“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

When I was in my early teens, I had shifted my attention from Nancy Drew mysteries to those novels written by Agatha Christie. And I have not stopped since. I confess that this shift in reading material was the result of seeing the 1978 movie, “DEATH ON THE NILE”, for the first time. Properly hooked on Christie’s works, I focused my attention on her 1934 novel, “Murder in Three Acts”, also known as “Three Act Tragedy”.

I have seen two adaptations of Christie’s 1934 novel. The first was television adaptation in the mid 1980s, titled “MURDER IN THREE ACTS”, which starred Christie veteran Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. Although I enjoyed it, I had hoped to see an adaptation of the novel in its original 1930s setting. I had to wait many years before the ITV series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” granted my wish with an adaptation that not only retained the original setting, but also the original title, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”.

The story begins on the coast of Cornwall, where Hercule Poirot attends a dinner party at the home of famed stage actor, Sir Charles Cartwright. The latter’s guests also include:

*Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange – Sir Charles’ old childhood friend and a nerve specialist
*Lady Mary Lytton-Gore – a Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles, who is from an impoverished old family
*Hermione “Egg” Lytton-Gore – Lady Mary’s young daughter, with whom Sir Charles is in love
*Muriel Wills – a successful playwright also known as Anthony Astor
*Captain Freddie Dacres – a former Army officer and gentleman gambler
*Cynthia Dacres – Captain Dacres’ wife and a successful dressmaker
*Reverend Stephen Babbington – the local curate and Sir Charles’ Cornish neighbor
*Mrs. Babbington – Reverend Babbington’s wife near Sir Charles’s home in Cornwall.
*Oliver Manders – a young Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles’, who is interested in Egg
*Miss Milray – Sir Charles’ secretary

The guests gather in Sir Charles’ drawing-room for a round of pre-dinner cocktails. The party is marred when one of the guests, Reverend Babbington, collapses and dies after drinking his cocktail. An inquest rules his death as a result from natural causes. However, Sir Charles believes that Reverend Babbington may have been murdered, but Poirot is not convinced. About a month or so later, Poirot is vacationing in Monte Carlo, when he encounters Sir Charles. The latter reveals via a newspaper article that Dr. Strange had died from similar circumstances, while hosting a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire. Most of the guests who had attended Sir Charles’ party had also been there, with the exception of Mrs. Babbington and Miss Milray. Unlike Reverend Babbington, Sir Bartholomew’s death has been ruled as a homicide. Both Poirot and Sir Charles return to Britain to investigate the two deaths.

Although “Three Act Tragedy” was one of the first Christie novels I had read, it has never been a favorite of mine. I liked it, but I did not love it. Screenwriter Nick Dear made some changes to the story that I either found appropriate or did not bother me. Dear removed characters like society hound like Mr. Satterthwaite and stage actress Angela Sutcliffe (and one of Sir Charles’ former lovers). I did not miss them. One change really improved the story for me. One aspect of the novel that I found particularly frustrating was the minimized presence of Poirot. The lack of Poirot almost dragged the novel into a halt. Thankfully, Dear avoided this major flaw by allowing Poirot’s presence to be a lot more prominent. He achieved this change by making Poirot a friend of Sir Charles and removing the Mr. Satterthwaite. Dear also made one other major change in Christie’s story, but I will get to it later.

Visually, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” is a gorgeous movie to watch. Peter Greenhalgh, who had passed away last year, provided the production with a colorful photography that I found particularly beautiful. My only complaint about Greenhalgh’s photography is that it struck me as a little fuzzy at times to indicate the story’s presence in the past. Another dazzling aspect of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were the production designs created by Jeff Tessler, who more orless served as the production designer for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” between 2005 and the series’ end in 2013. Judging by the admirable way he managed to re-create not only the movie’s 1930s setting, but also various locations, only tells me that he had been doing something write. I certainly had no complaints about the costumes designed by Sheena Napier. Like Tessler, she worked for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” for a long period of time . . . even longer than Tessler. Although I am no expert on early 20th century fashion, I thought Napier excellent job in creating costumes for the production’s setting and the different characters.

The performances featured in “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were first-rate. I did not find anything exceptional about David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot, but I thought he gave his usual more-than-competent performance. Martin Shaw gave a very solid performance as the charming, yet intelligent Sir Charles Cartwright, who was the first to sense something wrong about the first murder. I was also impressed by how the actor conveyed his character’s insecurity over a romance with a much younger woman. Kimberly Nixon seemed like a ball of fire, thanks to her portrayal of the vibrant and charming Egg Lytton-Gore, who found herself torn between two men. I also enjoyed Art Malik’s portrayal of the extroverted Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange. Although there were times when his performance struck me as a touch too jovial. Ronan Vibert gave a rather insidious, yet oddly charming performance as “gentleman” gambler Captain Freddie Dacres. The one performance that really impressed me came Kate Ashfield who gave a very interesting performance as playwright Anthony Astor aka Miss Muriel Wills. Ashfield did an excellent job in recapturing Miss Wills’ secretive, yet uber observant personality. The production also featured solid performances from Anastasia Hille, Tom Wisdom, Anna Carteret, Suzanne Bertish, and Tony Maudsley.

I do have a complaint about “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I really wish that Nick Dear had not changed the murderer’s main motive for the killings. I have heard rumors that there are two different versions of the story’s resolution. My literary version of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” questioned the murderer’s sanity, making the murders a lot more interesting to me. Unfortunately, Nick Dear used the other resolution, one that struck me as a lot more mundane and not very interesting. Too bad.

Aside from changing the killer’s motive for the murders, I rather enjoyed “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I am thankful that screenwriter Nick Dear had made Hercule Poirot’s presence in the story more prominent than it was in the novel. After all, he is the story’s main investigator. But despite excellent acting and solid direction by Ashley Pearce, I would never regard it as one of my favorite productions from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It was simply a pretty good adaptation of a solid Christie novel. There is nothing else for me to say.

“JULIE AND JULIA” (2009) Review

“JULIE AND JULIA” (2009) Review

Written and directed by Nora Ephron, “JULIE AND JULIA” depicts events in the life of chef Julia Child during the early years in her culinary career; contrasting with the life of a woman named Julie Powell, who aspires to cook all 524 recipes from Child’s cookbook during a single year. Ephron had based her screenplay on two books – “My Life in France”, Child’s autobiography, written with Alex Prud’homme; and “Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” by Powell. Two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep portrayed Julia Child and two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams portrayed Julie Powell.

The plot is simple. A New Yorker named Julie Powell, who works for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to help victims of the 9/11 bombings, has become disatisfied with her life when she realizes that her friends (or should I say acquaintances?) have more exciting professional lives. To help her deal with her apathy and knowing that she is an excellent cook, husband Eric (Chris Messina) suggests that she create a blog to record her experiences in cooking a recipe (each day) from Julia Child’s famous cookbook, ” Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. Woven in to Powell’s story is Child’s experiences as the wife of an American diplomat in Paris during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The movie also reveals Child’s entry into the world of French cuisine and her attempts to write and publish a cookbook on French cooking for Americans.

“JULIE AND JULIA” was not a movie that exactly shook my world. It was a warm and engaging look into the lives of two women whose interest in French cuisine attracted the attention of the public. In the case of Julia Child, her decade long attempt to write a cookbook on French cuisine led to her becoming a television celebrity and icon. Julie Powell’s attempt to recount her experiences in preparing the recipes from Child’s cookbook led to her blog, media attention and this movie. I have read a few reviews of the movie and most critics and filmgoers seemed more interested in Child’s early years as a chef in France than they were by Powell’s experiences with her blog. Granted, the Child sequences were a lot of fun, due to Streep’s performance of the charming, enthusiastic and fun-loving chef. But I must admit to being surprised by how much I had enjoyed Powell’s experiences with her blog. I realize that I am going to be bashed for this, but Powell’s experiences seemed to have more emotional substance to them.

I am not saying that the Powell sequences were better written or more entertaining. But due to Ephron’s portrayal of the Texan-turned-New Yorker, the Powell sequences seemed more complex and emotionally satisfying. In other words, Amy Adams – who portrayed Powell – had the meatier role. Most critics and fans of the film would disagree with me. After all, it seemed very obvious that Streep was having a ball portraying the enthusiastic and fun loving Julia Child. Her ability to easily befriend many of the French and her deepening love for French cuisine made it quite easy to see how she quickly became a celebrity. But Ephron never really delved into the darker aspects of Child’s character or marriage – except touch upon the chef’s disappointment at being childless. She certainly did with Powell. And Amy Adams did a superb job in re-creating a very complex and occasionally insecure personality. But I suspect that when the awards season rolls around the corner, it will be Streep who will earn most of the nominations . . . or perhaps all of them.

