Sunday, November 30, 2014
"FIVE LITTLE PIGS" (2003) Review
"FIVE LITTLE PIGS". That is the name of this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel. Who would have thought that a story with a title straight from a nursery rhyme would lead me to view it as one of the better screen adaptations of a Christie novel I have ever seen?
I just gave the game away in the last paragraph, did I? I gave my opinion of "FIVE LITTLE PIGS" right off the bat. My recent viewing of "FIVE LITTLE PIGS" made me realize two things – a) it is a well-written and melancholy story with tragic overtones; and b) it is one of the finest Christie adaptations I have ever seen. Hmmm . . . I think I may have repeated myself. Well, I cannot help it. I feel that strongly about this movie.
The story began with Hercule Poirot receiving a visitor - a wealthy young woman from Canada named Lucy Lemarchant, who admitted to being the only child of a famous artist named Amyas Crale. According to her, Crale had been murdered fifteen years ago and Lucy’s mother, Caroline, ended up being arrested, convicted and executed for the murder. Years later, Lucy read a letter from Caroline in which the latter claimed her innocence. Despite his doubts, Poirot agreed to investigate Crale’s death. He ended up interviewing five other people who had been at the Crales’ house party fourteen years earlier – five people whom Poirot dubbed "the Five Little Pigs":
*Phillip Blake - a stockbroker and old childhood friend of Amyas Crale
*Meredith Blake - a reclusive former amateur herbalist and Philip’s brother
*Elsa Greer (Lady Dittisham) - a spoiled society lady who had once been Crale’s mistress and subject
*Angela Warren - a disfigured archaeologist and Caroline Crale’s younger sister
*Cecilia Williams - Lucy and Angela’s devoted governess
"FIVE LITTLE PIGS" turned out to be one of those rare Agatha Christie stories in which most of the drama occurred in distant past. What started as a cold case involving the murder of a philandering, yet talented artist, ended as a tale of sad regrets and family tragedy. This was emphasized in the movie’s finale with one last flashback featuring Crayle and Caroline enjoying happier times with their daughter before murder and tragedy struck. That last scene made me realize that the murderer – in an act of emotion – had not only killed the artist, but destroyed a family.
Another one of the movie's major assets turned out to be its cast. David Suchet gave his usual competent portrayal of Belgian-born sleuth, Hercule Poirot. But I must admit that one of his finest moments – not only in the movie, but during the entire series – came when he exposed the murderer. Suchet did an excellent job of revealing Poirot’s emotional outrage toward the murderer, without any histrionics whatsoever.
There were certain cast members that I believe stood out. Toby Stephens gave a surprisingly poignant performance as Philip Blake, Aymas Crale’s boyhood friend, who harbored a secret passion for the painter. Julie Cox portrayed Aymas’ young mistress, Elsa Bell (the future Lady Dittisham) with an interesting mixture of arrogance and innocence. And Aidan Gillen’s portrayal of Aymas Crale as a self-involved, occasionally immature and passionate man seemed spot-on for a character that was supposed to be a talented artist. But my favorite performance came from Rachael Stirling, who portrayed Aymas’ long suffering wife, Caroline. The interesting thing about her performance – at least to me – was that she seemed to be at the center of the story. In the end, it was Stirling – along with Suchet – who carried the film. And she managed to do this with a very subtle performance.
I also have to give kudos to cinematographer Christopher Gunning for his lush photography in the 1920s flashbacks. And costume designer Sheena Napier did a solid job of creating costumes for two eras – the mid 1920s and the late 1930s/early 1940s. But the movie’s real gems turned out to be Kevin Elyot’s adaptation of Christie’s sad and tragic tale and Paul Unwin’s direction. Thanks to the both of them, "FIVE LITTLE PIGS" ended up being one of the best cinematic adaptations of an Agatha Christie novel I have ever seen.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Below is a list of my favorite television episodes about the Thanksgiving holiday:
TOP TEN FAVORITE THANKSGIVING TELEVISION EPISODES
1. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - (4.08) "Pangs" - Vampire slayer Buffy Summers deal with a Native American vengeance spirit, the sudden appearance of her nemesis Spike and the preparation of a large holiday meal on Thanksgiving in this hilarious episode.
2. "Friends" - (6.09) "The One Where Ross Got High" - Live-in lovers Monica Geller and Chandler Bing invite her parents for their first Thanksgiving holiday and are shocked to discover that the latter does not like Chandler for reasons that have to do with Monica's brother Ross.
