“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

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“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

I have been a major fan of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel, “4.50 From Paddington”, ever since I was in my teens. In fact, I consider it one of my top ten favorite Christie novels of all time. So, it is not surprising that I would approach any movie or television adaptation of this story with great anticipation.

As far as I know, there have been at least two adaptations of Christie’s 1957 novel. Both were television movies that starred Joan Hickson as Jane Marple in 1987 and Geraldine McEwan in 2004. Just recently, I watched the McEwan version and all I can say is . . . hmmmmm. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (also known as “WHAT MRS. McGILLICUDDY SAW”) begins with Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy leaving London by train, following a Christmas shopping trip. She is on her way to St. Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Miss Jane Marple in St. Mary Mead. Sometime during the journey, Mrs. McGillicuddy looks out of her window and spots a man with his back to her strangling a woman in a train traveling parallel to hers. Upon reaching St. Mary Mead, Mrs. McGillicuddy reports the murder to Miss Marple, before the pair reports it to an unbelieving railway official.

While Mrs. McGillicuddy travels on to visit relatives in Ceylon for the holidays, Miss Marple takes matters into her own hands. She comes to the conclusion that the murderer had dumped the body off the train before it could be discovered at an estate owned by the Crackenthorpe family called Rutherford Hall, near Brackhampton. Miss Marple recruits a professional housekeeper named Lucy Eylesbarrow to hire herself out to the Crackenthorpes with the pretense that she wants to be near her “aunt” – namely Miss Marple – and hunt for the missing body. Eventually, Lucy does find the body . . . and more mayhem ensues.

I was not particularly fond of the 1987 Joan Hickson adaptation. And if I must be brutally honest, I do not have a high opinion of this 2004 version. Both versions seemed to be marred by two major problems – too many changes and the love triangle involving the Lucy Eylesbarrow character. And if I must be honest, Lucy proved to be a problem all on her own. Stephen Churchett made changes that I found particularly unnecessary. The movie began with a World War II flashback that featured the death of the Crackenthorpe family matriarch, which seemed to have an impact on the family patriarch, Luther Crackenthorpe. Although poignant, this scene struck me as a complete waste of time that did not seem to have anything to do with the main narrative. And once again, this version ended with a resolution to the love triangle that surrounded Lucy Eylesbarrow. Apparently, no one seemed to care how Christie deliberately left the matter opened in regard to Lucy’s choice. I have always regarded the Lucy Eylesbarow character as something of a “Mary Sue”. The 1987 version of the character was transformed into a humorless prig. Although the 2004 version of the character managed to regain some wit, she also came off as an even bigger “Mary Sue” than the literary version. The television movie introduced Lucy singing with Noel Coward (of all people) to his guests at a dinner party. She was dressed to the nines . . . and still serving as a housekeeper. What the hell? When I saw this, I could not believe my eyes. And why on earth did Churchett and director Andy Wilson allowed Miss Marple to reveal the murderer to an audience . . . aboard a moving train? This struck me as incredibly contrived and rather uncomfortable.

The movie also featured some severe character changes. Harold Crackenthorpe was transformed into a serial rapist, who has targeted Lucy as his latest victim. Alfred Crackenthorpe remained a minor crook, who seemed to be constantly weeping over a former girlfriend who had dumped him. Instead of being the oldest living brother, Cedric Crackenthorpe became the youngest sibling in the family and a failed painter. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. And Churchett completely jettisoned him from the love triangle concerning Lucy Eylesbarrow. This version featured a love triangle between Lucy, Bryan Eastley (Luther’s son-in-law), and Inspector Tom Campbell, the investigating detective for the case. Yes, that is correct. Once again, the Dermot Craddock character (who was the investigating detective in the novel) was eliminated from another adaptation. In his place was another detective with close ties to Miss Marple. Which is ironic, considering that he had appeared in the 2004 version of “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. Speaking of Bryan Eastley, he was transformed into an American war veteran. Only the Luther Crackenthorpe, Emma Crackenthorpe and Dr. Quimper characters remained intact.

However, “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” did have its share of virtues. I have to give kudos to Jeff Tessler for his excellent production designs. His work made it very easy for television audiences to find themselves transported back to 1951. Also adding to the movie’s setting were Pilar Foy’s art direction and Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I also enjoyed the production’s cinematography, thanks to Martin Fuhrer’s sharp and colorful work. And Jeremy Gibbs’s editing greatly enhanced the sequence in which Elspeth McGillicuddy first witnessed the murder. Despite my dissatisfaction with the overall adaptation of Christie’s 1957 novel, I must admit that Andy Wilson did a solid job as director. This was evident in the movie’s pacing and performances.

Speaking of performances, I tried to think of one or two performance that seemed out of step to me. But if I must be honest, I could not find one. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” provided some pretty good, solid performances. Geraldine McEwan was in fine form, as usual, as Miss Jane Marple. And she clicked very well with three particular cast members – Pam Ferris, who did an excellent job in portraying the pragmatic Elspeth McGillicuddy; John Hannah, who gave a nice performance as the rather quiet and intelligent Tom Campbell; and Amanda Holden, who seemed to be a bundle of charm as the talented and dependable Lucy Eylesbarrow. Jenny Agutter gave a very poignant performance in her brief appearance as the dying Agnes Crackenthorpe. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Niamh Cusack, Griff Rhys Jones, Charlie Creed-Miles, Kurtis O’Brien, Ciarán McMenamin, and Celia Imrie, who was rather funny as a Russian dancing mistress being interviewed by Tom Campbell and Miss Marple.