The rest of the cast of “JULIE AND JULIA” were just as excellent as Streep and Adams. Stanley Tucci portrayed Child’s diplomat husband, Paul Child. He gave a warm, yet more restrained performance as a man happily caught up in his wife’s growing interest in becoming a chef; yet at the same time, conveyed his character’s unhappiness with his failing diplomatic career due to a change in the country’s political winds. Like Adams, Chris Messina had a more difficult role as Powell’s husband, Eric Powell. Unlike Child, he has to deal with his frustration in his wife’s growing obssession with her blog . . . along with her occasional bouts with arrogance, insecurity and self-absorption. And at one point in the film, he loses his temper in spectacular fashion. I also enjoyed Linda Emond’s performance as French cook Simone Beck, who co-authored Child’s cookbook; and Mary Lynn Rajskub as Powell’s acerbic friend, Amy. One other performance that really caught my eye belonged to Jane Lynch as Julia Child’s equally extroverted sister, Dorothy McWilliams. Watching Lynch and Streep portray the McWilliams sisters take Paris by storm was a joy to behold.

Although I had enjoyed “JULIA AND JULIA”, I had a few problems with it. One, it was too long. The movie’s pacing started out fine. Unfortunately, I was ready for it to end at least twenty minutes before it actually did. By 100 minutes into the film, the pacing began to drag. And although I had no problems with the movie’s alternating storylines, I felt that it failed to seque smoothly between Child and Powell’s stories. The jump from Powell’s story to Child’s and back seemed ragged and uneven to me. And as I had pointed out before, the story surrounding Child’s story seemed less emotionally complex and more frothy in compare to Powell’s story, giving me another reason to view the movie as uneven.

Despite its flaws, “JULIE AND JULIA” is an entertaining film that many who are into cooking or food would enjoy. Both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams gave first-rate performances. And the movie also gave filmgoers a peek into life for Americans in post-World War II Paris. In the end, I found the movie enjoyable, but not earth-shattering. I would recommend it.

“42ND STREET” (1933) Review

“42ND STREET” (1933) Review

I have always been a major fan of movie musicals. My favorite period for musicals stretched between the years 1945 and 1969. I find this ironic, considering that one of my all time favorite movie musicals is “42ND STREET”, which was first released over a decade earlier, at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.

When talking pictures first arrived in the late 1920s, the Hollywood industry did not hesitate to produce musicals. One of the earliest films to win the Best Picture Academy Award was the 1929 musical, “THE BROADWAY MELODY”. I have never seen this film, but I had a few glimpses of other musicals made during the first four or five years of the talkies. At worst, they were just awful. At best, they were mediocre. Then along came “42ND STREET” in March 1933 and Hollywood musicals have never been the same . . . well, almost.

Based upon Bradford Ropes’ 1932 novel and written by Rian James, James Seymour and an uncredited Whitney Bolton; “42ND STREET” was originally slated to be directed by Mervyn Leroy. However, the director of Depression-era hits like “LITTLE CAESAR” and “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” found himself unable to helm the movie, due to illness. The directing assignment went to Lloyd Bacon, a contract director at Warner Brothers Studios. In addition, producer Darryl F. Zanuck hired choreographer Busby Berkeley to direct the film’s big musical numbers near the end of the film.

“42ND STREET” begins when a pair of Broadway producers decide to put on a musical show called “Pretty Lady”, starring stage star Dorothy Brock. The latter is involved with wealthy Abner Dillon, the show’s financial backer. But while Dorothy busies herself with playing hot and cold with Dillon, she is secretly dating her former vaudeville partner, the out-of-work Pat Denning. The producers hire Julian Marsh to direct the play. However, Marsh’s health is in bad shape, due to the high stress of his job. And he is also broke, due to the 1929 Stock Market Crash. He needs “Pretty Lady” to be a hit in order to secure enough cash for retirement. The competition for casting selection becomes fierce, especially for some the chorines, whose desperation for a job leads them to resort to sexual promises. Lorraine Fleming manages to get hired, due to her relationship with dance director Andy Lee. Both she and Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell help a young woman named Peggy Sawyer to get hired. Peggy is a hoofer from Allentown, Pennsylvania who finds difficulty in getting a job due to her naivety and inexperience. Not only does she managed to befriend Lorraine and Ann, but also the show’s juvenile lead, Billy Lawler. Peggy also acquires another friend – namely Pat Denning. Her friendship with Pat nearly affects his romance with Dorothy Brock and also the show.

When most fans and critics discuss “42ND STREET”, they tend to focus on Busby Berkeley’s direction of the musical numbers and the sexual innuendo that seems to permeate the film’s narrative. What do I think of “42ND STREET”? Well . . . just as I had earlier hinted, it is one of my favorite musicals. Because it is regarded as a “backstage musical”, most of the performances are limited to the film’s last act, when Pretty Lady” has its opening night in Philadelphia. The only exception is the “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” number, which was performed by Bebe Daniels in a rehearsal sequence. Overall, I have no problems with the musical numbers. Songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin created some memorable tunes. My favorites tend to be “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and “Young and Healthy”. The first number is a personal favorite, thanks to Daniels’ charming and slightly wicked performance. And between Dick Powell’s energetic performance and the dazzling choreography directed by Busby Berkeley, the second number holds a special place in my heart. Ironically, when mentioning Berkeley’s choreography, I do not mean actual dancing. I was referring to the number’s complex geometric patterns created by the dancers moving or marching in place. Berkeley was known for this kind of choreography. I also enjoyed “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, due to its sexual innuendos, but it is not a big favorite of mine. I do love the movie’s main and final song, “42nd Street”. I find it energetic and entertaining – including the instrumental version during the number’s New York Street montage. But I am not particularly in love with the actual choreography in the last number that features the song.

But more than anything, I really enjoyed the narrative behind “42ND STREET”. Recently, I came across an article in which the blogger revealed that he or she had read the source material behind the 1933 movie – namely Bradford Ropes’ 1932 novel. The blogger also revealed that the screenwriters had changed a good deal of Ropes’ story. The novel mainly focused upon the personal lives of the show’s cast and crew. It barely focused upon rehearsals or any of the backstage hang ups, until the last act. In a way, this structure reminds me of the 1933 movie, “DINNER AT EIGHT”, which focused on the lives of a family planning a dinner party and their guests. According to the blogger, Ropes’ novel was even racier than the movie. In fact, one subplot dealt with a romance between Julian Marsh and Billy Lawler. But since overt homosexuality was not tolerated in the old Hollywood films – even during the Pre-Code era – the movie’s screenwriters developed a budding romance between Lawler and Peggy Sawyer, kick starting the first of several on-screen teamings between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.

The lack of a romance between two of the three leading male characters did not exactly make “42ND STREET” squeaky clean. The sexual innuendos that flew between the chorine characters provided plenty of ammunition for the Moral Brigade to raise their eyebrows. The movie is filled with memorable lines like:

*“Not Anytime Annie? Say, who could forget ‘er? She only said “No” once, and THEN she didn’t hear the question!”

*“It must have been hard on your mother, not having any children.”.

But what I found really interesting . . . and somewhat disturbing about “42ND STREET” is that the film went beyond mere innuendos.

I was slightly taken aback by the sheer number of sexual politics that seemed to dominate the movie’s narrative. “42ND STREET” featured chorus girls like Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell and Lorraine Fleming willing to promise anything in order to become part of the show’s chorus. Even leading lady Dorothy Brock seemed willing to subject herself to the slimy attentions of the show’s money bags, Abner Dillon, in order to maintain her job with this show. The movie also featured one male character – namely the unemployed Pat Denning – who seemed willing to be Dorothy’s boy toy, while she services Dillon. However in Pat’s case, I suspect love may be the reason behind his willingness to be Dorothy’s personal bed warmer. In one or two cases, the prostitution that went on in this movie seemed to go beyond sex. A good example of this proved to be a decision made by the show’s two producers, Barry and Jones, and Marsh. Desperate for Dillon’s continuing finances, the three men were not only willing to hire Dorothy for the lead, but also hire local gangsters to rough up Pat Denning, when they learn about his affair with Dorothy.

