding the bombing of the First Order’s dreadnought. Poe’s determination to destroy the dreadnought led to the destruction of Resistance’s bomber squad. On the other hand, if the dreadnought had continued to exist, who knows what would have hap . . . You know what? I do not give a shit one way or the other. I do not care. I found other things to complain about this story arc. I understood why Poe Dameron had blatantly ignored Leia’s order to retreat at the movie’s beginning. I do not understand why Paige Tico and the other bomber pilots did not follow her order. Surely, they had overheard Leia’s retreat order over the fleet’s communications system. And yet . . . like Poe, they ignored her order. And then we have Leia’s “Mary Poppins” moment, after the bridge of her flagship was destroyed. You know . . . the scene in which she used the Force to float back to her ship, after she and Admiral Ackbar (we hardly knew you pal!) were blown into space. I cannot believe that one of my last visions of Carrie Fisher on the screen was that ludicrous moment. God!

After Leia became incapacitated, Vice-Admiral Holdo took command of the Resistance. Chances are that Poe and some other members of the Resistance would have refrained from staging a mutiny . . . and sending Finn and Rose Tico on that mission to Canto Bight, if Holdo had informed everyone about hers and Leia’s plan to evade the First Order in thie first place. Only she did not. When she finally did, Poe and a few others dismissed it as cowardly and decided to stage a mutiny. This “mutiny” eventually led to Finn and Rose’s mission to search for a master code breaker at the Canto Bight Casino. I have one or two problems with this scenario. One, I could not understand why Holdo kept the evacuation plans a secret for so long, since it did not require a “need-to-know” reason. And two, why did Holdo wait so long to set hers and Leia’s plans in motion? Not only did I find this delay unnecessary, it allowed other factors in the story – Finn and Rose’s Canto Bight mission to affect the actual evacuation. One could dismiss this as an example of Holdo’s personality flaws. But the timing of this story arc makes it difficult for me to do this.

Leia and Holdo’s evacuation plan and gas lighting of Poe were not the only problems I had with their characters. I also had a problem with their costumes. Do not get me wrong, I found the costumes designed by Michael Kaplan rather elegant and lovely, as shown below:

 

But I could not help but wonder why both women wore outfits suited for dinner reception, a party or even a political meeting (in the STAR WARS universe). Their outfits seemed unsuited for military commanders in the field . . . especially military commanders who were attempting to guarantee the survival of those under them, in the middle of a life or death situation. Was this Kaplan’s attempt to outshine Trisha Biggar’s designs from the Prequel Trilogy. Who knows? Who knows? His costumes worked in the Canto Bight casino scenes. But they simply did not work for Leia and Holdo, who were not in elegant situations like the casino during this film.

Speaking of the Canto Bight mission . . . I honestly do not know what to say. It was such a crap fest to me. The only aspect of that mission that I enjoyed were the visual designs for the sequence. Otherwise, this whole story arc was marred by bad writing. Poe’s opposition to Holdo’s evacuation plan led him to send Finn, Rose and BB-8 to find someone who could break the code to the First Order’s tracking device, a master code breaker who hung out at the Canto Bight casino on Cantonica. So what happened? The pair landed their transport on a private beach and ended up getting arrested at the casino for illegal parking. Arrested . . . for illegal parking? Unable to contact the code breaker, due to being incarcerated behind bars, Finn and Rose met another prisoner named D.J., who claimed to be a code breaker. When he broke them out of jail, they recruited him to help the Resistance break the code . . . instead of returning to the casino in order to find the Master Code Breaker they had originally spotted. After the trio and BB-8 board Snoke’s ship, the Supremacy; Finn and Rose are betrayed by D.J., who also spilled the Resistance’s plans to escape from Leia’s cruiser via cloaked transport ships. Except . . . wait. How in the hell did D.J. know about that plan? He could not have learned everything about it from Finn and Rose, who only knew that Holdo and Leia had plans to evacuate. But they knew nothing about the transport ships being cloaked or that Holdo planned to send the Resistance to Crait. Hell, not even Poe knew the specific details, until he woke up aboard one the transports after being stunned by Leia. How did D.J. learn about Leia and Holdo’s complete plan?

