Friday 31 January 2014

Docks Of New Orleans

What’s Up Docks?

Docks Of New Orleans
1948 USA
Directed by Derwin Abrahams
Monogram - Warner Brothers DVD Region 1

Warning: Ever so slight spoilers.

Okay, so Docks Of New Orleans is the second of Roland Winters' Charlie Chan films, made for Monogram after Fox had dropped the series a fair way into Sidnet Toler’s run. This is also only the second of the Winter’s films I’ve seen and so I’m still not all that familiar with this guy's way of playing the iconic role.

So I started watching this one and about 5 minutes in I’m getting strong feelings about it. For example, when one of the main characters goes into his office I said to myself... he’s not leaving that office alive. And I was right. And then I remembered how the murder was committed and I thought... wait a minute. I definitely haven’t seen this film before, have I?

Well I had and I hadn’t? Not only had I “kinda” seen it, it turns out that I “kinda” reviewed it on this blog too. This is a remake, it turns out, of one of the Boris Karloff Mr. Wong films... Mr. Wong, Detective, which I reviewed here. This is a less polished and even more sluggishly paced version of the same storyline and, if I didn’t know better (and I really don’t) then I’d say it was even shot on more or less the same redressed sets. Be interesting to find out if that was so.

Anyway, the murder weapons are not quite glass spheres in this one... they are actually glass radio tubes, which makes a little more sense. And the method of murder is still a brilliantly outrageous one. What happens is, when a certain pitch of note is played on a radio or instrument in the vicinity of a pre-planted radio tube, the glass shatters and releases a poison gas, instantly killing the occupant of the room near the radio. This is a particularly well staged murder in a scene (also, like many of them, found in the former Mr. Wong film) where a man is killed by the murderer pre-warning him of an attack by a letter. He is advised to lock himself in his study and not let anyone near him until police protection arrives. Of course, the victim does this and rings the police for help, thus summoning his own death when the pitch of the sound of the approaching police car shatters the glass tube and releases the poison gas. Maybe it’s a good definition of a poison pen letter?

The film is padded out with the usual routines of Victor Sen Yung as Number Two son (the name of the character played by this actor seems to change halfway through the series, for some reason) and Mantan Moreland continuing his Birmingham Brown role. Moreland even gets to do some of his two man stand up routine with another actor at one point in the film, but even this can’t liven up the proceedings that much and Tommy Chan and Brimingham Brown’s antics seem a little sedate and curtailed in this entry, compared to the comic heights they have sometimes reached in other entries in the series.

Roland Winters is kinda interesting as Chan... but perhaps not as suited to the role as his predecessors, it seems to me. He’s actually a quite good actor and he uses facial expressions well in the part. You can see his character thinking things through and reacting to things in a similar fashion, perhaps, to the way my favourite Charlie Chan, Warner Oland, performed the role. However, it has to be said that the performance is very slow paced and lethargically delivered. Many times I almost wanted to finish Winter’s lines for him because he seemed to be going so slowly.

The writing on this, also, is really not up to speed and I found the usual Chan aphorisms to be less amusing (read, less plain bonkers) than in previous films in the series. It’s hard to even pick them out as aphorisms in the dialogue to be honest... and that’s really a shame because it’s an essential signature of the Chan films and I’m sure Winters could have really got into the role if he was given more than these scripts to work with.

All in all, this is not too hot a Chan movie and I think I preferred the Mr. Wong version to this lukewarm remake. Still, it’s early days with the Winters' Chans for me and I look forward to seeing the next two films in this DVD set very soon.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Bitch Slap

Now, Voyeur!

Bitch Slap
2009 USA
Directed by Rick Jacobson
Momentum Pictures DVD Region 2

Blimey. This is everything it looked like it was going to be from a trailer I saw a few years ago and, because of that, it’s just not what I was expecting... if that makes any sense.

I bought this DVD because, a) it was going for about £4 and b) it looked vaguely like it was trying to parody another movie I hadn’t at that time seen, namely Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (reviewed here). The trailer I’d seen had made it look like a substantially dumb movie (nothing wrong with that) which celebrated the female form in a bizarrely blatant manner... which can be fun as long as the female community and characters are in on the joke... slipping in a knowing wink, or a cheek piercing tongue on the sly, to penetrate the unblinking male gaze.

