“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

I have another of my many confessions to make . . . I have never been a big fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel, “The Murder at the Vicarage”. Never mind that it featured the first appearance of elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, in a feature-length novel. I am just not a big fan.

One could assume that the novel’s setting – in the small village of St. Mary Mead – could be the reason why this particular tale has never rocked my boat. Not particularly. I can think of numerous Christie tales set in a small village – including St. Mary Mead – that really impressed me. The problem with “The Murder in the Vicarage” is that I never found it to be a particularly thought provoking tale. Nor did it include any special circumstances that made it unique. And my borderline apathy toward the 1930 novel even extended to the television movie adaptation that aired in 1986. Some eighteen years later, another adaptation of the novel aired on television. This particular version starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. And its running time was at least eight minutes shorter.

In “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE”, the citizens of St. Mary Mead are rocked by the murder of Colonel Protheroe, the local churchwarden and magistrate, whose body was found inside the study of the vicar, Reverend Len Clement. The man was disliked by many; including the vicar, the vicarage’s curate, Protheroe’s second wife Anne, her lover Lawrence Redding, Protheroe’s daughter from his first marriage Lettice, the vicar’s wife Grieselda Clement, and a mysterious new resident named Mrs. Lester who seemed to have produced a strange reaction from Protheroe. Not long after the vicar discovers the body, Lawrence Redding, who is a painter, confesses to the murder. Although he has been clashing with Colonel Protheroe over his painting of Lettice, it turns out that he has been Anne Protheroe’s lover for quite some time. Upon learning about his confession, Anne confesses as well. Miss Marple eventually points out to Inspector Slack that it was impossible for either to commit the murder and suggests that the latter search for the killer among other St. Mary’s Mead citizens.

As I had pointed earlier, I am not a big fan of Christie’s novel or its 1986 adaptation. But for some reason, I enjoyed this adaptation. For example, it is a bit more colorful than the previous version. I am aware that all of the Miss Marple television adaptations of the 1980s and early 1990s tend to look rather faded. But there are more reasons why I find this 2004 version more colorful. I realize that many tend to demand that a movie or television adaptation is faithful to its source novel. But I thought the changes made by Stephen Churchett made the production somewhat more lively for me. One, Churchett changed two characters (one of them an archeologist) by giving them a World War II connection to Protheroe and a reason to want him dead. And two, Churchett included World War I flashbacks of a brief love affair between Miss Marple and a married Army officer. At first glance, these flashback seemed irrelevant to the main story. In the end, they served as a tool in which Miss Marple managed to ascertain the murderer’s identity. But the best thing I can say about “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE” is its pacing. This is a well-paced film, thanks to Charlie Palmer’s direction. For me, this is an important element for a low-key mystery like “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE”.

But there are other aspects of the movie that I enjoyed. I was really impressed by Nigel Walters’ cinematography. It was sharp, colorful and perfect for the movie’s setting. The photography also enhanced Jeff Tessler’s production designs, which struck me as a perfect reflection of an English village in 1951. He also had the task of re-creating a London railway station circa 1915-1917. And he did a pretty good job. But I really enjoyed Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I found them colorful and very spot-on for each particular character, based upon age, class, personality, etc. By the way, Ms. De Gaye had also served one of the two costume designers for the BBC’s “THE MUSKETEERS” and the 2002-2003 miniseries, “THE FORSYTE SAGA”.

The performances were first-class. I tried to think of one that seemed somewhat off. But . . . I thought they were all well-done. “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” marked Geraldine McEwan’s second time at the bat as Miss Jane Marple. I feel this particular performance might be one of her better ones. I found her performance intelligent, sharp and particularly poignant. Other performances that impressed me came from Janet McTeer and Jason Flemyng, the adulterous couple, who found themselves at the center of village gossip and police inquiries following Protheroe’s murder. On paper, television viewers should have been outraged at their infidelity. But both McTeer and Flemyng gave such poignant and passionate performances that they managed to allow viewers to care about their fate.

