The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in chronological:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” (2009) Review

 

“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” (2009) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

 

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

I am probably the last person on this earth who would associate Angelina Jolie with a Disney film, let alone one made for children. Then again, I have never seen Jolie in another movie like her recent film, “MALEFICENT”.

Despite some adult themes found in this new film, I honestly believe that “MALEFICENT” is basically a movie for children. It is not just based upon Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, but also the Disney Studios’ 1959 animated adaptation, “SLEEPING BEAUTY”. Only this film is told with a twist. Some would say with a feminist twist. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay features the story’s main villainess, the evil and vindictive fairy, Maleficent, as the movie’s main protagonist. The film begins with Maleficent as a young and powerful fairy who serves as the main protector of a fairy realm called Moors that borders a human kingdom ruled by ruthless monarch named King Henry, who covets it. Maleficent befriends a young boy named Stefan, who works as a kitchen servant for the king.

The years pass as Maleficent and Stefan’s friendship grows to something close to a romance. But King Henry’s latest attempt to invade Moors leads him to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage and his kingdom to the man able to kill Maleficent. Ambitious and longing to rise above his station, Stefan sets out to collect the bounty on his old friend. Unable to kill her because of their friendship, Stefan drugs Maleficent and burns her wings off with iron (a substance lethal to fairies) and presents the latter to King Henry as proof of her death. Stefan eventually marries King Henry’s daughter, Princess Leila, and eventually assumes the throne following his father-in-law’s death. When Maleficent learns about the birth of Stefan and Leila’s infant daughter, Aurora, she appears uninvited at the christening and places a curse on the infant princess. On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep. After Stefan is forced by Maleficent to beg for his daughter, she alters the curse with the addition that it can be broken by true love’s kiss. Stefan arranges for Aurora to be raised by three pixie fairies – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit. And despite her initial dislike of Aurora, Maleficent begins to secretly care about the girl, when the neglectful pixie fairies fail to take properly care of her.

There is a good number of elements for “MALEFICENT” that I found very admirable. I believe it is one of the more visually stunning films I have seen in recent years. A great deal of credit has to go to Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman’s production designs. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing medieval life . . . at least in a fantasy world. Dean Semler’s photography of parts of rural England, which served as King Stefan’s realm, added to the movie’s visual style. But the work from the special effects team, especially for creation of the fairy realm and other sequences that featured magic, truly enhanced the movie’s visual style. I also have to add a word about Anna B. Sheppard’s costume designs for the film. I could wax lyrical on how beautiful they looked. But there are times when I believe that images can speak louder than words:

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I will not claim that Sheppard’s costumes are an accurate reflection of medieval fashion. But . . . hey! I cannot deny that I found them beautiful.

As for the plot for “MALEFICENT”, I cannot deny that it proved to be something of a conundrum for me. Woolverton’s screenplay and Robert Stromberg’s direction clearly seemed to hint that it is basically a movie for children. The dialogue, the movie’s style of humor and especially its use of the three fairy sisters as the movie’s comic relief practically screams “Kiddie Film” to me. And yet . . . Woolverton’s screenplay also featured elements that seemed to indicate a movie with strong adult themes. The most obvious element proved to be the theft of Maleficent’s wings. Unless I am mistaken, the entire scene struck me as a metaphor for rape. Think about it. Stefan drugs Maleficent (a stand-in for any rape drug) to knock her unconscious. Using iron – an indication of violence – he physically violates her by burning off her wings. The relationship that develops between Maleficent and Aurora not only proved to be unexpected, but is given a feminist twist. Aside from Maleficent’s relationship with her aide Diaval, a raven whom she had saved by transforming him into a human; the male-female relationships in this movie proved to be either ineffective or disastrous. Even the use of “True Love’s Kiss” had a twist I had failed to foresee . . . until several minutes before it actually occurred.