But there were four performances that proved to be my favorite. One came from Rose Keegan, who was even more funny as Lady Alice Crackenthorpe, Harold’s aristocratic wife. My second favorite performance came from David Warner was at times, poignant, rather funny and very sardonic (depending on the scene) as family patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe. Ben Daniels was equally funny and sardonic as the despairing Alfred Crackenthorpe, who seemed to have more regard for the woman who had dumped him, than his family. And perhaps I should be grateful that screenwriter Stephen Churchett transformed the Bryan Eastley character to an American. This gave American-born Michael Landes a chance to make the character more than bearable. Landes did something that Christie’s writing and actor David Beames failed to do in the 1987 version . . . make Bryan Eastley sexy and charismatic.

I will not deny that “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” had its virtues. The movie can boast fine performances from a cast led by Geraldine McEwan. I really had no problem with Andy Wilson’s direction. And the movie’s 1951 was beautiful to look at, thanks to the production staff. But I still had problems with the movie’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel. There were too many unnecessary changes to a story that had become one of my favorites penned by the author. Pity.

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” (2014) Review

If I have to be perfectly honest, I do not recall the initial reaction to many Marvel fans, when the studio first released the news of the upcoming release of the second Captain America film. I do recall various comments regarding the first one – 2011’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. The comments for that film ranged from mediocre to box office disappointing. I found the latter opinion odd, considering that movie made a considerable profit at the box office. And besides . . . “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” proved to be a favorite of mine from 2011.

It was not until the release of this second Captain America film was less than a month away, when I finally heard some excellent word-of-mouth about it. Some were even claiming that it was better than the 2012 blockbuster hit, “THE AVENGERS”. Personally, I could not see how any comic book movie could top that. But I did look forward to seeing “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially after I learned that Robert Redford, of all people, had been cast in the film. I mean . . . honestly, can you imagine an actor like Redford appearing in a Marvel Comics movie? And yet . . . he appeared in this one. Either he was desperate for work, or he really liked Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” begins two years after the events of “THE AVENGERS”. Steve Rogers aka Captain America now works as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in Washington D.C. During an early morning jog, he meets and befriends an Army veteran named Sam Wilson, before he is summoned by Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow for a new mission. Steve, Natasha and a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents led by Agent Brock Rumlow are ordered to free hostages aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel from a group of mercenaries. During the mission, Steve discovers that Romanoff has another agenda – to extract data from the ship’s computers for Director Nick Fury. When Rogers returns to the Triskelion, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, to confront Fury, the latter briefs him on Project Insight, which consists of three Helicarriers linked to spy satellites and designed to preemptively eliminate threats. After failing to decrypt Romanoff’s recovered data, Fury becomes suspicious about Insight and asks World Security Council member Alexander Pierce to delay the project.

Fury is later ambushed by assailants and a mysterious assassin named the Winter Soldier. After reaching Steve’s apartment and giving the latter a flash drive of the information acquired by Natasha, Fury is gunned down by the Winter Soldier. Steve is summoned by Pierce to explain what happened between him and Fury. But Steve refuses to cooperate and is later declared a fugitive by Pierce and S.H.I.E.L.D. When Natasha helps him evade S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, she also becomes a fugitive. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents discover that Steve’s old World War II nemesis, HYDRA, had been infiltrating the agency for years. They seek sanctuary with Sam Wilson, who turns out to be a former U.S. Air Force pararescueman, trained for combat and the use of an EXO-7 “Falcon” wingpack. The trio sets out to learn more details about HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their agenda, before they can do something about it.

If I must be brutally honest, I feel that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” is not only one of the best Marvel Comics movies I have ever seen, but also one of my top favorite comic book movies. It is superb. Some have claimed that it is better than “THE AVENGERS”. I do not share that belief. I have yet to see a comic book movie that is better than the 2012 film. But this movie was fantastic. I could see why Robert Redford was willing to be cast in this film. I agree with many that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was reminiscent of the political thrillers released during the 1970s. But this particular film did more . . . it shook up the Marvel Movieverse in ways that no one saw coming. The revelation of HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly had a major impact on the ABC television series, “AGENTS OF MARVEL”, which is a spin-off of the Marvel films. I also have to say a word about the fight sequences. There have been fight scenes from other Marvel movies and the TV series “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” that I found admirable. But the fight scenes featured in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” – especially those between Steve and the brainwashed Bucky – were probably the best I have ever seen in a Marvel movie, let alone in recent years.

Many film critics and some moviegoers have commented on the movie’s action sequences. To them, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” seemed to be a movie with a great deal of action sequences and very little dramatic moments. That was not the movie I saw. Mind you, Anthony and Joe Russo handled the movie’s action sequences very well. Their work was aptly supported by Trent Opaloch’s gorgeous cinematography, Jeffrey Ford’s excellent editing and the exciting work from the visual effects team. I was especially impressed by the following sequences: the S.H.I.E.L.D. team’s rescue of the hostages; HYDRA’s attack upon Nick Fury on the streets of Washington D.C.; Steve, Natasha and Sam deal with a team of HYDRA agents led by the Winter Soldier; and especially the big finale in which the trio and Maria Hill attempted to stop HYDRA’s plans to use the three newly constructed S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers.

