Thursday, May 25, 2017
"CONDUCT UNBECOMING" (1975) Review
Nearly five decades ago, 1969 to be precise, a play written by novelist Barry England was first staged at the Theater Royal in Bristol, England. Set during the height of the British Empire, England's play focused upon an Army regiment stationed in India. The play became a hit and was eventually adapted into a movie released to the public in 1975.
"CONDUCT UNBECOMING" begins with two young British officers arriving in Indian to join a prestigious regiment. Lieutenant Drake comes from a middle-class background and is eager to make the right impression. Lieutenant Millington is the son of a General and does not seem enthusiastic over the idea of a military career. He plans to leave the Army at the first opportunity. While Drake manages to make a positive impression with his fellow officers, Millington antagonizes them with his cynical behavior, causing the other officers to dislike him. A military ceremony takes place, honoring the deceased members of the regiment and their widows, including Mrs. Marjorie Scarlett, whose husband won a posthumous Victoria Cross after being killed during a battle on the North-West Frontier.
Later that evening, the regiment holds a ball. The younger officers take part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig in the mess. Lieutenant Millington tries to charm Mrs. Scarlett, but is lightly dismissed. Later, the disheveled widow bursts into the mess, claiming to have been attack. She identifies Milington as her attacker. During an evening in the mess, involving the younger officers taking part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig, Mrs Scarlett runs in claiming to have been attacked, and identifies Lieutenant Millington as her attacker. Although he is innocent, Millington sees the potential disgrace as an easy way to leave the Army and return to England. He does not bother to cooperate with Drake, who has been selected to defend him at his secret trial. But when both men realize that Millington might suffer a more serious punishment other than a dishonorable discharge and Drake discovers that another widow had been similarily attacked six months earlier, the latter officer goes out of his way to clear Millington.
I have not seen "CONDUCT UNBECOMING" for a good number of years - over a decade and a half, to be exact. I recall being very impressed when I last saw it a long time ago. I still am - to a certain extent. But there were two aspects of the movie that left me feeling a little unsettled. One of them focused upon the movie's setting. With the exception of the first ten to fifteen minutes, most of "CONDUCT UNBECOMING" was either set in the regiment's mess, other exterior shots or on the cantoment grounds, which could have easily been shot on a sounstage. By the time the movie ended, I felt as if I had watched a filmed play. And I never could understand Lieutenant Millington's original attitude toward the charges against him. I mean . . . this is the Victorian Age we are talking about in which women - especially white upper and middle-class women - were put on pedestals by men. I could understand Millington's attitude if he had been accused of assaulting the other acknowledged victim in the story - an Indian soldier's widow named Mrs. Bandanai. But surely he should have realized that he could have suffered serious repercussion for assaulting someone as cherished as Mrs. Scarlett, right off the bat.
Despite these shortcomings, I must admit that "CONDUCT UNBECOMING" is a first-rate movie. Playwright Barry England wrote a tantalizing peek into the world of British India that featured not only a psychological drama, but also a very interesting mystery and the damages causes by misogyny and racism (in the case of Mrs. Bandanai) that was rampant during the Victorian Age (as well as now). I feel that England created a murder mystery that would have done Agatha Christie proud. I also feel that Robert Enders did an excellent job in adapting England's play.
The movie began with a great set-up of the mystery - the ceremony honoring the dead Captain Scarlett and the other men who died with him, intertwining with with the arrivals of Lieutenants Drake and Millington at the regiment's cantonment. The movie also had a rather creepy scene that featured the younger officers engaged in the "stick-the-pig-in-the-anal" game, which foreshadowed the attack on Mrs. Scarlett later in the evening. But what I really admired about the film is that it did not make it easy for the audience to guess the identity of Mrs. Scarlett's attacker. For that I am truly grateful. If there is one kind of mystery I cannot abide is one that gives away the culprit's identity prematurely.
"CONDUCT UNBECOMING" also benefited from a first-rate cast. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of James Faulkner (who portrayed Millington), Michael Culver, Rafiq Anwar, Persis Khambatta and James Donald. Christopher Plummer gave an interesting performance as the intimidating Major Alastair Wimbourne. Although there were moments when I found his performance a little theatrical. I certainly cannot accuse Trevor Howard's performance as theatrical. He gave an appropriately poignant performance as the regiment's aging commander, who finds it difficult to accept a possible scandal within his command. Richard Attenborough proved to be equally complex as Major Lionel E. Roach, who seemed to live and breathe the regiment. I was surprised to see Stacy Keach in this cast as Captain Harper, the officer charged with prosecuting Millington. He did an excellent job in developing his character from the hard-nosed, blindingly loyal officer, to one who finds himself appalled by the possibility of a serial attacker. Susannah York gave a superb role as the enticing Mrs. Scarlett, who seemed first amused by Millington's attempt at seduction and later, angry over what happened to her. But the film actually belonged to Michael York, who more than carried his weight as the main character. I was impressed by how he managed to dominate this film, while retaining his character's quiet and reserved nature.
