“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

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“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

Following the release of her 2009 movie, “THE HURT LOCKER”, director hit Oscar gold when the movie won Best Picture and she picked up a Best Director statuette. Three years later, Bigelow returned to the setting of the Middle East in this historical drama about the operation of the C.I.A. for the manhunt of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Quaeda whom the U.S. government held responsible for the terrorist attacks on this country in September 2001. 

The movie begins two years after the September 11 attacks with the arrival of a C.I.A. agent named “Maya” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Although she had been gathering information on al-Queda for two years, Maya becomes familiar with interrogation methods used by fellow agent Dan on several Islamic detainees, including one named Anmar. Maya evolves into a hardened, yet overzealous veteran. Over the next several years, Dan transfers to the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia; Maya and her friend and fellow agent Jessica survive the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Mariott Hotel; and Jessica is killed during a suicide bomber’s attack on Camp Chapman, Afghanistan in 2009. Although Maya is eventually reassigned to Langley following a personal attack on her outside her home, she continues the search for bin Laden. The efforts of Maya, Dan and two other agents named Hakim and Larry eventually leads the Agency to bin Laden’s location in a suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The movie ends with an attack on the compound on May 2, 2011 authorized by President Barack Obama.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” has acquired a good deal of acclaim and accolades since its release. Conservative critics of the Obama Administration accused Bigelow and her fellow producers of plans to release the movie before the 2012 Presidential election as a boost for the President’s re-election campaign. GOP Congressional leaders also accused the Obama Administration of providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. More liberal critics accused the director of using the movie’s torture scenes as justification for U.S. intelligence use of torture on his prisoners. Bigelow and Columbia scheduled the movie’s release date to December 2012 for a limited release to theater and January 2013 for a wide release. It has been proven that Bigelow and her team never received any classified information from the Obama Administration. As for the accusation that Bigelow is pro-torture . . . I believe it depends upon the individual moviegoer’s point of view.

How do I feel about “ZERO DARK THIRTY”? Generally, I believe it is an excellent movie that benefited from a talented director and cast. Bigelow did an excellent job in capturing the tense, yet meticulous methods that the C.I.A. used to track down bin Laden. Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s screenplay pretty much did solid work in giving the movie a documentary style aura in this historical drama. The character of Maya is supposed to be based on an actual C.I.A. agent who had worked on the bin Laden manhunt. Thanks to Bigelow, Boal and a superb and award-winning performance by Jessica Chastain, audiences saw the gradual development of Maya’s character from C.I.A. newbie to hardened intelligence agent and negotiator, and finally to a woman obsessed with the capture of the man she not only held responsible for the September 11 attacks, but also for the death of the close friend who was killed at the Camp Chapman attack.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” also featured some top-notch performances from the rest of the cast. Jason Clarke, who had previously worked with Chastain in “LAWLESS”, gave an excellent performance as Dan, the intense and ruthless C.I.A. agent who initiated Maya into the brutal world of intelligence interrogations. Kyle Chandler handed in another top-notch and complex performance as former C.I.A. Islamabad Station Chief, Joseph Bradley, who seemed to be at turns both impressed and exasperated by Maya’s obsession with the bin Laden hunt. I was surprised to see Jennifer Ehle in this movie. Then again, I have been seeing her in a great deal of American productions, lately. In “ZERO DARK THIRTY”, she gave a first-rate as Maya’s friend and colleague, Jessica. The movie also boasted some solid work from the likes of Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez, Fares Fares, Stephen Dillane (who did possess a shaky American accent) and James Gandolfino.

I am perplexed about one thing about the cast. Could someone explain why Joel Edgerton was billed over Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle and Mark Strong? All three had bigger roles than Edgerton. I realized that the latter portrayed one of the U.S. Navy SEALs that conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. But I do not see this as a reason for him to receive billing over Chandler, Ehle and Strong. Another problem I have with “ZERO DARK THIRTY” is that the movie struck me as a bit schizophrenic in its style. The movie’s first hour – which featured Maya and Dan’s interrogations of Ammar and other detainees and some detailed investigations struck me as rather dry. I would have fallen asleep within an hour if it were not for the torture scenes. And honestly? I find that rather disturbing. The movie’s second half seemed to shift in tone with the Islamabad Marriott Hotel and Camp Chapman bombings. The major characters – especially Maya – became more emotional. The second half also featured verbal conflict between Maya and Bradley, and also an attempt on her life. Once the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, the movie’s tone shifted back to its dry and documentary style.