There have been other productions – both television and film – that mixed elements of children’s stories and adult themes. ABC Television’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” seemed to use a great deal of adult themes in its twist on fairy tales. Yet, the series continues to maintain some semblance of childlike morality in its portrayal of magic. J.K. Rowling’s “HARRY POTTER” literary (and film adaptations) series becomes increasingly ambiguous as the saga progresses. And aside from the first film, George Lucas’ “STAR WARS” film saga strikes me as a case study of moral ambiguity with touches of humor and characterizations for children. But these science-fiction/fantasy sagas seem capable of balancing humor and storytelling for children with adult themes.

I cannot say the same about “MALEFICENT”. The movie’s childish humor – courtesy of the three fairy sisters – struck me as heavy-handed and not at all funny. I also believe the movie’s 97-minute running time made it difficult for Woolverton’s script to maintain that balance between children and adult themes. More importantly, the movie’s running time forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the story forward at a unnecessarily fast pace, especially during the movie’s last half hour. Other aspects of the plot – Maleficent’s background, her relationships with both Stefan and Diaval, and especially her developing relationship with Aurora. But there are two aspects that struck me as rushed – namely Aurora’s relationship with the fairy sisters (which barely seemed to exist) and the last half hour in which the sleeping curse is played out. I cannot help but wonder if Disney’s penchant for cinematic penny-pinching forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the movie’s climatic act.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Angelina Jolie was outstanding as the movie’s protagonist, the fairy Maleficent. Being the top-notch actress that she is, Jolie effortlessly captured every nuance of Maleficent’s character – both the good and the bad. I have been a great admirer of Sharlto Copley in the past – with the exception of his villainous turn in the 2013 sci-fi movie, “ELYSIUM”. Thankfully, his complex portrayal of this movie’s villain, King Stefan, reminded me of his skill at portraying complex roles. At first, Elle Fanning seemed to be stuck with a role that struck me very sweet, kind . . . and boring. Fortunately for her, the Princess Aurora character became more interesting in the movie’s second half and Fanning got the chance to show off her acting chops – especially in the scene in which Aurora confronts Maleficent about the curse.

The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Riley as Maleficent’s confidant Diaval, Kenneth Cranham as King Henry and Hannah New as Queen Leila. I have been longtime fans of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple. But I have to be honest – I was not that impressed by their portrayals of the three fairy sisters. It was quite obvious to me that Staunton, Manville and Temple did their best to make the three sisters – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit – interesting. Nor can I accuse them of bad acting. They were obviously giving it their all. There are times when external forces have a way of affecting an actor or actress’ performance, whether due to bad direction or bad writing. In the case of the three actresses who portrayed Aurora’s fairy guardians, I suspect their performances were sabotaged by Linda Woolverton’s writing. The screenwriter’s sense of humor struck me as subtle as a stampeding buffalo. I also believe that her screenplay may have hampered Brenton Thwaites’ performance as Prince Philip. How can I put it? Thwaites gave a bland and boring performance, because he was forced to portrayed a bland and boring character. The 1959 animated version of the prince had more zing than this latest version. And I blame Woolverton’s screenplay, not the actor.

Do not get me wrong. I rather liked “MALEFICENT”. I found it to be a visually stunning film with some strong moral ambiguity in its plot and in some of the major characters, and a solid cast led by outstanding performances from Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley. I also enjoyed the feminist twist on the “Sleeping Beauty” tale. But due to some flawed characterizations and a failure to balance both the children and adult theme in its plot, I can honestly say that I did not love “MALEFICENT”.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.

“HOT FUZZ” (2007) Review

“HOT FUZZ” (2007) Review

I have never never seen “SHAUN OF THE DEAD”. Nor have I ever seen “SPACED”, the TV series that first made British comics Simon Pegg and Nick Frost well known. And if I must be honest, I never really had any intention of seeing “HOT FUZZ” in the theaters. Until I saw the commercials for the movie on television five years ago. Thank God I had changed my mind. 