Would I consider "CONDUCT UNBECOMING" a classic? I do not know. I certainly would not consider it a candidate for a Best Picture nomination. And it certainly had its flaws. But due to its first-rate story, solid direction from Michael Anderson and an excellent cast led by Michael York, I still would consider it a very good story that is worth viewing time and again.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Below are images from the 2009 science-fiction thriller, "KNOWING". Directed by Alex Proyas, the movie starred Nicholas Cage:
"KNOWING" (2009) Photo Gallery
Monday, May 22, 2017
Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s:
TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s
1. "Lincoln" (2012) - Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln's last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.
2. "Shenandoah"(1965) - James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer's efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.
3. "Angels & Insects" (1995) - Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt's 1992 novella, "Morpho Eugenia" about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.
4. "Class of '61" (1993) - Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.
5. "The Tall Target" (1951) - Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.
6. "Far From the Madding Crowd" (1967) - John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.
7. "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966) - Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.
8. "Cold Mountain" (2003) - Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer's 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.
9. "Little Women" (1994) - Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.
10. "The Beguiled" (1971) - Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.
Saturday, May 20, 2017
"MY FELLOW AMERICANS" (1996) Review
When "MY FELLOW AMERICANS", was first released, I found myself wondering if Jack Lemmon and James Garner had ever co-starred in a movie or television production together. After checking several websites, including the IMDb, I discovered that this 1996 political comedy was the only production in which they worked together. How sad.
Directed by Peter Segal, "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" told the story of two former U.S. Presidents and long time political rivals - Republican Russell Kramer of Ohio and Democratic Matt Douglas of Indiana - who find themselves caught up in a political scandal called "Olympia" that originated with Kramer's former Vice-President, the current President William Haney of Texas and a defense contractor named Charlie Reynolds. The story began with Kramer spending his time writing cookbooks and speaking at various inconsequential functions and Douglas in the middle of writing his memoirs and dealing with a divorce. The Democratic National Committee chairman, Joe Hollis, asked Douglas to investigate "Olympia" in return for consideration as a future presidential candidate. Kramer discovers that Haney and the latter's Chief of Staff, Carl Witnaur, are trying to frame him for the scandal. Reynolds finally contacts Douglas during a book convention at Washington D.C.'s Union Station in order to confess. Unfortunately, he is assassinated by government thugs commanded by NSA agent Colonel Paul Tanner. Both Douglas and Kramer, who was also at the convention, stumble across Reynolds' dead body. Before the pair can confront Kramer about the scandal and Reynolds, they find themselves being targeted by Tanner and the NSA. Kramer and Douglas are forced to put aside their personal animosity and journey to the former's presidential museum in Ohio to find evidence that would exonerate him and place more suspicion on Haney - while keeping a few steps ahead of Tanner's thugs.
"MY FELLOW AMERICANS" is not exactly regarded as one of the best films in either Jack Lemmon and James Garner's filmography. Not by film critics and not by me. I am not claiming that it is a terrible film. But to be honest, "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" was not exactly an exceptional film. There are certain aspects of it that made it a rather silly at times. For me, the worst aspect of the movie was that director Peter Segal and the screenwriters sometimes presented the humor in a "vaudeville" style in which the jokes came out at a pace that struck me as too fast to be appreciated. And the jokes given to some of the supporting cast struck me as a bit lame. Although the movie did establish Douglas' penchant for finding ways to avoid his Secret Service detail (yes . . . former presidents are still guarded by the Secret Service), it never established how Kramer managed to avoid his detail at Union Station before he and Douglas found Charlie Reynolds' dead body.
And yet . . . years after I first saw "MY FELLOW AMERICANS", I still finding it very entertaining. Despite the occasional lame jokes, I still consider it to be a hilarious movie. Not all of the jokes are lame. In fact, a good number of them struck me as rather sharp and funny:
"Oh, yeah, I'm about to share my coffee with the Washington Love Machine. No dice. You could spit in a Petri dish and start a whole new civilization." - Russell Kramer to Matt Douglas
Matt Douglas: A cookbook. He [Kramer] wrote a cookbook. How dare he?
Joanna: Well, you know, when he was President, he did cook for his guests all the time.