But as I had earlier stated, I do not believe that “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” was all action and very little drama. The film featured some dramatic moments that not only brought out the best in the cast, but also struck me as very well written. There were a good deal of verbal confrontations in this film. And most of them seemed to feature the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. I was especially impressed by the drama and the acting in scenes that featured Fury’s two conversations with Steve – one regarding the helicarriers and the other about the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. I also enjoyed Fury’s final confrontation with Alexander Pierce inside the Triskelion. I was also impressed by how the screenwriters and the Russo brothers managed to inject some very good drama in the middle of Steve’s final fight against Bucky, while he tried to convince the latter to remember the past. Speaking of the past, this movie also featured a poignant moment that displayed the strength of Steve and Bucky’s friendship in a late 1930s flashback regarding the death of Steve’s mother. The movie also featured another friendship – the budding one between Steve and Sam. This was especially apparent in one poignant scene in which Steve and Sam discussed the latter’s experiences in Afghanistan.But the best scene, as far as I am concerned, featured Steve’s last conversation with a very elderly and dying Peggy Carter. That moment between the two former lovers seemed so sad that I found myself crying a little. How this particular scene managed to evade the memories of those who claimed that the movie was basically an action fest baffles me.

Was there anything about “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” that baffled me or turned me off? I found it hard to believe that Fury actually accepted Steve’s rather ludicrous suggestion regarding the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. Why he did not laugh in the super soldier’s face or told the latter that suggestion was dangerously naive is beyond me. Why did the movie make such a big deal about HYDRA infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D., when certain characters made it pretty obvious that it had infiltrated other government agencies . . . all over the world? And considering that Steve’s personality was not suited for espionage, I am still wondering why Marvel – both in the comics and in the movies – would have him join S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place. And what happened to World Council Member Hawley in the movie’s climax? The movie never explained.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in the movie. Once again, Chris Evans proved that he could be a first-rate dramatic actor in his portrayal of Steve Rogers. Although he injected a little more humor into his character – especially in the movie’s first half hour – he did an excellent job of expressing Steve’s continuing discomfort of being a man in the wrong time period, his penchant for making friends with people who are not Tony Stark, and his priggish nature. I should have known that since Evans, who can be a first-rate comedic actor, should also prove to be excellent in drama. He certainly proved it in his scene with Hayley Atwell, who reprise her role as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Peggy Carter. And she was marvelous as the aging Peggy, who wavered between joy at being with Steve again, sadness that they are now far apart age wise, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. But Evans’ leading lady in this film proved to be Scarlett Johansson, who reprised her role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow. And as usual, she was fantastic. I do not know whether she did all of her stunts, but she certain looked good. And . . . as usual, Johansson did a great job in conveying the agent’s ambiguous nature – especially in the film’s first half hour. I was especially impressed by her chemistry with Evans in this film. Mind you, they did a good job of projecting a newly developed friendship in“THE AVENGERS”. But in this film, there seemed to be an extra sexual charge between the two characters.

So far, Samuel L. Jackson has appeared in at least six Marvel films. Of the six, he has somewhat sizeable role in“IRON MAN 2”, and major roles in both “THE AVENGERS” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. He did such a marvelous job as the manipulative Fury in “THE AVENGERS” that I did not think he could repeat himself in portraying that aspect of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director’s character. I was wrong. He not only did a great job in portraying Fury as manipulative as ever, but at the same time, conveyed Fury’s own anger at being a victim of his mentor’s betrayal. Speaking of which, a part of me still cannot imagine Robert Redford in a comic book movie. And I cannot help but wonder if he felt the same. I wonder who approached him – the people at Marvel or his agent? Nevertheless, I am glad he accepted the role of World Security Council Alexander Pierce. This is the first time I have seen Redford portray a genuine villain and he was great. His Pierce was intelligent, soft-spoken, friendly, manipulative as Fury, and cold-blooded. It is a pity that he did not portray similar roles in the past.

Anthony Mackie joined the cast as Steve’s new friend, Army veteran Sam Wilson aka the Falcon. And like the rest of the cast, he gave a great performance. Mackie injected a good of down-to-earth sensibility to the story, along with some much-needed humor – especially in scenes in which Sam expressed annoyance at the machismo of both Steve and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow. I was especially impressed in one scene in which Mackie’s Sam recalled his time in Afghanistan and the death of a fellow Army comrade. Sebastian Stan reprised his role as James “Buchanan” Barnes, Steve’s old childhood friend. Only his Bucky Barnes in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” is, like Steve, a man out of time. More importantly, he is a brainwashed amnesiac and super assassin known as the Winter Soldier. I have to give kudos to Stan for skillful portrayal this seemingly cold-blooded assassin, who seemed torn between his role as a HYDRA killer and a confused man haunted by memories of his friendship with Steve.

