“NORTHANGER ABBEY” (2007) Review

“NORTHANGER ABBEY” (2007) Review

As far as I know, there have only been two screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel, “Northanger Abbey”. The first adaptation aired back in 1986. And the most recent aired on Britain’s ITV network back in 2007, as part of a series of dramas called Jane Austen Season.

“NORTHANGER ABBEY” followed the misadventures of Catherine Morland, the 17 year-old daughter of a country clergyman and Gothic novel aficianado. She is invited by her parents’ wealthy friends, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, to accompany them on a visit the famous spa city, Bath. There, the friendly and somewhat naive Catherine becomes acquainted with Isabella Thorpe (who becomes engaged to her brother James), and her crude brother, John. She also befriends Eleanor Tilney and falls in love with the latter’s brother, the witty and charming clergyman, Henry.

The Thorpes are displeased with Catherine’s friendship with the Tilneys, due to John’s interest in making her his future wife. Both sister and brother assume that Catherine might become the future heir of the childless Allens. But when Catherine’s relationship with the Tilneys – especially Henry – grows closer, a jealous Mr. Thorpe plays a prank by falsely informing Henry and Eleanor’s father, the tyrannical General Tilney, that Catherine is an heiress. The joke leads the Tilney patriarch to invite Catherine to spend some time at the family’s estate, Northanger Abbey. There, Catherine and Henry’s relationship become romantic. However, between her penchant for Gothic novels, her overactive imagination and Mr. Thorpe’s lie; Catherine’s stay at Northanger Abbey threatens to end in disaster.

My review of the 1986 version of Austen’s tale made it pretty clear that I harbored a low opinion of it. Fortunately, I cannot say the same about this 2007 version. Mind you, there were aspects of it that I found troubling.

As in the 1986 television movie, a castle (this time Lismore Castle in Ireland) served as Northanger Abbey. Was finding an actual estate with an abbey that difficult to find? Also, screenwriter Andrew Davies seemed determined to inject some form of overt sexuality into his recent adaptations of Austen novels. In “NORTHANGER ABBEY”, he allowed the engaged Isabella Thorpe to have sex with the lecherous Captain Frederick Tilney, instead of simply flirting with him. My biggest problem with the movie turned out to be the last fifteen minutes or so. Quite frankly, I found the finale somewhat rushed. For some reason, Davies decided to exclude General Tilney’s reconciliation with Catherine and Henry.

Frankly, I found the movie’s flaws rather minor in compare to its virtues. I thought “NORTHANGER ABBEY” was a fun and delicious soufflé that proved to be one of the most entertaining 93 minutes I have ever seen on television. It is a wonderfully funny and elegant tale about the coming-of-age of the 17 year-old Catherine Morland. Andrew Davies did a pretty good job of conveying not only the charm of Catherine, but also the personal flaws that prevented her from opening her eyes to the realities of the world. But her acquaintance with the Thorpe siblings, General Tilney’s vindictiveness and Henry Tilney’s practicality finally opened those eyes. Another aspect of “NORTHANGER ABBEY” that I truly enjoyed was the array of interesting characters that participated in Catherine’s journey to young adulthood. And it took a cast of first-rate actors to bring these characters to life.

Unlike other Austen fans, I had not been impressed by Sylvestra Le Touzel’s portrayal of Fanny Price in the 1983 miniseries, “MANSFIELD PARK”. Her performance as the giddy Mrs. Allen is another matter. Le Touzel gave a deliciously zany performance as Catherine’s flighty and social-loving benefactress. And it is amazing how the actress’ skills had improved after 24 years. Liam Cunningham made an impressive and rather foreboding General Tilney. In fact, he struck me as so intimidating that a black cloud seemed to hover about every time he appeared on the screen. William Beck, who portrayed the brutish John Thorpe, did not strike me as intimidating . . . only sinister. From a physical perspective. Yet, the moment the actor skillfully embodied the character, his Mr. Thorpe became a gauche and desperate loser who injected a “demmed” in nearly every other sentence that left his mouth. Carey Mulligan was wonderfully radiant, sexy and scheming as the manipulative Isabella Thorpe. She almost seemed like an intelligent Regency sexpot, whose lack of impulse control led to her downfall. And Catherine Walker made a charming and intelligent Eleanor Tilney.

However, it seemed quite obvious to me that “NORTHANGER ABBEY” belonged to the two leads – Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild. The role of Catherine Morland proved to be Felicity Jones’ first leading role as an actress. And she proved that she was more than up to the challenge. She did an excellent job of portraying Catherine’s development from an innocent and over-imaginative bookworm to a slightly sadder and wiser young woman. More importantly, her chemistry with J.J. Feild literally crackled with fire. Speaking of Mr. Feild, I can honestly say that his Henry Tilney is, without a doubt, my favorite on-screen Austen hero of all time. Everything about his performance struck me as absolutely delicious – his charm, his pragmatism, his wicked wit and occasional cynicism and especially his voice. Pardon me for my shallowness, but Feild has one of the most spine-tingling voices among up and coming actors, today.

