“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” (2009) Review

 

“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” (2009) Review

While the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” seemed to regard the 1930s as the “golden age” of Hercule Poirot mysteries, I get the feeling that the producers for both “MISS MARPLE” and the recent “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” regard the 1950s in a similar manner for those stories featuring Miss Jane Marple. As a fervent reader of Christie’s novels, I must admit that I believe most of the best Jane Marple mysteries had been published during the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. One of those mysteries was the 1953 novel, “A Pocket Full of Rye”.

The novel was first adapted into a television movie in the mid-1980s, which starred Joan Hickson. Another television adaptation aired on ITV some twenty-four-and-a-half years later, starring Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” centered around the mysterious death of a London businessman named Rex Fortescue. After drinking his morning tea at his office, the businessman dies suddenly, attracting the attention of the police in the form of Inspector Neele. Neele and his men discover rye grain in the dead man’s pocket and that he had died from taxine, an alkaloid poison obtained from the leaves or berries of the yew tree. Neele realizes that Fortescue may have been initially poisoned at home due to presence of yew trees at the latter’s country home and the time it took for the poison to work.

Fortescue’s second and much younger wife, Adele, becomes the main suspect, due to her affair with a golf instructor at a nearby resort named Vivian Dubois. However, Adele is murdered, while drinking tea laced with cyanide. On the same day, a third victim is found in the garden, all tangled in the clothesline and with a peg on her nose. She was a maid named Gladys, who used to work for Jane Marple. When Gladys and Adele’s murders are reported in the media, Miss Marple pays a visit to the Fortescue home to learn what happened to Gladys. Miss Marple informs Inspector Neele that she believes the three murders adhered to the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”, which may have something to do with one of Rex Fortescue’s old dealings – the Blackbird Mine in Kenya, over which he was suspected of having killed his partner, MacKenzie in order to swindle it from the latter’s family. However, an investigation of Fortescue’s financial holdings and family connections reveal the possibility of other motives, as the following list of suspects would attest:

*Percival Fortescue – Rex’s older son, who was worried over the financier’s erratic handling of the family business
*Jennifer Fortescue – Percival’s wife, who disliked her father-in-law
*Lance Fortescue – Rex’s younger son, a former embezzler who had arrived home from overseas on the day of Adele and Gladys’ murders
*Patricia Fortescue – Lance’s aristocratic wife, who had been unlucky with her past two husbands
*Elaine Fortescue – Rex’s only daughter, who resented his opposition to her romance with a schoolteacher
*Gerald Wright – Elaine’s fiancé, a schoolteacher who resented Rex’s hostile attitude toward him
*Mary Dove – the Fortescues’ efficient housekeeper, who harbored a few secrets in her past
*Vivian Dubois – Adele’s lover and professional golf instructor
*Mrs. MacKenzie – the slightly senile widow of Rex’s former partner, who urged her children to seek revenge against the financier

I honestly did not know how I would view “A POCKET FULL OF RYE”. To my surprise, I enjoyed it very much . . . aside from a few scenes that I felt were out of place. The movie turned out to be a well-paced mystery that featured some solid acting from the cast. Although not completely faithful to Christie’s novel, the television movie proved to be a little more faithful, thanks to screenwriter Kevin Elyot and director Charlie Palmer. The character of Miss Henderson, Rex’s religious sister-in-law from his first marriage, was deleted from this production. And I did not miss her. I am also very grateful that Elyot and Palmer stuck to the novel’s original ending and avoided a ridiculous chase sequence that seemed to mar the 1985 adaptation. Although there was nothing really dramatic about the story’s final scene, it projected an air of justice finally achieved that I found particularly satisfying, thanks to Julia McKenzie’s performance.