3. "WKRP in Cinncinati" - (1.07) "Turkeys Away" - In this classic episode of the 1970s/80s sitcom, radio station owner Arthur Carlson takes a more hands-on managerial approach by organizing the greatest Thanksgiving promotion in radio history by dropping live turkeys from a helicopter. Hilarious performance by Richard Sanders.
4. "Friends" - (5.08) "The One with All the Thanksgivings" - In this funny episode, the six friends recount their worst Thanksgivings.
5. "Mad Men" - (1.13) "The Wheel" - The marriage of Don and Betty Draper reach a new level following Betty's evaluation of their marriage during the Thanksgiving holiday. And secretary Peggy Olson experiences a professional high and a personal crisis.
6. "Friends" - (3.09) "The One With the Football" - Emotions run high on Thanksgiving when the gang have a game of touch football initiated by Monica and Ross' sibling rivalry, while Chandler and Joey compete over a Dutch model.
7. "How I Met Your Mother" - (3.09) "Slapsgiving" - Marshall Eriksen and Lily Aldrin host their first Thanksgiving dinner as a married couple. Ted Mosby and Robin Scherbatsky are still dealing with the breakup of their relationship and Marshall terrorizes Barney Stinson with the threat of a third slap he is due, thanks to an old bet.
8. "The West Wing" - (3.08) "Shibboleth" - The Thanksgiving holiday draws a group of Chinese Christians claiming religious persecution to the White House. Also Chief of Staff Le McGarry is at loggerheads with his sister over the issue of school prayer.
9. "Seinfeld" - (6.08) "The Mom and Pop Store" - In this classic episode, George Constanza decides to buy a convertible once owned by "Jon Voight"; Cosmo Kramer tries to save a small shoe-repair business, much to Jerry Steinfeld's detriment; and Elaine Benes wins tickets for her boss to participate in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
10. "Will and Grace" - (7.10-7.11) "Queens For a Day" - Lovers Will Truman and Vince D'Angelo decide to allow their "families" meet for the Thanksgiving holiday at the D'Angelo home with disastrous results.
Monday, November 24, 2014
"HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS" (2007) Book Review
I usually do not post book reviews, but a great deal has been made about the last installment of J.K. Rowling’s "HARRY POTTER" literary series that I thought I might as well say something. I have only been a die hard fan of the series since the release of the third movie, "HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN" in 2004. I had also seen the first two movies in the theaters. I had enjoyed both, but it was the third film that had induced me to read the novels. Between "PRISONERS OF AZKABAN" and the books, I became a die-hard fan. But this is not about the other stories. This is about the last one . . . "THE DEATHLY HALLOWS"
I am going to make this short. As much as I have enjoyed the series, I have come to the realization that I like the last five novels – starting with "PRISONER OF AZKABAN" more than I do the first two. I guess I found it easier to relate to the increasingly ambiguous nature of the story. And if there is one thing I can say about "THE DEATHLY HALLOWS" is that it is one hell of an ambiguous novel. In it, Harry Potter and his two friends – Ron Weasley and Hermoine Granger – truly started on their road to adulthood. And this, I believe, is the major strength of this novel.
By the time I came to the middle of the novel, I realized that for the first time in the series most of its setting would take place away from Hogswarts. A part of me felt slightly disappointed that Harry, Ron and Hermoine did not reach the school until the last several chapters of the novel. On the other hand, I felt this was the correct thing for Rowling to do. For me, "THE DEATHLY HALLOWS" definitely seemed like a "coming of age" story for our three protagonists. It was a maturity that they strongly needed in order to face the main villain, Lord Voldemort (aka Tom Riddle) and his Death Eaters. Looking back on the story, I do not think that Harry, Ron and Hermoine would have acquired their maturity and backbone if the story had mainly been set at Hogswarts. I think it was a very good move on Rowling’s part.
And our three heroes truly did grow. Hermoine learned to face her feelings for Ron and overcome that narrow-minded superiority that originally made her dismiss the legend of the Deathly Hallows. Ron learned to overcome his insecurity about his abilities as a wizard, his views on non-human magical creatures like house elves . . . and face his feelings for Hermoine. And Harry learned to overcome his tendency to play lone wolf and realize that people are not always what they seemed to be. The truths about Sirius Black's treatment of the house elf Kreacher, Dumbledore’s past and his desires for powers, Draco Malfoy's true nature, Snape’s feelings for Lily Potter and his true role in the war against Voldemort were powerful lessons for Harry. And I guess one could say they were powerful lessons for Ron and Hermoine, as well.
Of course, the deaths of Fred Weasley, Colin Creevy, Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks and others were painful. But the deaths of Dobby and Severus Snape really moved me to tears. And the trio’s painful adventures throughout the British Isles seemed like another version of Homer’s "ODYSSEY" that probably lifted this last installment almost to an epic quality.