The movie also featured some solid supporting performances from Cobie Smulders, who portrayed Fury’s no-nonsense second-in-command Maria Hill; Maximiliano Hernández as Agent Jasper Sitwell; Frank Grillo, who portrayed the cocky Brock Rumlow; Gary Shandling as Senator Stern, and the members of the World Security Council – Alan Dale, Chin Han, Bernard White and Jenny Agutter. By the way, many fans will be amazed to see Jenny Agutter kick butt in one particular scene. And for fans of “LOST”, you might be able to spot Adetokumboh M’Cormack, who portrayed Mr. Eko’s brother in the series, as one of the mercenaries who took control of the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship early in the movie.

There may have been a few things that left me feeling a bit uneasy in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. But if I must be brutally honest, I think it is one of the best Marvel and comic book films I have ever seen . . . period. And one has to thank Kevin Fiege’s excellent control of the Marvel films that centered on the Avengers Initiative, the marvelous screenplay scripted by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, Anthony and Joseph Russo’s superb direction and an excellent cast led by Chris Evans. Not only is this a superb film, but it managed to shake up the Marvel Movie Universe considerably.

Ranking of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” Movies

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With one more season of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” left with David Suchet as the famous literary Belgian detective, I thought it would be nice to rank some of the series’ feature-length movies that aired between 1989 and 2010. I have divided this ranking into two lists – my top five favorite movies and my five least favorite movies: 

RANKING OF “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” MOVIES

Top Five Favorite Movies

1-Five Little Pigs

1. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – In this beautifully poignant tale, Hercule Poirot investigates a fourteen year-old murder in which his client’s mother was erroneously convicted and hanged for.

2-After the Funeral

2. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a relative of a deceased man questions the nature of his death at a family funeral, she is violently murdered the following day and the family’s solicitor requests Poirot’s help. Better than the novel, the movie has a surprising twist.

3-The ABC Murders

3. “The A.B.C. Murders” (1992) – In this first-rate adaptation of one of Christie’s most original tales, Poirot receives clues and taunting letters from a serial killer who appears to choose his random victims and crime scenes alphabetically.

4-Murder on the Links

4. “Murder on the Links” (1996) – While vacationing in Deauville with his friend, Arthur Hastings, Poirot is approached by a businessman, who claims that someone from the past has been sending him threatening letters. One of my favorites.

5-Sad Cypress

5. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot is asked to investigate two murders for which a young woman has been convicted in the emotional and satisfying tale.

Top Five Least Favorite Movies

1-Taken at the Flood

1. “Taken at the Flood” (2006) – In this rather unpleasant tale, Poirot is recruited by an upper-class family to investigate the young widow of their late and very rich relative, who has left his money solely to her.

2-The Hollow

2. “The Hollow” (2004) – A favorite with many Christie fans, but not with me, this tale features Poirot’s investigation into the murder of a successful doctor at a country house weekend party.

3-Appointment With Death

3. “Appointment With Death” (2008) – In this sloppy adaptation of one of Christie’s novel, Poirot investigates the death of a wealthy American widow, during his vacation in the Middle East.

4-Hickory Dickory Dock

4. “Hickory Dickory Dock” (1995) – In a tale featuring an annoying nursery rhyme, Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon persuades Poirot to investigate a series of apparently minor thefts in a university hostel where her sister works, but simple kleptomania soon turns to homicide.

5-One Two Buckle My Shoe

5. “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” (1992) – Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp investigates the alleged suicide of the Belgian detective’s dentist. Despite the heavy political overtones, this movie is nearly sunk by a premature revelation of the killer.

“THE AVENGERS” (2012) Review

 

“THE AVENGERS” (2012) Review

Back in 2007, Marvel Studios set out to do something that DC Comics managed to achieve some forty years ago through a Saturday morning animated series. The studio created a series of movies based upon some of its company’s popular comic book characters. This series culminated into the recent hit movie, “THE AVENGERS”

The group of comic book heroes that became a team in “THE AVENGERS”, turned out to be the following – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, the Black Widow and Hawkeye. The first four starred in their own movies and the last two, the Black Widow and Hawkeye, appeared as supporting characters in 2010’s “IRON MAN 2” and 2011’s “THOR” respectively. And each movie, starting with 2008’s “IRON MAN”, hinted at the formation of Marvel Comics’ team of superheroes.

Written by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon and directed by the latter, “THE AVENGERS” begins with Loki, the villain from “THOR”and the latter’s adopted brother, making a deal with the leader of the Chitauri aliens called the Other to lead an army on Earth, in order to subjigate the human race. In order to do this, Loki needs to retrieve the Tesseract, a powerful energy source originally found on Earth in “CAPTAIN AMERICA”. The Tesseract opens a doorway that allows Loki to arrive a top secret S.H.I.E.L.D., use his scepter to enslave a few agents, Dr. Eric Selvig and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye and take the Tesseract.

In response to Loki’s attack, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury reactivates the Avengers Initiative. He, along with agents Phil Coulson and Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow; recruits Steve Rogers aka Captain America, Tony Stark aka Iron Man and Dr. Bruce Banner aka the Hulk to form a team and stop Loki’s plans and recover the Tesseract. Both Captain America and Iron Man manage to capture Loki in Germany. But during a flight back to the States, Thorarrives and frees Loki, hoping to convince him to abandon his plan and return to Asgard. Instead, a confrontation ensues between the three heroes before Thor agrees to accompany them all back to the Helicarrier, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier. Despite Loki being a captive, the Avengers still need to find the missing Tesseract. Even worse, Loki does not remain a captive very long.