However, the movie’s sexual politics not only feature prostitution, but also another ugly subject. Sexual harassment. The movie did not hesitate to reveal the sexual manhandling and harassment of the female chorus members. In one scene, Lorraine Fleming had to resort to a caustic one-liner to stop a male dancer from groping her. From the moment she arrived at the theater, Peggy was either subjected to groping by male chorus dancers and crewmen, or propositioned. Most of this is handled with humor by the movie’s screenwriters. But there was one scene in which I found particular scary. At a pre-show party at a Philadelphia hotel, Peggy had to fend off the unwelcome groping of a drunken chorus boy named Terry, who had been presented himself as a friend during the show’s rehearsals. Worse, Terry hunted Peggy down throughout the hotel after she fled the party, leading me to suspect that he had intended to rape her all along.

Some people have commented that one of the movie’s flaws is that it has become dated over the past eighty years or so. Personally, I feel that the march of time has not made “42ND STREET” dated. Despite the 1930s musical numbers and dialogue, the movie’s story and theme is as fresh today as it was eighty years ago. More importantly, the Great Depression background gave the movie’s narrative an earthy, yet realistic aura that still resonates today. But the movie does have its flaws. And for me, those flaws centered around the casting of Ruby Keeler and the final musical number, “42nd Street”.

It occurred to me that I could have accepted Ruby Keeler as the movie’s talented ingénue, Peggy Sawyer, if it not for the presence of . . . Ginger Rogers. I read somewhere that the movie’s original director, Mervyn LeRoy, had suggested Rogers for the role of “Anytime Annie”. Why “Anytime Annie”? Rogers could have easily portrayed the wide-eyed naivety of Peggy Sawyer. She was only 21 years-old when the movie was shot. She had portrayed similar characters in a few of her early movies with Fred Astaire. More importantly, she could both act and dance circles around Keeler. The latter, on the other hand, had a decent singing voice and was a damn good hoofer. But a hoofer only dances with his or her feet and not the entire body. And when it came to using her entire body, Keeler seemed rather sluggish. Keeler’s performance was also rather stiff. This is not surprising, since this was her first movie. So why on earth did Warner Brothers settled on Keeler, when they had a bigger talent in Rogers? Then I remembered . . . Rogers was dating Mervyn LeRoy at the time this movie was made. But Keeler was married to Al Jolson, who was still a top Warners Brothers contract player at the time.

My other major problem with “42ND STREET” is the final musical number. As I had previously stated, I enjoy Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s song very much. It may be 82 to 83 years old, but I still find it very catchy. I had no problems with the song. On the other hand, I had a lot of problems with the dancing featured in this number. I did not find it particularly impressive. Yes, I was impressed by Berkeley’s precision-style choreography and use of the camera to display it in the “Young and Healthy” number. I was not impressed by the actual dancing featured in “42nd Street”. Ruby Keeler’s solo dancing led me to wince a bit. Well, perhaps more than a bit. I noticed that the . . . um, “strutting” done by the extras in the New York street montage segment seemed a bit offbeat. And the final segment featuring the background dancers seemed rather awkward and not particularly mind-blowing. I have seen better dancing in other Berkeley films, especially the “Lullaby of Broadway” dance number in 1935’s “GOLDIGGERS OF 1935”.

“42ND STREET” featured some fine performances from the cast. Most of them not only gave it their all, but also provided a great deal of energy to the movie. Both Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel were hilarious as the two showgirls who befriend Ruby Keeler’s character. I also impressed by the energetic performances provided by George E. Stone and Guy Kibbee, who portrayed dance director Andy Lee and the wealthy Abner Dillon, respectively. However, I was not that impressed by Ruby Keeler’s portrayal of Peggy Sawyer, which I found rather stilted. And I thought both George Brent and Dick Powell were particularly wasted in this film as Pat Denning and Billy Lawler. Fortunately, both men will go on to proved their real talent in later films. I personally thought the best performances came from the movie’s two leads – Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels. Baxter walked a fine line between indulging in borderline hamminess and conveying a world weary desperation in his portrayal of the tough-minded director, Julian Marsh, who is determined to produce one last hit. And he did it with a seamless skill that still leaves me breathless with admiration. I was also impressed by Bebe Daniels, who did an excellent job in her portrayal of the ambitious Dorothy Brock, who found herself torn between her love for Pat and her willingness to be Dillon’s plaything, despite her personal disgust toward him.

It is a miracle that after 89 years, “42ND STREET” still holds up well for me. Ironically, it was not the musical numbers or Busby Berkeley’s choreography that really impressed me. It was the backstage story filled with sharp humor, sexual politics and desperation that I believe resonates even to this day. It was the story, along with Lloyd Bacon’s solid direction and a talented cast led by Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels that still makes “42ND STREET” a favorite of mine, even to this day.

“THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN” (2008) Review

“THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN” (2008) Review

I must admit that it took me quite a while to write a review of the 2008 cinematic installment of “THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA” saga. This second installment, “PRINCE CASPIAN”, tells the story of four Pevensie children’s return to Narnia to aid Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) in his struggle for the throne against his corrupt uncle King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). I tried to think of something different about this chapter in compare to the first – “THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE”. But it occurred to me that my reaction to this movie seemed more or less the same as the 2005 release.

And what does that say about my feelings about “PRINCE CASPIAN”? Honestly, I thought it was a solid and entertaining film that both children and adult fans of C.S. Lewis’ saga might enjoy. That is all I can really say. There was nothing really unique about it. Like many other adaptations of literary works, “PRINCE CASPIAN” did not faithfully follow its literary counterpart. Considering that I have never read any of Lewis’ works, I was not particularly disturbed by this. The only reason I am aware of any differences between the literary and cinematic versions, is the Internet.

Like the previous movie, the cast is pretty solid. The actors who portrayed the Pevensie children returned for this sequel. Due to the rapid aging of children in general, work on the script began before “THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE” was released, so filming could begin before the actors grew too old for their parts. William Moseley (Peter), Anna Popplewell (Susan), Skandar Keynes (Edmund) and Georgie Henley (Lucy) all gave solid, yet slightly uninspiring performances as the four siblings. Whereas Keynes got the chance to show Edmund at his peevish worst in the previous film, Moseley portrayed a slightly darker side of oldest brother Peter, whose dissatisfaction with being back in England had produced boorish personality. Perhaps I should rephrase that. Peter’s boorishness, which had been hinted through his handling of Edmund in the first film, was allowed to flourish in this film. It took a military failure against the main villain to give him a boot in the ass to improve his personality. On the other hand, Edmund seemed remarkably changed for the better in this film. One critic had described him as being the film’s “Han Solo”. I would agree, except Edmund came off as more mature and intelligent than Han Solo. Anna Popplewell had convinced producer Douglas Gresham to allow Susan to appear in the movie’s major battles, because she feared the character came off as too passive in Lewis’ novel. Many fans of the novel were appalled by this. Not being a literary fan of the saga, it did not bother me at all. At least it gave her something to do. Of all the Pevensie siblings, Georgie Henley’s Lucy seemed to have changed the least. Although she seemed less tolerant of Peter’s boorishness than she was of Edmund’s darker side in the first film.

British actor Ben Barnes portrayed the title role of Prince Caspian of Telmarine with as much solid competence as the four actors who portrayed the Pevensies. Perhaps he seemed a little more competent than his younger co-stars in acting skills, but I could not sense anything remarkable about his performance. Portraying Caspian’s evil uncle and the Telmarine’s false ruler, King Miraz, was actor Sergio Castellitto. He made a very effective villain, but lacked Tilda Swanton’s memorable portrayal as the White Witch. Who, by the way, briefly returned to bring a much-needed spark in the middle of the story. If I must be honest, her brief appearance was probably the best scene in the film. But not even Swinton’s spectacular appearance could not overshadow what I feel was the best performance in the movie – namely that of Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin, a cynical red dwarf. I really enjoyed his sharp and caustic take on the dwarf, who is skeptic of the idea of Aslan and magic.

As much as I enjoyed “PRINCE CASPIAN”, I must admit that I found it no more remarkable than the first film. Also, I found it difficult to maintain interest in the film’s first half, as it switched back and forth between Caspian’s flight from his murderous uncle and the Pevensies’ arrival in Narnia. Director Andrew Adamson seemed to lack George Lucas and Peter Jackson’s talent for seamless transition between multiple story lines within one film. But once the Pevensies and Caspian finally met, the movie seemed to discover its pace as it flowed toward the heroes’ ill-fated attempt to attack upon Miraz and the final showdown. There were two scenes that gave me a sense of déjà vu – namely the attacks of the trees and the river god upon the Telmarine army. It seemed as if either Adamson or Lewis had a Tolkien moment. The attack of the trees especially reminded me of the Ents’ attack upon Isengard in the 2002 movie, “LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS”.