Despite my enjoyment of "THE DEATHLY HALLOWS", I do have a few complaints about it. Rowling's portrayal of the Slytherins - past and present - annoyed the hell out of me. The author went through a great deal to both emphasize the need for house unity within Hogswarts in the previous two novels - especially 2003's "HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX" - and allow Harry not to judge others for superficial reasons. And yet, she insisted upon maintaining the clichés that the Slytherins could not be trusted. Rowling took this to the extreme by allowing Hogswarts Professor Minerva McGonagall dismiss all of the Slytherin students from the Great Hall after one of the students of the house, Pansy Parkinson, suggested they turn Harry over to the Death Eaters in order to save their hides. All of the Slytherin students. This was one of the most ridiculous scenes in the novel. I also wish that Rowling had included a scene in which Harry reveals Voldemort's half-blood ancestry to combatants during his final encounter with the evil wizard. I would have enjoyed seeing the reaction of Voldemort's followers to this news. One more thing - the entire "Battle of Hogswarts" sequence seemed to go on forever. And if I must be frank, it is not one of the best written sequences in Rowling's literary career. But what can one expect when the sequence's action featured a major interruption by four consecutive chapters – "The Elder Wand", "The Prince's Tale", "The Forest Again" and "King's Cross" - that diverted Harry from the action at Hogswarts Castle?
But "THE DEATHLY HALLOWS" did feature some great moments. One of my favorite scenes include the hilarious wedding for Bill Weasley and Fleur Delacour that was interrupted by Kingsley Shacklebolt's patronus warning about incoming Death Eaters. I really enjoyed Harry, Ron and Hermione's adventures in London - especially their break-in of the Ministry of Magic. Ron's return and rescue of Harry from a chilly pond and Hermione's angry reaction was a joy to read. The trio's adventures at the Malfoy Manor, Harry and Hermione's creepy visit to Godric's Hollow, and the trio's visit to the home of fellow student Luna Lovegood kept me riveted. But the two sequences that I found truly outstanding proved to be the trio's visit to the Gringotts Bank and their escape on the back of a blind dragon, and "The Prince's Tale" chapter that revealed Snape's past with Lily Potter and Albus Dumbledore.
J.K. Rowling continued to write other books, following her opus on the boy wizard, Harry Potter. I have never read these novels, but I hope they proved to be as excellent as the seven novels that have entertained the public between 1997 and 2007. But if Rowling's future novels do not prove to be just as popular or well received, I will not hold it against her. After all, she did create Harry Potter for all of us to enjoy for years to come – in both the novels and the movies.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Below are images from the 2007 movie, "OCEAN'S THIRTEEN". Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the movie stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Al Pacino:
"OCEAN'S THIRTEEN" (2007) Photo Gallery
Monday, November 17, 2014
"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.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Below is a list of my top five favorite Season One episodes of AMC's "MAD MEN":
TOP FIVE FAVORITE "MAD MEN" SEASON ONE (2007) Episodes
1. (1.12) "Nixon vs. Kennedy" - In this superb episode, Sterling-Cooper's employees have an all-night party to watch the results of the 1960 Presidential Election. Also, Pete Campbell discovers that Don Draper's real name is Dick Whitman, who had been officially declared dead during the Korean War.
2. (1.10) "The Long Weekend" - During the Labor Day weekend, Roger Sterling decides to cheer up Don over the loss of a client by arranging a double date with twins. During the date, he suffers a heart attack. Meanwhile, Joan Holloway has a double date with her roommate and two out-of-town businessmen.
3. (1.05) "5G" - In this poignant episode, Don receives an unwelcome visitor in the form of his half-brother, Adam Whitman, whom he had not seen since the Korean War. And when Ken Cosgrove gets his short story published in a magazine, a jealous Pete asks wife Trudy to convince an old boyfriend to publish his story.
4. (1.01) "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" - The series' pilot episode introduces Manhattan advertisement executive Don Draper and his co-workers at the Sterling-Cooper agency, as he struggles to maintain Lucky Strike as a client for the agency.
5. (1.09) "Shoot" - A larger ad agency tries to lure Don from Sterling-Cooper by hiring wife Betty Draper for a modeling job. Meanwhile, Pete devises a strategy to help the Nixon campaign.
Monday, November 10, 2014
Below are images from "GONE WITH THE WIND", the 1939 Best Picture adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel. Produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Victor Fleming, the movie starred Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia De Havilland and Leslie Howard:
"GONE WITH THE WIND" (1939) Photo Gallery