I found something else rather odd about the Canto Bight mission. Finn and Rose were able to escape from Leia’s cruiser undetected and head for Cantonica in a cloaked transport ship. This sounds strangely similar to Leia and Holdo’s evacuation plan. I have already pointed out that the entire Resistance personnel could have done this and rendezvous at an arranged location a lot earlier in the story, instead of waiting until the last of the Resistance fleet was close to Crait. If Poe was able to help Finn and Rose slip away from both the Resistance convoy and the First Order fleet, why did he continue to oppose Leia and Holdo’s evacuation plan. Why did Poe believe that the evacuation plan was so cowardly (eyeroll) that he set in motion that ridiculous Canto Bight mission? I mean . . . honestly, Finn and Rose’s successful evasion of the First Order’s fleet and the Resistance convoy should have made him realize that Holdo’s plan – well, most of it – was pretty sound.

Another aspect of the Canto Bight story arc that I disliked was Rose’s revelations about the casino’s use of slave labor and the owners’ profiting from the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order, as arms dealers. Apparently, this entire story arc was created by Johnson for Finn to learn a valuable lesson about greed and corruption, enabling him to understand about what the Resistance is fighting against and drop his “selfish” concerns about Rey. WHAT . . . UTTER . . . BULLSHIT!!! There was nothing wrong with Finn being concerned about Rey not walking into the current conflict between the Resistance and the First Order. And there was no need for him to learn any damn lesson. And I sure as hell did not appreciate watching Rose lecture Finn about the evils of corruption, let alone slavery. You know, originally I thought she and had been a former slave herself. Then I checked Wikipedia and discovered that Rose and her sister Paige had been smuggled off their homeworld by their parents, before they could be snatched by the First Order and forced into slavery. So, why did Johnson believe it was necessary for her to lecture Finn about slavery, when the latter had been enslaved by the First Order ever since he was an infant? If anyone was qualified to give that speech, it was Finn.

The Canto Bight sequence did not feature the only problematic scene between Finn and Rose for me. Another occurred during the Resistance’s defense against an attack by the First Order at an old Rebel Alliance base on Crait, near the film’s finale. In one scene, the remaining Reisistance fighters – which included Finn, Poe and Rose – charged at the incoming First Order forces in order to give the others time to make their escape. While the surviving fighters broke off from the charge, Finn decided to make a suicidal charge against the First Order siege cannon that threatened to break into the base. And guess what happened? Rose stopped Finn’s charge. And what was her reason? Well . . . let me quote her:

“We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”

What . . . in . . . the . . . hell??? Let me get this straight. According to Johnson, it was fine for Vice-Admiral Holdo to sacrifice herself to prevent the fleeing Resistance from being destroyed before they could reach Crait. But Finn was not allowed to sacrifice himself against the First Order’s siege cannon, because . . . why again? Hatred? What made Rose believe that Finn’s actions were all about hatred for the First Order? And when did Johnson convey the idea that Finn’s suicidal charge was all about hatred on his part? And why did Johnson keep creating scenes that gave Rose an opportunity to lecture Finn for the slimmest of reasons? Or decide that she knew better than him? Were the Canto Bight casino and Crait scenes indicative of some racism on Johnson’s part? Is he just another person who regards people of color, especially those of African descent, as childlike? I wonder.

