Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE" (1986) Review

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"THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE" (1986) Review

The year 1920 witnessed the beginning of Agatha Christie's career as a mystery novel with the release of her first novel, "The Mysterious Affairs at Styles". The novel also introduced a new sleuth to the literary world, Belgian-born Hercule Poirot. Another seven years passed before Christie introduced her second most famous character, Miss Jane Marple, in a few short stories. But in 1930, Miss Marple appeared in her first full-length novel called "The Murder at the Vicarage"

Fifty-six years later saw the first adaptation of the 1930 novel - a 102 minutes television movie that starred Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. "THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE" featured the elderly sleuth's investigation of the murder of a wealthy magistrate and former Army colonel in Miss Marple's town of St. Mary Mead. The magistrate, Colonel Protheroe is so disliked by most of the citizens of St. Mary Mead that even the local vicar, the Reverend Leonard Clement believes his death would be a great service to the village. Reverend Clements ends up eating his words when Colonel Protheroe's murdered body is found inside the vicar's study. While investigating Colonel Protheroe's murder, Miss Marple and Detective Inspector Slack unearth a good number of suspects; including the Colonel's new widow Anne Protheroe, her lover Lawrence Redding, the Colonel's only child Lettice Protheroe, the high-strung curate Christopher Hawes, St. Mary Mead's mysterious new citizen Mrs. Lestrange, small time poacher Bill Archer and even the good Reverend Clement himself. Anne Protheroe and Lawrence Redding each confess to the crime, convinced that the other was guilty. However, both Miss Marple and Detective Inspector Slack realize that both are innocent and continue their investigation of the murder.

When I first read Christie's 1930 novel, I must admit that it did not particularly move me. The plot seemed like a typical murder mystery set in a small village. There was nothing extraordinary about it, aside from Miss Marple's continuous relationship with Inspector Slack. Mind you, I have seen mediocre or bad adaptation of some first-rate Christie novels. And I have seen some excellent adaptations of her mediocre novels. The 1986 adaptation of "THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE" proved to be one of those productions in which my opinion of it matches the original novel. How can I say this? I found it a bore.

The best I can say about "THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE" is that it is a close - but not completely accurate - adaptation of Christie's novel. Unfortunately, T.R. Bowen did nothing with the screenplay to improve on the story. And Julian Amyes' direction of the movie nearly put me to sleep. It was so boring and slow. Amyes tried hard to make the killer's revelation interesting. But not even that worked. Between John Walker's dim lighting of the scene and Amyes' snail like direction, I fell asleep and had to rewind back to the scene in order to learn the killer's identity. When a person falls asleep during a scene featuring the killer's revelation, it is time to go back to the drawing board - so to speak.

Also, the movie was not served well by most of the bland characters that populated the story. Most of them - aside from a few - struck me as dull and one-dimensional. Some of the best characters in a murder mystery tend to be the original victim. Unfortunately, Colonel Protheroe turned out to be one of those rare cases in which the main victim proved to be uninteresting. I found his character so one-dimensional. Not even Robert Lang's energetic performance could make it work. The character of Reverend Clement had been down-sized by the story's translation from the novel to the screen. Apparently, Bowen could not find a way to make his character a major part of the investigation . . . which occurred in Christie's novel. Only a handful of characters seemed interesting to me. And I have the performers to thank. Cheryl Campbell managed to inject some real energy into her portrayal of the vicar's younger and sexy wife, Griselda Clement. David Horovitch was at his sardonic best as the police inspector who tries his best to dismiss Miss Marple's sleuthing skills. Joan Hickson earned a BAFTA nomination for her performance as Jane Marple in this movie. I do not know if she truly deserved that nomination. But I must admit that I enjoyed her subtle, yet sly performance as the brilliant, amateur sleuth. I especially enjoyed her scenes with Horovitch's Slack.