Unfortunately, although the film does have three strong female leads... that’s where the similarity to Russ Meyer’s kitsch classic ends and, even more tragically, the movie is entirely put together from the point of view of the male perspective with not much thought to anything else thrown into the mix... or at least that’s how it seemed to me.

What I’m saying is, the movie completely serves to voyeuristically feed the ‘male gaze’ theory of objectification without even attempting to simultaneously burst that bubble with anything that helps you respect any of the characters (male or female, for that matter) as being anything other than there for the sexual or aesthetic pleasure based on attraction. Now I have a small problem with this because a) it’s a rare beast that doesn’t at least try to address this problem with some kind of have your cake and eat it mentality at some point over the course of a movie and b) I had quite a good time with the movie in spite of knowing all this and my awareness that the movie was deliberately playing up to the male impulse in this manner did nothing to stop me enjoying it, and that bothered me for a little while.

Then I decided not to feel guilty (I don’t really “do guilt” anyway, to be honest) and enjoy it on the level it was intended at but... that doesn’t mean to say I can’t be critical of it at that level. And so I will be.

The film, about three sexy action heroines, has lots of good stuff in it too, to act as a kind of unbalanced counterweight to its negative aspects. One is the elliptical way in which the timeline keeps flashing back all the way through the movie and using that to keep the pacing going and occasionally reveal new things about the characters. Unfortunately, one of those is a major twist moment which doesn’t work right from the outset because, as soon as a certain “mystery character” is set up, you know your list of suspects is going to be a pretty small list and, though the director tries to defuse that near the end, in an almost clever rug pulling moment, the fact is that the script has written itself into a corner so... of course that person is going to turn out to be one of those three (this is my attempt to avoid spoilers people).

And, another plus, is that there is at least a smattering of creative thought running through the movie. Not so much in the various forms of parody on show but in the occasional (very occasional) little detail, such as one of the bad guys having a ring tone on his mobile which is a recording of his voice saying “Ring, Funny Ring”. Stuff like that.

The general broad strokes of grindhouse style cinema are also observed with the usual parody and, like many modern films made as an homage to this genre of movie making, it plays up the sex and violence and turns it up to 11. However, when it comes to the deliberate and wilful stakes of objectification, of which there is always a little room for - male or female - as long as it’s handled with a certain amount of respect and inclusion, then this film goes way past 11 and pushes the boat out and then sinks that damn boat before it gets a chance to return to harbour.

So, yeah, the camera hovers over every inch of the female bodies on screen (with hardly any nudity at all, but that’s really beside the point) and then rewinds and ramps back up in slow motion and you expect some of that up front at the start because it’s kind of a signature to set up a trashy sexploitation feel. However, the film revels in this as almost its sole purpose throughout the entire duration of the movie. I think when it started to really get to me was when the film asked me to believe that three women on a limited, life threatening deadline, and with a wilful purpose to get on with what they are doing, were suddenly going to get distracted and have a water fight so they could splash water at each other and dance around in slow motion for the audience. I loved it and it was obviously knowing... but it does kinda paint the characters as being real airheads, to the point where it contradicts the already established intelligence of the characters in favour of yet another eye candy sequence.

Don’t get me wrong. As a red blooded male I can happily watch attractive, dancing, women jiggling their cleavage and getting into cat fights all day... but there seemed to be a definite lack of respect for the way in which this was achieved in this movie (as stupid as that sounds and I really don’t want to dig myself into a grave here).

So I guess what I’m saying here is, this movie has everything a person who is attracted to women as the basis of their sexuality could want in it: curvy babes, fights, lesbian kissing plus explosions, bullets and more... but the price is a little too high in terms of the way it voyeuristically pursues its goals. Like it’s got something missing.

So can I recommend it?

Well yeah. If you go in with your eyes open and watch it in a group of people with a load of beers or the alcoholic beverage of your choice, then you will probably enjoy it at some level, just like I did. However, if I were a straight woman looking at this movie then I would almost certainly be offended by it at some level (or maybe not... I’m not a woman so I don’t know for sure). I love films with a grindhouse sensibility but there’s something about the approach to the material that makes this one disrespectful to a large percentage of its potential audience and I can only condemn it on that level... which is a shame because I did have an okay time with it.