I was also impressed by the movie’s production values. One, production designer Jeff Tessler and his crew did a top-notch job of re-creating the movie’s mid-1950s setting. I should add . . . “as usual”. After all, Tessler worked as production designer for the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” series since it debuted back in 2004. “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” proved to be the first of four episodes for the series, in which she served as costume designer. Her work in this film provided audiences with the color and top-notch skill in which she created costumes for that particular time period. Another veteran of the “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” was cinematographer Cinders Forshaw, whose sharp and colorful photography proved to be one of the hallmarks of the series. One thing I cannot deny about “A POCKET FULL OF RYE”, it is damn beautiful to look at.

Did I have any problems with the movie? Well . . . yes. A few. Actually, I have only one major problem with the production . . . namely the addition of sexual situations in at least two or three scenes in the film. I am not a prude. Trust me, I am not. But . . . I found the sexual scenes featured in “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” out of place. Yes, the Christie novels have featured the topic of sex in many variations – including adultery, incest and homosexuality. And I have seen on-screen sex in one other production – namely 1965’s “TEN LITTLE INDIANS” and 2004’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”. I have never seen “TEN LITTLE INDIANS”. But the sex featured in “DEATH ON THE NILE” seemed so minimalized. I can say otherwise about “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” and the performers involved were clothed. But the way Palmer shot the scenes seemed so in-your-face. I can tolerate the scene featuring Adele Fortescue and Vivian Dubois. Personally, I thought their sex scene pretty much fit the narrative and confirmed (in a rather ham fisted manner) that the pair was involved in an affair. But the sex scenes featuring Lance and Patricia Fortescue seemed just as ham fisted. Even worse, I could not see how they served the narrative. The scene (or scenes) seemed to come out of no where.

I can certainly state that I had no problems with the performances in this production. Well, I had a problem with one performance. Julia McKenzie was excellent as soft-spoken Jane Marple, who seemed very determined to learn the murderer’s identity, due to her past with one of the victims. I can also say the same about Matthew MacFadyen’s performance, which struck me as intelligent, yet deliciously sardonic as Inspector Neele. I also enjoyed Helen Baxendale’s subtle performance as the quiet, yet observant housekeeper, Mary Dove. On the other hand, Rupert Graves gave an exuberant and very entertaining portrayal of the Fortescue family’s black sheep, Lance. And he clicked very well with actress Lucy Cohu, who gave a charming performance as Lance’s wife, Patricia. Another interesting performance came from Liz White, who portrayed Rex Fortescue’s enigmatic daughter-in-law, Jennifer. Actually, I believe she gave one of the better performances in the movie. Another first-rate performance came from Anna Madeley, who portrayed Rex’s shallow and adulterous wife, Adele.

I really enjoyed Joseph Beattie’s portrayal of Adele’s sexy, yet desperate lover, Vivian Dubois. And Ben Miles gave a subtle, yet complex performance as Rex’s pragmatic older son, Percival. Kenneth Cranham, Laura Haddock and Prunella Scales gave memorable performances as Rex Fortescue, his secretary, Miss Grosvenor and Mrs. MacKenzie. It seemed a pity they were not on the screen long enough for me to truly enjoy their performances. “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” also featured solid performances from Hattie Morahan, Chris Larkin, Ken Campbell, Wendy Richards and Rose Heiney.

“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” proved to be an entertaining movie and a worthy adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1953 novel. Along with a fine cast led by Julia McKenzie, I thought director Charlie Palmer and screenwriter Kevin Elyot handled the adaptation very well, aside from the sex scenes that struck me as unnecessary. Despite that . . . setback, I still managed to enjoy the movie.

 

“SPEED RACER” (2008) Review

 

“SPEED RACER” (2008) Review

When I first saw the trailer for “SPEED RACER” . . . I had simply cringed in my seat. Granted, I had been a fan of the Japanese cartoon when I was a kid. But looking at that trailer, my mind simply cried, “Hell no!” There was no way in the world I was going to see this movie. 

But the more I saw the trailer, old memories of the cartoon kept welling in my thoughts. Soon, I found myself filled with nostalgia for the cartoon. I eventually decided to go see the movie after all. It might turn out to be a pile of crap, but I had to exorcise the ghosts of my childhood. Well . . . I went ahead and saw the movie. And I must say that it turned out to be a hell of a lot better than I had expected.