Rachael Stirling gave an exuberant performance as the vicar’s outgoing wife, Grisielda Clements. At first glance, it seemed as if Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of the victim, Colonel Protheroe, would come off as a one-note blustering idiot. Thankfully, there were moments when Jacobi infused a good deal of humanity into his performance – especially in scenes involving the mysterious Mrs. Lester. Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of the vicarage’s curate Ronald Hawes, who seemed torn over his past actions involving the embezzling of funds at his previous assignment struck me as rather emotional and a bit sad. I also have to commend Stephen Tompkinson for his complex performance as the irascible Detective Inspector Slack. I enjoyed how he slowly allowed Slack’s character to develop an admiration for Miss Marple’s detective skills. The television movie also featured solid performances from Tim McInnerny, Herbert Lom, Christina Cole, Jane Asher, Robert Powell, Angela Pleasance, Miriam Margolyes and especially, Julie Cox and Marc Warren, who gave affecting performances as the younger Jane Marple and her World War I lover.

I may not be a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel. But I cannot deny that I rather enjoyed its 2004 television adaptation. Thanks to director Charlie Palmer and screenwriter Stephen Churchett, “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” proved to be a colorful, yet emotional tale about love, passion and ghosts from the past. The production was also enhanced by some eye-catching behind-the-scenes artistry and excellent performances from a cast led by the incomparable Geraldine McEwan.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

 

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

 

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

 

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

 

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

 

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

 

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called “Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

 

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

 

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

 

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.dom

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1890s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1890s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1890s

1 - Sherlock Holmes-Game of Shadows

1. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Ritchie directed this excellent sequel to his 2009 hit, in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson confront their most dangerous adversary, Professor James Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

2 - Hello Dolly

2. “Hello Dolly!” (1969) – Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau starred in this entertaining adaptation of David Merrick’s 1964 play about a New York City matchmaker hired to find a wife for a wealthy Yonkers businessman. Gene Kelly directed.

3 - King Solomon Mines

3. “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) – Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Richard Carlson starred in this satisfying Oscar nominated adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel about the search for a missing fortune hunter in late 19th century East Africa. Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton directed.

4 - Sherlock Holmes

4. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Guy Ritchie directed this 2009 hit about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson’s investigation of a series of murders connected to occult rituals. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

5 - Hidalgo

5. “Hidalgo” (2004) – Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif starred in Disney’s fictionalized, but entertaining account of long-distance rider Frank Hopkins’ participation in the Middle Eastern race “Ocean of Fire”. Joe Johnston directed.

6. “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” (1976) – Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall and Alan Arkin starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Nicolas Meyer’s 1974 novel about Sherlock Holmes’ recovery from a cocaine addiction under Sigmund Freud’s supervision and his investigation of one of Freud’s kidnapped patients. Meyer directed the film.

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7. “The Harvey Girls” (1946) – Judy Garland starred in this dazzling musical about the famous Harvey House waitresses of the late 19th century. Directed by George Sidney, the movie co-starred John Hodiak, Ray Bolger and Angela Landsbury.

6 - The Jungle Book

8. “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” (1994) – Stephen Sommers directed this colorful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of short stories about a human boy raised by animals in India’s jungles. Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes and Lena Headey starred.

7 - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

9. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003) – Sean Connery starred in this adaptation of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s first volume of his 1999-2000 comic book series about 19th century fictional characters who team up to investigate a series of terrorist attacks that threaten to lead Europe into a world war. Stephen Norrington directed.

8 - The Prestige

10. “The Prestige” (2006) – Christopher Nolan directed this fascinating adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel about rival magicians in late Victorian England. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine starred.

10 - The Four Feathers 1939

Honorable Mention: “The Four Feathers” (1939) – Alexander Korda produced and Zoltan Korda directed this colorful adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a recently resigned British officer accused of cowardice. John Clements, June Duprez and Ralph Richardson starred.