Over a month has passed since “THE AVENGERS” hit the movie screens. And during that time, it managed to become the third highest-grossing film of all time. Most fans and critics of comic hero movies tend to view any film with more than one villain as a box office or critical disaster. And yet . . . many of these same critics and fans seemed to have no problem with a movie featuring six comic book heroes. I find that rather . . . odd and contradictory, but there is no explaining humanity’s chaotic nature. I have never had a problem with a comic book movie featuring more than one villain or hero, as long as that movie was well written. And I cannot deny that Whedon and Zak Penn wrote a first-rate movie.

First of all, Marvel Studios made the wise decision to map out the movie’s plot with four to five other movies. This enabled them to set up most of the characters before shooting “THE AVENGERS”. Natasha Romanoff had received a small introduction in “IRON MAN 2”. And Clint Barton was allowed nothing more than a cameo appearance in “THOR”. This meant that these two were the only ones left to be properly introduced in this film, along with their previous relationship as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Even the Tesseract, the energy source that Loki will use to allow Chitauri warriors to invade Manhattan in the movie’s last act, had originally been introduced in “CAPTAIN AMERICA” and hinted briefly in “IRON MAN 2” and in the Easter Egg scene for“THOR”. I wish I knew who had the idea to set up the story and characters for “THE AVENGERS” in previous movies. I would congratulate him or her for convincing Marvel to pursue this course of storytelling. For it paid off very well.

Second, I was impressed at how the main cast members – especially those portraying members of the Avengers – managed to click so well and create a viable screen team. Whedon and Penn’s script did not make it easy for them. Only the Black Widow and Hawkeye initially felt comfortably working together and even their relationship was disrupted by Loki’s temporary enslavement of Hawkeye’s mind. I could point out one or two particular performances by the cast. But if I must be honest, practically all of them stepped up to bat and performed beautifully. Okay, I must admit there were a few dramatic scenes that really impressed me.

I enjoyed the quarrel between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, who did a great job in developing the characters from initial hostility and wariness to trust and teamwork. I also enjoyed Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who continued their outstanding work and screen chemistry as the two Asgardian siblings, in a scene in which Thor tries to convince Loki that he and their family still loved the latter, despite his actions in “THOR”. Scarlett Johansson managed to appear in three scenes that impressed me. One featured a contest of will and intellect between her Black Widow and Hiddleston’s Loki. Another featured both her and Mark Ruffalo, as she manages to convince Bruce Banner to help S.H.I.E.L.D. to track down the Tesseract. But my favorite scene featured a heart-to-heart conversation between Natasha and her old partner, Clint Barton, as they discussed her past and his mind enslavement by Loki. Samuel L. Jackson did an excellent job as the intimidating, yet manipulative director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. He also seemed surprisingly spry for a man in his 60s, as his character dodged several near death experiences. Clark Gregg was entertaining as ever as one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top agents, Phil Coulson. It was nice to see Stellan Skarsgård repeat his role as Dr. Eric Selvig. Although his role was not particularly big, Selvig had a major impact on the plot. And Skarsgård managed to give his usual, top-notch performance. Cobie Smulders managed to hold herself well as one of Fury’s assistants, Maria Hill. It is a pity that Whedon was unable to showcase Alexis Denisof a little more as leader of the Chitauri aliens. I suspect that being cloaked and hidden in the small number of scenes probably did not help much, in the end.

I have heard that Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bruce Banner/the Hulk has received rave reviews from the critics and the fans. Many critics have also suggested his portrayal of the character was superior to both Eric Bana’s performance in 2003 and Edward Norton’s 2008 portrayal. I say bullshit to that. I suspect that the critics are spouting this crap, because Ruffalo got to portray the Hulk in a movie that is a box office and critical hit. Ruffalo did a great job in portraying Bruce at this later stage of his existence as the Hulk. However, I also feel there was nothing exceptional about his performance that made his Hulk superior to Bana and Norton’s. This whole notion of Ruffalo giving a better performance than the other two actors strikes me as nothing but a lot of fanboy horseshit.

One cannot talk about “THE AVENGERS” without discussing the film’s visual effects. What can I say? They were outstanding. Well . . . somewhat outstanding. Seamus McGarvey’s photography struck me as very effective in giving the movie an epic feel. And his work was vastly assisted by the visual effects team led by Jake Morrison. For a movie set either in New York City, or over the Atlantic Ocean, aboard a flying aircraft carrier, I was very surprised to learn that a great deal of the movie was shot in both Albuquerque, New Mexico and Cleveland, Ohio. Surprisingly, the film crew only spent two days shooting in Manhattan.