I also have to commend the movie’s production values. David Wilson’s production designs did an excellent job of conveying viewers back to the second half of the Regency decade. He was ably assisted by Mark Lowry’s art direction and Grania Preston’s costume designs, which struck me as simple, yet elegant and stylish. But it was Ciarán Tanham’s photography that really impressed me. The movie’s colors were rich and vibrant, yet at the same time, rather elegant. Tanham’s photography did much to project the movie’s elegant, yet colorful style.

I would never consider “NORTHANGER ABBEY” as one of the heavy-hitting Jane Austen adaptations. But it has such an elegant, yet witty aura about it that I cannot help but enjoy it very much. I was also impressed by Andrew Davies’ development of the Catherine Morland character, which lead actress Felicity Jones did a great job of transferring to the screen. “NORTHANGER ABBEY” is, without a doubt, one of the most likeable Jane Austen adaptation I have ever seen, hands down.

“SAFE HOUSE” (2012) Review

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“SAFE HOUSE” (2012) Review

One of the first hits of the year 2012 turned out to be a neat little political thriller called “SAFE HOUSE” that was directed by Daniel Espinosa. 

Penned by David Guggenheim, “SAFE HOUSE” is about a young and ambitious C.I.A. agent named Matt Weston, whose present assignment is the “housekeeper” of an Agency safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. When ex-C.I.A. agent-turned-international criminal Tobin Frost turns himself in to a nearby U.S. consulate, Weston is informed by his superiors at Langley that Tobin will be brought to the safe house by an Agency torturer named Daniel Kiefer and his men. Weston watches the torture, until the process is interrupted by mercenaries led by a man named Vargas. He has been after Frost for some information that the latter acquired from an MI-6. Kiefer and the other C.I.A. agents are killed by Vargas and his men. And Weston escapes the safe house with Frost as his captive.

As I had stated earlier, “SAFE HOUSE” is a neat little political thriller filled with exciting chase sequences and nail-biting fight scenes. All of this was filmed in and around Cape Town, Africa; which struck me as a refreshingly original setting for a spy thriller. More importantly, screenwriter Guggenheim allowed all of the action to revolve around the computer file that the Tobin Frost character had acquired. The file contained information on the illegal activities of various intelligence officials throughout the world – including those from the C.I.A. The Vargas character had been recruited to get his hands on the file and kill Frost in the process. Due to this subplot, Guggenheim managed to introduce the element of a “mole” within the C.I.A. And the mole in question might either be Weston’s mentor, David Barlow, or the latter’s colleague, Catherine Linklater.

I cannot deny that “SAFE HOUSE” is an entertaining thriller and I could easily see why it did so well at the box office. It possessed a tight plot concerning betrayal. The movie also questioned Weston’s determination to maintain his C.I.A. career by allowing Frost to recount his own intelligence career and the circumstances that led him to turn rogue. However . . . it was not a perfect movie. It has its share of flaws that will never allow it to be considered one of the best spy thrillers to come out of Hollywood.

I have complained in past reviews about the new style of cinematography and editing that has prevailed in action-adventures since the BOURNE movies directed by Paul Greengrass. Yep . . . the same type of cinematography, direction and pacing is also prevalent in “SAFE HOUSE”, thanks to director Daniel Espinoza, cinematographer Oliver Wood and editor Rick Pearson. Oh well. I suppose one has to endure some unpleasant aspects for the sake of a decent story. Speaking of the story . . . well, how can I say this? I enjoyed it. But I must admit that I found it rather predictable. It did not take me very long to figure out the “mole” who had sent Vargas to kill Frost. And I managed to figure out Weston and Frost’s fates at least a half hour before the movie ended.

Thankfully, “SAFE HOUSE” provided plenty of first-rate performances that allowed me to . . . somewhat overlook the movie’s flaws. Some of my favorite Denzel Washington roles have always been those that reeked of moral ambiguity. And Tobin Frost proved to be one of his most ambiguous roles to date. I must admit that I was a bit surprised by his character’s goal by the film’s last twenty minutes. I had assumed that his position as a rogue agent was a means to bring justice to the “mole” within the C.I.A. or in protest of some operation that threatened innocents. I was wrong. His actions had been purely motivated by greed. Yet, I could not help cheering him on, as he managed to evade his pursuers throughout the movie. Ryan Reynolds portrayed a less ambiguous role – namely the inexperienced C.I.A. agent Matt Weston, who has ambitions to rise within the Agency. Reynolds is already in his mid-30s, yet he did a first-rate job in capturing the naivety and ambitions of someone who could be at least a decade younger. This allowed Reynolds convey Weston’s gradual maturity with great skill. By the end of the movie, his Weston almost seemed like a completely different from the young man at the beginning of the film.