Top Favorite WORLD WAR I Movie and Television Productions

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

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR I MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1 - Paths of Glory

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

 

2 - Lawrence of Arabia

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

 

3 - All Quiet on the Western Front

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

 

4 - The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles

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

 

5 - Gallipoli

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

 

6 - The Dawn Patrol 1938

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

 

7 - La Grande Illusion

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

 

8 - Shout at the Devil

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

 

9 - Biggles - Adventures in Time

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

 

10 - A Very Long Engagement

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

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (2011) Review

 

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (2011) Review

Recently, I came across a comment that the last “X-MEN” movie, 2009’s “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE”, had been a failure. I found this opinion surprising, considering that it actually made a profit at the box office. Failure or not, Marvel Studios decided to continue the movie franchise with a fifth entry called “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is, like the 2009 movie, another origins tale. Only it traced the beginnings of the two friends-turned-adversaries, Charles “Professor X” Xavier and Erik “Magneto” Lensherr. The movie began in a scene straight out of 2000’s “X-MEN” – at a concentration camp in 1944 Poland. While young Erik Lensherr was being separated from his parents by Nazi guards, he displayed an ability for magnetism manipulation by tearing at one of the camp’s gates. This ability attracted the attention of the camp’s scientist, Dr. Klaus Schmidt, who tried to coerce Erik into using his ability again by threatening his mother with death. Unfortunately, Erik failed and Dr. Schmidt killed Mrs. Lensherr. At an estate in Westchester, New York of the same year, young Charles Xavier awakened from a deep sleep by a noise from the kitchen. He investigated and found his mother searching for something to eat. However, being a telepath, Charles was able to discover that he was facing a stranger. The stranger turned out to be a young, blue-skinned shapeshifter named Raven “Mystique” Darkhölme. Charles invited the young stranger to stay at the Xavier mansion and the two became close friends.

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” jumped another eighteen years forward to 1962. Charles Xavier has become an instructor on genetics at Oxford University. Raven has remained his close companion in a sibling-like capacity. Erik Lensherr has spent the last decade or so, hunting down Nazis that escaped prosecution by the Allies – especially those who had served at the concentration camp where he had been imprisoned. He has especially become interested in finding and killing Dr. Schmidt out of revenge for his mother’s death. The story shifted to Las Vegas, Nevada; where one Moira MacTaggart and other CIA agents are investigating the Hellfire Club, a social organization led by Sebastian Shaw (aka Dr. Schmidt). After infiltrating the club as an “escort”, Moira discovered that Shaw and his mutant followers – Emma Frost, Azazel, and Riptide – are intimidating a high ranking Army officer into relocating military missiles to Turkey. Moira sought help from Charles and Raven to provide information to her CIA bosses about mutants. They also met Erik, during a trip to Miami to track down Shaw. After preventing Erik from drowning during an attempt to kill Shaw, Charles became close friends with the Holocaust survivor; as they work with Moira and the CIA to bring down Shaw.

Personally, I do not believe that “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” deserved its low reputation. I thought it was a pretty damn good movie – not perfect, but entertaining. However, I do believe I could say the same about “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. I would add that it might be better than the 2009 film. Despite its flaws. In fact, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” turned out to be a cleverly written movie that managed to weave two historical events – the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis – into its plot. Director Matthew Vaughn did an excellent job in maintaining an even pace for a movie not only filled with exciting and occasionally exaggerated action sequences and dramatic scenes. But aside from the director, the movie’s main virtue proved to be its first-rate cast.

Someone once pointed out that the X-MEN movie franchise did an excellent job of using the topic of “mutation” or psychic abilities to reflect upon the themes of bigotry and tolerance in our society. This theme became even more relevant, considering the movie’s setting of 1962 – a period that reflected the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I can go further and commend screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Vaughn for daring to explore all aspects of the bigotry experienced and engaged by the characters.

Some of the movie’s main characters experienced intolerance at the hands of others. Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr not only suffered under the Nazi regime as a Jew, but also endured the U.S. government’s (in the form of C.I.A. officials) wariness and contempt toward mutants, as did fellow mutants such as Charles Xavier, Raven Darkhölme, Hank McCoy and the group of young mutants they had recruited. C.I.A. officials Director McCone and William Stryker Sr. (father of the villain from the second and fourth movies) were ready to imprison Charles and Raven upon discovering their mutations. Fortunately, one C.I.A. man in particular – the nameless Man in Black – prevented this from happening. The script also focused upon the two mutants regarded as “odd men out” because their mutations were reflected physically. Raven’s natural blue skin led her to maintain a “human” form that allowed her to blend with other humans and mutants. And C.I.A. scientist who constantly wore shoes to hide his mutation – animal-like feet. Their desperation to blend with the others on a regular basis led Hand to create a formula that eventually backfired.