“PRINCE CASPIAN” was not the greatest movie I had seen during the summer of 2008. Nor is there anything unique about it. But if one can overcome the fact that it is not an exact adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ novel, he or she might find the movie quite entertaining to watch. I heartily recommend it.

“MILDRED PIERCE” (2011) Review

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“MILDRED PIERCE” (2011) Review

When HBO had first revealed its plans to air an adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, “Mildred Pierce”, many people reacted in some very interesting ways. Some seemed thrilled by the idea of a new version of Cain’s story. But there were many who were not thrilled by the idea. And I suspect that this negative response had a lot to do with the first adaptation.

Sixty-six years ago, Warner Brothers Studios had released its own adaptation of the novel. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie starred Joan Crawford in the title role and Ann Blyth as her older daughter, Veda. The movie received several Academy Award nominations and a Best Actress statuette for Crawford. Due to the film’s success and lasting popularity, many fans and critics viewed it as a definitive adaptation of one of Cain’s works. So, when they learned about HBO’s plans for a new version, many regarded the news with scorn. After all, how could any remake be just as good or superior to the classic Hollywood film?

Was “MILDRED PIERCE” as a miniseries just as good or better than the 1945 movie? I will give my opinion on that topic later. I will say that I truly enjoyed both versions. The miniseries benefited from Todd Haynes serving as the director, one of the producers and one of the writers. Oscar winning actress, Kate Winslet portrayed the title role. The miniseries also possessed a talented supporting cast that included Guy Pearce, Melissa Leo, Brían F. O’Byrne, Mare Winningham, James Le Gros; along with Evan Rachel Wood (“TRUE BLOOD”) and Morgan Turner. And I cannot deny that I found the miniseries’ production designs first-rate, despite a few quibbles. But I have come across a good number of movies or television productions with everything in its favor that still failed to win me over in the end. Fortunately, “MILDRED PIERCE” did the opposite.

Todd Haynes had pointed out that his new miniseries would be more faithful to Cain’s novel than the 1945 movie. And he was good on his word. The biggest differences between the Michael Curtiz movie and Haynes’ new miniseries were the running times and the lack of a murder mystery in the miniseries. That is correct. Monty Beragon was never murdered in the novel and he certainly was not murdered in the new version. There were no flashbacks on Mildred’s life, following her divorce from her first (and third) husband, Bert Pierce. And I am grateful to Todd Haynes for sparing the viewers that nonsense and sticking closer to Cain’s plot. I believed that the murder plot unnecessarily dragged the Curtiz movie. And Haynes’ miniseries was long enough. Due to the lack of a murder mystery, the miniseries retained Cain’s slightly bleaker ending. Much to the dismay of many fans.

Since Haynes had decided to stick a little closer to the novel, the miniseries covered the story’s entire time span of 1931 to 1940. Which meant that “MILDRED PIERCE” gave viewers a bird’s eye view of the Depression’s impact upon Southern Californians like the Pierce family. Part One began in 1931 with Mildred preparing a pie to sell to one of her neighbors. Husband Bert has joined the ranks of the broke and unemployed, thanks to the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the economic hijinks of his former business partner and friend, Wally Burgan. Bert seemed to spend most of his days engaged with chores like mowing the lawn or engaging in an affair with a neighbor named Maggie Biderhof. Bert’s announcement that he might spend another afternoon and evening with Mrs. Biderhof proves to be the last straw for Mildred. The couple have a heated quarrel that ends with Bert’s departure from the family and eventually, a divorce.

Mildred realizes that she needs a steady income to support their two daughters, Veda and Ray. Unfortunately, Veda lacks any experience for a position outside of customer service. And being enamored of her upper-middle-class status, the idea of being a waitress, maid or housekeeper is abhorrent to Mildred. She also knows that such professions are abhorrent to her pretentious and class-conscious daughter, Veda. After rejecting jobs as housemaid to the future wife of a Hollywood director and waitress at a tea parlor, the realities of the Depression finally leads a desperate Mildred to take a job as waitress at a Hollywood diner. Unfortunately, Veda learns about the new job, which leads mother and daughter to their first major quarrel and Mildred’s decision to make plans to open a restaurant. The quarrel also marked the real beginning of what proved to be the story’s backbone – namely Mildred and Veda’s tumultuous relationship.

As much as I admire “MILDRED PIERCE”, it does have its flaws. I would view some of them as minor. But I consider at least one or two of them as major. One of the small problems proved to be Haynes’ decision to shoot the miniseries in New York, instead of Southern California. Aside from Mildred’s Glendale neighborhood, most of the locations in the miniseries do not scream “Southern California” – including the beach locations. The director claimed that he had chosen the area around New York City, because it was more cost-efficient than shooting around Los Angeles. He also claimed that it would be difficult to find “Old L.A.” within the city today. Speaking as an Angeleno who has spent many weekends driving around the city, I found these excuses hard to swallow. Los Angeles and many other Southern California neighborhoods have plenty of locations that could have been used for the production. And could someone explain how filming around New York was cheaper than Los Angeles?

“MILDRED PIERCE” has received charges of slow pacing and an unnecessarily long running time. I have nothing against “MILDRED PIERCE” being shown in a miniseries format. But I have two quibbles regarding the pacing. One, the sequence featuring Mildred’s job hunt dragged unnecessarily long. Haynes filled this segment with many long and silent shots of a pensive Mildred staring into the distant or dragging her body along the streets of Glendale and Los Angeles. I am aware that Haynes was trying to convey some kind of message with these shots. Unfortunately, I am not intellectually inclined and the sequence merely ignited my impatience. On the other hand, the speed in which Haynes continued Mildred’s story in Episode Three left my head spinning. Aside from the sequence featuring the opening of Mildred’s first restaurant, I felt that the episode moved a bit too fast . . . especially since so much happened to Mildred during the two to three year time span. I would have preferred if Episode Three had a running time of slightly over an hour – like Episodes Four and Five.

Complaints aside, this “MILDRED PIERCE” struck me as truly first-rate. As much as I had enjoyed the 1945 movie, I thank God that Todd Haynes did not add that ludicrous murder mystery into the plot. Cain’s novel was not about Veda getting her comeuppance for being an ungrateful daughter to a hard-working mother. The story was about a resilient woman, who was also plagued by her personal flaws – which she refused to overcome, let alone acknowledge. Some viewers and critics have expressed confusion over Mildred’s continuing obsession over her older daughter. Others have deliberately blinded themselves from Mildred’s flaws and dumped all of the blame for her downfall entirely upon the heads of others – especially Veda. But there have been viewers and critics who managed to understand and appreciate the miniseries’ portrayal of Mildred. I certainly did.

I have never understood the complaints that “MILDRED PIERCE” had failed to explain Mildred’s unwavering obsession over Veda. I thought that Haynes perfectly revealed the reasons behind her obsession. First of all, he revealed those traits that both mother and daughter shared in numerous scenes – aspirations for entry into the upper-class, desire for wealth, snobbery, and a talent for manipulating others. Mildred’s refusal to consider those jobs at a tea parlor and as the pretentious Mrs. Forrester’s maid struck me as signs of her ego blinding her from the precarious state of her family’s financial situation. And when she finally caved in to becoming a waitress at a Hollywood diner, Mildred considered quitting, because her sensibilities (or ego) could not fathom working in such a profession. Her contempt toward others suffering from the Depression after the successful opening of her Glendale restaurant was expressed in a scene with upper-class playboy Monty Beragon. Episode Five revealed her manipulation of Monty into marrying her . . . in order to lure Veda back to her seemed pretty obvious. But one scene not only revealed the core of Mildred’s character, but also the miniseries’ theme. While despairing over her decision to become a waitress at the end of Episode One, Mildred said this to neighbor Lucy Gessler:

“She (Veda) has something in her that I thought I had and now I find I don’t. Pride or nobility or whatever it is. For both my girls, I want them to have all the cake in the world.”