Then we come to Rey’s experiences with Luke Skywalker on Ahch-To. Most critics of “THE LAST JEDI” tend to focus most of their complaints about the Canto Bight mission. My strongest complaints against the film are all about Rey’s experiences from start to finish. Judging from the first scene between Rey and Luke Skywalker, I got the impression that Johnson had written his own version of Luke’s first meeting with Yoda in “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. Actually, this scene was one of many that seemed to remakes of those from the 1980 film and “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. I do not know how to describe Rey’s first two days on Ahch-To. Unlike many other fans of the franchise, I had no problems with Luke tossing away his/Anakin’s old lightsaber that he had lost on Bespin. As far as I am concerned, it should have remained lost. However, I noticed that Luke’s initial rejection of Rey as a padawan struck me as a lot crueler than Yoda’s initial rejection some thirty or so years before. Actually, I was not that impressed by the dynamic between Rey and Luke. I hate to say this, but Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill’s on-screen chemistry did not seem that interesting to me. There was another problem in this story arc. Rey ended up receiving very little training in the Force. How long did Luke train Rey? What? A few hours, before it was interrupted by Rey’s discovery of the whole Luke-Kylo Ren mess? It seemed like it. There was one scene that featured Luke milking a rather . . . busty alien called Thala-Siren that just . . . I found this just as embarrassing as Leia’s Mary Poppins moment. It did not help that the creature’s udders resembled those of women. Oh God. Also . . . is it just me or Luke did not seem like himself? He seemed rather cynical, in compare to his younger self. And snarky. Luke seemed more like the younger Leia and Han . . . or Mark Hamill. I understand the circumstances that led Luke to his exile and how it may have emotionally damaged him. But his refusal to leave Ahch-To in order to help Leia . . . just did not feel right. I just cannot see him initially refusing to help his own sister, whose life was endangered.

But that was nothing, until the movie revealed what led to Luke’s estrangement from his nephew, Kylo Ren. Rey learned from the latter that Luke had a vision of his nephew/padawan causing a great deal of destruction and briefly considered killing the sleeping Ben. Although he relented, Kylo/Ben woke up and spotted Luke with his lightsaber drawn. An enraged Ben killed Luke’s loyal padawans in retaliation and joined the First Order, because he felt betrayed. Let me make this clear. I am aware that Luke is capable of terrible deeds or allowing his anger to get the best of him. These traits were apparent in both “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” and “RETURN OF THE JEDI” when Luke had engaged in bouts of murderous rage. But to deliberately contemplate murdering his own nephew, because he had visions of a destructive future from the latter or Snoke’s influence? Luke Skywalker? I simply do not see it. He is not Obi-Wan Kenobi, who has proven to be not being above doing or suggesting something terrible for the greater good. Luke has always struck me as the type who needed to have his emotional buttons pushed in order for him to commit a terrible deed.

While most detractors of “THE LAST JEDI” had a problem with Luke’s characterization, I had an even bigger problem with Rey’s . . . and the story arc she shared with Kylo Ren. What in the hell was Rian Johnson thinking? He managed to create another story arc that I believe was marred by the time span between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “THE LAST JEDI”. The whole Rey-Kylo Ren story seemed wrong within the Sequel Trilogy’s time frame. As I had earlier pointed out, not long after Rey had began her brief training into the Force under Luke, she discovered that some mental Force bond had developed between her and the man who nearly killed her, Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. This . . . Force bond led Rey to discover what Luke had nearly did to Ren. And this, along with her telepathic conversations with Luke’s nephew and visions of him being redeemed convinced Rey that it was necessary to travel to Snoke’s ship, the Supremacy, and save Kylo Ren and convince him to give up evil; evoking memories of Luke’s attempt to save his father, Anakin Skywalker, in “RETURN OF THE JEDI”.