So only you, I’m afraid, will be able to know whether you can stomach the disrespect and still be able to enjoy yourself watching a movie containing babes, guns and a heavy guitar based soundtrack. If so, then good on yer and give it a watch... but don’t buy into it completely because the knowing reflexivity, if it’s there at all, is either misjudged or not worked through enough... and this did leave a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, to be honest.

Saturday 25 January 2014

The History & Arts Of The Dominatrix

Domme De Plume

The History & Arts Of The Dominatrix
by Anne O. Nomis
Anna Nomis Ltd (publisher) 
ISBN: 978-0992701000

A dominatrix once saved my life.

She didn’t know it at the time and she’s never been much inclined to acknowledge that fact... but I think that, in itself, says a lot of good things about her character. That’s an anecdote for another time, though, and this certainly isn’t the place to tell that story. The reason I even bring it up is because it left me with a certain amount of respect and affection for both the woman and the trade in which she worked. A world which even now still exists in the shadows somewhat, while simultaneously having the most exposure due to the global internet community than it’s ever had before.

Even so, it’s very hard to believe, although true, that this very limited first edition of The History & Arts Of The Dominatrix is the first of it’s kind. The pseudonymous author, the mysterious Anne O. Nomis, has taken up the challenge of researching, unearthing, compiling and then, in this book, highlighting the... well, the story of the dominant female throughout history and the legacy handed down, often subconsciously, to the modern ladies who practice this particular art.

My curiosity for this book was initially piqued by a stray retweet of the author on Twitter and, when I read up on it and saw the hefty £48 plus postage and packing price tag, I have to admit that I was less than happy about the cost. Having said that though, there are lots of books out there priced similarly these days but, usually, they rarely do what is claimed in their blurb. This book, to be honest, sounded a little too good to be true...

However, it’s my great pleasure to report that, quite surprisingly, it actually does do what it says on the tin... or in this case, it does what it says in the gold embossed letters of this absolutely beautifully bound and designed book (designed by Anna Egan-Reid) and printed in its interior on a beautiful paper stock. It’s rare but, in this case, you can invest a certain amount of belief in what I thought was the writer's initial hyperbole. The design is reportedly influenced by, to a certain extent, a rare tome called 'Index Librorum Prohibitorum', or 'Index of Forbidden Books' (1877) which was put together by Victorian 'erotomaniac' Henry Spencer Ashbee.

The book starts off with a brilliant introduction by the author, clearly stating her intentions and relating the events, tragedies and serendipity which brought her to write about a subject which has obviously become one of her passions over the years. That really comes out in the enthusiasm behind the writing and even from the intro, I was literally hooked.

The History & Art Of The Dominatrix is split up into a few lengthy chapters and starts with an ancient Sumerian deity who was basically a dominatrix Goddess, for want of a better term. Rituals of worship to her would have submissive men in scenes involving gender modification, pain, ecstasy and other happenings directly relevant to the practices of the modern dominatrix. The writer makes a very convincing case as she potters through ancient history, unearthing facts about dominant and submissive behaviour and relating these interesting historical encounters and ideas to the reader in a very easy and accessible way, thankfully losing any academic trappings in her language (although the research is nothing but scholarly, for the most part) and imparting her ideas with humour and verve. I don’t know who this lady is but I’m very taken with her style of writing.

This chapter, of course, takes into account the possible reasons for the fact that a lot of the stuff she talks about here is information of the lesser known kind. Simply put, the dominatrix represents a strong image of ‘female sexual power’ - three words, as the author points out, which tend to be feared and swept aside in what is historically perceived and rewritten as a man’s world.

This first section also alludes to such things as the use of jewellery and make up being used as the powerful and alluring war paint of the female dominant... so nothing changes there then in terms of modern day usage of this stuff by the average woman, it seems to me. Also, there’s some emphasis that images of sexual Goddesses in ancient times, found in sculpture or other historical artefacts, are depicted using exactly the same kinds of poses and visual language found in photographs and illustrative content used to depict or promote the modern dominant in recent and modern media such as telephone box cards, magazines and websites. This is very much a book about the relevance of history to the contemporary world.