Judging from Mildred’s comments, it was not difficult for me to see that she viewed Veda as an extension of herself and in some degrees, better. I believe that the quote also hinted Mildred’s personal insecurities about living among the upper-class. This insecurity was revealed in a scene from Episode Three in which Mildred appeared at a polo field in Pasadena to pick up Veda, who was bidding her “babysitter” Monty good-bye. So, this argument that Haynes had failed to explain Mildred’s enabling behavior toward Veda simply does not ring true with me.

Despite my complaint about Haynes’ decision to shoot “MILDRED PIERCE” in New York, I must admit that I found myself impressed by Mark Friedberg’s production designs. The miniseries’ setting did not have a Southern California feel to me, but Friedberg certainly did an excellent job of re-creating the 1930s. He was ably supported by Peter Rogness’ art designs and Ellen Christiansen’s set decorations. But aside from Friedberg’s work, the biggest contribution to the miniseries’ Thirties look came from Ann Roth’s costume designs. Not only did she provide the right costumes for the years between 1931 and 1940, she also ensured that the costumes would adhere to the characters’ social positions and personalities. For example, both Roth and Haynes wisely insisted that Kate Winslet wear the same dowdy, brown print dress during Mildred’s job hunt in Episode One. One last person whom I believe contributed to the miniseries’ look and style was cinematographer Edward Lachman. If I must be honest, I was more impressed by Lachman’s photography of various intimate scenes reflecting the characters’ emotions or situations than any panoramic shot he had made. I was especially impressed by Lachman’s work in Episode One’s last scene and the Episode Five sequence featuring Veda’s betrayal of Mildred.

Along with Todd Haynes’ direction, it was the cast led by the uber-talented Kate Winslet that truly made “MILDRED PIERCE” memorable. First of all, the miniseries featured brief appearances from the likes of Richard Easton and Ronald Guttman, who each gave a colorful performance as Veda’s music teachers during different periods in the story. Hope Davis was deliciously haughty as the Los Angeles socialite-turned-movie producer’s wife with whom Mildred has two unpleasant encounters. In the 1945 movie, Eve Arden portrayed the character of Ida Corwin, which was a blend of two characters from Cain’s novel – Mildred’s neighbor Lucy Gessler and her diner co-worker Ida Corwin. The recent miniseries included both characters into the production. Fresh on the heels of her Oscar win, Melissa Leo gave an engaging performance as Mildred’s cheerful and wise friend/neighbor, Lucy Gessler, who provided plenty of advice on the former’s personal life. Aside from a two-episode appearance in the last season of “24”, I have not seen Mare Winningham in quite a while. It was good to see her portray Mildred’s blunt and business-savy friend and colleague, Ida Corwin.

At least three actors portrayed the men in Mildred’s life – James LeGros, Brían F. O’Byrne and Guy Pearce. Although his sense of humor was not as sharp as Jack Carson’s in 1945, I must admit that LeGros managed to provide some memorably humorous moments as Wally Burgan, Mildred’s business adviser and temporary lover. Two of my favorite Wally moments turned out to be his reaction to the news of Mildred’s breakup from her husband and to the revelation of her romance with Monty Beragon. Brían F. O’Byrne earned an Emmy nomination as Mildred’s ex-husband, Bert Pierce. What I admired by O’Byrne’s performance was the gradual ease in which he transformed Bert’s character from a self-involved philanderer to a supportive mate by the end of the series. But the most remarkable performance came from Guy Pearce, who won a well-deserved Emmy for his performance as Monty Beragon, Mildred’s Pasadena playboy lover and later, second husband. Thankfully, Pearce managed to avoid portraying Monty as some one-note villain and instead, captured both the good and the bad of his character’s nuance – Monty’s friendly nature, his condescension toward Mildred’s class status, his seductive skills that kept her satisfied for nearly two years, his occasional bouts of rudeness and the hurt-filled realization that Mildred had used him to win back Veda.

Two remarkable young actresses portrayed Veda Pierce, the heroine’s monstrous and talented older daughter. Morgan Turner portrayed Veda from age eleven to thirteen and I must say that she did a first-rate job. In the first three episodes, Turner convincingly developed Veda from a pretentious, yet still bearable eleven year-old to an ambitious girl in her early teens who has developed a deep contempt toward her mother. My only problem with Turner’s performance were the few moments when her Veda seemed too much like an adult in a child’s body. Evan Rachel Wood benefited from portraying Veda between the ages of 17 and 20. Therefore, her performance never struck me as slightly odd. However, she miss the opportunity to portray the development of Veda’s monstrous personality. But that lost opportunity did not take away Wood’s superb performance. Despite the awfulness of Veda’s character, I must hand it to the young actress for injecting some semblance of ambiguity. Aside from portraying Veda’s monstrous personality, Wood did an excellent job of conveying Veda’s frustration with Mildred’s overbearing love and the end of her own ambitions as a concert pianist.

I have been a fan of Kate Winslet since I first saw her in 1995’s “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. There have been and still are many talented actors and actresses with the ability to portray multifaceted characters. But I believe that Winselt is one of the few who are able to achieve this with great subtlety. Her portrayal of Glendale housewife-turned-entrepreneur Mildred Pierce is a prize example of her talent for acting in complex and ambiguous roles. Superficially, her Mildred Pierce was a long-suffering and hard-working woman, who overcame a failed marriage to become a successful entrepreneur . . . all for the love of her two daughters. Winslet not only portrayed these aspects of Mildred’s character with great skill, but also conveyed the character’s darker aspects, which I had already listed in this article. She more than earned that Emmy award for Best Actress in a Miniseries.

Although many have expressed admiration for “MILDRED PIERCE”, these same fans and critics seemed to have done so with a good deal of reluctance or complaints. I will be the first to admit that the miniseries has its flaws. But I do not find them excessive. This reluctance to express full admiration for “MILDRED PIERCE” culminated in its loss for the Best Miniseries Emmy to the British import, “DOWNTON ABBEY”. I had objected to this loss on the grounds that the British drama – a television series – was nominated in the wrong category; and that I believe “MILDRED PIERCE” was slightly superior.

Flawed or not, I believe that Todd Haynes did a superb job in adapting James M. Cain’s novel. He wisely adhered to the literary source as close as possible, allowing viewers a more complex and ambiguous look into the Mildred Pierce character. Also, Haynes had a first-rate cast led by the incomparable Kate Winslet. As much as I love the 1945 movie, I must admit that this recent miniseries turned out to be a superior production. My admiration for Todd Haynes as a filmmaker has been solidified.

“SLEEPING MURDER” (2006) Review

“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.

Favorite Episodes of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” (1989-2013)

Below is a list of my favorite television movies from the 1989-2013 ITV series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. The series starred David Suchet as Hercule Poirot:

FAVORITE EPISODES OF “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” (1989-2013)

1. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – In this superb and haunting movie, an heiress named Lucy Crale hires Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to investigate the 14-year-old murder case in which her mother was hanged for poisoning her artist father.

2. “After the Funeral” (2006) – Poirot investigates the case of a wealthy man who had died unexpectedly. When his sister expresses belief that he may have been murdered, she is killed at her home the following day.

3. “The A.B.C. Murders” (1992) – Poirot receives taunting letters from a serial killer, who appears to choose his victims and crime scenes alphabetically

.

4. “Murder on the Links” (1996) – While Poirot and his close friend, Captain Arthur Hastings, are holidaying at a resort in Northern France; a businessman tells Poirot that his life is in danger. The next day he is found stabbed to death on a nearby golf course.

5. “Mrs. McGinty’s Dead” (2008) – A police detective recruits Poirot to investigate the death of a village charwoman; and to prove the innocence of the victim’s lodger, who has been accused and convicted for her murder.

“AMELIA” (2009) Review

“AMELIA” (2009) Review

To this day, there have been at least three biographical movies about the 1930s aviatrix, Amelia Earhart. And I have not seen the first two films – a 1943 movie that starred Rosalind Russell and a 1976 television movie that starred Susan Clark. I finally got around to seeing the latest biopic film about Earhart called ”AMELIA”. Directed by Mira Nair, the film starred two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank in the title role.

Written by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, the screenplay was based upon research from sources like ”East to the Dawn” by Susan Butler and ”The Sound of Wings” by Mary S. Lovell. Instead of covering Earhart’s entire life, the story focused purely on the aviatrix’s career as a pilot from her first flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 1928 (as a passenger) to her disappearance over the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1937. The movie also focused upon Earhart’s relationships with publishing tycoon and husband George Putnam (Richard Gere) and her lover, aviator Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor); along with her collaboration with navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) during that last flight.