Finally, the movie also focused on those mutants that viewed their mutation as signs of their superiority over non-mutant humans. Characters such as villain Sebastian Shaw and his Hellfire Club followers, and eventually Erik and Raven allowed their dislike toward humans to manifest into a bigotry that encouraged them to engage in plots of genocide that made the Nazis, North Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries and other bigoted societies look like amateurs. One such plot served as the background of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. The movie revolved around Sebastian Shaw’s efforts to use his connections to the U.S. and Soviet military to start a third world war between the superpowers. Such a war would bring humanity to the brink of extinction, allowing mutants (with Shaw as the leader) to dominate the world. This plot eventually resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The producers of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” chose the right actors to portray the younger versions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. James McAvoy perfectly captured all of Charles’ intelligence, talent for leadership and subtle wit. He also delved deeper into the character’s idealism and occasional naivety. And McAvoy gave audiences an audacious peek into Charles’ penchant for little seduction with pick-up lines that were both charming and wince-inducing. Michael Fassbender portrayed all of the intensity and anger of the vengeance-seeking Erik Lensherr. Every once in a while, an actor comes along with the ability to perfectly walk the fine line between heroism and villainy. Fassbender certainly achieved this in his portrayal of Erik. And looking at the screen chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender, it seemed a pity that they had never shared a scene when they appeared in the 2001 miniseries, “BAND OF BROTHERS”. Because they were dynamite together.

The supporting cast also proved to be top-notch. The X-MEN movieverse has always provided first-rate villains. Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of the villainous Sebastian Shaw/Dr. Schmidt was no exception. If I must be honest, his Shaw may prove to be my favorite “X-MEN” villain. Aside from intelligence, wit and a taste for grandiose plotting and gadgets that rivaled a Bond villain, Bacon injected a joie de vivre into Shaw’s character that I found very entertaining. Some critics and fans have criticized January Jones’ portrayal of Shaw’s consort, Emma Frost, accusing her of being “wooden”. I am sorry, but I do not agree with this opinion. Yes, Jones portrayed Emma as Miss ‘Cool Hand Luke’. But she also did a first rate job of conveying the character’s strong attraction to Shaw and dislike of his occasional sexist attitudes. And thanks to her subtle comic timing, she provided the movie’s funniest moment in a scene that featured Emma having ‘telepathic’ sex with a Soviet general. Her reaction to being caught had me laughing in the aisle. Instead of Rebecca Romijn, the film’s producers chose Jennifer Lawrence to portray the younger Raven Darkhölme aka Mystique. And I thought she did a pretty damn good job. I have nothing against Romijn’s portrayal of Mystique, but I believe that Lawrence was given a better opportunity for a deeper exploration of the character . . . and she made the best of it. The movie also featured fine support from the likes of Rose Byrne as C.I.A. agent and ally Moira MacTaggart, Nicholas Hoult as the young Hank McCoy, Jason Flemyng as the frightening teleporter Azazel, Oliver Platt as the C.I.A. ‘Man in Black’, and Zoë Kravitz’s subtle and passionate performance as mutant Angel Salvadore.