“HOT FUZZ” tells the story of New Scotland Yard police constable, Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg), whose uber-dedication to law and order, spotless arrest record (400% superior to his colleagues), and no-nonsense personality drives his superiors (which include Bill Nighy and Steve Coogan) to promote him to sergeant . . . and reassign him to the supposedly crime-free village of Sanford. Feeling like a fish out of water, Sergeant Angel struggles to adjust to rural crime fighting (like arresting underaged drinkers and a drunken future partner; and searching for a missing pet swan) and the slightly offbeat citizens of Sanford – especially his new partner, the affable Constable Danny Butterman (Nick Frost). What starts out as a mind-numbing experience for Angel, becomes intriguing when Sanford is rocked (well, as far as the intrepid police sergeant is concerned) by a series of grisly accidents. Angel eventually uncover the truth behind the so-called accidents. With the help of the eager Butterman (who happens to be an action movie fan) and the seemingly inept Sanford Police, Angel brings the . . . uh, guilty party to justice in a blaze of action-stylle gunplay.

Not only is “HOT FUZZ” one of the funniest movies I have seen in years, the screenwriters (director Edgar Wright and star Pegg) have created an array of eccentric and memorable characters that include Oscar winner Jim Broadbent (who plays Danny’s equally affable chief of police dad, Frank Butterman) and Billie Whitelaw (“THE OMEN” fame) and BAFTA nominee Anne Reid (“THE MOTHER”). Also portraying some of the villagers are a collection of British talent from famous action-adventure sagas – Timothy Dalton (the 4th James Bond), Edward Woodward (“THE EQUALIZER”), Paul Freeman (Belloq in “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”), David Threlfall (“PATRIOT GAMES”) and Stuart Wilson (“LETHAL WEAPON 3”). Even Pegg has appeared as an IMF computer tech and agent in the last two “MISSION IMPOSSIBLE” movies. And they are all hilarious . . . especially Dalton’s smarmy supermarket owner who reminds me of a stock villain straight out of“THE PERILS OF PAULINE”.

I must admit that I truly enjoyed watching Nick Frost’s Danny get under Angel’s skin. Not only was he extremely funny – and witty, but he was also so charming that it was easy how he managed to break down Angel’s chilly exterior and befriend the London cop. And his penchant for American action films has endeared me to his character more than ever. I suffer from the same penchant.

But the real revelation – at least for me – turned out to be Sergeant Nicholas Angel, portrayed with such humorless zeal by star, Simon Pegg. Straight arrow types usually turn out to be the hero or anti-hero’s long-suffering superior or rival in many action films. And it is usually the screw-up or anti-social characters who turn out to be the main character that end up being transferred away from the action. But in “HOT FUZZ”, Angel’s zealous competence causes him to lose his girlfriend (Cate Blanchett in a cameo), but earn the antipathy of his Scotland Yard colleagues (who are eager to get rid of him). I cannot explain it, but is something about Angel that I found very appealing and funny. I guess I simply found him fascinating. In real life, this guy would have seriously annoyed me. But thanks to great writing and Pegg’s tight performance, I found myself rooting for him. The ironic thing about Nick Angel is that he will eventually discover that his nemesis is just as anal as he. Danny Butterman turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.

Some critics have complained that “HOT FUZZ” seemed to long for a comedy with a running time of 121 minutes. Considering that the movie was a send-up of action movies, which usually ran at two hours, I saw nothing wrong with the movie’s length. To be honest, I was too busy laughing to notice. I have to say that without a doubt, “HOT FUZZ” is one of the funniest movies I have seen since . . . one of Danny Butterman’s favorite movies, “BAD BOYS 2” and “STARSKY AND HUTCH” (both were released in 2003). It has become increasingly difficult to find a comedy that is smart and filled with rich characterization. “HOT FUZZ” can also boast some memorable scenes that I will never forget:

-Sergeant Angel’s New Scotland Yard superiors giving him the news about his reassignment
-Angel’s first night in Sanford (which includes arresting his future partner)
-David Threlfall and Lucy Punch’s hilarious take on “ROMEO AND JULIET”
-Police Constable Doris Thatcher’s witty repartee after dealing with one of Simon Skinner’s employees
-Danny Butterman’s send up on a scene from “POINT BREAK”
-Angel and Skinner’s crazy hand-to-hand fight amidst a model of Sanford.

