Sunday, August 20, 2017
"SLEEPING MURDER" (2006) Review
I might as well say it. The 1976 novel, "Sleeping Murder" is one of my favorites written by mystery writer, Agatha Christie. In fact, it is such a big favorite of mine that when I learned about the recent 2006 adaptation that aired on Britain's ITV network, I made a great effort to find it on DVD.
Although the 1976 novel proved to be the last Christie novel featuring elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, the author wrote it during the early years of World War II. In fact, she did the same for the 1975 Hercule Poirot novel, "Curtain". Christie wrote both novels and placed them in a bank vault, in case she failed to survive the Blitz. During the early 1970s, the author authorized the publication of "Curtain" for 1975 and "Sleeping Murder" for 1976. I never warmed up to the 1975 novel, but I became a fan of the latter one. The novel produced two television adaptations and a radio version. Just recently, I watched a DVD copy of the 2006 television movie that featured Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple.
"SLEEPING MURDER" begins in 1933 India, where British diplomat Kelvin Halliday receives news that his wife Claire had just been killed in a traffic accident. The widower returns home to England with his three year-old daughter Gwenda and meets one Helen Marsden, a singer with a troupe of music performers known as "The Funnybones". Nineteen years later, a recently engaged Gwenda Halliday returns to England in order to find a home where she and her future husband Giles, who is a wealthy businessman living in India, can live. Accompanied by Giles' assistant, Hugh Hornbeam, Gwenda finds a house in Dillmouth, a town on the south coast of England. While workmen set about repairing the house, Gwenda realizes that it seems familiar to her. Hugh suggests she speak to an old acquaintance of his, Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary Mead. Gwenda and Hugh meet with Miss Marple at a local theater showing the John Webster play, "The Duchess of Malfi". During one of the play's climatic scenes, Gwenda screams in terror , as she remembers witnessing a pair of hands strangling a woman. Along with Miss Marple and Hugh, Gwenda realizes she may have witnessed a murder when she was a child living in Dillmouth. All three also discover that the murdered woman may have been Gwenda's stepmother, Helen Marsden Halliday.
I . . . did not dislike "SLEEPING MURDER". I thought this adaptation featured fine performances from a cast led by the always superb Geraldine McEwan. The television movie also featured memorable performances from Sophia Myles and Aidan McArdle as Gwenda Halliday and Hugh Hornbeam. I was also impressed by Julian Wadham as Kelvin Halliday; Martin Kemp, Dawn French and Paul McGann as three of Helen's Funnybones colleagues; and Phil Davis as Dr. James Kennedy, Kelvin's original brother-in-law. It was nice to see Harriet Walter give a cameo as an actress portraying the lead role in "The Duchess of Malfi" production. The rest of the cast gave solid performances, aside from two struck me as slightly problematic. Sarah Parish's portrayal of Funnybones wallflower-turned successful singer Evie Ballatine seemed to be an exercise in character extremism . . . and a bit over-the-top. I could say the same about Geraldine Chapln's portrayal of the gloomy Mrs. Fane, mother of Walter Fane, a mild-mannered lawyer who knew Gwenda's mother.
"SLEEPING MURDER" also benefited from colorful and sharp photography, thanks to Alan Almond's cinematography. I also found Frances Tempest's costume designs for the early 1950s sequences rather gorgeous to look at. However, her designs for the 1930s scenes seemed to be something of a mixed bag. Overall, I had no complaints about the movie's production designs and the performances. But I did not love this movie. In fact, I barely liked it.
The problem - at least for me - is that the positive aspects of "SLEEPING MURDER" failed to hide or compensate what proved to be the movie's real problem . . . namely the screenplay written by Stephen Churchett. I do not completely blame him. The producers of "AGATHA CHRISTIE'S MARPLE" and director Edward Hall were willing to use it. I have no problems with a screenwriter changing certain aspects of a source novel or play for a screen adaptation. Especially if said change manages to improve the story or make it more effective for a screen adaptation. But the changes Churchett made to Christie's story did not improve it in the end or made it effective for the television screen. Personally, I found Churchett's changes more convoluted than a novel written by James Ellroy.