When I watched as Rey decided to travel into “the bowels of evil” in order to save an overprivileged and murderous man child from himself and Snoke, I could not help but indulge in a massive face palm. Or groan. This was just simply ridiculous to me. Was I really expected to accept that Rey had developed compassion or any other kind positive feelings for Kylo Ren two to three days after what he tried to do to her in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Does anyone realize how unrealistic that is from an emotional point-of-view? After all, only two or three days had passed since Rey had witnessed or experienced the following in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”:

*Kylo Ren kidnapped Rey during the First Order’s attack on Takodana.
*As he had done earlier to Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren tried to violate Rey’s mind in order to learn Luke’s whereabouts, using telepathy. Only she managed to defend herself using the same method.
*Rey, Finn and Chewbacca witnessed Kylo Ren’s murder of his father, Han Solo.
*Kylo Ren tried to injure or kill Rey by tossing her into a tree, near the Star Killer base.
*Kylo Ren maimed Finn during a light saber duel.
*Rey engaged in her own light saber duel against Kylo Ren, in which she managed to wound him.

During Rey and Kylo Ren’s telepathic interactions in “THE LAST JEDI”, she managed to develop compassion for him. And I am at a loss at why she would do this over a person, who had caused so much harm to her and those she cared about . . . in such a short period of time. When Rey asked Kylo Ren why he murdered his father, the latter explained – in a scene in which he was shirtless (a massive eyeroll) – that trying to cut out any sense of emotional attachment. WHAT IN THE HELL???? That was his excuse? And she bought it? And when Rey questioned Kylo Ren’s murder of Luke’s loyal padawans, he revealed how Luke had contemplated on killing him. Never mind that I believed this did not jibe with Luke’s personality. This was a lame excuse on Kylo Ren’s part. Those padawans had not played a role in Luke’s brief contemplation to commit murder. Those padawans had done nothing to Kylo Ren or anyone he may have cared about. And yet . . . Rey failed to continue questioning Kylo Ren’s murders. She expressed anger at Luke’s behavior, which I do not blame her. But she also decided to use this and Luke’s reluctance to save his nephew as an excuse to surrender to Snoke in an effort to save Kylo Ren, someone who had wronged her and those whom she cared about . . . VERY RECENTLY. As far as Rey knew, Kylo Ren was not related to her and a long period of time had not passed between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “THE LAST JEDI”.

Another problem seemed to manifest this story arc – namely Rey’s visions of Kylo Ren’s future. I am not claiming that he was redeemable. But did Rey ever consider that her visions had been manipulated in the first place? Did she ever consider that her telepathic bond was manipulated, which the movie later confirmed during Snoke’s monologuing? I realize that Rey was somewhat naive. But considering her recent past experience with Kylo Ren attempting to violate her mind, she never considered that this might be another attempt? Or that he had successfully found a way to violate her mind and try to manipulate her? Apparently not. Instead, Rey simply jumped up and rushed to Snoke’s ship in an effort to “save” Kylo Ren. It seemed obvious that Johnson had set up this whole scenario in order to plagiarize the Palpatine throne scene from “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Unfortunately for me, it failed on so many levels. Worse, it made Rey looked like “the Idiot of the Galaxy”. This entire story arc struck me as incredibly stupid.

One could say that Rey’s stupidity in the above scenario finally erased the Mary Sue label from her character. Perhaps. There was also the fact that in compare to Snoke, her mastery of the Force was a joke. He handled her like a toy doll in the Supremacy throne room sequence. And yet, she was able to master the Force with easy in other scenes. The movie’s novelization, written by Jason Fry, explained that the telepathic connection that Rey had unexpectedly formed with Kylo Ren enabled her to learn his skills with the Force. In other words, Rey is the “STAR WARS” version of Chuck Bartowski from the NBC series, “CHUCK”. For me, this was one of the most idiotic and lazy piece of writing that I have ever encountered in a movie or novel. To make matters works, the movie’s ending revealed that Rey had stolen Luke’s ancient Jedi texts. This seemed to be a hint that she will continue her Jedi studies using those texts. Jesus Christ! This scenario had failed when an Extended Universe (EU) novel used it to explain Luke’s development of his Force skills in “RETURN OF THE JEDI” after failing to return to Yoda on Dagobah for more training. This scenario strikes me as even more ludicrous, considering that Rey’s actual training lasted a hell of a lot shorter than Luke’s.