“HOT FUZZ” managed to reach American theaters at least two weeks before the start of the Hollywood summer season. And already, it has become one of my favorite movies from 2007. It is a hilariously rich and sharp tale about murder, consipiracy and a great friendship. Thank you Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

I have read several novels about the historic event known as the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-1858 (aka The Indian Mutiny, or aka the First War of Indian Independence). And the main characters in each novel have been British. I have not seen one movie about the event. And after seeing 2005’s ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”, I still have not seen one movie about the Sepoy Rebellion. But this is the first movie I have seen that touches upon the subject. 

Actually, ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is really a prelude to the Sepoy Rebellion itself. Directed by Farrukh Dhondy, it is based upon the life of Mandey Pandey, an Indian sepoy (soldier) of the British East India Company, who served as the catalyst for the 1857-58 rebellion. The movie began with Pandey facing execution for violently protesting against the use of new rifles issued by the East India Company. Pandey, along with his fellow soldiers believe that the rifles’ cartridges have been greased by animal fat – beef, pork or both. Since many Hindus and Muslims view this as an abhorrent, they consider the cartridges an insult to their religious beliefs. Pandey’s conflict with the Company (East India Company) rule also manifests in a few violent clashes with an aggressive and bigoted British officer named Hewson. In the end, not even Pandey’s friendship with his company’s sympathetic commander, Captain William Gordon, can save him from being convicted and executed by the regimental commander. His execution eventually inspired other sepoys to view him as a martyr and continue the major revolt against British rule he has instigated.

I have been aware of ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” for nearly two years – ever since I read about it on theWikipedia site. But I never thought I would get a chance to view it, until I discovered that Netflix offered the movie for rent. And if I have to be perfectly honest, it is a pretty damn good film. However, it is not perfect. I suspect that it is not historically accurate. This does not bother me, considering that most historical dramas are not completely accurate. However, I have one minor and one major complaint about the movie. My minor complaint centered on the occasionally melodramatic dialogue of the British characters. Aside from Toby Stephens, who portrayed William Gordon and Coral Beed, who portrayed the daughter of the regimental commander, Emily Kent; I was not that impressed by the British cast. I found them rather hammy at times. However, I had a real problem with the occasional musical numbers that interrupted the story’s flow. The last thing I wanted to see in a costumed epic about a historical figure are three to five minute musical numbers. They seemed out of place in such a film.

But if I have to be honest, there was one musical number that did not interrupt the story’s flow. It featured a dance number in which a group of courtesans – led by a woman named Heera. Heera’s performance attracted the drunken attention of Pandey’s main foe, Lieutenant Hewson. And Pandey found himself in a fight against the British officer to prevent the latter from pawing and sexually assaulting Heera. But that was simply one of many interesting dramatic scenes featured in”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”. Another featured a tense moment in which Pandey attempts to help Gordon convincing the other sepoys that the cartridges used in the new rifles are not greased with animal fat, by loading the rifle. However, this action backfires when Pandey eventually becomes convinced that he had been wrong. But the cartridges and Pandey’s reaction to them turn out to be the tip of the iceberg in the conflict between the growing resentment of the sepoy and the British rulers.