Speaking of both the torture and bin Laden compound raid sequences, both seemed to stretch out a bit too long. I understand that the C.I.A. used torture to gather information for their manhunt. Honestly, I am not surprised. I did not believe that the scandal over the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would end such interrogation methods. Personally, I find them repulsive. But I doubt that the C.I.A. or the U.S. government would care less about my feelings. But the torture scenes struck me as too long. I could have dealt with a minor on-screen torture scene. But I think Bigelow stretched it too far. I could also say the same about the SEALs’ raid on the bin Laden compound. I realize that Bigelow was trying to milk the suspense for all it was worth. I am sorry, but I found it difficult to accept the idea that the SEALs were in so much danger. I was not that impressed by the Camp Chapman sequence. I never knew about the attack until I saw this movie. But I pretty much guessed what was about to happen in this sequence at least five minutes before the actual attack. How disappointing.

I have noticed that the media has been consistently labeling Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, has been labeled by the media as a “revenge tale”. I find this ironic, considering that the movie’s protagonist seemed more interested in saving a loved one than revenge. On the other hand, “ZERO DARK THIRTY” practically reeks of revenge. Some movie critics have noted this, but the movie has not really acquired a reputation as a “revenge tale”. I find this odd. Very odd.

I understand that “ZERO DARK THIRTY” earned both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. On one level, I believe the movie earned those nominations. Thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal, it is basically a well made movie that featured some top-notch performances from a cast led by Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I loved the flim. I barely liked it. It strikes me as a bit too cold for my tastes.

“All Aboard the Orient Express”

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Below is a look at two major movies and a television movie that featured journeys aboard the famed Orient Express:

 

“ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS”

I will be the first to admit that I am not one of those who demand that a novel, a movie or a television production to be historically accurate. Not if history gets in the way of the story. But there is an anal streak within me that rears its ugly head, sometimes. And that streak would usually lead me to judge just how accurate a particular production or novel is.

Recently, I watched three movies that featured a journey aboard the legendary train, the Orient Express. Perhaps I should be a little more accurate. All three movies, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963) featured a famous route that came into existence nearly a year following World War I called the Simplon Orient Express. The original route for the Orient Express stretched from Paris to Istanbul via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. Then in 1919, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits introduced a more southerly route, due to the opening of the Simplon Tunnel. This route stretched between Paris and Istanbul, via Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Belgrade and Sofia. Writers Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming made the Simplon Orient Express route famous thanks to their novels, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “From Russia With Love” (1957). And the movie adaptations of these novels increased the route’s fame.

Both Christie and Fleming’s novels featured the Simplon Orient Express’ route from Istanbul to Yugoslavia. There are reasons why their stories do not stretch further west to as far as at least France. In “Murder on the Orient Express”, the train became stuck in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia and detective Hercule Poirot spent the rest of the novel trying to solve the murder of an American passenger. And in “From Russia With Love”, British agent James Bond and his companion, Tatiana Romanova, made it as far as either Italy or France. The 1974 and 2010 adaptations of Christie’s novel, more or less remained faithful to the latter as far as setting is concerned. However, EON Production’s 1963 adaptation of Fleming’s novel allowed Bond and Tatiana to escape from the train before it could cross the Yugoslavia-Italy border.

While watching the three movies, I discovered that their portrayals of the Simplon Orient Express route were not completely accurate. I can imagine the thoughts running through the minds of many, declaring “Who cares?”. And I believe they would be right to feel this way. But I thought it would be fun to look into the matter. Before I do, I think I should cover a few basics about this famous train route from Istanbul to Paris-Calais.

During its heyday, the Orient Express usually departed from Istanbul around 11:00 p.m. Following the rise of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the Orient Express extended it route to stops in Greece in order to avoid the Soviet-controlled countries. The only Communist country it passed through was Yugoslavia. When the train became the slower Direct Orient Express in 1962, it usually departed Istanbul around 4:15 p.m. I do not know whether a restaurant car and/or a salon “Pullman” car was attached to the Direct Orient Express when it departed Istanbul between 1962 and 1977. One last matter. In the three adaptations of the two novels, the Orient Express usually made a significant stop at Belgrade. It took the Orient Express, during its heyday, at least 23 to 24 hours to travel from Istanbul to Belgrade.

Let us now see how accurately the two “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” movies and the 1963 “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” flick accurately portray traveling aboard the Simplon Orient Express (or Direct Orient Express) on film. I will begin with the “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel.

