“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015) Review

“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015) Review

Ever since I gave up reading the “NANCY DREW” novels at the age of thirteen, I have been a fan of those written by Agatha Christie. And that is a hell of a long time. In fact, my fandom toward Christie’s novels have extended toward the film and television adaptations. Among those stories that have captured my imagination were the adaptations of the author’s 1939 novel, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”.

To be honest, I have seen at least three adaptations of the 1939 novel – the 1945, 1966 and 1974 adaptations – before I had read the novel. Although I found some of the novel’s aspects a bit troubling – namely its original title and minimal use of racial slurs, overall I regard it as one of Christie’s best works . . . if not my favorite. After viewing three cinematic adaptations, I saw the BBC’s recent adaptation that aired back in December 2015 as a three-part miniseries.

I noticed that “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was the first adaptation I have seen that more or less adhered to the novel’s original novel. But it was not the first one that actually did. One of the most famous versions that stuck to the original ending before the 2015 miniseries was the Soviet Union’s 1987 movie called “DESYAT NEGRITYAT”. However, I have never seen this version . . . yet. Anyone familiar with Christie’s novel should know the synopsis. Eight strangers are invited by a mysterious couple known as Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen for the weekend at Soldier Island, off the coast of Devon, England in early August 1939. Well . . . not all of them were invited as guests. Waiting for them is a couple who had been recently hired by the Owens to serve as butler and cook/maid. The weekend’s hosts fail to show up and both the guests and the servants notice the ten figurines that serve as a centerpiece for the dining room table. Following the weekend’s first dinner, the guests and the two servants listen to a gramophone record that accuses each of them with a crime for which they have not been punished. The island’s ten occupants are:

*Dr. Edward Armstrong – a Harley Street doctor who is accused of killing a patient on the operating table, while under the influence of alcohol

*William Blore – a former police detective hired to serve as security for the weekend, who is accused of killing a homosexual in a police cell

*Emily Brent – a religious spinster who is accused of being responsible for the suicide of her maid by abandoning the latter when she became pregnant out of wedlock

*Vera Claythorne – a games mistress hired to serve as Mrs. Owen’s temporary secretary, who is accused of murdering the young boy for whom she had served as a governess

*Philip Lombard – a soldier-of-fortune also hired to serve as security for the weekend, who is accused of orchestrating the murder of 21 East Africans for diamonds

*General John MacArthur – a retired British Army officer accused of murdering a fellow officer, who was his wife’s lover during World War I

*Anthony Marston – a wealthy playboy accused of killing two children via reckless driving

*Ethel Rogers – the maid/cook hired by the Owens, who is accused with her husband of murdering their previous employer

*Thomas Rogers – the butler hired by the Owens, who is accused with his wife of murdering their previous employer

*Justice Lawrence Wargrave – a retired judge accused of murdering an innocent man by manipulating the jury and sentencing him to hang

Shortly after listening to the gramophone, one member of the party dies from poisoning. Following this first death, more people are murdered via methods in synonymous with a nursery rhyme from which the island is named. The murderer removes a figurine from the dining table each time someone is killed. The island’s remaining occupants decide to work together and discover the murderer’s identity before time runs out and no one remains.

From the numerous articles and reviews I have read about the miniseries, I came away with the impression that many viewers and critics approved of its adherence to Christie’s original ending. And yet . . . it still had plenty of changes from the story. The nature of the crimes committed by five or six of the suspects had changed. According to one flashback, Thomas Rogers had smothered (with his wife Ethel looking on) their elderly employer with a pillow, instead of withholding her medicine. General MacArthur literally shot his subordinate in the back of the head, instead of sending the latter to a doomed military action during World War I. Beatrice Taylor, the pregnant girl who had committed suicide, was an orphan in this production. Lombard and a handful of his companions had literally murdered those 21 East Africans for diamonds, instead of leaving them to die with no food or other supplies. And William Blore had literally beaten his victim to death in a jail cell, because the latter was a homosexual. In the novel, Blore had simply framed his victim for a crime, leading the latter to die in prison. I have mixed feelings about some of these changes.