“SAFE HOUSE” also boasted some solid performances from Sam Shephard, who portrayed the garrulous C.I.A. Director Harlan Whitford; Vera Farmiga as C.I.A. operative Catherine Linklater, who seems determined to believe that Weston is a fellow conspirator of Frost’s; Liam Cunningham as the MI-6 agent who provided Frost with the files; Rubén Blades as a former contact of Frost’s, whose help he seeks in a local Cape Town township; Robert Patrick, who gave his character – C.I.A. torturer Daniel Kiefer – a sharp air of professionalism; and Nora Arnezeder, as Whitford’s French girlfriend, who left confused by his sudden determination to distance himself from her. My favorite supporting performance came from Brendan Gleeson, whose portrayal of Weston’s mentor, David Barlow, seemed to rival Washington’s when in regard to moral ambiguity. Gleeson injected enough mystery into the character to make a viewer wonder if he is the mole or not. At the same, it is quite apparent that he cares about Weston’s career and safety.

“SAFE HOUSE” may not be the best spy thriller to come along in quite a while. I found the plot rather predictable and I was not that impressed by the Greengrass-style photography and editing. But I cannot deny that Daniel Espinoza directed an entertaining thriller, thanks to a solid script written by David Guggenheim and an excellent cast led by Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.

”THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” (2008) Review

 

”THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” (2008) Review

Nearly two years ago, Universal Pictures released its third film in ”THE MUMMY” franchise, starring Brendan Fraser as adventurer Rick O’Connell. This third outing centered around Rick and his family’s attempts to stop the resurrection of a ruthless Chinese emperor in post-World War II China. 

The film began with a narration about the rise to power of Emperor Han (Jet Li), the Dragon Emperor and detailed the relationship between him and Xi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh), who knows the secrets of immortality. Han declared to his first in command General Ming (Russell Wong) that no one is to touch Xi Yuan, however ever since General Ming was charged with finding Xi Yuan and bringing her to Han, he ended up falling for her. After Xi Yuan supposedly cast the immortality spell on Han, he ushered Xi Yuan to the balcony where they look down to see General Ming tied at the arms and legs about to be pulled apart by horses. Han found out about their relationship and killed Ming while Xi Yuan watches. He then stabbed her, but she escaped. Knowing that the Emperor would destroy the world if he were to become immortal, Xi Yuan placed a curse on him and his army to be turned to stone.

The movie shifted to late 1946/early 1947, at a time when explorer Rick O’Connell (Fraser), his archeologist/novelist wife Evelyn (Maria Bello) and brother-in-law Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah) are now retired. Both Rick and Evelyn seemed to be bored with their retirement. Their son Alex (Luke Ford) has dropped out of school and has become what the older O’Connells still long to be, explorers and adventurers. Alex, along with the financial backing of a colleague of his parents, Roger Wilson (David Calder), found and excavated the Dragon Emperor’s tomb and is attacked by a mysterious woman (Isabella Leong). They avoid being harmed and successfully bring the Emperor back to Shanghai, where Jonathan owns a night club called Imhotep. In the meantime, the British government entrusted the elder O’Connells to take the Eye of Shangri-La back to China as a good faith gesture from the British to the Chinese. All the O’Connells end up at Alex’s exhibit in Shanghai. Roger, General Yang (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) and his second in command Choi (Jessey Meng) intervened, taking the Eye of Shangri-La and forcing Evelyn to read the script to open the Eye and release the Emperor. Alex found the mysterious woman from the excavation site at the exhibit and after a quick dialogue, both helped in freeing Alex’s parents. With the resurrected Han escaping with General Yang, the O’Connells chased them through the streets of Shanghai until the Dragon Emperor and Yang escaped. The mysterious woman turned out to be an immortal named Lin a protector of the Dragon Emperors tomb. She also happened to be Xi Yuan and General Ming’s daughter. Lin informed the O’Connells that Han will try to become immortal by going to Shangri-La using the Eye as its guide.

When I had learned that Stephen Sommers, who had directed the first two ”MUMMY” films, would not be returning at the helm to direct this third movie, I had a small suspicion that the latter would not possess the same production values as the first two films. And when Universal Pictures released the news that the film would be released in the second half of the 2008 summer season, instead of in May of that year, my suspicions were confirmed. And I was right. The production values of ”THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” did not seem as impressive as its two predecessors. Aside from the impressive set that served as mid-1940s Shanghai, Simon Duggan’s photography failed to capture the epic grandeur of the first two films.