As I had earlier hinted, “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is not perfect. I believe it has two major flaws that prevented it from potentially becoming the best film in the franchise. The movie’s biggest flaw proved to be its lack of continuity with the other four films. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” included the beginning of Charles Xavier’s paralysis and the end of his partnership with Erik Lensherr. Yet, Charles was still walking and working with Erik in a flashback set around the beginning of the 1980s in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. I am aware that Raven’s cells allowed her to mature very slowly. But did the same happen to Dr. Hank McCoy? He was in his early-to-mid 20s in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”. Yet, he looked somewhere in his 40s in the third “X-MEN”, which was set some 40 years later. And the Emma Frost portrayed by actress Tahyna Tozzi in “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” looked at least five to ten years younger than January Jones’ Emma in this latest film. And “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” is supposed to be set 17 years before the 2009 film. Charles began his school for young mutants in this movie. However, he told Wolverine in 2000’s “X-MEN” that Scott “Cyclops” Summers and Jean Grey were his first students. They are no where to be seen and quite frankly, I could have done without this early edition of the Xavier School of Mutants. I found it annoying.

Another major problem proved to be the film’s costumes – especially for women. The movie is set mainly in 1962. Yet, Sammy Sheldon’s costumes reflected the late 1960s, not the early years of that decade. Just to prove my point, look at the following photographs:

1962 Fashions For Women

January Jones in “MAD MEN” Season Two (set in 1962)

January Jones in “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” (set in 1962)

In fact, the costumes and hairstyles for other female characters DO NOT reflect the year 1962, as well:

 

Both actresses Rose Byrne and Zoë Kravitz are wearing knee-high boots, which WERE NOT in fashion in 1962.

Yes, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS” had some major flaws. But I cannot deny that I still managed to enjoy the movie very much. Screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn wrote a flawed, but very entertaining and epic story. The movie also boasted first-rate performances from a cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. And Vaughn brought all of these factors together with some fine direction. “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” has made me an even bigger fan of the franchise and I would heartily recommend it for anyone’s viewing pleasure.

“THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” (2003) Review

 

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“THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” (2003) Review

Comic novel writer Alan Moore must have a legion of fans to rival or maybe even surpass Marvel Comics icon, Stan Lee. I have noticed that whenever one of his comic creations is adapted as a motion picture, many of these fans seemed to crawl out of the woodworks to express their judgment on the finished film. This certainly proved to be the case for 2003’s “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN”

Based upon Moore’s comic series, “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” followed the adventures of famous 19th century literary characters that became part of a league to stop a madman named the Fantom from starting and profiting from a major world war, during the summer of 1899. Among the members of the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are:

*Allan Quartermain, British big game hunter and explorer
*Captain Nemo, the Indian pirate/captain of the Nautilus and inventor
*The Invisible Man aka Rodney Skinner, invisible thief
*Mina Harker, British chemist/widow of Jonathan Harker and vampire
*Dorian Gray, British gentleman and immortal
*Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Edward Hyde, British scientist/evil alter ego
*Tom Sawyer, American Secret Service agent

The story begins in the spring of 1899 with an attack upon the Bank of England by men dressed in German Army uniforms, using explosives and automated weapons. A month later, men dressed in British Army uniforms, attack a Zeppelin factory, using the same or similar weapons. Both the British and German Empires seemed to be on the verge of war. A British government emissary arrives in British East Africa to recruit the famous big game hunter and explorer Allan Quartermain to investigate. Quatermain expresses disinterest in the mission, until some armed men attack a gentleman’s club in order to assassinate him. Upon his arrival in London, Quartermain learns from his new boss, a mysterious government official named “M”, the latter’s plans to form a new version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in order to thwart the war mongering plans of the Fantom. According to “M”, the Fantom plans to start a war and profit from it by blowing up Venice, Italy during its Festival.

While recruiting the immortal Dorian Gray at his home, the League is attacked by the Fantom and his men. During the attack, the League acquires a new member, an American Secret Service agent named Tom Sawyer. As the League sets out to recruit Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in Paris and later for Venice aboard the Nautilus, Nemo’s submarine; they remain unaware that the Fantom’s plans to start a world war involves more than just blowing up a major city. His plans also involve acquiring and selling the League’s collective skills as weapons of war.

I have never read Alan Moore’s comic series. Nor do I have plans to read it. In fact, I have not laid eyes upon a comic book or novel since the age of nine. For me, comparing Moore’s story to the movie adaptation seemed irrelevant to me. But I can give an opinion of the movie. What did I think of it? Well, I had enjoyed it when I first saw it, eight years ago. And I still continue to enjoy it, whenever I view my DVD copy.