By allowing General MacArthur to literally shoot his wife’s lover, instead of sending the latter to his death in a suicidal charge, I found myself wondering how he got away with this crime. How did MacArthur avoid suspicion, let alone criminal prosecution, considering that Arthur Richmond was shot in the back of the head in one of the trenches? How did the murderer find out? Why did Thomas Rogers kill his employer? For money? How did the couple avoid criminal prosecution, if their employer was smothered with a pillow? Even police forensics back then would have spotted death by smothering. I understand why Phelps had made Beatrice Taylor an orphan. In this scenario, Emily Brent would have been the only one with the authority to reject Beatrice. But what about the latter’s lover? Why did the murderer fail to go after him. And how did Blore evade charges of beating a prisoner to death inside a jail cell? None of his fellow officers had questioned his actions? And if they had kept silent, this made them accessories to his crime. Then why did the murderer fail to go after them, since he or she was willing to target Ethel Rogers for being an accessory to her husband’s crime?

One character that went through something of a major change was Philip Lombard. His aggressiveness and predatory nature remained intact. But for some reason, screenwriter Sarah Phelps had decided to transfer his bigotry to both Emily Brent and William Blore. The screenplay seemed to hint through Lombard’s comments that if those 21 men had been Europeans instead of Africans, he still would have murdered them to get his hand on those diamonds. In fact, he went even further with a tart comment to Miss Brent by accusing European religious fanatics of being more responsible for the deaths of Africans than the military or mercenaries like himself. It was Blore who used a racist slur to dismiss Lombard’s crime. And it was Miss Brent, instead of Lombard, who insulted the mysterious Mr. Owens’ intermediary, Isaac Morris, with an anti-Semetic slur. I can only wonder why Phelps deemed it necessary to transfer Lombard’s bigotry to two other characters.

There were some changes that did not bother me one bit. Certain fans complained about the presence of profanity in this production . . . especially the use of ‘fuck’ by at least two or three characters, who seemed like the types who would use these words. Mild profanity has appeared in previous Christie novels and adaptations. And the word ‘fuck’ has been around since the Sixteenth Century. I really had no problem with this. Phelps also included lesbian tendencies in Emily Brent’s character. There were some complaints about this change. Personally, I had no problem with it. This change added dimension to Miss Brent’s decision to cast out Beatrice Taylor, when the latter ended up pregnant. Episode Three featured a party scene with the four surviving guests in which they indulged in booze and Anthony Marston’s drugs to relieve their anxiety over their situation. It was not included in Christie’s novel, but I thought the scene did a great job in showing the psychological impact upon the remaining characters . . . especially for Dr. Armstrong, who went into a drunken rant over the horrors he had witnessed in World War I.

Watching “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” left me with the feeling of watching some kind of early 20th century Nordic thriller. I have to credit both the producers, director Craig Viveiros, production designer Sophie Becher and cinematographer John Pardue. What I found interesting about the miniseries’ visual style is the hint of early 20th century Art Deco featured in the house’s interior, mixed with this gloomy atmosphere that truly represented the production’s violent and pessimistic tale. Everything visual aspect of this production seemed to literally scream death and doom. Even the production’s sound department did an outstanding job in contributing the story’s atmosphere, especially in those episode that featured the storm that prevented the survivors from making an attempt to leave the island. I also enjoyed Lindsay Pugh, whose costumes did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions of the late 1930s. More importantly, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was not some opportunity for a Thirties’ fashion show, but a more realistic look at how British middle-class dressed on the eve of World War II. My only complaint is the hairstyle worn by actress Maeve Darmody, who portrayed Vera Claythorne. I am referring to the long bob worn by Vera in her 1935 flashbacks, which struck me as a bit too long for that particular year.

Many have complimented both Sarah Phelps and Craig Viveiros for closely adhering to the moral quagmire of Christie’s tale. Each or most of the characters are forced to consider the consequences of their actions and their guilt. If I have to be brutally honest, I have to compliment the pair as well. At first I was inclined to criticize the production’s three hour running time, which I originally believed to be a tad too long. But now I see that the running time gave Viveiros and Phelps the opportunity more in-depth explorations of the characters – especially Vera, Blore, Miss Brent and General MacArthur. This was done through a series of flashbacks for most of the characters. I said . . . most. There were some characters that hardly received any flashbacks – especially the Rogers, Anthony Marston, Edward Armstrong and Philip Lombard. I could understand the lack of many flashbacks for one or two characters, but I would have liked to see more for Rogers, Dr. Armstrong and Lombard. Especially Lombard. I never understood why he only had one flashback that vaguely hinted his murders without his victims being seen.