I do have a few complaints about “THE AVENGERS”. One, although I was impressed by Whedon’s direction and McGarvey’s photography, I cannot say the same about the work they did for the Black Widow/Hawkeye fight scene aboard the Helicarrier. To be honest, I found it slightly murky and confusing. Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek’s editing did not help. Their work revived bad memories of Paul Greengrass’ quick-cut editing at its worst. Honestly? Jon Favreau did a better job of shooting her fight scenes in “IRON MAN 2”. I also realized that Whedon had been talking out of his ass, when he claimed that a good deal of the movie would be shown from Steve Rogers’ point-of-view. Even worse, the film never really hinted any troubles Steve may have experienced dealing with the early 21st century. And could someone explain why the Hulk turned out to be more powerful than a pair of Norse gods – namely Thor and Loki? How in the hell did that come about? This certainly was not the case nearly 50 years ago, when Thor beat the pants of both the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner in the Marvel issue, Avengers #3 (Jan. 1964). Could someone please explain this phenomenon?

“THE AVENGERS” may not be perfect. But it is obviously one of the best comic book movies I have seen, hands down. And so far, it has turned out to be one of the best movies of 2012. It deserves all of the accolades it has earned. And for the first time in his career, Joss Whedon seemed to have directed a movie that matched his work with his “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” and “ANGEL” television series.

Top Ten Favorite Movies and Television Set During the Victorian Age

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I decided to revise my list of favorite movie and television productions set during the Victorian Age (1837-1901). Below is the list:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION SET DURING THE VICTORIAN AGE

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1. “North and South” (2004) – Sandy Welch adapted this superb version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about a woman from Southern England living in the industrial North. Daniela Danby-Ashe and Richard Armitage star.

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2. “The Buccaneers” (1995) – Maggie Wadey adapted and Philip Saville directed this excellent adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about American heiresses marrying into the British aristocracy. Carla Gugino, Greg Wise, James Frain and Cheri Lunghi star.

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3. “Without a Clue” (1988) – Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley are Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in hilarious look into a premise in which Dr. Watson is the investigating genius and Holmes is a fraud. Thom Eberhardt directed.

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4. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936) – Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland and Patric Knowles starred in this historically inaccurate, but fascinating look into British India and the Crimean War. Michael Curtiz directed.

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5. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Ritchie returned to direct what I believe is a slightly better sequel to his 2009 hit. In it, Holmes battles James Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law star.

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6. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Although not considered the best adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel by many, it is certainly my favorite. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, the movie starred Heath Ledger.

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7. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Michael Crichton wrote and directed this adaptation of his 1975 novel about a group of thieves plotting to steal the Crimean War gold from a moving train. Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred.

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8. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law portrayed Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this entertaining and exciting take on the famous literary sleuth. Guy Ritchie directed.

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9. “The Way We Live Now” (2001) – Andrew Davies adapted and David Yates directed this biting adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel greed in Victorian England. David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew MacFadyen starred.

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10. “Jane Eyre” (2006) – Sandy Welch adapted this first-rate version of Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens starred.

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Honorable Mention – “Wuthering Heights” (1939) – I rarely include an “honorable mention” on my FAVORITE lists. But I love William Wyler’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel so much that I had to find a way to include it. Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon and David Niven starred.

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” (2006) Review

 

If you have never read Agatha Christie’s novel, “Taken at the Flood” or seen the 2006 television adaptation, I suggest that you read no futher. This review contains major spoilers. 

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” (2006) Review

Written in 1948, Agatha Christie’s novel called “Taken at the Flood” told the story of the Cloade family in post-war Britian, who depends upon the good will of their cousin-in-law, Rosaleen Hunter Cloade; after her husband and their cousin is killed in an air raid during World War II. When her controlling brother, David, refuses to share Gordon Cloade’s fortunate, the family enlists Poirot’s help to prove that Rosaleen’s missing first husband, Robert Underhay, might not be dead. Although the novel received mixed reviews when it was first published, it now seems highly regarded by many of Christie’s modern day fans.

Nearly sixty years later, screenwriter Guy Andrews adapted the novel for ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” series. However, Andrews set the novel in the 1930s, which has been the traditional setting for the novel. In doing so, Andrews changed the aspect of Gordon Cloade’s death, making it an act of murder, instead of a wartime casualty. This change also removed the ennui that a few of the characters experienced in a post-war world. Other changes were made in the screenplay. The character of Rosaleen Cloade became a morphine addict. She also survived a morphine overdose. Also, Andrews changed the fate of the story’s leading female character, Lynn Marchmont.

I really wish that Andrews and director Andy Wilson had maintained the novel’s original setting of post-war Britain. It would not have hurt if “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” broke away from its usual mid-1930s setting to air a story set ten years later. Most adaptations of the Jane Marple novels have always been set in the 1950s. Yet, both adaptations of Christie’s novel, “A Murder Is Announced” managed to break away from that decade and set the story in its proper setting – mid-to-late 1940s. By changing the setting and making Gordon Cloade a murder victim, Andrews and Wilson transformed the original novel’s theme, which centered on how some of the characters took advantage of a certain situation to “make their own fortune”. This theme brings to mind the story’s title and its origin – a quotation from William Shakespeare’s novel, “Julius Caesar”. The movie also established a friendship between the Cloade family and Hercule Poirot. And if I must be honest, I find this friendship implausible. The Cloade family struck me as arrogant, greedy, corrupt, and a slightly poisonous bunch. I find it hard to believe Poirot would befriend any member of that family – with the exception of the leading female character, Lynn Marchmont.

