Saturday, October 29, 2016
"THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO" (2002) Review
Let me make something clear . . . I have never read the literary version of "THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO", written by Alexandre Dumas. I have seen three movie versions – including this latest one starring James Caviezel. But I have never read the novel. So, for me to compare the literary version to this movie would be irrelevant.
In short, "THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO" is the story about a French sailor named Edmond Dantès (Caviezel), who finds himself a victim of French political machinations, thanks to the Emperor Napoleon, a jealous first mate named Danglars, his best friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) and an ambitious local magistrate named J.F. Villefort (James Frain). Edmond ends up on an island prison called Château d'If, where he meets a fellow prisoner, a priest and a former soldier in Napoleon's army named Abbé Faria (Richard Harris). Faria is killed in an accident after informing Edmond about a fabulous hidden treasure. After Edmond uses Faria’s death to escape from Château d'If, he befriends a smuggler and thief named Jacopo (Luis Guzmán). The two find the treasure that Faria had talked about and Edmond uses it to establish the persona of the Count of Monte Cristo. His aim? To avenge himself against those who had betrayed him – Danglars, Villefort, Mondego and his fiancée Mercédès Iguanada (Dagmara Dominczyk), who had married Mondego after his arrest.
I have to give kudos to director Kevin Reynolds and screenwriter Jay Wolpert for creating a first-class adaptation of Dumas’ novel. From what I have read, it is not an exact adaptation of the novel. As if that was possible. Not that I care whether it was or not. I still enjoyed the movie. Despite some of the changes to the story, "THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO" still managed to retain its emotional ambiguity. Villains such as Villefort and especially Mondego are not as one-dimensional ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ as one might believe. The origin of Villefort came from his father’s ego-driven ambition. As for Mondego, his dislike and betrayal of Edmond had its roots in his own insecurity and bouts of self-hatred, despite his position as an aristocrat. As for Edmond, he becomes so blinded by his hatred and desire for revenge that his actions nearly ends in tragedy for Mercédès and her adolescent son, Albert (Henry Cavill) – the only innocents in this tale of betrayal and vengeance.
The cast was first rate. James Caviezel gave a superb performance as Edmond Dantès, the naïve French sailor who becomes a wealthy man bent upon vengeance. Caviezel took Edmond’s character and emotional make-up all over the map without missing a beat. And Guy Pearce was equally superb as the villainous Fernand Mondego, an arrogant aristocrat whose own jealousy and bouts of self-loathing led him to betray the only friend he would ever have. James Frain gave a solid performance as the ambitious Villefort, whose greed allows Edmond takes advantage of in order to exact his revenge. And I could say the same for both Dagmara Dominczyk, who portrayed Mercédès Iguanada, Edmond’s charming fiancée who found herself stuck in a loveless marriage with Mondego due to certain circumstances; and Luis Guzmán’s portrayal as the wise and loyal Jacapo. Henry Cavill gave a solid performance as Edmund's guileless, yet emotional son who gets caught up in the crossfire between Edmund and Fernand. And the late Richard Harris managed to create great chemistry with Caviezel as Edmond’s wise mentor, Abbé Faria.
Cinematographer Andrew Dunn and production designer Andrew Dunn did a great job of transforming locations in Ireland and the island of Malta into early 19th century France. And they were ably assisted by Tom Rand’s costume designs. Along with a first-rate cast, Kevin Reynolds’ competent direction and Jay Wolpert’s script, this version of "THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO" turned out to be an entertaining movie filled with exciting action, great drama and excellent storytelling. A first-rate movie all around.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
"THE WRONG CLASS"
After two seasons of viewing Britain's ITV series, "DOWNTON ABBEY", it occurred to me that there was something off about Julian Fellowes' portrayal of one of the major characters. That character is Matthew Crawley. And it is an error that I am surprised Fellowes had made.
"DOWNTON ABBEY" began with news of the sinking of the White Star liner, the R.M.S. Titanic in April 1912. This famous event also caused the deaths of James and Patrick Crawley, the heirs presumptive to the Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. This disruption in the line for the Grantham earldom forced Lord Grantham to seek his next heir, due to the fact that the title and estates only pass to male Crawleys and not to any of his three daughters. Lord Grantham's new heir turns out to be his third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley.