On the other hand, I was more than impressed with the production’s exploration of Vera, Blore, Miss Brent, Mrs. Rogers and General MacArthur’s crimes. Both Phelps and Viveiros seemed to have went through a great deal of trouble to explore their backgrounds and crimes. In the case of Mrs. Rogers, the production did not really explore the crime of which she and her husband were accused. But the miniseries did spend some time in Episode One focusing on the consequences she had suffered from her husband’s crime . . . and I found that more than satisfying. I enjoyed how General MacArthur, Miss Brent and Blore had initially refused to acknowledge their crimes . . . and how the growing death count and the possibility of their own deaths led them to finally face their guilt, whether out loud or internally. I found General MacArthur’s acknowledgement of guilt very satisfying, for it culminated in that famous line regarding the characters’ fate:

“No one’s coming for us. This is the end.”

From a dramatic point of view, the most satisfying character arc proved to be the one that belonged to Vera Claythorne. She is not my favorite character . . . at least not in this production. Nor did I regard her as the story’s most interesting character. But I thought Phelps and Viveiros did a hell of a job handling her character arc. Vera struck me as the type who went through a great deal of effort to hide her true nature via a respectable facade. Actually, the other characters share this same trait. Judging from what I have seen from this production, no one seemed to do it better than one Vera Claythorne. I suspect most people would be hard pressed to believe that this attractive and intelligent woman would deliberately lead a young boy to his death. Like I said, I did not particularly regard Vera as the story’s most interesting character. But I do believe that Phelps and Viveiros handled her story arc with more depth and mystery than any of the other characters . . . and with more flashbacks.

While reading several articles about “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”, I noticed that many had placed emphasis on the characters’ guilt and the possibility of them facing judgment for their actions. In a way, their opinions on this topic reminded me of why the murderer had set up the whole house party in the first place. Then I remembered that the murderer had also used the house party to indulge in his or her blood lust. And the killer used the guilt of the other inhabitants to excuse the murders . . . in his or her mind. This made me wonder about society’s desire for others to pay for their sins. Especially sins that involved death. Is society’s desire for killers to pay for their crimes a disguise . . . or excuse for its own blood lust? Like I said . . . I wonder.

What else can I discuss about “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”? Oh yes. The performances. The miniseries featured a collection of well known actors and actresses from several English speaking countries, especially Great Britain. I must admit that I may have vaguely heard of Douglas Booth, but I have never seen him in any particular role, until this production. But I must say that I found his portrayal of rich playboy Anthony Marston very impressive. Booth did a beautiful job in capturing the selfish and self-indulgent nature of the young elite. I wish Anna Maxwell-Martin had a bigger role in this production. However, I had to be satisfied with her performance as Ethel Rogers, who had been hired to serve as maid and cook for the Owens’ house party. I thought she was excellent as the bullied wife of Soldier Island’s butler, Thomas Rogers. I was also impressed by Noah Taylor, who gave a first-rate performance as Rogers, who hid his brutish nature with the facade of a servile man. I only wish that Phelps had not made the same mistake as Christie – namely failing to get into Rogers’ mind. I think Taylor could have rolled with such material. Miranda Richardson gave a masterful performance as the prim and hypocritical Emily Brent, who hid her own passions and sins with a stream of moral pronouncements. Her performance culminated in that wonderful moment when her character finally acknowledged her role in that young maid’s suicide. One of my favorite performances came from Sam Neill, who portrayed the very respectful retired Army officer, General John MacArthur. Neill had claimed that this particular performance was not a stretch for him, since MacArthur reminded him of his own father. But I thought the actor’s performance rose above that assessment, as his character not only faced his guilt for a crime of passion, but also faced the realization of his impending death.

On the surface, Charles Dance’s portrayal of retired judge Lawrence Wargrave seemed like many roles he had portrayed in recent years – cool, elegant and a little sharp. But I really enjoying watching him convey Wargrave’s subtle reactions to the temperamental outbursts from the other inhabitants. And I found his skillful expression of Wargrave’s emotional reactions to memories of the man the character was accused of killing via an execution sentence really impressive. “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” marked the third time I have seen Toby Stephens in an Agatha Christie adaptation. Of the three productions, I regard his work in this miniseries and the 2003 television movie, “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” as among his best work. Stephens did a superb job in developing . . . or perhaps regressing Dr. Edward Armstrong’s character from this pompous Harley Street physician to a nervy and frightened man by the third episode. Thanks to Stephens’ performance, I also became aware that the character’s alcoholism and tightly-wound personality was a result of the horrors he had faced during World War I.