Matt Douglas: That's not the point. Did George Washington write a book called "Your Wooden Teeth and You?" Did William Howard Taft write "Thirty Days To A Slimmer Ass?" It's shameful, just shameful.
"Don't do that with the liquor, Russ. It's so... George Bush." - Margaret Kramer to Russell Kramer
Matt Douglas (at the funeral of a former president): You're a whore. Admit it. Admit you're a big whore. Go ahead.
Russell Kramer: Name three women from the District of Columbia that you didn't bang when you were in office - what am I talking about? Name one.
Matt Douglas: Screw you.
Russell Kramer: Blow me.
It was not just the one-liners that made "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" a lot of fun to watch. One, the movie featured a road trip that stretched from North Carolina to Cleveland, Ohio and back to Washington D.C. And I am just a sucker for road trips. And two, this road trip was made by two men who have loathed each other for years and were forced to work together to bring down a corrupt Presidential administration . . . while evading a group of lethal government thugs. Three, the road trip also forced the two men to escape the political bubble of Washington D.C. and become acquainted with the country and the people that populated it. Which means, this movie also featured some good old-fashioned character development. This was especially the case when Kramer and Douglas encountered an illegal immigrant and a marcher/trombonist in a West Virginia Gay Pride parade, who both helped the pair evade Tanner's murderous thugs; and a family that found itself homeless and jobless, thanks to their administration policies and forced to move to a new location for a much-needed job. In fact, the two ex-presidents' encounter with this family provided a better lesson on the futility of American politicians than any political commentator or historian has ever done.
Most of all, "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" benefited from the performances from a first-rate cast. The movie featured some amusing performances from Esther Rolle, who portrayed a White House cook; Wilford Brimley as the DNC's wily chairman; Conchata Farrell as a sardonic truck driver conveying immigrant illegals; a very young Michael Peña as a sweet and charming illegal immigrant who helped the two former Presidents evade the NSA; Tom Everett as the single-minded NSA agent leading the search for the presidential pair; Marg Helgenberger as Douglas' charming and intelligent book editor; Sela Ward as a sharp and witty journalist investigating the Olympia scandal; Bradley Whitford as President Haney's sleazy Chief of Staff; Jack Kehler and Connie Ray as the generous and homeless couple who gave Douglas and Kramer a ride.
There were performances that really caught my attention. One came from Everett McGill, who gave an intense performance as the ruthless NSA agent Colonel Paul Tanner. Lauren Bacall gave a very witty and charming performance as former First Lady Margaret Kramer. Jeff Yagher was both charming and delightful as the gay parade trombonist, whose real identity proved to be even more surprising. And Dan Ackroyd was deliciously sardonic and slick as the corrupt President Haney. But aside from the two leads, the funniest performance came from John Heard, who had me rolling on the floor with laughter as Haney's dimwitted Vice-President Ted Matthews, who had a talent for saying the wrong thing . . . at the wrong time.
But the stars of the movie were our two leads, Jack Lemmon and James Garner. Earlier, I had commented that it was sad that "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" was the only time they had worked together. It was no comment on the movie itself. I had recently learned that Walter Matthau was supposed to be Lemmon's co-star in this film (as he had been in the past). But Matthau was ill at the time and the filmmakers cast James Garner to take his place. And it is sad that the two actors had only worked with each other once for they were not only hilarious together, they managed to form a first-rate screen team. Both actors had been around since the 1950s and it took over forty years for them to do a movie together? What a shame! Lemmon was fabulous as the overly frugal former Republican president Russell Kramer, who fears being left behind and forgotten after his four years in office. Playing yang to Lemmon's yin was James Garner, who gave a delicious performance as the sardonic former Democratic president Matt Douglas, a sharp-tongued ladies' man who spends more time finding ways to evade his Secret Service detail than making a life after his four years in office.
"MY FELLOW AMERICANS" also featured a nice soundtrack that featured a breezy score created by William Ross. The latter also included some very entertaining songs from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stevie Wonder and John Mellencamp. However, what I really enjoyed was Julio Macat's colorful photography, which I thought did justice to the movie's North Carolina and Washington D.C. locations.
Although I would never regard "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" as a cinematic masterpiece, let alone, a comedic one. There were times when the jokes moved too fast, along with the movie's pacing. But I cannot deny that the movie featured some first-rate humor and nail-biting action sequences, thanks to Peter Segal's direction. More importantly, "MY FELLOW AMERICANS" featured some strong characterizations, thanks to the screenwriters and first-rate performances from a cast led by Jack Lemmon and James Garner.
Sunday, May 14, 2017
Below are images from "A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY", the 1989 adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1964 novel. The movie starred Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple:
"A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY" (1989) Photo Gallery