At a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes, “SPEED RACER” is about a young 18 year-old American (Emile Hirsch) with natural racing instincts. His goal is to become a world-class car racer, in the wake of the tragic death of his older brother, Rex Racer (Scott Porter) during the Casa Cristo, a cross-country rally. Speed is loyal to the family business, run by his parents Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon). Pops designed Speed’s car, the Mach 5. The owner of Royalton Industries (Roger Allam) makes Speed a lucrative offer to join the company’s racing team, but Speed rejects the offer, angering the owner. Speed also uncovers a secret that top corporate interests, including Royalton, are fixing races and cheating to gain profit. After Speed denies his offer to join his racing conglomerate, Royalton wants to ensure that Speed will not win any future races. Speed finds support from his parents and his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and enters the Casa Cristo Rally in a partnership with his one-time rival, Racer X (Matthew Fox), in an effort to rescue his family’s business and the racing sport itself.

I must admit that when I first saw this movie, the first ten minutes had left me puzzled. Although I enjoyed how the story introduced Speed Racer’s obssession with racing and the death of his older brother, Rex Racer; I must admit that I had been taken aback by the movie’s visuals. It looked very cartoonish and I have not seen such bold colors since Warren Beatty’s 1990 film, “DICK TRACY”. But my mind adjusted to this new visual style and proceeded to enjoy the rest of the story. In fact, by the time the movie focused upon The Casa Cristo cross-country race, I found myself marveling over John Gaeta’s visual effects and David Tattersall’s photography. Quite frankly, I also ended up enjoying Larry and Andy Wachowski’s screenplay. “SPEED RACER” must be one of the few movies based upon a cartoon that possessed a strong social message – namely one against corporations’ involvment in the sport. And I found it pleasantly surprising.

As for the cast, Emile Hirsch struck me as a little flat at first. But in the scene in which Speed rejected Royalton’s offer, Hirsch’s Speed Racer finally bloomed into life. Christina Ricci gave a fun and charming performance as Trixie, Speed’s girlfriend. Both John Goodman and Susan Sarandon were solid as Speed’s parents. And I do not think that Matthew Fox had never been as sexy and enigmatic as he was as Racer X – Speed’s rival and ally in the fight against Royalton. I especially enjoyed his fight against a ninja assassin. Richard Roundtree gave a surprisingly sly and funny performance as Ben Burns, a former racer who became a commentator. To my surprise, Roger Allam’s slightly bombastic performance as the corrupt Royalton did not bother me at all. In fact, his character’s over-the-top personality seemed perfect for the movie. The biggest surprise turned out to be Paulie Litt as Spritle, the youngest Racer sibling. Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Regis Philbin once described the young television actor as a 40 year-old in a child’s body. Perhaps he is right. But young Paulie was a bundle of energy with great comic timing.

“SPEED RACER” did possess a few imperfections. Either the movie is fifteen minutes too long or its pacing had dropped off a bit, following the Casa Cristo race sequence. And I was a little annoyed with the Wachowski Brothers’ interruption of the fascinating sequence between Speed and Royalton’s discussion about the racing scene with comic moments of Spritle and his pet monkey, Chin Chin, trying to break into the businessman’s candy storage. It just seemed out of place and it nearly ruined the marvelous scene between Speed and Royalton.

Judging from some of the reviews I had read, it seems many film critics had disliked the film. I suspect that “SPEED RACER”‘s unusual visuals may have been a little too mind blowing for them. Unfortunately, a good number of moviegoers ended up paying attention to those critics. Which is a shame, in my opinion. I feel that “SPEED RACER” is one of the most entertaining films I have seen this year . . . hell, in the past decade; and one of the most unusual I have seen in a long time. And it was a shame that it bombed at the box office.  Considering many moviegoers’ recent habit of avoiding anything unusual, perhaps I should not have been surprised.  But I was disappointed.  An unusual movie such as “SPEED RACER” deserved success.  At least I think so.