Rey also continued to display her Force skills in a lightsaber fight scene that featured her and Kylo Ren against Snoke’s guards. However, since the latter were not Force users, I would equate this scene with Obi-Wan Kenobi’s duel against General Grievous in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Utterly irrelevant. And to be honest, both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver seemed like more proficient duelists in a You Tube video clip that featured them practicing the fight than they did in the movie. Whoever handled the lightsaber choreography for this film need more lessons on how to stage a fight between swordsmen.

Before Rey had made her escape from Snoke’s starship, Kylo Ren revealed to her that her parents were two-bit junk dealers on Jakku, who had sold her into slavery for drinking money. He did this in an effort to emotionally isolate her and manipulate her into serving his desires. Now, if what he said about Rey’s parents are true, who had abandoned Rey on Jakku and left the planet? If the people who had abandoned Rey on Jakku were her parents, then they had sold her for more than drinking money. Also, how and when did Rey ceased to be a slave? I read somewhere that Rian Johnson made Rey unrelated to the Skywalker family because he wanted to move the saga away from them. When I heard this . . . Jesus Christ! Do Disney and Lucasfilm even know what what the hell they are doing? If the main protagonists for the Sequel Trilogy are not supposed to be members of the Skywalker family, then why . . . regard . . . this . . . particular . . . trilogy as part of the Skywalker Family Saga in the first damn place? Why not simply regard this trilogy as something other than a part of the Skywalker family saga and utilize characters from the previous two trilogies as minor supporting characters – like 2016’s “ROGUE ONE”?

There were other characterizations that proved problematic to me. Many of the saga’s fans had complained about Snoke’s death and the fact that his background was never revealed or explored. I had no problem with this for two reasons. One, Palpatine’s background was never revealed until the Prequel Trilogy. Unless Lucasfilm plans to release films that featured Snoke’s backstory or the rise of the First Order, I must admit that as a character, he was a waste of time. And two, I am not a fan of Snoke. Despite Any Serkis’ excellent voice performance, Snoke struck me a ham-fisted and one-dimensional version of Palpatine. I could blame J.J. Abrams, who created the character in the first place. But the real blame lies on Rian Johnson’s shoulders, who had transformed the character from a somewhat mysterious villain to a one-dimensional remake of one of the best movie villains I have ever seen on screen.

Captain Phasma has to be one of the most wasted characters I have ever encountered in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. This character, who happened to be commander of the First Order’s stormtroopers, had less development than some of the one-shot villains in the saga. Hell, even General Grievous, whom I have always harbored a low opinion, was better written than her. Poor Gwendoline Christie. It was bad enough that Abrams wasted her character in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” by failing to show her in action. When she was finally featured in an action sequence in “THE LAST JEDI” – a control baton duel against Finn aboard Snoke’s ship – she was quickly killed off. And she was dispatched rather fast, due to . . . you know what? I do not know. I do not know why Johnson had shortened the Finn/Captain Phasma duel to such a ridiculously short length. I have come to the conclusion that Phasma was, in the end, a wasted character. If there was a character even more wasted than Captain Phasma, it was Admiral Ackbar, who had also appeared in both “RETURN OF THE JEDI” and “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The Mon Calamari military commander was unceremoniously killed by the same blast that nearly killed Leia . . . before he even had the opportunity to utter a line. God, what a waste! Although Chewbacca was utilized more than Admiral Ackbar, his character had been reduced to a comic relief arc and a species called the Porg on Ach-To and Rey’s personal chauffeur. Despite having more screen time, poor Chewbacca proved to be wasted just as much as Phasma and Ackbar.

A relative of mine had pointed out that what made “THE LAST JEDI” unique was that it featured how the theme of failure in a STAR WARS movie. Others had pointed out that Rian Johnson managed to present a movie with a subversive narrative. I say bullshit to that. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” was the first STAR WARS movie that featured the failures of its protagonists. It was also the first film that subverted the mythos of the saga that Lucas had created. And guess what? The Prequel Trilogy was basically one long saga on how Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi and the Galactic Republic failed themselves. Also, the last third of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”, the Prequel Trilogy and “ROGUE ONE” were other movies that subverted the saga’s mythos. Rian Johnson had not created anything new. Not really. Also, both George Lucas and Gareth Edwards did all of this with better writing.