Introduced at the end of the series' first episode, Matthew is a solicitor from Manchester, who lives with his widowed mother, former nurse Mrs. Isobel Crawley. When he receives word that he is to be the Earl of Grantham's new heir, Matthew does not seem particular pleased. He is very reluctant to accept Lord Grantham's invitation to move to Downton Abbey and become part of the community. Matthew is only willing to do so, only if he can continue his legal work. Members of the Crawley family such as eldest daughter Lady Mary and her grandmother Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; along with servants such as butler Charles Carson seem to confirm Matthew's worst opinions about life among the aristocracy. This hostility is especially apparent in his early relationship with Lady Mary and his reaction to acquiring a new valet/butler for his and Isobel's residence, the Crawley House. Through Matthew's first encounters with his Crawley cousins and Molesley, his new valet/butler; series creator Julian Fellowes emphasized Matthew's social status as a member of the middle-class. And while the majority of the series' fans and media seemed to accept this view, I find it hard to believe and accept.
These same viewers and the media seemed to believe that class structure and status in Edwardian Britain - especially for the upper classes - depends upon the size of an individual's bank account. I am afraid that they would be wrong. Class was viewed differently than it is today. During the era of "DOWNTON ABBEY", an individual's social status was determined by "bloodline", not the amount of money one possessed. This was especially true for members of the upper classes. To be a member of the upper class, one has to be part of a family that has owned land in the form of country estates for several generations. The owner of that estate was only required to in an administrative capacity and required tenant farms to earn an income. In other words, that person would be a member of the landed gentry. When an individual also has a title courtesy of royalty, he or she is considered an aristocrat. And his or her family members are also considered aristocrats . . . including cousins.
Despite being born in a middle-class environment and practicing a profession that society would view as an example of that particular class, Matthew Crawley has been a member of Britain's upper class since birth. More importantly, as third cousin once removed and heir presumptive to the Earl of Grantham, he is also a member of the aristocracy, despite his upbringing. In fact, one can say the same about his late father, Dr. Reginald Crawley. Becoming a physician, marrying a woman from the middle-class and living in that existence did not change Dr. Crawley's social status - something that he passed to his son, Matthew.
If the Matthew had been born out of wedlock, he would have genuinely been part of the middle-class. If his mother Isobel had been a member of Britain's landed gentry or aristocracy instead of Dr. Crawley, Fellowes would have been correct to label Matthew as middle-class. This fate certainly awaits Lady Sybil and Tom Bronson's new child . . . that is, if Tom manages to become a successful journalist. The Bronsons' new child will certainly be regarded as someone from a lower class by those from the Crawleys' social circle.
Why did Julian Fellowes label Matthew as a member of the middle-class in his script? AS a member of the upper class and a peer, he should have known better. Has he, like many others today, developed the habit of judging class solely plutocracy . . . mere wealth? That would have worked if "DOWNTON ABBEY" was set in the present time. But the series is set during a period in Britain in which class was still judged by bloodline, not the size of a bank account.
To label Matthew Crawley as a middle-class man, due to the environment in which he was raised . . . and despite his legitimate blood connections to the aristocratic Crawleys was a mistake. It is not a mistake that will have major consequences on the series' storylines. In fact, it is not a major mistake period. But I cannot help but feel amused whenever someone erroneously label Matthew as a member of the middle-class.
Saturday, October 15, 2016
Below are images from Season One of the BBC America series "COPPER". Created by Tom Fontana and Will Rokos, the series stars Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh:
"COPPER" SEASON ONE (2012) Photo Gallery
Friday, October 7, 2016
"TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" (1979) Review
I would have never thought about watching the BBC's television adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 novel if I had not seen the 2011 version. Never. For some reason, I have never been that inclined to read his novels or watch any movie or television adaptations of his work. But after seeing Tomas Alfredson's movie, I had to see this version that starred Alec Guinness.
Unlike the 2011 movie, this "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" was set around the time the miniseries aired, since the Cold War was still in full swing. You know the story. The head of SIS (MI-6 in real life), Control, sends agent Jim Prideaux to Czechoslovakia to meet a Czech general who claims to have information identifying a deep-cover Soviet spy planted in the highest echelons of "Circus" (the nickname for the SIS headquarters). "Operation Testify" proves to be a trap when Prideaux is shot and captured by the Soviets. Due to the mission's failure, both Control and his right-hand man, George Smiley, are forced to retire.
But when Ricky Tarr, a British agent gone missing in Portugal, turns up in England with new evidence backing up Control's mole theory, Smiley is recalled to find the mole. He learns from Oliver Lacon, who oversees the country's intelligence services, that Control had four suspects occupying high positions in SIS - Percy Alleline (who assumed the position as the Circus' new head), Toby Esterhase, Bill Haydon and Roy Bland. Smiley, with the help of Peter Twiliam (who happens to be Tarr's immediate supervisor), instigates a secret investigation of Operation Testify to learn the name of the mole, nicknamed "Gerald".