Although most of the movie centered on the dark aspects of the British Empire, it did touch upon one aspect of Indian culture with a negative note – namely the funeral practice of sati. Pandey and Gordon had saved a young Indian widow from the sati funeral pyre and Gordon spent the rest of the film saving her from being killed by her in-laws. However, the movie is about Mangal Pandey and the negative aspects of British imperial rule by 1850s India. The movie featured the corruption generated by the East India Company’s production of opium in India and its trade in China. The movie also featured the continuation of the slave trade in which Indian women are used as sexual slaves for the Company’s officer corp. This introduced one the movie’s major characters, the courtesan named Heera, who bluntly expressed her view on the Indian male population who willingly sign up to serve the East India Company’s army. When Pandey expressed his contempt toward women like her for selling their bodies, she responded with equal contempt at all of those who ”sold their souls” to the East India Company. All of the resentment over British rule and the distrust regarding the new Enfield rifles and the greased cartridges finally spilled over in an ugly encounter between Pandey and Lieutenant Hewson. Their second encounter became even uglier when Hewson and a group of fellow officers pay Pandey a visit at the regiment’s jail to brutally assault the imprisoned sepoy even further. Violence finally spilled over when Pandey convinced the other sepoys to mutiny. And after he is executed, the mutiny at the Barrackpore will inspire other sepoys throughout many parts of India to rebel against British rule.

I was not exaggerating when I say that most of the performances by the British cast members came off as over-the-top. A prime example was Ben Nealon’s portrayal of Pandey’s main nemesis, Lieutenant Hewson. One could say that Nealon was at a disadvantage from the start. His character was just as one-dimensional as many non-white characters that could be found in old Hollywood movies with a similar setting. However, Coral Beed, who portrayed Emily, the daughter of the Barrackpore commander, fared better. In a way, Emily came off as another cliché from the British Imperial literature of the 20th century – the young, open-minded English girl who is not only sympathetic to the Indians, but also interested in their culture. But Beed managed to portray this cliché without coming off as a second-rate version of the Daphne Manners character from 1984 miniseries, ”THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN”. Fortunately, most of the Indian cast did not engage in hammy acting. However, there was one exception – the actor who portrayed the “Untouchable” sweeper who mocked Pandey for demonstrating the new Enfield rifle. I do not know his name, but gave the hammiest performance in the entire movie. I felt as if I was watching an Indian version of a court jester perform. Perhaps that was director Dhondy’s intent. If it was, it did not work for me. However, I found myself very impressed by Rani Mukherjee’s performance as Pandey’s love interest, the courtesan Heera. Mind you, I found the idea of a devout Hindu like Pandey becoming romantically involved in a prostitute – especially one used to service British officers hard to believe. But I must admit that Mukherjee and actor Aamir Khan (who portrayed Pandey) had a strong screen chemistry. And the actress did give a very charismatic performance.

Finally we come to the movie’s two lead actors – Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. And both actors gave superb performances. Aamir Khan is considered one of India’s biggest stars. He is at times compared to George Clooney. Well, he deserves the comparison. Not only is he a handsome man, but he also possesses a dynamic screen presence and is a first-rate actor. And he did an excellent job of developing Mangal Pandey’s character from the loyal sepoy who seemed to be satisfied with his life, to the embittered rebel whose actions instigated a major uprising. Khan conveyed this development with great skill and very expressive eyes. Toby Stephens was equally impressive as the British East India officer, Captain William Gordon. One might find his character a little hard to digest, considering that he is portrayed as being very sympathetic to the Indian populace and their culture (save for the sati ritual) with hardly any personal flaws. Fortunately, Stephens is skillful enough as an actor to rise above such one-dimensional characterization and portray Gordon as an emotionally well-rounded individual.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is not perfect. It has its flaws, which include some hammy acting and questionable historic accuracy. But its virtues – an interesting and in-depth study of a man who made such an impact upon both Indian and British history; superb acting – especially by the two leads Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens; and a rich production made it a movie worth watching. It is rare for a Westerner to view or read a story relating to the Sepoy Rebellion from the Indian point-of-view. I am aware that other movies, novels and history books have focused on the topic from a non-British POV. But “MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” was my first experience with this point-of-view and I believe that director Ketan Mehta and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy did a pretty solid job.