First of all, Churchett, Hall or both allowed the Gwenda Reed character from the novel to become the unmarried Gwenda Halliday, engaged to be married. The Giles Reed character was reduced to Gwenda's unseen and wealthy fiancé, who turned out to be a jerk. Churchett and Hall decided to create a new love interest for Gwenda, the quiet and faithful Hugh Hornbam, who works for her fiancé. Why did Hall and Churchett give Gwenda a new love interest? What was wrong with using the original Giles Reed character from the novel? Was it really that important to inject a new romance, which seemed to be the hallmark of many "MARPLE" productions? Also, a musical troupe known as the Funnybones was introduced to this story. Three of the original suspects - Richard "Dickie" and Janet Erskine, and Jackie Afflick - became members of the Funnybones, along with Helen. The addition of the Funnybones also produced another suspect for the story - a singer named Evie Ballatine. Why did Churchett create the Funnybones in the first place? Perhaps he and Hall thought the musical troupe would make Helen's character more "colorful". On the other hand, I found the addition of the musical troupe UNNECESSARY . . . like other changes and additions to this story.
The above changes seemed nothing to me compared to the changes made to the Helen Halliday character. It is bad enough that Churchett transformed her from a nice, young woman who became a stepmother and wife to a professional singer. Go figure. Worse . . . Helen Marsden Halliday was eventually revealed to be Kelvin Halliday's first wife, Claire. In other words, Gwenda's mother and stepmother proved to be one and the same. How did this happen? Well, when Claire Kennedy went to India to get married, she changed her mind and became a thief. She met Kelvin Halliday, married him and gave birth to their only child Gwenda. However, when the police in British India became suspicious of her, Claire and Kelvin plotted her fake death, she returned to England and joined the Funnybones, and "married" Kelvin as Helen Marsden, following his and Gwenda's return to India. Confused? I was when Miss Marple revealed all of this to Gwenda, Hugh and the suspects. When this whole scenario regarding Claire/Helen's background was revealed, I could only shake my head in disbelief. What on earth was Churchett thinking when he created this confusing background for her? What were the producers and Hall thinking for accepting it? In fact, all of the changes made for this adaptation proved to be unnecessary, but also transformed "SLEEPING MURDER" into one convoluted mess.
What else can I say about "SLEEPING MURDER"? It featured some pretty good performances from a cast led by Geraldine McEwan. I liked its production values very much, especially Alan Almond's photography and Frances Tempest's costume designs for the 1950s sequences. But . . . I feel that screenwriter Stephen Churchett made a lot of unnecessary changes to Christie's original story that left the movie into a big, narrative mess. And I cannot help but wonder what director Edward Hall and the producers were thinking to allow these changes to happen.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Below are images of "COLD COMFORT FARM", the 1995 adaptation of Stella Gibbons' 1932 novel. Directed by John Schlesinger, the movie starred Kate Beckinsale:
"COLD COMFORT FARM" (1995) Photo Gallery
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Below are my top ten favorite movies directed by the winning director, William Wellman:
TEN FAVORITE WILLIAM WELLMAN MOVIES
1. "Beau Geste" (1939) - Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston starred in this exciting adaptation of P.C. Wren's 1924 novel about three British brothers who join the French Foreign Legion to stave off a potential family scandal.
2. "Westward the Women" (1951) - Robert Taylor starred in this unusual Western about a wagonmaster hired to guide a wagon train of marriageable women to a region in 1850s California. Denise Durcel, Henry Nakumara and John McIntire co-starred.
3. "A Star Is Born" (1937) - Janet Gaynor and Fredric March starred in this award winning drama about a rising Hollywood actress and her marriage to a fading movie star. Wellman won the Best Writing (Original Story) Oscar for this movie.
4. "Safe in Hell" (1931) - Dorothy Mackaill starred in this fascinating tale about a New Orleans prostitute who struggles to survive and avoid the law, while dealing with an array of men out to exploit her.
5. "Wild Boys of the Road" (1933) - This highly acclaimed adaptation of Daniel Ahern's novel, "Desperate Youth", told the story about a group of teenagers forced to become hobos during the Great Depression. Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips and Dorothy Coonan (Wellman's fourth and final wife) starred.