I guess there is nothing else I can say about "THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE". It is not one of my favorite Miss Marple productions. Actually, I feel it is one of my least favorites featuring the elderly sleuth. The original story simply did not strike me as interesting and screenwriter T.R. Bowen did very little to enliven it. Also Julian Amyes' slow-paced direction did not help matters. The only pleasures I managed to derive from this movie were the first-rate performances of Joan Hickson, David Horovitch and Cheryl Campbell.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"G.I. JOE: RETALIATION" (2013) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "G.I. JOE: RETALIATION", the sequel to the 2009 movie, "G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA". Directed by Jon M. Chu, the movie stars Dwayne Johnson, Byung-Hun Lee, Adrianne Palicki, Ray Park, D.J. Controna and Channing Tatum:


"G.I. JOE: RETALIATION" (2013) Photo Gallery

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hangtown Fry



Below is an article on the 19th century California dish called "Hangtown Fry"


HANGTOWN FRY

The state of California is not known for its cuisine. In fact, it has developed a reputation for bland and uninspiring dishes. It is a pity since the state has created some memorable recipes over the decades. One of them is the 19th century dish called Hangtown Fry. The latter is an omlette dish that originated sometime between 1849 and 1853 during theCalifornia Gold Rush. Although the dish has three origin tales, everyone does agree that the it was created in mid-19th century California. Many also agree that the original dish was an omlette made from eggs, bacon and oysters.

According to the first origin tale, the Hangtown Fry was invented in Placerville, California - then known as Hangtown - in the saloon of the El Dorado Hotel, now known as the Cary House Hotel. When a prospector rushed into the hotel's saloon, announcing he had struck gold along the banks of Hangtown Creek; he ordered the most expensive dish that the hotel could provide. Since the most expensive food in Gold Rush California were eggs - a delicacy that had to be carefully brought to the mining town, bacon shipped from the East Coast, and oysters brought from San Francisco on icewhich were delicate and had to be carefully brought to the mining town; bacon, which was shipped from the East Coast, and oysters, which had to be brought on ice from San Francisco, over 100 miles away - the hotel's cook created the omlette known as the Hangtown Fry.

The dish's second origin tale centered around a condemned prisoner awaiting execution inside a Placerville jail. The authorities asked what he would like to eat for his last meal. The prisoner quickly ordered an oyster omelet, aware that the oysters would have to be brought from San Francisco, over a hundred miles away by steamship and over rough roads. He had hoped the transport of the oysters would delay his execution for a day. And according to the third tale, a man named Parker opened a saloon called Parker's Bank Exchange in San Francisco's financial district in 1853. Following the saloon's opening, he invented and served Hangtown Fry to his customers. Hangtown Fry became a very popular dish in California during the 1850s. It was popularized by Tadich Grill in San Francisco, where it has apparently been on the menu for 160 years. Over the years, cooks have made variations of the dish by adding bell peppers, onions and various spices to its recipe. 

Below is a recipe for Hangtown Fry from the "Saveur" website:

Hangtown Fry

Ingredients


12 oysters, such as Bluepoint or Fanny Bay, shucked
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
¼ cup flour
7 eggs
½ cup bread crumbs
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
4 strips cooked bacon, crumbled
2 scallions, thinly sliced


Preparation

Pat oysters dry, and season with salt and pepper; set aside. Put flour, 1 beaten egg, and bread crumbs in 3 separate bowls. Dip each oyster in flour, then egg, then crumbs; place on a floured plate. Heat butter in a 12" nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add oysters; fry, flipping once, until golden brown, 6–8 minutes. Whisk remaining eggs in a bowl; season with salt and pepper. Add eggs to pan with half the bacon and scallions. Cook until eggs are just set, about 3 minutes. Smooth over top; cover, and cook until top is set, about 5 minutes. Transfer omelette to a plate, and garnish with remaining bacon and scallions.


Friday, April 26, 2013

"OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" (2013) Review

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"OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" (2013) Review

I have a confession to make. I have always liked "THE WIZARD OF OZ", the 1939 adaptation of Frank L. Baum's 1901 novel, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". I used to watch it on a yearly basis as a child. But if I must be brutally frank, I have never developed a deep love for the movie. So when I learned that the Disney Studios had developed a prequel movie to the 1939 film, I did not exactly jump up and down with joy. 