Ever since I first saw 2012’s “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”, I have become aware of Burn Gorman. He is one of the most unusual looking actors I have ever seen . . . and a first-rate actor. I really enjoyed his portrayal of former police detective William Blore as this slightly shifty man with a penchant for allowing his paranoia to get the best of him, as the body count rose. Although his Blore comes off as a rather unpleasant man, Gorman still managed to inject some sympathy into the character as the latter finally faces his guilt over the young homosexual man he had beaten to death. Most of the critics and fans seemed to be more interested in Aidan Turner’s physique than his performance as soldier-of-fortune, Philip Lombard. I feel this is a shame, because I thought he gave an excellent performance as the shady and pragmatic mercenary, willing to do anything to stay alive . . . or have sex with Vera Claythorne. What really impressed me about Turner’s performance is that he is the second actor to perfectly capture the animalistic and aggressive Lombard as described in Christie’s novel, and the first English-speaking actor to do so. The miniseries’ producers had some difficulty in finding the right actress to portray Vera Claythorne. In the end, they managed to find Australian actress Maeve Darmody six days before filming started. And guess what? They made a perfect choice. Darmody was superb as the cool and intelligent Vera, who is the first to connect the poem to what was going on.

I thought some of screenwriter Sarah Phelps’ changes to Agatha Christie’s tale did not exactly work for me. But despite a few flaws, I have to commend both her and director Craig Viveiros for doing an excellent job in translating Christie’s most celebrated and brutal tale to the television screen. And they were ably assisted by superb performances from a very talented all-star cast. “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” is one Christie production I can watch over and over again.

“Adapting AGATHA CHRISTIE”

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“ADAPTING AGATHA CHRISTIE”

Ever since the release of the BBC recent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel, “And Then There Were None”, television viewers and critics have been praising the production for being a faithful adaptation. In fact these critics and fans have been in such rapture over the production that some of them have failed to noticed that the three-part miniseries was not completely faithful. As long as the production followed Christie’s original ending, they were satisfied.

Mind you, I thought this new production, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was top notch, I have found myself growing somewhat annoyed over this attitude. Why do so many people insist that a movie/television production should be faithful to the novel it is adapting? I honestly believe that it should not matter. Not really. I believe that sometimes, it’s a good thing to make some changes from the original novel (or play). Sometimes, it’s good to remain faithful to the source novel. Sometimes, what is in a novel does not translate well to the television or movie screen.

A good example are the two adaptations of Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun”. The 1982 adaptation, which starred Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, made some major changes in regard to characters and a minor subplot. The 2001 television adaptation, which starred David Suchet, was somewhat more faithful . . . but not completely. In my personal view, I believe that the Ustinov version was a lot better . . . more entertaining. Why? If I have to be brutally honest, I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1941 novel. No matter how many times I tried to like it (and I tried), it simply bored me.

In regard to the adaptations of “And Then There Were None”, there are only two adaptations that I really enjoyed – Rene Clair’s 1945 adaptation and this new version. The 1945 film is actually an adaptation of the 1943 stage play written by Christie. Because the play first opened in the middle of World War II, Christie had decided to change the ending in order to spare wartime theater goers the story’s nihilistic ending. Two years later, director Rene Clair and 20th Century Fox decided to adapt Christie’s stage play, instead of the novel. Several other movie adaptations – including the 1996 and the 1974 – did the same. As far as I know, only the Russian 1987 adaptation followed Christie’s original ending.

And how do I care about these numerous adaptations? I have seen both the 1966 and 1974 movies. I am not a fan of either. Personally, I found them rather cheap. I have never seen the 1987 Russian film. As for the 1945 and 2015 versions . . . I am a big fan of both. That’s right . . . both of them. I do not care that 2015 miniseries stuck to Christie’s original novel, despite some changes, and Clair’s 1945 movie did not. I simply happen to enjoy BOTH versions. Why? Both versions were made with skill and style. And I found both versions fascinating, despite the fact that they have different endings.