6. "Nothing Sacred" (1937) - Carole Lombard and Fredric March starred in this biting comedy about a young woman erroneously diagnosed with radiation poisoning and a newspaper reporter pretending that she really is dying for the sake of money and a series of articles.
7. "Night Nurse" (1931) - Barbara Stanwyck starred in this neat crime thriller about a young nurse who enlists the help of a petty criminal to foil a sinister plot to murder two children from a wealthy family. Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell and Clark Gable co-starred.
8. "Heroes For Sale" (1933) - Richard Barthelmess starred in this poignant tale about a World War I veteran who suffers a series of personal mishaps from the post-war period to the Great Depression. Loretta Young and Aline MacMahon co-starred.
9. "The Public Enemy" (1931) - James Cagney became a star portraying a young Chicago hoodlum who becomes a successful bootlegger via a bloody mob war. Edward Woods, Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell co-starred.
10. "The High and the Mighty" (1954) - John Wayne starred in this tense disaster movie, an adaptation of Ernest K. Gann's 1953 novel, about a commercial airplane that develops engine trouble during a trans-Pacific flight. Robert Stack, Claire Trevor and Larraine Day co-starred.
Saturday, August 12, 2017
"THE WOMAN HE LOVED" (1988) Review
I have come to the conclusion that any movie producer willing to do a project on Wallis Warfield Simpson, later the Duchess of Windsor would eventually realize that said project is bound to generate a great deal of emotion - not only in Great Britain, but even in the United States. I have never come across a female historical figure who has polarized the public the way this 20th century American-born socialite has.
The first screen production about Wallis Simpson and her romance with Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and the Duke of Windsor I ever saw was the 1978 BBC miniseries, "EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON". But I have seen screen portrayals of both Mrs. Simpson and Edward VIII in other productions, including this television movie called "THE WOMAN HE LOVED". The television movie aired on CBS in 1988. I wish I could say this movie was the best on-screen interpretation of the infamous romance that rocked the British monarchy back in the mid-1930s. However, I would be lying if I did. But I certainly do not believe it is the worst.
"THE WOMAN HE LOVED" told the story of the famous romance mainly from Mrs. Simpson's point-of-view, via flashbacks. The movie began in 1972 with her arrival in Britain for the first time in years to attend the funeral of her third and final husband, the Duke of Windsor. While the recently widowed Duchess seeks solitude inside Buckingham Palace as a guest of the Royal Family, she reminisces about about her marriage to American-born businessman Ernest Simpson in 1928 and how it led to her entry into British high society and to her relationship with Edward Windsor. Aside from the 1972 flashbacks, most of the movie began with Wallis' marriage to Simpson and ended with her marriage to the newly created Duke of Windsor in May 1937. It also covered Wallis and Edward's affair, which began when he was Prince of Wales and continued after he became King Edward VIII. Also, Wallis' marital problems with Simpson, along with their divorce and the Abdication Crisis, which occurred during the fall of 1936 were also covered in this film. This is not surprising, considering this is the narrative formula that is used in most productions about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
How did I feel about the movie? Well . . . I did not hate it. But I did not exactly love it. I must admit that its production values were top notch for a television film with a foreign setting. One has to give Kenneth Sharp credit for a detailed re-creation of London and Great Britain between 1928 and 1936. If there is one thing I can say about "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" is that it is a beautiful looking period drama. Sharp's work was ably assisted by Brian Morgan's sharp and colorful cinematography. Hell, his work looked better than many period dramas I have seen on both the small and large screen. Although I found Allyn Ferguson's score not particularly memorable, I thought he and director Charles Jarrott did an excellent in selecting certain tunes that added to the movie's 1930s setting. But one aspect of the movie's technical aspect that really blew my mind was Robin Fraser-Paye's costume designs. Can I say . . . WOW? Or better yet, below are images of Fraser-Paye's work:
On the other hand, William Luce's screenplay failed to have the same effect upon me. As I had hinted earlier, the screenplay for "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" was the basic narrative used for most productions about the historic couple. I would go even further to say that Luce's work was basically a paint-by-the-numbers job. There were moments that did impress me. Most of those moments featured conversations between Wallis and Simpson - especially when their marriage was breaking apart. I was especially amused by one particular quarrel between them that ended with Wallis sharply ordering their dog from her bed. Some of the biggest problems I had with "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" is that Wallis and Edward's story was treated solely as a movie adaptation of a romance novel. And I am not a fan of romance novels. I did not expect the movie to be some Charles Higham-style trashy revelation about the Windsor couple. I have seen plenty of recent productions - "UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS (Season One)" and "THE KING'S SPEECH" - that portray Wallis as some kind of gauche, gold digging whore. Unfortunately, "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" went to another extreme - painting Wallis as some kind of American-born Cinderella and Edward as this poor, misunderstood prince who had been denied some sliver of happiness due to royal tradition. The movie did offer crumbs of the couple's ambiguity - Wallis' affair with Edward and the latter's determination to steal another man's wife. But despite these moments of ambiguity, "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" was simply an exercise in romantic gloss.