I can honestly say that ”AMELIA” is not one of the greatest Hollywood biographical films I have ever seen. It is not the worst . . . but I have certainly seen better biopics. The problem with ”AMELIA” is that it is simply mediocre. I am aware that the aviatrix had accomplished a great deal during her flying career. The film began with her becoming the first female to fly over the Atlantic as commander of the flight . . . and as a passenger. Embarrassed that her fame had not been earned, Earhart finally became the first female to fly over the Atlantic as a pilot in 1932. And although I felt a little teary-eyed and a sense of satisfaction over her accomplishments, I still found the movie to be a bit mediocre. For me, the movie’s main problem seemed to focus upon its portrayal of the main character – namely Earhart. I might as well be honest. The problem could have been Hilary Swank’s portrayal of the aviatrix. Or the problem simply could have been Bass and Phelan’s portrayal of her. She was not that interesting as a personality. Mind you, Earhart was not portrayed as a saint in the film. It included her alleged affair with Gene Vidal, during her marriage to Putnam, she had an affair with pilot Gene Vidal. Yet, Earhart still managed to come off as a less than interesting personality.

But all was not lost with ”AMELIA”. It included a handful of scenes that I found memorable. These scenes featured Earhart’s clash with Wilmer “Bill” Stultz (Joe Anderson) before the 1928 trans-Atlantic flight, that particular flight, George Putnam’s jealously over Earhart’s relationship with Vidal, her 1932 solo flight across the Atlantic, and her brief disagreement with Fred Noonan during their overnight stay in Lae, Papual New Guinea. The film’s minor centerpiece focused on those last moments of communication between Earhart’s plane and a U.S. Coast Guard picket ship called the U.S.C.G.C. Itasca before she and Noonan disappeared. I found myself especially impressed with Nair’s handling of this last scene, despite the fact that everyone knew its outcome.

Hilary Swank gave a solid and understated performance as Earhart. Considering that the aviatrix’s personality was understated, I doubt that it was much of a stretch for. I am a big fan of Ewan McGregor, but I think he was basically wasted in the role of Gene Vidal. Aside from providing a few romantic moments and expressing concern for Earhart’s plans to circumnavigate the globe, he really did not do much. On the other hand, I did enjoy Christopher Eccleston’s performance as the alcoholic navigator, Fred Noonan. He did not appear in that many scenes, but I really enjoyed the tension between him and Swank as they played out Noonan’s subtle, yet drunken come-on in Lae. In the end, it was Richard Gere who gave the most interesting performance. He gave an exuberant performance as the celebrated publisher/publicist George Putnam. Gere also gave audiences a glimpse into Putnam’s jealousy over Earhart’s relationship with Vidal – a jealousy that led him to propose marriage to the aviatrix in the first place. But in the end, not even Gere’s performance could provide enough energy to rejuvenate this film.

If there is one aspect of ”AMELIA” that I truly enjoy, it was the look of the film. Thanks to Stephanie Carroll’s production designs, Nigel Churcher and Jonathan Hely-Hutchinson’s art direction, Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costume designs, and Stuart Dryburgh’s photography; the movie managed to capture – somewhat – the sleek Art Deco look of the late 1920s and the 1930s. Mind you, not all of it was historically accurate. However, I have come to the point where I find it useless to complain about historical accuracy in a movie with a historical backdrop. I wish I could say something about Gabriel Yared’s score, but I found nothing memorable about it.

I suspect that ”AMELIA” barely made a budge in the box office return. Not surprising. It is not a memorable film. It would probably turn out to be one of those films I would not mind watching on cable television or renting it from NETFLIX. Like I had stated earlier, it is not a terrible film. But I cannot see this movie earning Academy Award nomination two to three months from now. And I doubt that it will go down in history as a memorable historical drama. If you want my opinion, I would suggest that you either wait until this movie is released on cable . . . or wait until it is released on DVD and rent it.

“The Many Loves of Rafe McCawley” [PG-13] – 2/6

“THE MANY LOVES OF RAFE McCAWLEY”

PART 2 – The Shelby Belle

LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK; DECEMBER 1940 . . . The two officers walked away from the station, desperately trying to resist the urge to rub their painful backsides. “Why in the hell do they have to stick those damn needles there?” Rafe grumbled. “Haven’t they ever heard of the arm?”

Danny glanced warily at this friend. He recognized that disgruntled voice anywhere. It was a sign of Rafe’s bad mood. And Danny suspected that the older man’s present mood had nothing to do with the shots they had just received.

“Okay Rafe, what’s your beef?” Danny demanded. “And don’t tell me that it’s the shots. You were already pissed before you received yours.”

Rafe responded with a glare. “Oh really? And what exactly am I pissed about?”

“Mary Ann.”

“Her name was Mary Jo, Danny!” Rafe retorted. “Not Mary Ann! Godalmighty! Did you dislike her so much that you can’t even remember her name?”

Danny took a deep breath. Amazing. Nearly fourteen years had passed and Rafe still bore a grudge. “Dammit Rafe! I was almost ten years old at the time! I didn’t know any better and I was feeling insecure about the whole thing. Besides, you didn’t have to dump her.”

A heavy sigh left Rafe’s mouth. “I guess you’re right.” Both he and Danny stepped into the line for the next station. Ahead, a youthful-looking nurse with blonde hair, wrapped a black blood pressure band around a soldier’s arm. Rafe continued, “I guess I shouldn’t have abandoned Mary Jo like that. But I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t turned on me, like that.” Brief hostility flared in his dark brown eyes.

“I know.” Danny hung his head low. “I’m sorry I did it, Rafe. It’s just that . . .”

“What?”

Danny shrugged. “I don’t know. I reckon I was jealous.”

Rafe took a step forward in line. So did Danny. The former heaved another sigh. “It sure took you a hell of a long time to admit it. Oh well. I guess Mary Jo and I weren’t meant to be, after all. Especially, after her family moved, later that summer.”

Danny remained silent. He decided that the less said about Mary Jo Burnett, the better.

“Besides, Mary Jo ain’t the only one you stopped me from seeing,” Rafe continued. “Remember Lila Hopkins?”

Memories of lilac perfume, a bedroom, decorated in canary yellow, and a voluptuous chestnut-haired woman in a creamy yellow silk robe, flooded Danny’s thoughts. Oh yes. Lila Deakins. He doubt there was a young man around his age in all of Shelby County, who would not be able to remember the Shelby Belle.

“Yeah, I remember Lila,” Danny replied. “And if you expect me to feel guilty for what I did, you might as well hold your breath. Because I don’t. You were out of control, Rafe. Remember?”

* * * *

SHELBY, TENNESSEE; JULY-SEPTEMBER 1931 . . . Strains of “I’m Through With Love” poured from the two-story frame house, situated in a hollow, off Shelby Road. Two adolescent boys, one fifteen years-old and the other, fourteen, stared at the house from behind an Oldsmobile, parked several yards away.

“That’s it,” Rafe said with breathless anticipation. “The Shelby House. C’mon.” He stepped from behind the Oldsmobile and started toward the house. Seconds passed before he realized that Danny had not moved an inch. “Hey Danny! C’mon!”

Anxiety flared in his best friend’s brown eyes. “I don’t know, Rafe. I’m not sure about this.”

Rafe heaved an exasperated sigh and grabbed Danny’s arm. “C’mon scairdey-cat! She ain’t gonna bite you.”

“How do you know?” Danny demanded. “You haven’t been here, before.”

Which was the truth. Rafe had first heard about the Shelby House, two months ago – when he had spotted a woman leaving the local bank in town. It took one glance at her heart-shaped face – just once glance – for the fifteen year-old to fall in love. Well, perhaps fascination would be the best word . . .

Rafe heard his mother’s disdainful sniff at the young woman. “So, that’s the Shelby Belle,” Brewton McCawley declared in a disapproving tone. “Looks more like trash to me.” Her eyes brimmed with hellfire and righteousness. A look Rafe had never seen in his mother’s eyes. “Rafe, I hope you never have anything to do with women like that. They’re nothing but trouble.”

The wrong words for anyone to say to a curious and lovesick fifteen year-old. Mrs. McCawley’s warning had only increased Rafe’s interest in the beautiful woman. And his determination to meet her. To learn the true identity of the “Shelby Belle”, he asked several men around the county. Men who would never say a word to his parents. Or hesitate to answer. He received his answer from a local mechanic named Farley Bates.