There were aspects of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI” that impressed me. I thought the film’s performances from a cast led by Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were either competent or first-rate. And I was more than impressed by the movie’s production values. But overall, I found “THE LAST JEDI” to be a major disappointment. And a great deal of this disappointment came from Rian Johnson’s screenplay – both the film’s narrative and characterizations. In fact, I dislike this film a lot more than I did “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. I understand that J.J. Abrams, who had directed the Sequel Trilogy’s first film, will direct its third and final movie, “EPISODE IX”. Even if this movie proved to be enjoyable, I do not think it can save this new trilogy as a whole. After two very disappointing movies, the STAR WARS Sequel Trilogy has proven to be a disaster in my eyes.

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“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

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“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set During the 1600s

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

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET DURING THE 1600s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“MARSHALL” (2017) Review

“MARSHALL” (2017) Review

I have a confession. I had no interest in seeing the recent movie, “MARSHALL”, when I first heard about it. I thought it would turn out to be one of those solemn biography flicks about some “great man in history” and his struggles to become successful in his endeavors. But when I learned about the movie’s plot, I changed my mind and decided to see it. 

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “MARSHALL” was about a “great man in history” – none other than the first African-American to be an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. However, this film focused on his position as a defense counselor for and director of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and his role in the 1941 case of “the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell”.

Following the successful end of a case in Oklahoma in 1941, NAACP defense attorney Thurgood Marshall returns to New York City for a rest. However, his rest and reunion with his wife, Vivien “Buster” Burey, is short-lived when NAACP Director Walter Francis White sends him to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell, a chauffeur accused of rape by his white employer, Eleanor Strubing. In order to get Marshall admitted to the local bar and defend Spell, a local member of the Bridgeport NAACP office tries to recruit an insurance attorney named Sam Friedman to help. However, Friedman is more interested in keeping his distance from the controversial case, until his brother Irwin coerces him into getting involved. Judge Foster a family friend of prosecutor Lorin Willis, agrees to admit Marshall to the local bar. But he forbids Marshall from speaking during the trial. This act forces Friedman to act as Spell’s lead counsel, while Marshall guides the former through the jury selection process and the actual trial. Judge Foster’s refusal to allow Marshall to speak proves to be the first of several stumbling blocks in his and Friedman’s efforts to defend Spell.

Despite the movie’s narrative, “MARSHALL” could have remained one of those stately biopics that usually ends up boring me senseless. Thanks to Reginald Hudlin’s direction and the screenplay written by Michael and Jacob Koskoff, the movie proved to be a lot different. Instead, “MARSHALL” proved to be a very interesting re-creation of the 1941 controversial case in which a black man is accused of raping a white woman. Stories or real life incidents involving interracial rape – especially that of white women – have been around for decades. Stories about racism in the U.S. South have been around for a long time, as well. However, I have also noticed that in recent years, Hollywood has turned its eye upon Northern racism, especially in the Northeast. In its portrayal of the “the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell” case, “MARSHALL”turned out to be one of those movies that exposed Northern racism.

I was also impressed by how the Koskoff brothers treated the Spell case as a legal mystery. Ironically, the movie did not begin with scenes that led to Joseph Spell’s arrest. I must admit that I had expected “MARSHALL” to begin with a sequence featuring vague details of the crime. Instead, it began with Thurgood Marshall finishing a case in Oklahoma. The audience learned about the Spell case around the same time Walter White assigned him to defend Joseph Spell. This led me to realize that the entire movie was told from the viewpoint of two people – Marshall and Sam Friedman. Some have criticized the movie for including Friedman as a leading character in the film. They believed this situation robbed the Thurgood Marshall character some of his agency as the film’s leading character, by having Friedman as a co-lead. Personally, I did not mind occasionally watching the film from Friedman’s point-of-view. I found it interesting. And to be honest, history itself set up this situation, due to the trial’s presiding judge refusing to recognize Marshall as Spell’s primary attorney.