Mind you, “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” was not perfect. One, I never understood the reasoning behind the Fantom’s attack upon the League members at Dorian Gray’s home . . . especially since he proved to be so interested in acquiring or stealing their skills/talents. My second problem concerned a certain invention created by Captain Nemo – namely an automobile. I realize that the movie was set in an alternate 1899. I also understand that Nemo’s character was supposed to be the creator of various inventions a’la Jules Verne. What I did not understand was how Tom Sawyer knew how to drive Nemo’s car throughout the streets of Venice at top speed, without any previous experience behind the wheel. Three, I found Quartermain’s description of American shooting (“buckaroo” that shoots too fast without any real accuracy) not only ludicrous, but false. Who on earth came up with this opinion in the first place? My father, who had been an expert shot in the military, immediately dismissed Quartermain’s description of American gunmanship, claiming that he had been taught to utilize patience for long distance shooting. My final beef has to do with Dan Laustsen’s photography for the movie’s exterior shots. Quite frankly, I found it unnecessarily dark. The only exterior scenes or shots that featured any bright light were the sequences set in British East Africa and aboard Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, while above surface. All other exterior shots were either at night, in the rain or overcast. I have the deepest suspicion that all of this was done to save money on the exterior scenes.

However, despite my complaints or those by the fans were disappointed with the movie’s adaptation, I enjoyed“THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” very much. Hell, I saw it twice when it first reached the movie theaters, eight years ago. And the moment it was released on DVD, I immediately bought it. It may not have been the perfect adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic series, but I thought that it had a pretty damn good story, thanks to screenwriter James Dale Robinson.

One, I like stories about friends or colleagues that form a team to achieve a goal that involves a great deal of action. For me, “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN” is like a 19th century forerunner ofThe Justice League of America or The Avengers. And I have to give credit to Moore for coming up with the idea of using 19th century literary characters as members of the team and the story’s main villain. I found it very innovative. Many fans and critics had complained that with Sean Connery in the role of Allan Quartermain, the latter seemed to dominate the film. I agree that Connery’s Quartermain turned out to be the movie’s main character. But I do not agree that he dominated the movie. The other supporting characters were given a good number of chances to strut their stuff . . . so to speak. If anything, the movie seemed to have a strong, ensemble feel to it. This was especially apparent by the time the Nautilus reached Venice.

Speaking of Venice, the movie seemed to reach a turning point by the time the League reached it. During Nautilus’ voyage between Paris and Venice, the story showcased the numerous conflicts and jealousies that the team seemed to engage, as they became more acquainted with one another. But when forced to work together to foil the Fantom’s plans to destroy Venice, all conflicts were thrown aside and the League worked together as a very effective team. Venice also represented a major plot twist in the story. It is in Venice, when the League discovered a traitor within its midst . . . and the fact that they had been betrayed on a major scale by the Fantom. Personally, I found it to be one of the most satisfying aspects of the movie.

I read an article that Stephen Norrington had a great deal of trouble with Sean Connery and vowed to give up directing. Needless to say that despite the conflict between director and star, the latter gave one of his more poignant performances as the aging hunter who has become disenchanted with the British Empire, after his service to it has caused him so much loss. I was also impressed by Naseeruddin Shah’s portrayal of the intrepid Captain Nemo. He seemed to be the only member of the cast who seemed as commanding as Connery. I also enjoyed Peta Wilson’s performance as the sexy and intelligent vampire, Nina Harker. One of my favorite scenes featured her character’s surprising revelation that she was a vampire. Most people seemed to dismiss Shane West’s portrayal ofTom Sawyer, but I rather enjoyed it. He managed to create a strong chemistry with Connery, and I also found his quiet wit rather endearing. Tony Curran was a blast as Rodney Skinner, gentleman thief and the Invisible Man. He gave a hilarious performance and projected a lot of style for a character that was barely seen. Stuart Townsend seemed to be the epitome of degenerate style and sexuality as the immortal, Dorian Gray. He also had the good luck to spout some of the best lines in the movie. Richard Roxburgh gave an effectively quiet and intense performance as the man who created the League, the mysterious “M”. But as far as I am concerned Jason Flemyng had the best role in the movie as the morally conflicted Dr. Henry Jekyll and his alter ego, the ferocious, misshapen giant, Mr. Edward Hyde. I really enjoyed how he managed to slip back and forth between the two personalities. More importantly, Flemyng did an excellent job in incorporating Hyde’s darkness into Jekyll and the latter’s decency into Hyde with great ease. Well done.