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)

Following the conclusion of a successful case for the British Army somewhere in the Middle East, Belgian-born detective is on his way home to London, via a train journey aboard the famed Orient Express. When an American businessman named Samuel Rachett is murdered during the second night aboard the train, Poirot is asked by his friend and director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, Senor Bianchi, to investigate the crime.

In this adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet, the Simplon Orient Express that left Istanbul did so at 9:00 at night. The movie also included a dining car attached to the train. One scene featured a chef examining food being loaded onto the train. This scene is erroneous. According to the The Man in Seat 61 website, there was no dining car attached to the train when it left Istanbul. A dining car was usually attached at Kapikule on the Turkish/Bulgarian border, before it was time to serve breakfast. The movie also featured a salon car or a “Pullman”, where Hercule Poirot interrogated most of the passengers of the Istanbul-Calais car.

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According to the “Seat 61” site, there was no salon “Pullman” car attached to the train east of Trieste, Italy. Christie needed the presence of the car for dramatic purposes and added one into her novel. The producers of the 1974 movie did the same. At least the producers of the 1974 used the right dark blue and cream-colored car for the Pullman. More importantly, they used the right dark blue cars for the train’s sleeping coaches, as shown in the image below:

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In the movie, the Simplon Orient Express reached Belgrade 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. For once, the movie was accurate. Somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, the Orient Express ended up snowbound and remained there until the end of the story.

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010)

This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel first aired on Britain’s ITV network in 2010. The television movie started with Hercule Poirot berating a British Army officer caught in a devastating lie. After the officer commits suicide, Poirot ends up in Istanbul, where he and a British couple witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. Eventually, the couple and Poirot board the Orient Express, where the latter finds himself investigating the murder of an American passenger.

I do not know what time the Simplon Orient Express departed Istanbul in this adaptation. The movie never indicated a particular time. This version also featured a brief scene with a chef examining food being loaded aboard a dining car. As I previously mentioned, a dining car was not attached until Kapikule. The movie did feature Poirot and some of the Istanbul-Calais car passengers eating breakfast the following morning. In this scene, I noticed a major blooper. Car attendant Pierre Michel was shown serving a dish to Poirot in the dining car. Note the images below:

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Pierre Michel greets Poirot and M. Bouc before they board the train

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Pierre serves breakfast to Poirot

Why on earth would a car attendant (or train conductor, as he was in the 1934 novel) act as a waiter in the dining car? Like the 1974 movie, the ITV adaptation also featured a salon “Pullman” attached to the train, east of Italy. In fact, they did more than use one salon “Pullman”. As I had stated earlier, the westbound Simplon Orient Express usually acquired a salon “Pullman” after its arrival in Trieste. But in this adaptation, the producers decided to use the dark blue and cream-colored “Pullman” cars for the entire train as shown in these images:

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This is completely in error. As I had stated earlier, the Orient Express usually featured a dark-blue and cream-colored salon “Pullman” between Italy and Paris. But it also featured the dark-blue and cream-colored seating “Pullmans” between Calais and Paris. There is no way that the Orient Express leaving Istanbul would entirely consist of the blue and cream “Pullman” cars.

However, the train did arrive at Belgarde at least 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. Like the other movie, the train ended up snowbound between Vinkovci and Brod and remained there until the last scene. However, I am confused by the presence of the police standing outside of the train in the last scene. Poirot and the other passengers should have encountered the police, following the train’s arrival in Brod, not somewhere in the middle of the Yugoslavian countryside.

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“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963)

Ian Fleming’s tale begins with the terrorist organization, SPECTRE, plotting the theft of the KGB’s a cryptographic device from the Soviets called the Lektor, in order to sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on British agent James Bond for killing their agent, Dr. No. After Bond successfully steals the Lektor from the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, he, defector Tatiana Romanova and MI-6 agent Kerim Bey board the Orient Express for a journey to France and later, Great Britain.

While I found this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel extremely enjoyable, I found myself puzzled by the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s journey aboard the Orient Express. It seemed so . . . off. In the movie; the Orient Express conveying Bond, his traveling companions and SPECTRE assassin “Red” Grant; departed Istanbul somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. The train departed Istanbul around nine o’clock at night, in Fleming’s novel. Mind you, the novel was set in the 1950s and the movie, set in the early 1960s, which meant that its departure in the movie was pretty close to the 4:15 pm departure of the Direct Orient Express train that operated between 1962 and 1977. I do not recall seeing a dining car attached to the train, during its departure in the movie, so I cannot comment on that. But after the train’s departure, the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s Orient Express journey proved to be mind boggling.