“VALKYRIE” (2008) Review

“VALKYRIE” (2008) Review

When I had first learned that ”VALKYRIE”, a movie about the final assassination attempt upon Adolf Hitler, would be released on Christmas Day . . . I was surprised. Honestly. And my response had nothing to do any opinion I have about the film. Let me explain.

One has to understand that ”VALKYRIE” had gone through a great deal of turmoil to get made. Whatever problems the movie’s production had encountered, its biggest obstacle turned out to be the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role of Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the architect of this last assassination attempt that occurred on July 20, 1944. Many German politicians protested against the idea of a practicing Scientologist like Cruise portraying someone who has become regarded as a hero for his opposition against Hitler. Even members of von Stauffenberg’s family joined in the protest. The filmmakers of ”VALKYRIE” initially had difficulty setting up filming locations in Germany due to the controversy, but they were later given leeway to film in locations pertaining to the film’s story, such as Berlin’s historic Bendlerblock. Also, Cruise’s popularity with the American public had sunk over the past several years. Considering that many of the negative comments about the actor seemed to have stemmed from his Scientology beliefs, it seemed to me that religious bigotry had played a large role in the hard feelings against him.

Early in 2008, MGM/United Artists had released trailers of ”VALKYRIE”. Personally, I found them impressive and was happy to learn that the movie was scheduled for a June 2008 theater release. But due to the poor response to the trailers and MGM/United Artists’s initial marketing campaign, the studio executives moved the movie’s release date from June 2008 to February 2009. I was also surprised to learn that ”VALKYRIE” had another black mark against it – namely director Bryan Singer. He had built a reputation as a first-rate director with movies such as ”THE USUAL SUSPECTS” and the first two films from the ”X-MEN” franchise. Unfortunately, his reputation hit a snag when the release of the over-budgeted ”SUPERMAN RETURNS” failed to impress the critics and make a profit for the studio that released it. I figured that MGM/United Artists was simply going to allow ”VALKYRIE” languish in the theaters during the off season following Christmas, never to be heard of until its DVD release. Thankfully, MGM/United Artists proved me wrong. A few months ago, the studio executives announced that ”VALKYRIE” would be released on Christmas Day for the movies holiday season. When the film was finally released, I rushed out to see it as soon as I possibly could.

As I had earlier stated, ”VALKYRIE” told the story of the July 20, 1944 plot by German army officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Ever since the years before World War II, there had been a growing number of dissidents that viewed Hitler as the wrong man to be Germany’s leader. This opposition – which included German officers like Ludwig Beck, Henning von Tresckow and Claus von Stauffenberg – led to a series of assassination attempts on Hitler, including one plotted by von Tresckow in March 1943. By September 1943, one of the dissidents, General Friedrich Olbricht, recruited Lieutenant-Colonel von Stauffenberg into their ranks. It was his plan – code name”Valkyrie” – that led to the last attempt to kill Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. Directed by Bryan Singer, the movie stars Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg. The cast also includes Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Jamie Parker, Eddie Izzard, Christian Berkel, David Schofield, Kevin McNally, Thomas Kretschmann and Tom Wilkinson. Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander wrote the screenplay.

I might as well get around to it and reveal my opinion of ”VALKYRIE”. In a nutshell . . . I loved it. Which surprised me a great deal. I had expected to like ”VALKYRIE”, considering the cast, the director and the subject matter. Or at least find it interesting. I had no idea that I would end up experiencing a gauntlet of emotions while watching it. Mere curiosity was the only emotion I had felt, while the movie introduced the main characters and revealed the incidents that led to von Stauffenberg’s decision to join the conspiracy against Hitler. By the time the movie focused upon the assassination attempt and the coup against the S.S., I felt myself growing tense with anxiety and anticipation. By the time the conspirators’ plot began to unravel, the tension I felt had been replaced by dread. And when von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were being captured and executed, I watched the scenes unfold with tears in my eyes. Curious, especially since I knew how the story would end.