Despite my complaints about Laustsen’s photography of the movie’s exterior shots, I must admit that he did a pretty good job in shooting the film. And Paul Rubell did a first-rate job with his editing – especially in the sequence that featured the League’s attack upon the Fantom’s lair at the Asiatic Artic. I also thought that Jason Barnett and his team did an excellent job in handling the makeup – especially for the Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde characters. One last aspect of the movie that truly impressed me was Carol Spier’s production designs that nicely captured an alternate or Jules Verne-style take on the late Victorian Age. This was especially apparent in the interior designs for Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus.

I could recommend that others keep an open mind in watching “THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN”. Although it does not bear a close resemblance to Alan Moore’s comic series and I am not particularly fond of its dark exterior shots, I must admit that I was impressed by James Dale Robinson’s screenplay, the ensemble cast and some of the production designs. Considering what he had to work with – especially an allegedly difficult leading man – I think that director Stephen Norrington did a solid job in bringing it all together for what I believe to be a very entertaining movie.

“KICK ASS” (2010) Review

Below is my review of the recent Matthew Vaughn spoof on costumed heroes movies called “KICK ASS”

“KICK ASS” (2010) Review

When I first saw the 2004 crime thriller, ”LAYER CAKE”, I thought that Matthew Vaughn would be spending the rest of his directing career in helming movies with a similar genre . . . and become a rival for his colleague, Guy Ritchie. Vaughn proved me wrong. Three years after ”LAYER CAKE”, he directed a fantasy comedy called ”STARDUST”. Then in 2010, his latest directorial effort hit the theaters – a spoof of the superhero genre called ”KICK ASS”.

Based upon the comic book of the same name by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., ”KICK ASS” told the story of an ordinary New York teenager named Dave Lizewski, who sets out to become a real-life superhero by calling himself “Kick-Ass”. However, Dave gets caught up in a bigger fight when he meets Big Daddy aka Damon Macready, a former cop, who in his quest to bring down the evil drug lord Frank D’Amico, has trained his 10-year-old daughter Mindy to be the ruthless vigilante, Hit-Girl. Big Daddy and Hit Girl’s murderous actions against D’Amico’s operations led the gangster to believe that Kick Ass was endangering his operation. His son, Chris, volunteers to become another costumed vigilante named Red Mist and lure Kick Ass to his doom.

I had considered seeing ”KICK ASS”, when it was first released in the theaters last spring. However, the movie slipped my mind and I never got around to viewing it, until it was released on DVD. After seeing the movie, I must admit feeling a bit of regret that I never saw it in the theaters. I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I would go as far to say that it has become one of my favorite movies in the superhero genre. Adapted for the screen by writer Jane Goldman and Vaughn, ”KICK ASS”provided plenty of laughs, action and pathos. Watching an unskilled high school teenager try to fight hardened criminals through the guise of a costumed vigilante struck me as one of the funniest and absurd things I have ever seen on film. Another bizarre scene that remained stamped in my mind focused on Macready/Big Daddy training his daughter to withstand a bullet to the chest, while wearing a ballistic vest. One would think it would be difficult to laugh at a movie filled with so much graphic violence – even violence directed at adolescents and a 10 year-old. And yet, Vaughn and Goldman, along with the cast, managed to strike the right balance between the laughter, the drama and the violence.