I do not believe it should matter that a movie or television ALWAYS adhere to the novel it is adapting. What should matter is whether the director, writer or both are wise enough to realize whether it is a good idea to be completely faithful or to make changes . . . for the sake of the production. If producer John Bradbourne and director Guy Hamilton can make a superior adaptation of “Evil Under the Sun” by utilizing major changes to Christie’s original story and if there can be two outstanding versions of “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” . . . with different endings, I really do not see the need for any film or television production to blindly adhere to every aspect of a novel it is adapting.

“EDGE OF TOMORROW” (2014) Review

 

“EDGE OF TOMORROW” (2014) Review

I have seen my share of alien invasion and/or post-apocalypse movie and television productions. And yet . . . there seemed to be deluge of these productions in the past two years or so. One of these productions happened to be the recent science-fiction movie,“EDGE OF TOMORROW”.

Based upon Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s 2004 novel called “All You Need Is Kill”, “EDGE OF TOMORROW” tells the story of an American-born military officer who finds himself caught in a time loop during a war with invading aliens who have taken over regions of the world, including continental Europe. The movie begins in the near future in which Major William Cage, an American military Public Relations officer is summoned in London to meet General Brigham, commander of the NATO-led United Defense Forces (UDF). Brigham reveals UDF’s intention to launch Operation Downfall against the aliens, who are called the Mimics. When Brigham orders Cage, who lacks combat experience, to cover the UDF’s landing on the beaches of Normandy in France, the latter objects to the dangerous assignment and threatens to portray the General in an unfavorable light. Brigham retaliates by having Cage arrested and knocked out. The latter regains consciousness at a forward operating base at Heathrow Airport for the UDF forces, with a note from Brigham stating that he is actually a private and a deserter falsely claiming to be an officer. Master Sergeant Farell assigns Cage to a squad of rejects known as J Squad. A frightened Cage is forced to land on one of the Normandy beaches with J Squad. Despite being disoriented and frightened, he manages to kill a Mimic – a large “Alpha” Mimic – before being killed.

Much to Cage’s surprise, he awakens at the Heathrow Airport base on the previous morning. Over and over again, he participates in the Normandy landing and is killed. And over again, he finds himself back at the airport base on the previous day. During one loop, Cage saves war heroineaka “Full Metal Bitch” and “Angel of Verdun”. When she realizes that he has been experiencing time loops, she orders him to seek her out. Cage eventually learns from Vrataski that she had also been caught in a time loop after killing an “Alpha” Mimic. She not only points out that he needs to build his fighting skills, go after the Mimics’ leader and finally kill it in order to end the latter’s invasion.

I am usually a major fan of time travel stories in movies and television – including those that deal with time loops. But my last encounter with time travel fiction – “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” – nearly left me feeling slightly leery of the genre. Despite this brief disappointment, I went ahead and watched “EDGE OF TOMORROW”. I cannot say that I felt the same disappointment that I did for the X-MEN film. But I do believe that “EDGE OF TOMORROW” had its shares of flaws. After all, just about every movie I have seen do. In the case of “EDGE OF TOMORROW”, I had . . . perhaps two problems with this film. One, I had a problem with how Cage, a major in the military, ended up being railroaded as a private with an infantry squad. The entire situation smacked of realism that no science-fiction or fantasy genre could explain. The main protagonist in Sakurazaka’s novel was a young recruit. Which meant there was no need for the Keiji Kiriya character to be railroaded into an infantry squad as a private in such an unrealistic manner. My other problem with “EDGE OF TOMORROW” happened to be the movie’s finale. I was not truly disappointed with the finale. But I found it rather confusing. I wish I could spell it out in details, but for me to do so would spoil the story.