The main problem with “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” is that Bond’s journey proved to be the fastest I have ever witnessed, either on film or in a novel. It took the train at least three-to-four hours to reach Belgrade, following its departure from Istanbul. One, it usually took the Orient Express nearly 24 hours to reach Belgrade during its heyday. During the first ten-to-fifteen years of the Cold War, it took the Orient Express a little longer to reach Belgrade, due to it being re-routed through Northern Greece in an effort to avoid countries under Soviet rule. This was made clear in Fleming’s novel. But the 1963 movie followed the famous train’s original eastbound route . . . but at a faster speed. After killing Grant, Bond and Tatiana left the train before it reached the Yugoslavian-Italian border. Bond’s journey from Istanbul to that point took at least 15 hours. During the Orient Express’ heyday, it took at less than 48 hours. And during the 15 years of the Direct Orient Express, it took longer.

Unlike many recent film goers and television viewers, historical accuracy or lack of it in a movie/television production has never bothered me. I still remain a major fan of both “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974 version) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”. And although I have other major problems with the 2010 “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, there are still aspects of it that I continue to enjoy. Historical inaccuracy has never impeded my enjoyment of a film, unless I found it particularly offensive. But since I can be occasionally anal and was bored, I could not resist a brief exploration of the Hollywood and British film industries’ portrayals of the Orient Express.

“LAWLESS” (2012) Review

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“LAWLESS” (2012) Review

A Virginia-born writer named Matt Bondurant wrote a historical novel called “The Wettest County in the World” back in 2008. He based the novel on the exploits of his grandfather and two granduncles, who ran a massive moonshine operation during the later years of the Prohibition era, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Four years later, a movie version of Bondurant’s novel finally hit the movie screens at the end of the summer. 

Renamed “LAWLESS”, the movie began in 1931 in Franklin County, Virgina; where three brothers – Forest, Howard and Jack Bondurant – run a successful moonshine business with the help of their friend, Cricket Pate. The brothers use a bar as a front for their illegal activities. And not only do they provide well-made moonshine to the Franklin County locals, but also to gangsters like Floyd Banner of Chicago. Two people arrive in Franklin County that prove to have a major impact upon the lives the Bondurant brothers. The first to arrive is a Chicago dancer named Maggie Beauford, who is hired as a waitress for their bar and slowly becomes romantically involved with the oldest brother, Forest. Not long after Maggie’s arrival, a Federal Special Deputy Charly Rakes arrives in Franklin County and demands that all county bootleggers – including the Bondurants – give him a cut of their profits. Although the other bootleggers surrender to Rakes’ intimidation tactics and decide to give him a cut, Forest Bondurant refuses to do the same. Rakes and his men set out to intimidate and terrorize the Bondurants into giving him a cut of their profits. And when that fails, he decides to go after their distillery and destroy it.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the youngest Bondurant – Jack. At the beginning of the story, Jack is an inexperienced and sometimes introverted young man, who is kept out of the family’s shine business, aside from acting as a driver for their deliveries. When Rakes gives him a severe beating as a warning to the family, Forest chides Jack for being unable to defend himself. But after Forest is nearly killed by two of Rakes’ men, Jack takes matters into his hands and sets with his friend Cricket to deliver a shipment of booze to Floyd Banner in Chicago. Jack returns with profit for the family and himself. But his newly discovered self confidence leads him to make mistakes that not only endanger his family’s moonshine operation, but also the lives of Cricket and the girl he loves, a German-American Baptist named Bertha Mannix.

“LAWLESS” turned out to be a very entertaining movie for me. But before I discuss how much I enjoyed the movie, I have to talk about its flaws. I believe that “LAWLESS” had two major flaws. One, director John Hillcoat delivered an unevenly paced movie. The first third of the movie took its time in setting up both the characters and the story. In fact, the pacing was so slow that I was in danger of either falling asleep or losing interest in the movie. I have one last complaint and it deals with the movie’s introduction of the Floyd Banner character. I found the introduction of the Banner character rather irrelevant and unnecessary. In the movie, Banner arrived in Franklin County to shoot a competitor, exchange a glance with Jack Bondurant and return to Chicago. I found the entire scene irrelevant and a skimpy excuse to introduce Gary Oldman into the film. Especially since the Floyd Banner role proved to be rather small and serve as nothing more than a plot device to increase Jack’s role as a moonshiner.