The excellent performances by the cast turned out to be one of the reasons why ”VALKYRIE”struck such an emotional chord within me. This is also one of the reasons why I like Bryan Singer as a director. He knows how to utilize his cast – whether each performer has a major role or not. And Singer made the best of what proved to be a first-rate cast. I could go into details about every actor or actress in the cast, but I must admit that a handful managed to catch my attention. One member of the cast turned out to be Thomas Kretschmann, who portrayed Major Otto Ernst Remer, head of a Reserve Army battalion. The actor’s sardonic portrayal of Remer amused me to no end. Tom Wilkinson gave a top-notch performance as General Friedrich Fromm, head of Germany’s Reserve Army in Berlin. Wilkinson did an excellent job of portraying the treacherous general with a slight touch of sympathy. Another actor that caught my attention was Jamie Parker. He portrayed Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, an adjutant to von Stauffenberg who helped the latter carry out the plot. Parker did a great job in portraying von Haeften’s intense loyalty to von Stauffenberg. In fact, he and Cruise managed to create a strong screen chemistry together. Terence Stamp was excellent as the reserved, yet strong-willed Ludwig Beck, a former Army general whose opposition against Hitler began in the late 1930s and served as the conspirators’ figurehead. Bill Nighy portrayed General Friedrich Olbricht, Chief of the Armed Forces Replacement Office (Wehrersatzamt) at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and the original architect of the plan, Operation Valkyrie. It was Olbricht who recruited von Stauffenberg into the conspiracy. For the past five to six years, I have always regarded Nighy as some kind of chameleon. And with his performance, he did an excellent job of revealing at both the vacillating and stalwart sides of Olbricht’s nature.

But the true focus of ”VALKYRIE” was Claus von Stauffenberg and it was Tom Cruise’s job to make this man believable to the audience. Some critics have complained that Cruise had failed to capture the essence of von Stauffenberg’s character as an aristocrat. Many of them blamed this on the actor’s American accent. Personally, I find this criticism to be a load of crap. After all, the 1988 version of b>”DANGEROUS LIAISONS”</b> featured American actors portraying French aristocrats . . . with American accents. And I do not recall any complaints about their performances. I especially find the criticisms against Cruise ludicrous, considering that most of the cast featured British actors – using accents from all over the British Isles. What was my view of Cruise’s performance as Claus von Stauffenberg? I thought he was excellent. His portrayal of the German Army officer was that of a hero – and a very stalwart one at that. On the other hand, Cruise also did a first-rate job of capturing von Stauffenberg’s arrogance – a trait that was probably a by-product of his aristocratic background. This trait also managed to get the officer into a great deal of trouble even before his participation in the assassination attempt. But . . . most of the critics were too busy being distracted by Cruise’s American accent, while paying scant attention to the British accents of many of the other actors. Go figure.

Anyone familiar with Claus von Stauffenberg or the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler would have known the outcome of the movie’s story. I certainly did. But despite my knowledge of the outcome, I found myself being caught up in the suspense of the story, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher MacQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. I had assumed that most of the story would center on the conspirators’ plotting and set up of the assassination attempt. I had no idea there was more to the story surrounding the incident – namely the coup perpetrated by von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators against Hitler and the S.S. Nor did I have any idea that knowing how the story would end, I would find myself rooting . . . hoping that the conspirators would succeed in their plans. Or escape Hitler’s wrath. The only hiccup in the movie – at least for me – was the introduction of Major General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) into the story. I found it confusing. Was he already part of the conspiracy when von Stauffenberg first approached? Or what? For me, it was only misstep in an otherwise superb script.

With a first-rate cast led by Tom Cruise, along with Christopher MacQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s script, Bryan Singer directed an exciting and suspenseful tale that managed to tap into a great deal of emotions for me. From my personal view, I believe that ”VALKYRIE” was one of the better movies of 2008.