Despite these disappointments, I must admit that I enjoyed “EDGE OF TOMORROW” very much. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that it has become not only one of my top favorite movies of the summer, but also of this year. I certainly had no problems with the technical aspects of “EDGE OF TOMORROW”. Doug Liman had worked in the science-fiction genre before and I could easily see that he had no problems with the crew to create a dazzling science-fiction background for the film. But he is not the only one who deserves credit. Oliver Scholl’s production designs did an excellent job in creating the movie’s setting of Western Europe in a half-state of destruction in the wake of an alien invasion. Scholl’s work was ably supported by the art direction team, Elli Griff’s set decorations and Kate Hawley’s costume designs. Speaking of the latter, I noticed that the officer’s uniform that Tom Cruise wore in the movie’s early scenes resembled that worn by those in the U.S. Marine Corps. And yet . . . I saw no signs of any Marine symbols on his jacket. This reminded me of a prediction that my father had once made about how all of the U.S. military branches would eventually morph into one service. Also, looking at the field . . . uh, uniforms that Cruise, Emily Blunt and other cast members wore struck me as very uncomfortable. I found myself wondering if future military units will end up wearing it. But I was really impressed by the special effects team that created the visual style of the Mimics. Although the aliens reminded me octopi, I found them rather scary. Words could not describe how my reaction to Dion Beebe’s cinematography. Perhaps the following images can:

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The use of time loops as a fictional device may not be that original. However, for “EDGE OF TOMORROW”, I have to give credit to Sakurazaka and the movie’s screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth for avoiding the usual literary premise of allowing a protagonist to be caught in a time loop without any real explanation – like 1993’s“GROUNDHOG DAY”. Both Sakurazaka’s novel and the movie’s screenplay made it clear to audiences how the protagonists got caught in a time loop, thank goodness. It is also rare to come across an alien invasion film that begins with the invasion already happening. Not only do I commend Sakurazaka for beginning his story in this fashion, but also the screenwriters and filmmakers for adhering to it and not taking the trouble to patch on a scene depicting the beginning of the Mimics’ invasion.

“EDGE OF TOMORROW” did an excellent job in developing its major characters – especially three of them. The character of William Cage begins as a smarmy public relations man who tries to resort to desperate measures – namely threating to portray the UDF’s commander in an unfavorable light in the press – in order to avoid combat. As circumstances forces Gage to take his combat skills seriously, the screenwriters effectively developed his character into a hardened combat fighter who becomes resigned to his situation. By the end of the movie, his smarminess has disappeared. I was also impressed by the development of the Rita Vrataski character, who begins her story as a combat hardened veteran, who has emotionally distanced herself from her fellow soldiers. As the story progresses and Gage becomes more familiar with her, audiences are allowed more peeks into her real emotions and the reason behind her hard and stoic façade. I was especially surprised by the writers’ handling of the Master Sergeant Farell character. I had expected his character to remain consistent throughout the film – the tough and battle hardened sergeant who maintains a firm grip on his squad. In a way, the Farell character remained in this state throughout the film. But . . . I was pleasantly surprised at how he seemed to react with increasing confusion and surprise in his encounters with the developing Cage.

I certainly had no complaints regarding the performances in “EDGE OF TOMORROW”. I did find the portrayals of the J Squad soldiers somewhat one-dimensional, with the exception of two characters – Ford and Griff. Franz Drameh injected a bit of an edge to Ford’s character in a scene that revealed his financial assistance to the family of a dead colleague. And Kick Gurry, whom I last saw in the 2008 movie “SPEED RACER”, did an excellent job of developing the Griff character from a mindless grunt to a determined defender in the movie’s last action sequence. Although the General Brigham character remained consistent throughout, I have to compliment Brendan Gleeson for giving a masterful and more importantly, subtle portrayal of a rather ruthless and vindictive character. Bill Paxton, who seemed to been very busy these past two years, did an excellent job of conveying the screenplay’s different aspects of the Master Sergeant Farell character. I have now seen Emily Blunt in three science-fiction movies in the past three years. Sooner or later, someone in the media might end up dubbing her “Queen of Sci-Fi”. However, I feel that of the three roles I have seen her portray, my favorite just might be her excellent take on the Rita Vrataski role. Honestly, she was superb. I have to say the same about Tom Cruise, who portrayed the leading character, William Cage. He had the difficult task of developing Cage from a smarmy and somewhat cowardly Public Relations man to an experienced warrior, wearied by the combat violence and constant time loops. And being the exceptional actor that he is, Cruise managed to do his job with flying aces.

Yes, “EDGE OF TOMORROW” has its flaws. As I have stated many times in previous review, I have yet to see a movie that does not have any. But the writing, production values, the excellent performances by a cast led by Tom Cruise and outstanding direction by Doug Liman made “EDGE OF TOMORROW” one of the best movies I have seen this summer. Even if the summer of 2014 had not been so dismal, I still would have viewed this film as one of the best I have seen.

“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.