But once the movie was set up, “LAWLESS” proved to be very satisfying and entertaining. One aspect of the film that I truly enjoyed was the manner in which it recaptured so many details of early Depression-era Appalachian South. Hillcoat did a marvelous job in allowing the movie to permeate with atmosphere. However, Hilcoat did not achieve this superb re-creation on his own. He received help from the likes of cinematogrpher Benoît Delhomme, whose photography of the western Georgia locations struck me as breathtaking; Gershon Ginsburg’s beautiful art direction and Chris Kennedy’s production designs. I was especially impressed by Margot Wilson’s costume designs. For years, Hollywood seemed to have difficulty in re-creating accurate costumes for the early 1930. The movie industry has improved a great deal over the past decade or so. And this was especially apparent in how Wilson’s costumes not only accurately reflect the movie’s period setting, but also the character and social positions of the characters. An excellent example of this proved to be the costumes worn by Shia Labeouf. He began the movie wearing clean, yet tight fitting clothes – including pants that were obviously too short. During the movie’s second half, his wardrobe not only improved, but also became decidedly more flashy, reflecting his personal success in the moonshine business.

Although I found screenwriter Nick Cave’s introduction of the movie’s character, setting and plot rather slow; I must admit that the movie’s overall story proved to be well written. I wonder if many critics and moviegoers had suspected“LAWLESS” would end up as some dramatic version of “THE DUKES OF HAZZARD” with plenty of high-octane action and cliched Southern stock characters. Or that it would turned out to be some take on the founding of NASCAR. Thankfully, none of those scenarios came to fruition. “LAWLESS” proved to be an intelligent mixture of a well done family drama and crime saga. First of all, Cave’s script not only explored the Bondurants’ illegal activities and how it attracted the attention of the law, symbolized in the form of the corrupted Federal officer Charly Rakes. But it also explored the Bondurants themselves – the intimidating Forest, who had developed a reputation for evading death; the easy-going and hard-drinking Howard, who also possessed a hair triggered temper; and youngest brother Jack, whose inexperience, introverted nature and distaste for violence led him to be disregarded by his older brothers as a dependable participant in their moonshine business.

The producers and Hilcoat certainly picked the right actors to portray the Bondurant brothers. I hope that Shia Labeouf will finally shake off his reputation as a mere tool dominated by special effects in over-the-top action films. He did a superb job in slowly developing Jack Bondurant’s character from the insecure and immature boy to someone with a lot more confidence. I believe that Forest Bondurant might prove to be one of my favorite roles that Tom Hardy has ever portrayed. He did a marvelous job projecting an intimidating and commanding aura in his character. The character attracted a bit of a in-joke that originated with a local myth that nothing or no one call kill him. It was good to see Jason Clarke again, whom I have not seen in a movie since 2009’s “PUBLIC ENEMIES”. He was great as the easy going, yet hard drinking middle brother Howard.

I noticed that Australian actress Mia Wasikowska received a higher billing in the movie’s credits than Jessica Chastain.  I am a bit surprised, considering that her role proved to be smaller. Mind you, I had no problems with her solid portrayal of Jack Bondurant’s love, Bertha Minnix. But her performance and role seemed minor in compare to Chastain’s, who had the juicier role as Chicago showgirl-turned-waitress, Maggie Beauford. Chastain was superb as world weary dancer who left Chicago to escape its chaos and mindless violence, only to find herself in the middle of more chaos in the form of the Bondurants’ feud with Charly Rakes. And I was especially impressed with one scene between her and Hardy, as she struggled to suppress news of the rape she had endured at the hands of Forest’s attackers. Many critics claimed that Gary Oldman had chewed the scenery in his brief appearance as Chicago gangster Floyd Banner. Aside from one moment when he lost his temper with a subordinate, I found Oldman’s performance rather subdued. And he did a pretty good job in his one major scene. I believe that many critics had managed to overlook Guy Pearce’s over-the-top performance as Federal deputy, Charly Rakes. With his slicked back hair, shaved eyebrows, exaggerated body language and effiminate manner, Pearce radiated urban eccentricity at its extreme. Yet, for some reason, the performance worked, due to Pearce’s ability to infuse a great deal of subtle menace within the exaggerated persona. The movie also benefited from some solid performances from the likes of Dane DeHaan, who portrayed Jack’s best friend Cricket Pate; Bill Camp, who portrayed Franklin County’s backbone, Sheriff Hodges; and Lew Temple as the morally questionable Deputy Henry Abshire.