Speaking of the violence, I must admit there were times when I found it slightly hard to bear. One of the scenes I especially had difficulty dealing with centered around Kick Ass’s first attempt as a vigilante – an attempt that led to him being stabbed and severely beaten. It just seemed a bit too much. I could also say the same for the torture that both Kick Ass and Big Daddy endured at the hands of D’Amico’s men and the latter’s death. And I also must admit that at times I found Hit Girl’s murderous rampage against D’Amico’s men rather graphic. The idea of a ten year-old girl killing so many men . . . just seemed a bit too much. But the hardest scene to watch turned out to be Hit Girl’s confrontation with D’Amico. I suppose one could laugh at the idea of a ten year-old girl in a brutal fight against a grown man. But watching it on the screen made it difficult for me to laugh.

As much as I enjoyed ”KICK ASS”, the idea of an ordinary teenager believing he could face hardened criminals on the street without any self-defense training strikes me as being too absurd. Frankly, if I had known someone like Dave Lizewski in real life, I would begin to wonder about his mental capacity. If you really think about it, Dave truly had to be either be a mental gourd or simply a nut case – like the idiot who jumped off that skyscraper at the beginning of the film. A person could argue that Dave was nothing more than a fictional character like Peter Parker aka Spider-man. But would Peter Parker really be stupid enough to face hardened criminals on his own without any super abilities or self-defense training? Even Macready made sure that young Mindy would be trained as a skillful fighter before setting her loose against D’Amico’s men.

If there is one thing that Vaughn could be proud of was the exceptional cast that helped drive ”KICK ASS”. No one felt more surprised than me to learn that Aaron Johnson, who portrayed Dave Lizewski aka “Kick Ass”, was British born and raised. I felt surprised because his portrayal of an American teenager was spot on. Johnson captured all of the emotions, desires and angst of his character with sheer perfection. Another performance that blew my mind came from Nicholas Cage, the soft-spoken former cop and vigilante Big Daddy, who also happened to be an angry and murderous man determined to seek vengeance against mobster Frank D’Amico for ruining his life and career. I believe his role as Damon Macready might prove to be one of the best in his career. I do not know if mobster Frank D’Amico will prove to be one of Mark Strong’s best performances, but I must admit that he did a superb job. He kept the D’Amico character from being a one-dimensional villain and did a great job with the character’s New York accent. If she plays her cards right, Chloë Grace Moretz might become more than just the talented child actress that she is at the moment. Her portrayal of the tough, 11 year-old vigilante, Mindy Macready aka “Hit Girl” was not only entertaining, but almost as frightening as Strong’s villainous turn. The funniest performance, in my opinion, came from Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who portrayed D’Amico’s son, Chris and fake vigilante Red Mist. He provided plenty of laughs as the mobster’s slightly sarcastic son torn between a penchant for costumed heroes and a desire to follow in his father’s footsteps into a life of crime And his fight scene with Johnson nearly had me in stitches. And both Michael Rispoli and Lyndsy Fonseca gave strong support as D’Amico’s cool and clever lieutenant Big Joe and the feisty object of Dave’s desire, Katie Deauxma.

Aside from Vaughn and Goldman’s first-rate script, ”KICK ASS” benefitted from Ben Davis’ colorful and original photography. The film was not only rich in color, it provided some interesting shots that subtly reminded moviegoers that the movie was based upon a comic book series. At least three shots struck me as reminiscent of comic books and one reminded me of another comic book hero movie from the 1990s. One scene featured Macready’s former partner examining drawings that revealed the Macreadys’ tragic acquaintance with D’Amico and how they became a pair of murderous vigilantes. Another featured a close up of Big Daddy on the verge of death, after being tortured by D’Amico’s men. And the last and most obvious featured D’Amico’s death at the hands of Kick Ass. And in a very funny scene that featured Kick Ass and Red Mist’s escape from one of D’Amico’s burning warehouse brought back memories of the very last shot from the 1995 movie, “BATMAN BEGINS”.

Despite my initial reluctance toward ”KICK ASS” and some of its violence, I found myself enjoying the movie. In fact, I will go one step forward in stating that I found it to be one of the better movies this year . . . and one of my favorites in the superhero genre. For the third time since becoming a director, Matthew Vaughn ended up impressing me very much. I cannot wait to see if he can top himself after ”KICK ASS”.