The second chapter jumps a bit in time, seemingly due to a total lack of ‘known’ documentation about the subject, until it catches up to the next reported “sightings” of the dominatrix in history, around about the late sixteenth century, and touches on such interesting connective strings as Sir Francis Dashwood and his infamous Hellfire Club (I believe Alastair Crowley was a member of this at one point) while also addressing, tangentially, some personal theories I have on the nature of this level and variation of sexual play... but I won't subject the reader here to my own conclusions surrounding this subject.

This chapter/section also includes the notorious ‘governess’ Theresa Berkley, who invented, among other torture devices, The Berkley Horse. She was certainly a high profile professional dominant in the 19th Century and, although it doesn’t mention this in the book, she was supposed to be the real life inspiration for the Rosa Coote character in the infamous Victorian ‘underground’ magazine The Pearl. It was specifically the likely inclusion of Theresa Berkley in The History & Arts Of The Dominatrix which was the clincher in me taking the plunge in investing in this rich tome, for reasons which are probably best left unclear in this blog.

Another section is devoted to the practice of ‘staged’ scenes of the dominatrix and the importance of certain product crafted in the very early twentieth century of French fetish photography using Parisian prostitutes as models. The wife of one such French fetish photography giant, evolving from the natural progression of their lingerie and costume making business, was called Nativa and, by all accounts, her fetish fashion sense would be drawn on a lot by today’s designers. Personally, I couldn’t imagine certain Madonna videos from the past, for instance, without thinking of the influences of some of these people and their costumes (Studded cone bra, steel knickers etc) and the poses they crafted, very much birthing from the same instincts that those images of sexual Goddesses were being depicted in, who we heard about in the first chapter. Ms. Nomis makes an extraordinarily convincing case of the connective tissue from one era to the next in her writing and, though much of it could, perhaps, be observed and concluded quite easily with access to the same material, it is the writer's light shining on the material and putting in the research and investigation which uncovers and illuminates it for the reader.

The next bus stop on the journey through this colourful history (and all colourfully illustrated with licensed imagery throughout) is the dominant women of the 1950s and 1960s and, although the specific lady I wanted to know about from this era wasn’t included, as far as I can see (I’m getting old and have actually forgotten her name but I’d know it if I saw it... don’t judge me too harshly, I’m in my forties now), I have to say that I continued to learn a lot from this section.

For instance, the term dominatrix was first coined in the late 1960s through pornographic pulp paperbacks with titles like the one that gave a famous pop group their name, The Velvet Underground. And from other works such as Dominatrix and, the first to actually use the term, The Bizarre Lovemakers. This, like a lot in this book, was mostly news to me and, as I said earlier, always with the points put forth in nothing but a clear, concise and slyly entertaining manner. It also mentions those old 1950s, 1960s & 1970s telephone box cards which some of my readers might remember (although I’m quite sure you wouldn’t have looked at any of them... right?).

I was particularly impressed with the author’s assertion that censorship tends to attack the truth and thus, flags up and maybe even enables the censored articles (books, flyers, cards, movies etc) with a certain place of power over and above other manifestations in these kinds of media. Which rang very true to my views, I have to say.

The last couple of chapters were the less interesting to me... but this is because I already know this world a little (don’t ask and I won’t tell). However, I’m sure most people going into this without any real knowledge of this particular subject area will be fairly well educated when they’ve finished reading these sections. These are dealing with the contemporary dominatrix and her continuation of the legacy (you can even follow some of these ladies on Twitter) and in the final section we get the writer’s own categorisation, ‘The Seven Realm Arts’ of the dominatrix, as presented by the author’s carefully observed behavioural patterns of domination in session... at leats in terms of the common points and patterns of behaviour. This last doesn’t give a great level of detail, this book is not about sensationalism... it’s a serious study of a subject which has never been properly researched and organised before now, but it does give a general flavour of some of the things which go on in the modern dominant’s ‘playspace’... another term which is surprisingly handed down from the female dominants of ancient times.