I realize that “LAWLESS” is not perfect. I feel that the slow pace in the first third of the film and the unnecessary manner of the Floyd Banner character’s introduction prevented it from being a truly first-rate movie. But thanks to Nick Cave’s adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s tale, solid direction from John Hillcoat and a superb cast led by Shia Labeouf and Tom Hardy, “LAWLESS” still managed to become a fascinating tale of family bonds during the last years of Prohibition . . . and one of my favorite movies of the 2012 summer movie season.

“THE DEBT” (2011) Review

“THE DEBT” (2011) Review

Five years ago, Assaf Bernstein directed a movie about three retired Mossad agents confronted by a challenge from their past in a movie called “THE DEBT”. Just recently, John Madden directed a remake of this movie with the same title. Although originally intended for a December 2010 release date, the movie was finally released at the end of August. 

This new version of “THE DEBT” The espionage thriller began in 1997, when two retired Mossad agents, Rachel as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel Singer and Stefan Gold have received shocking news about their former colleague David Peretz. All three have been celebrated by Israel for thirty-one years for successfully tracking down a Nazi war criminal named Dieter Vogel back in 1965-55 in East Berlin. However, the reactions of both Rachel and Stefan and several flashbacks questioned whether or not if the team’s mission was accomplished.

I have never seen the 2007 version. Which means there is no way I could compare this new version to the older one. But I could say this about “THE DEBT” . . . I thought it was one of the best movies I had seen this past summer. In fact, I thought it was one of the best movies I have seen this year. “THE DEBT” is a superb thriller about a dangerous mission to capture a Nazi war criminal – a mission that led to a labyrinth of lies, guilt, regrets and a desire to correct a mistake. The sequences set in Israel and Russia of the late 1990s and in flashback sequences, 1965-66 East Berlin. The three protagonists in the film proved to be a complicated trio, haunted by not only the Holocaust, but also their personal demons and desires.

The central figure in the story is Rachel Singer, a former Mossad agent who gave up her career when she became pregnant with her only child. Rachel spends the years 1965 to 1997 being caught between two men – the team’s charismatic and womanizing leader, Stefan Gold; and the quiet and intense David Peretz. Both of them became attracted to her. But whereas Stefan viewed Rachel as a brief romance, David began falling in love with her. Rachel felt the same, but turned to Stefan for a one night stand – an act that ended up having major consequences in the relationship between the trio. In a very intense and well directed sequence, the agents finally managed to capture Vogel. But a bad encounter with East German guards at the Wollankstraße Station forced them to take Vogel back to their safe house and guard him, until they can find another way to get him to Israel. What followed was a deliciously acted cat-and-mouse game between manipulative Vogel and his three captors. The shocks and tensions continued, once the story shifted permanently to 1997. In that time frame, Rachel was forced to travel to Russia and clean up a mess caused by the major secret created by the three colleagues back in 1966. I wish I could give away the story, but to do so would give away the plot twists. All I can say is that one of the best aspects of this movie are the plot twists.

The acting was superb. Jesper Christensen, who had impressed me in the last two James Bond movies, was even more fascinating in his subtle performance as the ruthless, yet manipulative Dieter Vogel. Both Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds gave solid performances as the older Stefan and David. But the real star of the 1997 sequences was Helen Mirren, who was wonderful as an older Rachel, who believed that she had finally put the past behind her. She also proved that one could still be a first-rate female action star at the age of 65/66. If Helen Mirren was the star of the 1997 sequences, the real stars of the entire movie were Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas. In my review of 2010’s “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, I had not been kind to Chastain’s performance in that movie. A lot of my criticism had to do with how her character was written. But I must admit that she was superb as the younger Rachel, who found herself caught up not only in a deadly mission with a dangerous adversary; but also in an emotionally confusing situation between two men. Cskokas gave an enlightening performance as the colorful and commanding Stefan, whose extroverted facade hid an ambitious drive that made him willing to do anything to maintain his career. It was good to see Sam Worthington in a first-rate role after nearly two years. His portrayal of David Peretz was probably the most intense in the entire episode. Worthington did a superb job of conveying not only David’s quietly expressed desire for Rachel, but also his reluctance to get emotionally involved with others following the loss of his entire family during the Holocaust.