Despite my misgivings over the movie’s setting and some of the changes, I must admit that most of it was very intriguing. Despite being an unpleasant bunch, the Cloade family provided the story with some very colorful characters that include a telephone harasser and a drug addict. Lynn is engaged to her cousin Rowley Cloade and it is clear that she does not harbor any real love for him . . . even before meeting Rosaleen’s brother David. And instead of being a war veteran and former member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Lynn is merely a returnee from one of Britain’s colonies in Africa Actress Amanda Douge portrayed Lynn and she portrayed the character with great warmth and style.

But David Hunter proved to be the most interesting and well-written character in the story. I would go further and state that he might be one of the most complex characters that Christie ever created. David is blunt to a fault, arrogant and has no problems in expressing his dislike and contempt toward the Cloades. He does not make an effort to hide some of his less than pleasant personality traits and is a borderline bully, who is controlling toward his sister. The character provided actor Elliot Cowan with probably one of his better roles . . . and he made the most of it with great skill. When David Hunter and Lynn Marchmont become romantically involved, Cowan ended up creating great screen chemistry with Douge.

The mystery over Rosaleen Cloade’s marital state proved to be rather engaging. One is inclined to believe both Rosaleen and David that she was widowed before marrying Gordon Cloade. But when a man named Enoch Arden appeared and claimed that Rosaleen’s first husband is still alive, the audience’s belief in the Hunter siblings is shaken. But when Arden is killed violently, David becomes suspect Number One with the police and Poirot.

I have already commented upon Elliot Cowan and Amanda Douge’s performances in “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD”. I was also impressed by Patrick Baladi’s portrayal of Lynn’s obsessive and intense fiancé, Rowley Cloade. Eva Birthistle was subtle and unforgettable as David’s nervous and very reserved sister, the wealthy widow Rosaleen Cloade. And veteran performers such as Jenny Agutter, Penny Downie, Tim Pigott-Smith, Pip Torrens and a deliciously over-the-top Celia Imrie provided great support. I also have to commend David Suchet, who gave his usual first-rate performance as detective Hercule Poirot. If there is one virtue that “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” possessed, it was a first-rate cast.

“TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” could have been a first-rate movie. But I believe that both Andrews and Wilson dropped the ball in the movie’s last thirty minutes. Their biggest mistake was adhering closely to Christie’s original novel. I am aware of some of the changes they made. I had no problem with some of the changes. Other changes really turned me off. But despite these changes, they managed to somewhat remain faithful to the novel. As as far as I am concerned, this was a major mistake.

In the novel, David Hunter ended up murdering Rosaleen Cloade by giving her a drug overdose. Poirot managed to reveal that Rosaleen was merely his sister’s former housemaid, who became an accomplice in a scam to assume control of the Cloade fortune. Andrews’ script changed this by allowing Rosaleen to attempt suicide and survive. Instead, they had David guilty of murdering his sister and brother-in-law in a house bombing featured at the beginning of the movie. Worse, Poirot claimed that David had deliberately impregnated the false Rosaleen and forced her to get an abortion in order to control her. Poirot also hinted he was behind Rosaleen’s suicide attempt. How he came to this conclusion is beyond me. In other words, Andrews’ script transformed David Hunter from a swindler and killer of his accomplice to an out-and-out monster. In the end, he was hanged for his crimes.

Both Christie and Andrews’ handling of the Cloade family proved to be even more incredible. Mrs. Frances Cloade had recruited a relation to call himself as Enoch Arden and claim that Robert Underhay was still alive. Another member of the Cloade family recruited a Major Porter to lie on the stand and make the same claim. Later, Major Porter committed suicide.

The murder of Enoch Arden proved to be an accident. In other words, Rowley Cloade discovered that Arden was the relation of his cousin-in-law, Mrs. Frances Cloade, reacted with anger and attacked the man. Rowley’s attack led to Arden’s fall and his death. Then Rowley proceeded to frame David by deliberately smashing in Arden’s head in order to make it resemble murder. Upon Lynn’s revelation that she was in love with David Hunter, Rowley lost his temper and tried to strangle her. Poirot and a police officer managed to stop him. One, Rowley was guilty of manslaughter, when he caused Enoch Arden’s death. Two, he was guilty of interfering with a police investigation, when he tried to frame David for murder. And three, he was also guilty of assault and attempted murder of Lynn Marchmont. Once Poirot discovered that Arden’s death was an accident caused by Rowley, he immediately dismissed the incident and focused his attention on David Hunter’s crimes.

In the end, Rowley was never arrested, prosecuted or punished for his crimes. Frances Cloade was never questioned by the police for producing the phony Enoch Arden in an attempt to commit fraud. And the member of the Cloade family who had recruited Major Porter was never prosecuted for attempting to perpetrate a fraud against the courts. The only positive change that Andrews made to Christie’s novel was allowing Lynn’s rejection of Rowley to remain permanent. In the novel, Lynn decided that she loved Rowley after all, following his attempt to kill her. She found his violent behavior appealing and romantic.