And that about wraps this review up. In terms of the actual book as an object, it’s well worth the investment of the cost of it and, if the beautiful binding (and the bound in cloth bookmark... I’m a sucker for books with those!) is not enough to sway you, then I would say that, when coupled with the amazing wealth of interesting information unveiled in this volume, well... if you have any interest at all in the discipline and historical heritage and its importance to the art of the dominatrix, you really might want to check this one out and pick up one of the numbered, limited editions of the first edition while you still can. I count this as one of the 5 or 10 most beautifully put together books I own and if you’re a lover of a nicely bound and well written tome, then you should grab one soonest.

For more details of how to get yourself a copy of the book and to learn a little more about the writer, check out her own website here...

Thursday 23 January 2014

Bones Of The Lost

Keeping Up With The Bones

Bones Of The Lost
by Kathy Reichs
William Heinemann (publisher) 
ISBN: 978-0434021154

And so, as I do every year, I come to my second big Christmas ritual. The day after I finish my annual read of the new Patricia Cornwell novel, I start the latest of Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan novels. It’s funny, but both these two writers have gone through bad patches, at least in my appreciation of some of their books, but both are back on form... so it kinda feels like old times.

I started reading Kathy Reichs several years after I was already reading Cornwell’s Scarpetta novels and both writers seem to have changed somewhat over the years. That is to say, their writing style and plotting has mellowed and matured. Cornwell has gone for much more intense (well she was always kinda intense), smaller chamber concertos of plots with the action taking place in a relatively small area and lasting just a day or two in fictional time... even a few hours or so in one book, if memory serves me correctly. Reichs is still plotting long and intricate things which takes her character from location to location like a female James Bond.

Either way is valid and the way that Reichs has matured, and which is in evidence once again here, is that her comedy writing and dialogue, and especially her character’s inner dialogue (the books are written in first person), is getting more and more entertaining and gives the novels a big shot of humour in contrast to the grim crimes her character becomes involved in. This is an unlikely combination sometimes, especially when she’s exploring the more sensitive heart of her character, but it seems to work really well and is one of her greatest strengths.

While I found this one extremely entertaining and relatively unputdownable (there’s a reason why her latest book is always on my Christmas list), I did find the plotting, like some of her other recent ones, to be fairly obvious and free of surprises at a lot of key points. One of the reasons I think this is the case is because every little element of the plot down to the characters is important to the main thrust of things. For example, when Brennan’s character is talking about her daughter Kate having enlisted in the army, you know some incredible coincidence will have her flying out to join her and, unsurprisingly, it all just happens to connect to the case she is working back home.

I think one of the reasons these particular novels may be playing out like this at the moment is because she is maybe used to reading the teleplays or watching the TV show which includes a variant of her Temperance Brennan character. The show is called Bones and I tried to watch a couple of episodes once but the Tempe of the TV show seems to be a very pale, cheerless and emotionally immature version of the one in her original novels. However, things have to connect more directly for an audience to be able to understand things in a movie or a TV show... or at least that’s the way the Hollywood community seems to practice their craft. So maybe the all too easy “join the dots” connections in this story are a hangover from the “cause and effect” tactic used in modern screenwriting at the moment. Who knows?

What I do know is, predictable or not, this had a lot of the ingredients I need for a really good read. Fast pacing, great character interaction and relationships, generous amounts of humour, some beautiful observations about the harsh realities of some corners of life I’ll never get to see (hopefully) and, above all, a living beating sense of heart which allows you to connect to the writer through the way she weaves her words and the attitudes towards life she displays in her work, consciously or unconsciously.

I don’t have much more to say about this one other than the fact that one of my favourite characters is absent from most of the book and when he does turn up, haunted by a large dose of bad news, it’s not the same incarnation of the character as we knew him. Something has changed for that character and, indeed, the knock on effect is that things may be changing for the novels' central heroine at some point soon. Maybe too early to tell as yet but I’ll certainly be looking forward to next Christmas when I get to read the next one. Fans of this writer shouldn’t be too disappointed with this one, I think.

Monday 20 January 2014

Devil's Due

Deviled Egg

Devil's Due
2014 USA
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillet
Playing at UK cinemas now.

You know, I nearly didn’t venture out to see this film because of a) very bad word of mouth and b) the popular perception that it’s a straight remake of Rosemary’s Baby. 