“Ah, the Shelby Belle!” the stocky man had declared in a wistful tone. “You must be talking about Lila Deakins.”

An impatient Rafe demanded, “Who is she?”

Farley gave the fifteen year-old boy a knowing look. “Probably the most infamous whore in this here parts. The most beautiful . . . and the most expensive. ‘Course, after one gander at your pretty face, Lila just might give you a discount. Or let you stick your carrot in for free.”

“You think so?” Rafe bit back his tongue, when he realized how hopeful he sounded.

A smile creased Farley’s grimy face. “Boy, you are really smitten over that gal. Tell you what.” He dug into the pockets of his overalls and retrieved a handful of bills. “Here. Why don’t you use this money for a visit to the Shelby House. There’s enough for your friend, Danny. You two are practically brothers.” After Jake Walker’s fatal heart attack, three years ago, Danny had moved in with the McCawley family.

“Hey, thanks Farley! I really appreciate it!” Rafe had beamed at the mechanic, before stuffing the bills into his pockets . . .

Danny said, “You mean it was Farley who gave you the money for this? What if your daddy finds out? After all, Farley does fix his airplane.”

“C’mon Danny! What do you think Farley is gonna do? Confess? Not if he wants Daddy to continue hiring him.” Rafe grabbed his friend’s arm. “Now, c’mon! You act like we’re going to a hanging.”

The two boys slowly approached the house. A tall, black woman, holding a broom, stepped onto the porch and peered at the new arrivals. “What are you two boys doing here?” she demanded.

Feeling more nervous than he looked, Rafe cleared his throat. “We’re here to see the Shelby Belle,” he declared. Did his voice crack?

The woman scrutinized the two boys with world-weary eyes. “Uh huh. Ain’t you boys a little young to be coming to a place like this?” Before Rafe or Danny could respond, she added, “Never mind. Miz Lila likes ’em young, anyway. C’mon in.” She stepped aside, while the pair entered the house.

Nice place, Rafe thought. His eyes drank in the old-fashioned furnishings and well-stocked bar at the other end of the parlor. Aside from the bar, the interior of the Shelby House reminded him of the McCawley residence.

The housekeeper set aside the broom and started toward the staircase. “Have a seat. And I’ll let Miz Lila know that she has company.” As she started upstairs, Rafe and Danny nervously sat down on the nearest sofa.

A minute later, two scantily clad young women entered the parlor. Both Rafe and Danny stared at the abundance of flesh that stood before them. Giggling, they approached the two boys. “And who might you be?” asked a leggy blonde with bright blue eyes and heavy make-up. Still staring, neither boy seemed able to respond.

A throaty voice said, “They . . . are my customers.” All eyes riveted upon a shapely woman, whose heart-shaped face not only possessed delicate features and hazel-green eyes, but was also framed by wavy auburn hair that bobbed near her chin. She wore a yellow Oriental gown over a pale-green full slip and stockings held up by green garters. Yet, none could hide the curves that made the other two women resemble schoolgirls.

“If you two girls don’t mind,” the Shelby Belle continued, “I suggest you scram! I assume you have other things to do.” The two women scowled at their colleague and left the parlor. Hazel-green eyes focused on Rafe and Danny. “Now, who’s first?”

Rafe shot up from the sofa like a bullet. “Me!” he crowed.

The Shelby Belle gave him a sultry smile and indicated the staircase.

* * * *

“First time, young man?”

“Huh?” Inside the yellow-and-white bedroom, Rafe sat on a large bed and gawked at the prostitute. Who was in the process of removing her robe.

The Shelby Belle smiled and stepped forward. Grabbing one arm, she gently forced Rafe to his feet and began to unfasten his shirt buttons. “I said, is this your first time?”

Rafe nodded, “Yes ma’am.”

“Oh honey, you don’t have to call me that. Makes me feel like an old spinster. My name is Lila. What’s yours?” She slowly removed his shirt, following his undershirt.

Trembling, Rafe remained rooted to the floor. “My name is Rafe. Rafe . . .”

“That’s okay, honey. No need for last names.” Lila slid the green slip off her body. The fifteen year-old Rafe found himself staring at the prostitute in all her naked glory. His entire body grew immediately hard.

Rafe gulped. Aloud. “Did you say something, honey?” Lila asked.

“No ma . . .” Rafe paused and took a deep breath. “I mean, no. No, I didn’t.”

Lila slowly walked toward Rafe and gently shoved him on the bed. “Well Rafe. Let’s see about getting you out of those pants. Shall we?” Slender hands reached for the fastener to Rafe’s trousers.

* * * *

Rafe knew that for as long as he lived, he would never forget those first thirty minutes with Lila Deakins. She had introduced him to a world of sensuality and passion he had never thought possible. He almost had to fight a surge of jealousy when time for Danny’s minutes with the Shelby Belle arrived.

Twenty minutes had passed when Danny finally returned downstairs to the parlor. Only a blind man would not have noticed the dazed expression on the fourteen year-old boy’s face.

“Well?” Rafe demanded. “How was it?”

Danny took a deep breath. “It was . . . I, uh . . . Gee! I’ve never been through anything like that before,” he finally declared.

Rafe grinned and threw an arm around his friend’s shoulders. “Thought you might feel that way. Hell, I feel as if I just had the best day of my life! I’m gonna come back here, if it takes me a year.”

* * * *

It took Rafe, exactly two weeks to pay a second visit to the Shelby House. Reluctant to ask Farley for extra funds, he saved enough from the money he had earned from his paper route.

Much to his delight, Lila greeted him like an old friend and proceeded to teach him more on the joys of sex. “Oh honey, you seemed to be real good at this!” Lila declared breathlessly, after their bout between the sheets. “For a youngster, you sure do put many of my other customers to shame.” She drew a long fingernail along the middle of Rafe’s bare chest. “I’d like to see you again.”

Rafe let out a heartfelt sigh. “I wish I could, Lila, but . . .”

“But what?”

“I, uh . . . I probably won’t be able to see you for a while.”

Lila’s voice oozed with disappointment. “And why not?”

Rafe replied in a low voice, “Money. I . . . I won’t be able to afford to see you for at least a month or two.”

“Hmmm.” Lila pressed her soft, warm body against Rafe’s. “Tell you what. I usually don’t start work until two o’clock in the afternoon. If you can make it over here before then, maybe we can spend some time together – free. How do you like that?” She gave his left thigh a squeeze.

It took all of Rafe’s self-control not to throw himself on Lila’s body and plant it with a thousand kisses. Instead, he cried out in delight, “Hey, that’s swell of you, Lila! Thanks!” He kissed one of her cheeks.

A pink flush crept up the prostitute’s face. “My pleasure, honey,” she warmly replied.

* * * *

Rafe could not wait to tell Danny, after leaving the Shelby House. He had meant to convince his friend to join him for his second visit, but the latter had a doctor’s appointment in nearby Memphis. Rafe had to wait until after his mother and Danny’s return, to reveal Lila’s delightful proposal.

“You think that’s wise, Rafe?” Danny’s voice expressed concern. The two friends sat on their beds, inside the bedroom they shared. “I mean . . . I reckon it’s okay for that one visit. But every day?”

Rafe could not believe his friend’s attitude. “It won’t be everyday,” he protested. Just once in a while. Hell, how many fellas can claim they’ve been with the Shelby Belle that many times?”

“Anyone with enough money,” Danny calmly replied. “Like Carl Jordan’s daddy.”

A snort escaped Rafe’s mouth. “Lance Jordan couldn’t buy six minutes with Lila! At least, not anymore. Especially since he lost all his money after the stock market crash, nearly two years ago.”

“Well, there are other men with . . .”

Exasperated by what Rafe saw was his friend’s stubbornness, he cried out, “Good Lord, Danny! What are you getting at?”

Danny sighed. “What I’m trying to say is that Lila Deakins isn’t the type of gal you should waste your time with. Dammit Rafe, it ain’t healthy being involved with a whore like that!”

“She ain’t no whore!” Fearful that his parents may have overheard his outburst, Rafe added in a lower voice, “Lila happens to be a lady.”

Danny shrugged. “Maybe she is to you. But she ain’t to other men. And if you keep seeing her, maybe you’ll catch something. Like the crabs.”

“Lila makes sure that both of us are clean before we . . . well, you know.”