The cinematography was not the only thing about this film that disappointed me. I must admit that I was not that impressed by the film’s final battle near the Great Wall of China. Everything seemed rushed, as if either the two screenwriters – Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (creators of ”SMALLVILLE”) or the film’s director, Rob Cohen (”THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS” and ”XXX”), were in a rush to end the film. What disappointed me more than anything were the two hand-to-hand fight scenes in the finale. After the spectacular fight between Jet Li and Jackie Chan in ”THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM”, I had expected something just as or nearly as spectacular in the fight scene between Li and Michelle Yeoh. After all, both are martial arts icons who have worked in previous movies together. But it did not last very long. Hell, it barely last two minutes on the screen. And although Li’s fight scene with Fraser did last a longer, it failed to recapture the more interesting fight scene between Fraser and Arnold Vosloo in ”THE MUMMY RETURNS”.

Thankfully, ”THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” possessed even more virtues than flaws. The story of the O’Connell family being manipulated into raising a Chinese mummy turned out to be a solid adventure that took the family from the streets of Shanghai, to the Himalayas, the edge of the fabled Shangri-La and finally China’s famous Great Wall. Even better, the movie told the twofold story of Rick and Evelyn learning and failing to deal with professional retirement and their joy in being led into a new adventure. The movie also featured a family drama centered around the O’Connells’ efforts to re-connect with their only son, Alex.

Even though I had expressed disappointment at the screenwriters and Rob Cohen’s handling of the finale, I must admit that the film featured four sequences that I truly enjoyed. The first featured Alex and Wilson’s discovery of Emperor Han’s tomb and their hostile encounter with Lin. The second sequence occurred in the snowy Himalayas, where the O’Connells, Jonathan and Lin attempt to prevent the resurrected Han from reaching the tower that will reveal the path to Shangri-La when the Eye, a precious blue diamond is placed on top of it, and fight off General Yang and some of his men. There is a short moment in the first half of the movie in which a bored Evelyn tries to inject a little excitement in hers and Rick’s lives by seducing him in a slinky nightgown. Instead of being successful, the desperate Evelyn found Rick sitting in an armchair – fast asleep and snoring. This was one of the most hysterical examples of a mid-life crisis I have ever seen on film and probably the funniest moment in the entire franchise. But the sequence that I truly enjoyed featured the O’Connells’ adventures in Shanghai – from the moment when Rick and Evelyn are reconciled with Alex and Jonathan, to the riotous chase sequence through the streets of Shanghai. I thought it was wonderfully detailed and well staged. The sequence also featured a mean hand-to-hand fight scene between Evelyn and Yang’s second-in-command, Choi. Frankly, I consider their fight the best one in the entire movie.

Both Brendan Fraser and John Hannah returned to reprise their roles of Rick O’Connell and Jonathan Carnahan for the third time. And as they had done in the first two movies, did excellent jobs. Come on. This Brendan and John we are talking about. They can do no wrong in my eyes. I honestly have to say the same about Maria Bello as Evelyn Carnahan O’Connell. I must admit that I had been disappointed when I first learned that Rachel Weisz had decided not to reprise the role of Evelyn. Do not get me wrong. I loved Rachel as Evelyn. But Maria Bello’s portrayal of the character actually made me forget about her. I enjoyed Maria’s performance as Evelyn that much. Her Evelyn is, of course, older and a little more self assured. And like her husband, is bored with life.   And I was surprised to discover that she had a great chemistry with Fraser. I must admit that I felt a little unsure about Luke Ford’s performance as Alex. There were times I found him rather interesting. There were other times when I found his performance a little over-the-top. I also found his accent rather confusing, until I realized that it was neither American nor British. I discovered that Ford was an Australian actor. But his natural accent did not seem effectively hidden. Isabella Leong did a solid job as the young woman who helps the O’Connells stop Han. But I must admit that I found nothing remarkable or extraordinary about her performance. As for Jet Li . . . well, he was perfect. He is one of the few action stars who could portray both heroic and villainous characters effortlessly. And Michelle Yeoh was wonderfully poignant as the Chinese witch, Xi Yuan, whose curse against the treacherous Han set the entire story in motion.

If I must be frank, ”THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” lacked the more prestigious production of the first two films. And its finale was one that I found slightly disappointing. However, it did lack the over-the-top . . . almost screeching quality of the second film – ”THE MUMMY RETURNS”. And thanks to the cast, director Rob Cohen, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, this third ”MUMMY” film turned out to be an entertaining film that one would experience a lot of fun watching. My opinion? Rent it.  You will enjoy it.