Well, to address the second point first... Get a grip, people! It’s not a straight remake of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s certainly an homage in terms of how most of the story (what there is of it) turns out but, frankly, there have been so many books and movies on this specific subject... the birth of the antichrist... or in this case... an antichrist... that you really can’t go out and say it’s a remake of that specific film. It’s merely part of that same sub-genre of horror that Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, Holocaust 2000 etc all belong to. It doesn’t quite wander into It’s Alive territory but... yeah, I was kinda hoping it would, actually.

To address the first point... the bad word of mouth? It's seriously not a terrible movie. It’s not a particularly good one either and the fact that it’s found footage... well... not even “found” footage... in fact... oh heck, let me get to the negative stuff a little later. First, let me hit you with a few positives.

It’s actually quite scary in places. Not the slow, creeping horror kind of dread I personally prefer, where the cold hand of the supernatural grips you on the shoulder and turns your spine to jelly. More the current “jumpy” kind of horror, which can be fairly effective if executed with the right kind of timing and conviction and certainly, these types of scenes worked perfectly fine here. I know they must have been working pretty well because one of the guys in a group of two thirty-something couples who was sitting next to me was saying “oh no... no .. no ... oh no” and covering his head for support during some of the more intense scenes in the picture. Actually, it truly wasn’t that scary but, I guess maybe if you’ve never seen this kind of stuff before, it may have been. I thought he was going to have a heart attack or something.

The acting was all pretty naturalistic and that’s kind of what I expect from a so-called “found footage” movie. Which serves the story well and since, in this kind of film, acting works better as an invisible art, I would have to say that the performances in this movie... all the performances... were pretty good.

Another positive is the set design. Found footage movies like this can’t set up elaborate shot designs and necessarily reveal certain nuances of emotion with the camera on an actor due to the shackles of the format. That being said, you have to be very expressive with your set design to push concepts through and this was all good here. The “nest” at the end of the movie through which one of the main protagonists is wandering to get answers, is pretty nicely designed and the house in which most of the film is shot is kinda interesting too.

Thus ends the positive things about the movie. Here are my main problems with it... 

The pacing was terrible. It starts of with a quote which leads to an ending which is trying to be a twist ending but which doesn’t succeed (more on that later). It takes too long to get going, considering the timing of the supernatural elements of the film and then, when it does, things just seem to keep coming in a rush. Some sequences worked fine... and most of them, to be honest, were executed with a certain degree of skill. However, the way they were edited into the main thrust of the picture felt ill timed and ultimately, had me thinking way too much about the movie I was watching rather than just pulling me in and letting me watch it.

The other thing which just doesn’t work in this thing is the “found footage” pretension. The footage is taken from multiple sources such as hand held camera, adventure camera, various surveillance systems including major ones set up by the antagonists in the film... so who is, in fact, editing all this together for us to watch other than, you know, the actual film-makers? It makes no sense and there is no text at the start to explain why we are watching this curious mixture of multi-sourced footage and for whom this edit would have been produced. 

And, a point for the writers. If you’re going to make a movie featuring edited together real life footage, and the actual footage goes missing halfway through the movie, then that really only leaves you with two options which make no sense at all. If the footage the character is watching has just disappeared, then we wouldn’t have been able to watch it after the fact either. If, however, as is possibly implied, the antagonistic “devil maker” group who have been watching the main protagonists’ house have taken it, then why would they be editing all this muti-sourced stuff together in the first place? Who the heck is their audience? And, also, if you’re going to do that, why end your presentation with the particular ending you have here? They already know this stuff. 

This is just plain dumb and an insult to the intelligence of pretty much any audience who’s going to spend time with the film. You have to build a modicum of credibility around these kinds of media devices otherwise the internal logic of the film just falls flat on its face... like it does here.

When all is said an done, Devil’s Due is a relatively scary but ultimately unsatisfying take on the satanic anti-christ genre. I can’t really recommend this one to anyone except those audience members who like to study the way the fear button is pushed in the human mind. Most horror movie watchers will probably find themselves having a less than impressive time as far as I can see.  Maybe stick to Rosemary’s Baby after all. 

Saturday 18 January 2014

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Apocalypse, Meow!

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
1965 USA
Directed by Russ Meyer
Arrow Video DVD Region 0

Um... I’ve never seen a Russ Meyer film before.