To compare a seven-part television miniseries with a motion picture with a running time just barely over two hours seems just a bit too ridiculous to me. Instead, I will merely talk about the former. And what can I say about "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY"? It was a first-rate production that deserved all of the accolades it had received three-three to thirty-four years ago. Instead of the usual action-dominated spy stories that have spilled out of Hollywood and the British film industries since the first James Bond movies, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" felt like an well-paced Cold War mystery that featured a good deal of excellent acting, dramatic moments and perhaps the occasional action scene or two on the side.
Too many flashbacks can be deadly to a story or a production. But when said production is basically a mystery, flashbacks can be effectively used. Director John Irvin and screenwriter Arthur Hopcraft certainly used the miniseries' flashbacks with great dramatic effect - aside from one particular flashback. The most effective flashback - at least for me - proved to be the back story regarding of Ricky Tarr's affair with Irina, the wife of a Moscow Center intelligence official, in Portugal. This affair leads to Tarr's discovery of new evidence supporting Control's theory of a high-ranking Soviet mole in the Circus. Another flashback that I found interesting proved to be Sam Collins' recollection of the night when news of Jim Prideaux's capture reached the Circus.
The single flashback that failed to resonate with me proved to be Smiley's recollection of his brief meeting with his nemesis, KGB operative-turned-official Karla, during the 1950s. Although the scene featured an excellent performance from Alec Guinness as Smiley and a strong screen presence in the form of a smoldering Patrick Stewart as Karla, the brief scene nearly put me to sleep. I would have been satisfied with a verbal recollection from Smiley. And there were two sequences that I found either unnecessary or disappointing. I found the sequence featuring Prideaux's trip to Czechoslovakia. I realize that both Irvin and Hopcraft's script tried to convey this entire sequence as intriguing action scene. It did not work for me. Considering that most of the sequence was shot at night, I found it rather dull. And it came as a relief when the miniseries moved on to Smiley's recruitment into Operation Testify. Smiley's capture of "Gerald" in the last episode struck me as unsatisfying and anti-climatic. And while watching the miniseries, I realized that one needs a great deal of patience to watch it. I had no problem with its length, but I did find Irvin's pacing rather slow at times.
The performances featured in "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLIDER, SPY" struck me as outstanding. I have already commented on Patrick Stewart's brief, yet strong silent presence as Karla in one scene. Siân Phillips' portrayal of Smiley's unfaithful wife, Ann, proved to be equally brief. Although the character was discussed in numerous scenes, Phillips did not appear long enough for me to be impressed by her performance. Terence Rigby's portrayal of one of the "Gerald" suspects - Roy Bland - seemed like a waste of time to me. Although Rigby gave a first-rate performance in one scene in which his character is interviewed by Smiley, he spent most of the production as a background character. I found this rather odd, considering his role as one of the major suspects. I also enjoyed the performances of John Standing, Joss Ackland, Alexander Knox and Michael Aldridge, who proved to be effectively smug as the new head of the Circus, Percy Alleline.
Ian Richardson was the last person I could imagine portraying the charming, yet acid-tongue womanizer, Bill Haydon. Yet, he really did a fabulous job in the role and it seemed a pity that he never portrayed similar characters, later in his career. I really enjoyed Ian Bannen's performance as disgraced agent, Jim Prideaux. But I must admit there were times when I found it a bit hammy . . . especially in those scenes in his new profession as a schoolmaster. Beryl Reid struck me as perfect in the role of former Circus intelligence analyst, Connie Sachs. She not only conveyed the character's intelligence, but also the latter's joie de vivre that had sadly dampened with time and a surprising job termination. Bernard Hepton's portrayal of mole suspect, Toby Esterhase, struck me as the most unusual role I have ever seen him portray. He was marvelous and slightly eccentric as the Hungarian immigrant who rose to the top echelon of the Circus by toadying to others. Hywel Bennett did a great job in his performance as field agent, Ricki Tarr, projecting both the character's emotions and trapped situation. Michael Jayston's portrayal of Smiley's protégé, Peter Guilliam, struck me as equally emotional. In fact, I found his performance so effective that there were times I found myself wondering if the character was suited for intelligence work. The top prize for best performance definitely belonged to Alec Guinness, for his portrayal of intelligence officer, George Smiley. With delicious subtlety, he did a superb job of conveying every aspect of Smiley's personality. To my knowledge, only five actors have portrayed Smiley either in the movies or on television. I believe that Guinness' portrayal is probably one of the two best interpretations I have come across.
"TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" is not perfect. I believe it has a few flaws that included an unnecessary flashback, an unnecessary action sequence and some very slow pacing. But its virtues - an excellent story, first-rate use of flashbacks and some superb characters portrayed by a cast led by the legendary Alec Guinness - outweighed the flaws considerably. In my opinion, the 1979 miniseries might be one of the best television productions from the 1970s and 80s.