If “THE DEBT” had one flaw – at least for me, it was the ending. I have to be honest. I usually do not mind if a movie ends on an ambiguous or vague note . . . as long as it works. For me, such an ending worked for the 2010 movie, “INCEPTION”. The vague note on which “THE DEBT” ended, failed to work for me. It simply did not feel right and I had the suspicion that either Madden or screenwriters Matthew Vaughn, Kris Thykier, Eduardo Rossoff were trying to be just a little too artistic. And “THE DEBT” struck me as the type of story that did not need an ambiguous ending of that kind.

Despite the movie’s unnecessarily vague ending, I must admit that I truly enjoyed “THE DEBT”. It had an exciting and fascinating story that was served well by the screenwriters, director John Madden and a superb cast led by Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington. As I had stated earlier, it became one of my favorite movies of both the summer and of 2011 in general.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

Below is my review of the recent 2010 adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels – “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”:

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

After being on the air for nearly two decades, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” decided to air its own version of the mystery writer’s 1934 novel, ”Murder on the Orient Express”. Although there have been two other well known adaptations of the novel – the famous 1974 movie that starred Albert Finney and the 2001 teleplay that starred Alfred Molina. But this latest version starred David Suchet (considered by many to be the ultimate Hercule Poirot) in the starring role.

Directed by Philip Martin and written by Stewart Harcourt, ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” opened with Hercule berating a British Army officer, who has been revealed to be a liar in regard to a case. Upon completion of said case, Poirto travels over to Istanbul, the first step of his journey back to England. There, Poirot witnesses the stoning of a Turkish woman for adultery with a Colonel Arbuthnot and a Miss Mary Debenham. Thanks to an old acquaintance named Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (which owned the Orient Express lines), the detective manages to book passage aboard the famed continental train, the Orient Express. Among the passengers are Colonel Arbuthnot, Miss Debenham and a sinister American businessman named Samuel Rachett. The latter tries to hire Poirot’s services to protect him from unseen enemies; but the detective refuses due to a dislike toward the American. After the Orient Express becomes caught in a snowdrift in the middle of Yugoslavia, Rachett is found murdered in his compartment – stabbed to death twelve times. As it turned out, Poirot discovered that Rachett was a criminal named Casetti, who was guilty of kidnapping and murdering one Daisy Armstrong, the five year-old daughter of a wealthy Anglo-American couple. To protect the passengers from the Yugoslavia police, Monsieur Bouc hires Poirot to investigate the American’s murder.

Considering this film turned out to be the third, well-known adaptation of Christie’s novel, there were bound to be comparisons with the previous films – especially the famous 1974 version. All three movies featured changes from the novel. In this adaptation, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt decided to allow Poirot to witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. The characters of Doctor Constantine (a Greek doctor who volunteered to assist Poirot) and an American private detective named Cyrus Hardman were combined into a new character – an American obstetrician named . . . what else, Doctor Constantine. Rachett aka Casetti became a man who desired forgiveness for his kidnapping and murder of young Daisy. The brains behind Rachett’s murder turned out to be a different character. The Greta Ohlsson character was younger in this film. The movie featured a threat against Poirot’s life, after his resolution to the case. And the Orient Express remained snowbound a lot longer than in the novel and previous movies.

But the biggest change in ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” featured the addition of religion as a theme. In fact, the subject permeated throughout the entire movie. Television viewers saw scenes of both Poirot and surprisingly, Rachett, in the act of prayer. The movie also featured a discussion between Poirot and Miss Ohlsson on the differences between their dominations – Catholic and Protestant – and how they dealt with vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Like many other Christie fans, I suspect that this addition of a religious theme was an attempt by Harcourt to allow Poirot to struggle with his conscience over his willingness to support Monsieur Bouc’s decision regarding the case’s solution.

There were some aspects of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” that I found appealing. Due to the production’s budget, this adaptation spared the audience some of the over-the-top costume designs from the 1974 movie. The movie also featured first-rate performances from Denis Menochet (the best performance in the movie), who portrayed the car attendant, Pierre Michel; Brian J. Smith as Rachett’s private secretary, Hector McQueen; Barbara Hershey as the verbose tourist Mrs. Caroline Hubbard; Hugh Granville as Rachett’s valet, Edward Masterman; and Eileen Atkins as the imperious Princess Dragonmiroff. Despite portraying the only character not featured in the story, Samuel West gave an impressive, yet subtle performance as Dr. Constantine, whose occasional outrageous suggestions on the murderer’s identity seemed annoying to Poirot. I also have to give kudos to Harcourt for making an attempt to allow Poirot experience some kind of emotional conflict over the fate of Rachett’s killer(s). The novel never broached this topic. And in the 1974 film, Poirot twice expressed brief doubt and regret over the matter.