I was surprised to learn that the Disney Studios' history with Frank Baum's fantasy world of Oz proved to be a long one. Walt Disney had wanted to create an animated film based on the 1901 story, but he and his brother Roy Disney discovered that Samuel Goldwyn had first purchased the film rights before selling it to Louis B. Mayer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Disney managed to purchase the rights of Baum's remaining Oz novels in 1954. And in 1985, the studio produced and released the sequel movie, "RETURN TO OZ". However, the film proved to be a box office bomb. And the movie rights to all of Baum's novels ended up in public domain. Twenty-seven or 28 years later, Disney tried their hand at another Oz movie. The result is the prequel to Baum's 1901 novel and MGM's 1939 film - "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL". Set twenty years before the novel and the film, "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" begins in 1906 Kansas with barnstorm and small time magician Oscar Diggs working in a traveling circus. Oscar is also something of a scam artist and ladies' man who has no qualms with seducing the young wife of the circus' strongman. Oscar is also in love with a young local woman, who has been encouraged by him to marry a respectable farmer. When the strongman learns of Oscar's flirtations, the latter escapes the circus in a hot air balloon. But he is sucked into a tornado and finds himself in the "Land of Oz".

Once in this new land, Oscar meets the first of three witches who will turn his life upside down - Theodora. She believes he is the prophesied savior who will overthrow the Wicked Witch that killed the King of Oz. While she escorts him to Emerald City to meet her sister Evanora, Theodora is seduced by Oscar, leading her to fall in love with him. The pair also meets a flying monkey named Finley, who pledges a life debt to Oscar when the latter saves him from a lion . . . at Theodora's instigation. Upon their arrival in Emerald City, Oscar is charged by Evanora to prove that he is Oz's prophesied savior by traveling to the Dark Forest where the Wicked Witch resides and kill the latter by destroying her wand. During Oscar and Findley's journey to the Dark Forest, they meet China Girl, a young, living china doll whose home and family had been destroyed by the Wicked Witch. When the trio reaches the Dark Forest, they discover that the "Wicked Witch" is actually Glinda the Good Witch of the North. She tells them that Evanora is the true Wicked Witch. And when Evanora sees this with her crystal ball, she manipulates Theodora against Oscar by showing him together with Glinda, claiming he is trying to court all three witches. Evanora offers the heartbroken Theodora a magic apple, which she promises will remove the younger witch's heartache. Theodora eats the apple and transforms into the heartless, green-skinned future Wicked Witch of the West. Oscar, Glinda, Findley, China Girl and many others soon find themselves in a war against Evanora and Theodora for control of Oz.

"OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" earned mixed reviews upon its release, despite becoming a box office hit. Many complained that it failed to live up to the "magic" of the 1939 movie. I do not know how to respond to this complaint. After all, everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. Were there any aspects of "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" that I disliked? Well . . . I do have one major complaint and it has to do with the relationship between Oscar and Theodora. What I disliked was Oscar's failure to apologize to Theodora for exploiting her feelings toward him when they first met. Instead of admitting that he had been wrong to seduce her in the first place, he merely offered her the chance to live in the Emerald City in peace if she would allow goodness back into her heart. And nothing else. Instead of an apology, Oscar offered her a sanctimonious offer of redemption. What an asshole. In other words, Mitchell Kapner's screenplay refused to allow Oscar to consider that his careless seduction of Theodora gave Evanora the opportunity to transform her into an evil and heartless witch. 

Despite this unpleasant exercise of relationships gone wrong, I actually enjoyed "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL". In fact, my feelings of the movie seemed to be the same as the 1939 film - I enjoyed it very much, but I did not love it. It was fun, entertaining in its own way. And I could see that the movie greatly benefited from Kapner's well-paced screenplay and director Sam Rami's twisted sense of humor. This especially seemed to be the case in Oscar's relationship with the long-suffering Findley and one of Emerald City's citizens, the tart-tongued herald and fanfare player, Knuck. Rami and Kapner also did a clever job of allowing the plot to mirror certain aspects of 1939's "THE WIZARD OF OZ". The Kansas sequences at the beginning of both movies were filmed in black-and-white, both protagonists (Dorothy Gale and Oscar Diggs) arrived in Oz via a tornado. Both acquire sidekicks during their journeys through Oz. In Oscar's case, both Findley and China Girl become his companions on the road. After meeting Glinda, he also acquire the friendship of Knuck (sort of) and the Emerald City's Master Tinker. And both movies end with Oscar providing gifts to most of the protagonists.