"THE WOMAN HE LOVED" featured the screen reunion of Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews, who first co-starred with each other in the 1982 television costume movie, "THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL". Both were outstanding in that film. I wish I could say the same about their performances in "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" . . . but I cannot. I am not saying they gave bad performances. Their screen chemistry remained intact. And both Seymour and Andrews offered some examples of their talent in a few scenes. Most of Seymour's best scenes were with actor Tom Wilkinson, who portrayed Ernest Simpson. Perhaps her performances in these scenes led to her Emmy nomination. Perhaps. However, I found it easy to question this nomination, due to Seymour being forced to portray Mrs. Simpson as an occasionally star-struck adolescent. I could blame her questionable Upper South accent (the American socialite came from an old Baltimore family), but I never believed that a bad or questionable accent could really harm a performance. Andrews had a particularly effective scene in which his Edward angrily expressed his frustration with the British Establishment, who refused to accept Wallis as his future wife. I found this scene to be a breath of fresh air, considering most of his consisted of dialogue that struck me as wooden. But in the end, both actors were simply hampered by Luce's romantically one-note screenplay.
Olivia De Havilland also received an Emmy nomination - a Best Supporting Actress nod for her portrayal of Wallis' aunt, Bessie Merryman. And if I must be honest, I find this puzzling. I am not criticizing De Havilland. I thought she gave a solid performance, considering the slight amount of screen time given to her. But there was nothing about it that dazzled me. Lucy Gutteridge portrayed Edward's previous mistress, the American-born Thelma, Viscountess Furness. By some ironic twist, Gutteridge portrayed Furness' twin sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, in the 1982 television movie, "LITTLE GLORIA, HAPPY AT LAST" and earned an Emmy nomination. As for her portrayal of Thelma, it was pretty solid, but not particularly mind dazzling. In fact, none of the other supporting performances in the movie - Julie Harris, Robert Hardy (portraying Winston Churchill for the umpteenth time), Phyllis Calvert and David Waller - did not strike me as particularly memorable, even if they were more than competent. I must admit I was surprised to see Waller reprise his role as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, which he had originated in "EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON". Only Tom Wilkinson's wry and cynical portrayal of the cuckolded Ernest Simpson came close to really impressing me. While everyone else seemed to be a bit too theatrical or simply going through the motions, Wilkinson made the low-key Simpson a rather interesting personality.
I really do not know what else to say about "THE WOMAN HE LOVED". I cannot deny that visually, it is a very beautiful looking movie that did an excellent job of re-creating Great Britain during the two decades between the two world wars. But instead of providing a balanced and ambiguous portrait of Wallis Simpson and her third husband, King Edward VIII; director Charles Jarrott and screenwriter William Luce decided to portray their relationship as some kind of cinematic romance novel. And I believe their work may have hampered the performances of the cast led by the usually talented Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews. If you want a realistic feel of the Wallis Simpson/Edward VIII affair, this may not be your movie. But if it is a onscreen fairy tale romance you are looking for, this might be your cup of tea.
R.I.P. Robert Hardy (1925-2017)
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Below are images from Season Two of the ABC series, "REVENGE". Created by Mike Kelley and loosely based upon Alexandre Dumas père's novel, "The Count of Monte Cristo", the series starred Madeleine Stowe and Emily VanCamp:
"REVENGE" SEASON TWO (2012-2013) Photo Gallery