Despite some of the movie’s virtues, I found ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” to be rather disappointing. One of the biggest disappointments proved to be David Suchet’s performance. I have admired his portrayal of the Belgian detective for over a decade. But this movie did not feature one of Suchet’s better performances. In this movie, his Poirot struck me as harsh, judgmental and one-dimensional in his thinking. The movie also featured Poirot in full rant – against a British Army office at the beginning of the story, and against the suspects, following the revelation scene. In fact, this last scene struck me as an exercise in hammy acting that made Albert Finney’s slightly mannered 1974 performance looked absolutely restrained.

Unfortunately, most of the cast did not fare any better. Joseph Mawle, who portrayed the Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli, gave a poor attempt at an American accent. His British accent kept getting into the way. As for David Morrissey’s portrayal of Colonel Abuthnot, I could only shake my head in disbelief at such over-the-top acting – especially in the scene following Poirot’s revelation of the case. And I never understood the necessity of making the Mary Debenham character so anxious. Jessica Chastain’s performance did not exactly impress me and I found myself longing for the cool and sardonic woman from the novel and the 1974 version. I really did not care for Serge Hazanavicius’ portrayal of Monsieur Bouc, the train’s official. I found his performance to be ridiculously over-the-top and annoying. One could say the same about Toby Jones’ portrayal of Samuel Rachett aka Casetti. Poor Mr. Jones. I have been a big fan of his for the past five years or so, but he was the wrong man for this particular role. What made this movie truly unbearable was the last fifteen to twenty minutes, which became an exercise in overwrought acting by most of the cast. Including Suchet.

There were other aspects of this production that bothered me. I never understood the necessity to change the instigator of the murder plot against Rachett. It made more sense to me to adhere to Christie’s original plot in that regard. And I found the use of religion not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the story. I have nothing against characters with religious beliefs. But I found the scenes featuring both Poirot and Rachett praying in their compartments excessive. The religious topic transformed Poirot into a grim and humorless man.  Even worse, I found myself wondering if Suchet’s Poirot was suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Shock during the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film. He seemed to moving in a state of silent shock, while others – especially Monsieur Bouc – talked around him.  As for Rachett . . . I can only assume that the sight of him praying inside his compartment was supposed to be an indicator of his remorse over his crimes against Daisy Armstrong. Or did fear, instigated by a series of threatening letters, drove him to prayer? If so, the scene clumsily contradicted his other actions aboard the train – snarling at his employees and Pierre Michel, and propositioning Mary Debenham. The topic of religion also produced a tiresome scene filled with overwrought acting by Marie-Josée Croze, in which her character – Greta Ohlsson – lectured Poirot about the differences between Catholics and Protestants in regard to justice, revenge, forgiveness and remorse.

I found the stoning scene in Istanbul completely unnecessary and rather distasteful. I found it distasteful, because the scene changed Poirot’s character and allowed him to harbor a laissez faire attitude over the incident. Poirot also used the stoning scene to indulge in an excessive lecture to Mary Debenham about justice. He was right about the stoning being a part of a custom that no foreign visitor had a right to interfere. But his entire attitude about the matter did not seem like the Hercule Poirot I had become familiar with from Christie’s books, the movies and the ”POIROT”series. Worse, the incident provided a contradicting viewpoint on vigilantism and justice. Think about it. Poirot said nothing against the stoning, which was an act of vigilantism, because not only did he view it as a foreign custom, but also as an act of justice against someone who had sinned. Yet, at the same time, he expressed outrage and disgust over Rachett’s murder – also an act of vigilantism. The entire topic reeked of hypocrisy and bad writing.

”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” possessed some virtues that its filmmakers could boast about. Performances from Samuel West, Brian J. Smith, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey and especially Denis Menochet were first-rate. There were no over-the-top costumes that left me shaking my head. And thankfully, the Hector McQueen character strongly resembled the literary version. On the other hand, the movie seemed riddled with unnecessary changes that either lacked common sense or damaged the story. Its additions of the religion topic and stoning incident simply made matters worse in regard to story and characterization. And a good deal of hammy acting abounded in the movie and made me wince with discomfort, especially from David Suchet. In conclusion, this”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be a disappointing affair for me.