However, dealing with a potentially hostile judge and a patronizing prosecutor, and being regulated to secondary attorney for the defense seemed to be a walk in the park for Marshall. He also has to deal with Bridgeport’s racially hostile citizens; pressure from the N.A.A.C.P. to successfully defend Spell; and Friedman, who turned out to be a reluctant and wary co-defender, worried about how his defense of Spell would affect his practice. Marshall also has to deal with Friedman’s lack of experience in criminal law. But the biggest roadblock proves to be Marshall’s growing suspicion that his client is lying about the latter’s relationship with the alleged victim. And I thought the movie did an excellent job keeping these aspects of the story balance, due to the Koskoffs’ screenplay and Hudlin’s direction.

I have a minor quibble regarding the movie. Although the movie made it plain that the N.A.A.C.P. regarded Marshall’s successful defense of Spell as a means to lure more donations for the agency, I believed that it ignored an even more important topic. A part of me wished that the movie had also touched upon Northern blacks’ feelings of being ignored by the agency and the latter’s illusion that most of American racism was focused in the South. Another reason why a “not guilty” for Spell was so important was to convey the message that confronting racism from the North and other parts of the country was just as important as confronting as Southern racism. But I get the feeling that the movie’s producers, writers and director were wary of approaching, let alone exploring this topic.

Considering that “MARSHALL” is not what one would consider a large budget film, I was impressed by its production values. Now I cannot say that any of the film’s technical details blew my mind. Well . . . perhaps two of them did. I found Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography colorful, sharp and lovely to look at. This seemed especially apparent in the film’s exterior shots. I also enjoyed Ruth E. Carter’s costume designs. Not only did I find them to be a close representation of fashion for both men and women in 1941, but they also seemed to be good representations of the major characters’ economic class. As for Richard Hoover’s production designs, Kara Lindstrom’s set decorations and Jeff Schoen’s art direction; I found satisfying, but not particularly memorable.

“MARSHALL” featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Jeffrey DeMunn, John Magaro, Zanete Shadwick, Derrick Baskin, Barrett Doss, Keesha Sharp, Rozanda Sharp, and Jeremy Bobb. Jussie Smollett gave a brief, yet subtle performance as the famous poet, Langston Hughes. And Roger Guenveur Smith was effectively commanding as N.A.A.C.P. director Walter White. Dan Stevens did an excellent job in conveying the patronizing and self-privileged prosecutor Loren Willis. James Cromwell gave a very interesting performance as Judge Foster. Although Cromwell managed to convey his character’s obvious bigotry, it seemed that some of his character’s decisions – including a willingness to allow Marshall to act as second chair for the defense – seemed to express the latter’s unwillingness to put Northern racism on display for the world to see. Kate Hudson’s portrayal of the alleged victim, Eleanor Strubing struck me as effectively ambiguous. Hudson did an excellent job in conveying mixed signals over her character. I felt anger over her character’s charges of rape against the defendant. Yet at the same time, I felt pity toward the character being an obvious victim of spousal abuse. Ironically, Sterling K. Brown also managed to effectively convey the ambiguity of his character, the defendant Joseph Spell. Now, one might wonder why I would regard Spell as an ambiguous character. Brown did an excellent job in expressing his character’s innocence. And yet, the actor also managed to convey the air that his character was lying to Marshall on a certain level.