To Rafe’s surprise, Danny’s face turned red. Even after a trip to a whorehouse, his friend managed to remain shy about sex. “Okay, what about this?” Danny continued. “What if someone who knows your folks, sees you there? I reckon there are a few of your daddy’s friends who drop by the Shelby House, every once in a while.”

Rafe barely heard Danny’s words. “Maybe,” he murmured. “Then again, maybe not. Lila wants me to visit before she starts work around two. I reckon no one would see me, if I do that.”

“Rafe . . .”

Mrs. McCawley’s voice rang from the hallway. “Rafe! Danny! Time for supper!”

“Yes ma’am!” Rafe shouted back. He shot his friend a reassuring grin. “Don’t worry, Danny. Everything will turn out fine. You’ll see.”

* * * *

Rafe and Lila only had another six weeks together. Whenever the opportunity arose, Rafe usually found himself at the Shelby House, anywhere between eleven and two o’clock. The housekeeper, Velma, would allow Rafe to enter the house through the back door and from there, he would make his way to Lila’s bedroom. The back door was the only impediment to Rafe’s otherwise perfect month. Lila had insisted that he use it – in case of a close call with an unexpected visitor.

That close call eventually happened, one afternoon in early September. After Velma allowed Rafe through the back door of the Shelby House, he immediately sprinted upstairs. He made his way along the second floor hallway, when the door to Lila’s bedroom swung open. Rafe immediately assumed it was the love of his life. He started toward the open door, when the sight of a familiar figure stopped him in his tracks. The figure turned out to be one of his father’s poker friends – Mr. Bateman. Rafe quickly darted into an empty room nearby and waited for the man to head downstairs. Later that evening, Rafe told Danny about his close call. Two days later, his relationship with Lila screeched to a halt.

* * * *

He stared at the auburn-haired woman with disbelieving eyes. “Say that again?” he demanded.

Inside her bedroom, a scantily clad Lila heaved an impatient sigh. She retrieved a cigarette from a tin box on her dresser and stuck it between her teeth. “You heard me, Rafe. It’s over. I don’t want you here, anymore.”

“Why?”

Hands on hips, Lila glared at him. “Because it’s over. Dammit boy! Are you deaf? It was fun for a while, but not anymore. I need to be with someone new.” She struck a match and lit her cigarette.

“Like that fella who was here, two days ago?” Rafe demanded.

Hazel-green eyes rolled upward in disgust. “Good Lord! He was right! You really are too young for me.”

“He?” Rafe’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Who’s ‘he’?”

Lila took a puff on her cigarette. “No one in particular. Just forget it.”

“Does that mean I can . . .?”

“No!” Lila’s harsh response came as a slap across the face. Rafe blinked. “No, that doesn’t mean you can come back. I don’t want you here, anymore! Period! How many damn times do I have to tell you?”

“Why?”

Lila retorted, “Because you’re too young for me! And I don’t want to go to jail for messing around with fifteen year-old boys!”

Rafe’s eyes widened in shock. “I never told you I was fifteen years old,” he murmured. “How did you . . .?”

“Never mind on how I found out,” Lila shot back. She paced back and forth across the room like an angry tigress, puffing on her cigarette. “All that matters is that you stay the hell away from this place, until you’re old enough. Maybe you can come back in another two or three years from now. I suggest you stick to girls around your own age. Miz Enid and the rest of us don’t need a spell behind bars for statutory rape. Now get out of here!” Lila pointed an angry finger at the door.

His head hung low, a defeated Rafe dragged his feet toward the door. All sorts of thoughts and emotions whirled within him. How could Lila throw him out like that? And who exactly was this ‘he’? Certainly not his daddy’s friend. Mr. Lammers had not even seen him. And who told Lila that he was fifte . . .

An ugly suspicion immediately formed in Rafe’s mind. A suspicion that projected in the image of his best friend. “Danny!” Rafe paused and confronted Lila. “It was Danny who told you I was fifteen! When did he talk to you?”

A guilty expression flitted across Lila’s face, before the latter hardened. “It doesn’t matter who I talked with!” she snarled. “Just get the hell out! You’re bad for business!”

“And you’re bad for me, lady!” Rafe retorted. “If a fella can call you one!” Filled with anger, he marched out of Lila’s room, slamming the door shut. It would be his last visit to the Shelby House.

END OF PART 2

Top Favorite Movies of the Decade (2010-2019)

Below is a list of my top favorite movies of the decade between 2010-2019:

TOP TWENTY FAVORITE MOVIES OF THE DECADE (2000-2009)

1. “Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this first-rate film about a slave-turned-bounty hunter, who searches for his enslaved wife in antebellum Mississippi, with the help of his mentor. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson star.

2. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) – Zack Synder directed this superb and vastly underrated second installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) about supervillain Lex Luthor’s efforts to manipulate veteran vigilante Batman into a pre-emptive battle with Superman, whom Luthor is obsessed with destroying. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill starred as Bruce Wayne aka Batman and Clark Kent aka Superman.

3. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) – Chris Evans starred in this superb sequel to his 2011 hit about the Marvel superhero, who finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy regarding S.H.I.E.L.D. and its old nemesis, HYDRA. The movie was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo.

4. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this excellent look at President Abraham Lincoln near the end of his presidency. Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones star.

5. “Man of Steel” (2013) – Zack Snyder directed this excellent reboot of the Superman mythos, in which the Kryptonian superhero battles a nemesis from his father’s past. Henry Cavill starred as Clark Kent aka Superman.

6. “Inception” (2010) – Christopher Nolan wrote and directed one of the most unique films I have seen – which told the story of a thief who uses dream sharing technology to steal and plant corporate secrets. Leonardo DiCaprio starred.

7. “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013) – John Lee Hancock directed this superb and emotional tale about author P.L. Travers and producer Walt Disney’s tug-of-war over the development of the 1964 movie, “MARY POPPINS”. Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks starred.

8. “Dunkirk” (2017) – Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this acclaimed look at the British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation from Dunkirk, France in 1940. Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance starred.

9. “Hidden Figures” (2016) – Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe starred in this Oscar nominated biopic about the true story of African American women who provided NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions. Theodore Melfi directed.

10. “The Great Gatsby” (2013) – Baz Luhrmann co-wrote and directed this splashy yet entertaining adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about a mysterious millionaire during the early years of the Jazz Age. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton starred.

11. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

12. “Gone Girl” (2014) – David Fincher directed this outstanding and colorful adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel about whether a man is responsible for the disappearance of his wife or not. Ben Affleck and Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike starred.

13. “Silver Lining Playbook” (2012) – David O. Russell wrote and directed this Oscar-nominated adaptation of Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, “The Silver Linings Playbook”. Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper and Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence starred.

14. “The Avengers” (2012) – Joss Whedon wrote and directed this excellent blockbuster in which S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury forms a team of superheroes to save Earth from Asgardian villain Loki and alien invaders. The cast included Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson.

15. “Wonder Woman” (2017) – Gal Gadot starred in this excellent movie about the D.C. Comics’ heroine Wonder Woman and her experiences during World War I. Patty Jenkins directed.

16. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016) – Gareth Edwards directed this excellent stand alone film in the Star Wars saga about a group of Rebels who learn about the Imperial Galaxy’s new weapon, the Death Star, and set about stealing the plans. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna starred.

17. “Rush” (2013) – Ron Howard directed this exciting biopic about Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda … and their rivalry during the 1976 racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred as the two rivals.

18. “Solo: A Star Wars Movie” (2018) – This excellent STAR WARS movie set ten years before the Original Trilogy, told the story of the early years of Han Solo as a smuggler and criminal. Directed by Ron Howard, Alden Ehrenreich starred in the title role.

19. “Black Panther” (2018) – Chadwick Boseman starred in this excellent adaptation of the Marvel Comics hero Black Panther aka King T’Challa of Wakanda about the title character’s efforts to maintain his position as Wakanda’s king, while dealing with a vengeful relation. Directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler, the movie co-starred Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o.

20. “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” (2019) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this excellent tale about a fading actor and his stunt double struggling to regain success in the film industry during the final year of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles. Oscar nominee Leonardo Di Caprio, Oscar winner Brad Pitt and Oscar nominee Margot Robbie starred.

Honorable Mention: “Incredibles 2” (2018) – This first-rate direct sequel to the 2004 hit Disney animated film follows the Parr family as they try to restore public’s trust in superheroes, while balancing their family life. They also find themselves combating a new foe who seeks to turn the populace against all superheroes. Directed by Brad Bird, Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter and Samuel L. Jackson provided the voices.