At the same time, both Rami and Kapner were wise enough to remember that "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" is the product of early 21st century Hollywood, and not the film industry of the late 1930s. As I had stated earlier, the humor featured in the film struck me as slightly perverse at times - which I loved. And Oscar Diggs' moral compass proved to be a lot more ambiguous than the innocent Dorothy Gale. Mind you, I disliked his handling of Theodora. But one has to remember that his character has always been something of schemer and opportunist - even in the 1939 film. Speaking of ambiguity, I was surprised to find a few hints of it in China Girl's character - especially in her enthusiasm to seek and kill the Wicked Witch. In regard to the film's villains, they seemed to be a different kettle of fish in compare to the Wicked Witch of the West in "THE WIZARD OF OZ". Although Evanora proved to be evil in a one-dimensional manner, she seemed to be more subtle and manipulative in carrying out her deeds. And Theodora proved to be a real surprise. Her evil seemed to be born from a broken heart thanks to Oscar and her sister's manipulations, making her the most sympathetic character . . . at least for me. Many reviewers - especially male reviewers - seemed confused over Theodora's transformation from the naive young witch to the green-skinned, heartless evildoer. It almost seemed as if they did not want to acknowledge the part that Oscar played in her transformation into evil. And I find that rather sad and a little disturbing.

Speaking of the characters, they would not have worked without the first-rate cast that portrayed them. James Franco did an excellent job in conveying Oscar Diggs' journey from the cheap and womanizing showman to the responsible civic leader that helped free the Emerald City from the evil Evanora's grasp. Michelle Williams gave a luminous performance as Glinda the Good Witch. Although her character did not strike me as particularly complex, she managed to inject some much needed mystery into the character, making her more interesting than the 1939 counterpart. And Rachel Weisz seemed to be having a ball as the sly and manipulative Evanora. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of Bill Cobbs as Master Tinker, Tony Cox as the sardonic Knuck, Abigail Spencer as Oscar's naive, yet very married Kansas assistant May; and a humorous appearance by Rami veteran Bruce Campbell as an Emerald City guard. But there were three performances that really impressed me. One came from Zach Braff, who added an expert touch of the long-suffering in his outstanding voice performance as winged monkey Findley. Another first-rate voice performance came Joey King in her portrayal of China Doll, who expertly conveyed both the character's vulnerability and exuberant aggressiveness. And finally there was Mila Kunis, who did a stupendous job in her portrayal of Theodora, the naive young witch who became the murderous Wicked Witch of the West. I was more than impressed by Kunis, for I believe she had the difficult job of making her character's transformation believable.

"OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" is a beautiful movie to look at. Production designer Robert Stromberg did a solid job in bringing the land of Oz to life. Thanks to him and cinematographer Peter Deming, audiences were able to enjoy the movie's rich and colorful look that brought back happy memories of the Technicolor featured in the 1939 movie. My only complaint are the few moments when it seemed I was looking at matte paintings instead of CGI during Oscar's first moments in Oz. I was especially impressed by the scene that featured Theodora's first appearance as the Wicked Witch of the West. Thanks to Rami's direction, Deming's photography, the make-up department's work and the special effects team, I was more than taken aback by this frightening moment.

In the end, I really enjoyed "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL". I did not love it. Then again, I do not love the 1939 movie. But I do believe that this new movie more than made up for the failure of 1985's "RETURN TO OZ". Thanks to screenwriter Mitchell Kapner, a talented cast led by James Franco and some first-rate and slightly twisted direction by Sam Rami, "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL" proved to be a surprisingly entertaining film.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"LES MISERABLES" (2012) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "LES MISERABLES", the recent screen adaptation of 1980s stage musical and Victor Hugo's 1862 novel. Directed by Tom Hooper, the movie starred Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried:



"LES MISERABLES" (2012) Photo Gallery

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