I have seen Chadwick Boseman in three other films before “MARSHALL”. And I was impressed. But I felt a lot more impressed by his portrayal of Thurgood Marshall in this film. The actor did a superb job in conveying the different aspects of Marshall’s personality – his charisma, witty sense of humor, intelligence and more importantly, a slight perverse streak in his nature. Boseman was very subtle in expressing Marshall’s arrogance and slight tendency of needling . . . especially with Langston Hughes and Sam Friedman. Another first-rate performance came from Josh Gad, who portrayed Friedman, the man forced to act as Spell’s primary defender. I noticed that although Friedman seemed friendly with the head of Bridgeport’s N.A.A.C.P. office, he seemed very wary of helping Marshall with defending Spell. I understood this. He was worried how his participation in the case would look with his own clients and Bridgeport’s Jewish community. But I realized that if Friedman had truly been that racially tolerant at the time, he would not care . . . like his brother. This is why I found it very satisfying to watch Gad develop into that openly tolerant man who no longer cared about how others would regard his views on race and especially African-Americans.

I would never regard “MARSHALL” as one of the best movies of 2017. To be honest, I do not believe in any “best movies of the year” list. But I enjoyed “MARSHALL” so much that in the end, it became one of my favorite movies of that year. And I can thank director Reginald Hudlin, screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff and an excellent cast led by the always talented Chadwick Boseman for making this film so enjoyable and fascinating for me.

Southern Belle Fashionistas

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Below are images featuring my favorite costumes worn by two Southern Belle characters in fiction – Scarlett O’Hara from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel and its 1939 movie adaptation, “GONE WITH THE WIND”; and Ashton Main from John Jakes’ 1982-1987 literary trilogy and its 1985-1994 television adaptation, “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy: 

SOUTHERN BELLE FASHIONISTAS

Scarlett O’Hara – “GONE WITH THE WIND”

I may have mixed feelings about the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, I cannot deny that I really liked some of the costumes designed by Walter Plunkett for the story’s protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler. Here are my five (5) favorite costumes:

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Wedding Dress – The dress that Scarlett wore when she married Charles Hamilton in the spring of 1861.

 

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Christmas 1863 Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she bid good-bye to Ashley Wilkes at the end of his army furlough around the Christmas 1863 holiday.

 

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Wedding Announcement Dress – She wore this dress when she informed her sisters and the Wilkes about her marriage to second husband, Frank Kennedy, in 1866.

 

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Businesswoman Dress – Scarlett wore this outfit in one scene featuring her role as manager of her second husband Frank Kennedy’s sawmill.

 

Post-Honeymoon Visit to Tara Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she and third husband Rhett Butler visited Tara following their honeymoon in 1868.

 

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Sawmill Visit Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she paid a visit to Ashley Wilkes, who was manager of the sawmill she had inherited from Frank Kennedy in the early 1870s.

 

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Ashton Main – “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy

I am a fan of the ABC adaptations of John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Among my favorite costumes worn by the character, Ashton Main and designed by Vicki Sánchez, Robert Fletcher and Carol H. Beule. Here are my favorite costumes:

 

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Mont Royal Ball Gown – Ashton Main wore this gown at the ball held at her family’s plantation during the summer of 1854.

 

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Wedding Gown – Ashton wore this gown when she married her first husband, James Huntoon, in the fall of 1856.

 

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Richmond Ball Gown – Ashton Huntoon wore this ballgown when she met her future lover Elkhannah Bent at a reception held in Richmond, Virginia in July 1861.

 

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Day Dress – Ashton wore this dress during her first visit to Elkhannah Bent’s Richmond home during the summer of 1861 and when she was married to her second husband, salesman Will Fenway, in 1866-67.

 

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Huntoon Reception Dress – Ashton wore this dress at a reception she and her husband James Huntoon had hosted at their Richmond home in November 1861.

 

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Evening Dress – Ashton wore this dress during an evening visit to Bent’s Richmond home in August 1862.

 

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Travel Dress – Ashton wore this dress during a visit to her family’s plantation, Mont Royal, in August 1863.

 

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Factory Visit Dress – Ashton wore this dress when she paid a visit to her husband Will Fenway’s Chicago piano factory in 1868.