I sometimes wonder if Christie became aware of her negative portrayal of the upper-class Cloades, while writing “Taken at the Flood”, and became determined to maintain the social status quo in the novel. And she achieved this by ensuring that the lower-class David Hunter proved to be the real criminal and no member of the Cloade family end up arrested or prosecuted for their crimes. In other words, Christie allowed her conservative sensibilities to really get the best of her. Aside from the permanent separation between Lynn and Rowley, Andrews and Wilson embraced Christie’s conservatism to the extreme. And it left a bitter taste in my mouth. No wonder “TAKEN AT THE FLOOD” proved to be one of the most disappointing Christie stories I have ever come across.

 

“BEULAH LAND” (1980) Review

“BEULAH LAND” (1980) Review

In the fall of 1980, NBC Television had aired a three-part miniseries called, ”BEULAH LAND”. Starring Lesley-Ann Warren, Michael Sarrazin, Dorian Harewood and Paul Rudd, the miniseries told the story of an 19th century Savannah-born woman named Sarah Pennington and her impact upon the Kendrick family and their cotton plantation in Georgia during the years 1827 and 1872.

The miniseries was based upon two novels by Lonnie Coleman – ”Beulah Land” and ”Look Away, Beulah Land” It featured a cast that included television and movie stars Lesley-Ann Warren, Eddie Albert, Hope Lange, Michael Sarrazin, Dorian Harewood, Meredith Baxter, James Eachin, Paul Rudd, Don Johnson, Jonathan Frakes, Jenny Agutter, Franklyn Seales and Madeline Stowe.

Recently, I had just finished watching “Beulah Land”. To my surprise, I still found it enjoyable. Unlike other antebellum and Civil War sagas like ”NORTH AND SOUTH” and ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”, the setting for Beulah Land seemed to be restricted to southeast Georgia, with brief forays to Charleston, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. It has its usual stock of family melodrama – sometimes portrayed in an over-the-top manner by some of the cast members. It also gave an interesting look at the ambiguous relationships between slaves and slave owners; whites and blacks – regardless of whether they were free or slave; and between wealthy and poor whites in the antebellum South. There had been accusations by some that ”BEULAH LAND” had skimmed the darker aspects of American slavery or indulged in a negative and clichéd portrayal of the African-American characters. All I can say is that whoever made these accusations had not seen the miniseries. Here are more observations I had made:

1. The period in which Lauretta Pennington (Meredith Baxter) and her son-in-law, Adam Davis (Jonathan Frakes) experienced The Siege of Atlanta, is erroneous. According to the miniseries, the actual siege took place during mid-November 1864. William Sherman’s siege of Atlanta occurred between late July and early September of the same year. Lauretta and Adam left Atlanta around the same time Sherman began his march through Georgia.

2. I have noticed that Lauretta and other citizens fleeing Atlanta hardly seemed to be expressing any signs of panic, while dodging Union shells. Very odd.

3. Jonathan Frakes is a first-class actor, but his Southern accent was not very good in this miniseries. It was a good thing that he had portrayed a Northerner in the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy.

4. Unlike most of the actresses in the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, the ones in ”BEULAH LAND” must have avoided wigs. Which would account for their loose and natural hairstyles.

5. The first fifteen minutes of ”BEULAH LAND” was set in 1827. Yet the female costumes had resembled fashions of the 1840s. As the miniseries progressed, the costumes became more accurate. But not completely.

6. For me, the following actors and actresses gave the best performances – Lesley Ann Warren (Sarah Pennington Kendrick), Dorian Harewood (Floyd), Eddie Albert (Felix Kendrick), Paul Rudd (Leon Kendrick), Paul Shenar (Roscoe Coltray), James McEachin (Ezra), Jean Foster (Pauline), Don Johnson (Bonnard Davis), Hope Lange (Deborah Kendrick),Franklyn Seales (Roman Kendrick), Allyn Ann McLerie (Edna Davis) and Jenny Agutter (Lizzie Coltray).

7. Meredith Baxter would have made the list, if it were not for her occasional bouts of hammy acting. However, I have noticed a good number of other performers like Illene Graff (Annabel Davis), Clarice Taylor (Lovey), Laurie Prange (Rachel Kendrick Davis), K.C. Martel (Young Benjamin Davis), and especially Bibi Osterwald (Nell Kendrick) really tend to chew the scenery. Along with a good number of performers in minor roles.

8. Below is a list of what I consider to be the best scenes:

*Selma (Madeleine Stowe) and Bonnard’s wedding night
*Slaves’ talk in the kitchen during Sarah and Leon’s wedding reception
*Sarah and Floyd become aware of their attraction toward one another
*Lauretta’s revelation of her affair with Leon
*Rachel and Edna Davis’s deaths
*Death of corrupt Union sergeant
*Floyd’s death

”BEULAH LAND” is not what I would call a work of art. And to be frank, I can say the same about the novels in which it is based upon. As for this belief that the African-American characters were portrayed in an embarrassing and clichéd manner as ”docile and happy” slaves – it is not true. The only times the slaves appeared ”happy and docile” over their situation, occurred when they were faking this attitude toward their white owners. Although ”BEULAH LAND” is not great television, I have to give it kudos for its accurate portrayal of the surprisingly complex and ambiguous society of the antebellum South. I say . . . give it a shot.