I have, however, had a lot of people telling me to see this one in particular over the decades.

I don’t know much about Meyer, it’s true. I know that he tends to cast women by the size of their more obvious attributes and that’s about it. However, the fact that I’ve seen the poster for this movie on so many old Scala and Everyman Hampstead double bill posters in days of old, not to mention the fact of seeing the poster emblazoned on t-shirts and selling postcards for many years, meant I probably should have gotten around to seeing this at some point before I died.

Well, the time was right and, with an uncut version from Arrow films (not that I could see what there was to actually cut out of it, to be honest), I grabbed myself a copy, along with another film called Bitch Slap, which looked to me like a modern homage to this movie. I didn’t yet know whether that was true or not, since I’d never seen either when I picked both of these up but, hey, it was cheap too.

This movie is both a lot less and a lot more than I was expecting, considering it’s reputation. A lot less because it is fairly skillfully put together without seeming to have much of anything to say. A lot more because, for a film which relies so heavily on three female antagonists played by Tura Satana, Haji and Lori Williams... the script and direction is such that it plays to the strengths of these three giant size personalities and they tend to make their mark in kind of an iconic way.

The film starts on a movie sound strip with voice-over dialogue warning us of the dangers of the new breed of killer... the female... walking the streets and, as the voice continues on in this vein, the sound strips multiply until you have a whole screen full of visual sound. Then the movie starts properly and begins with three go-go dancers who, when their shift ends, tear up the desert in their cars as part of a cleavage popping posse of petty rivalry and antagonism made flesh. All in slick black and white, which of course lends the visuals a certain potent character, feeding into the iconography of the movie... which the director is only too happy to take advantage of.

The script is salty and sexual and when the three girl’s leader goes a bit mental and kills an innocent guy, kidnapping his equally buxom girlfriend before getting into a scheme to rob a sadistic cripple and his two sons out of their fortune... more aggressive shenanigans ensue.

This is all done to a mental soundtrack which is accredited to B-movie maven’s Sawtell and Shefter, but which I’m assuming is purely tracked in needle-drop style from their back catalogue. Which is fair enough, I suppose, since that was a traditional way of putting together these kinds of composer’s soundtracks back in the day. Meyer’s choice of musical styles is not always on the money and it gets downright hysterical in some sequences where obvious overstatement on, say, a comedic effect is required and easily supplied (possibly to the detriment of the movie, although there’s a lot to be said for the “OMG” effect in this motion picture, to be sure).

All in all, the film was shot and presented at such a laid back pace that I found myself quickly transported to another reality. It’s a mid sixties movie but the vibe on it, for me anyway, was pure fifties and the musical styes used during the racing scenes at the start, for example, tend to push that tempo, although I suspect it wasn’t a deliberate decision at the time, is my guess.

I honestly couldn’t find a whole lot in this movie that I could put my finger on and hold up in the light and say, this film is wonderful because "look here"... but it does have a certain something to it, quite apart from the obvious eye candy and a very sharpened sense of unbelievably but probably intentionally over the top dialogue style. It does, though, have Tura Satana as the main villainess of the piece and, despite the fact that her actions are mostly contemptible throughout the course of the movie, she has a certain larger than life aura around her which makes her fascinating to watch. You won’t be able to take your eyes off her when she’s on screen, as she weaves a hypnotic spell swinging like a pendulum between alluring and angry.

Honestly, the closest thing I could compare this to in tone, if you’ve ever seen anything like them, is the girl gang genre which was coming out of studios like Nikkatsu and its nearest competitors in the sixties. I’m talking about the youth oriented arm of the “pinky violence” movies the Japanese were churning out like Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless To Confess, Girl Boss Guerilla and the likes of the Stray Cat Rock movies such as Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter. The only real differences being that the innate sense of honour and code with which the gang members in these kinds of movies bond is non-existent in Meyer’s own ode to women of violence... and of course, the size of the various actresses bosoms, which is an interesting obsession to have in and of itself, I’m guessing.

So, okay. The tone is similar to those and it moves along at its own pace. I’ve got nothing to really recommend this one with because I just can’t quite pinpoint why I liked it, but it’s certainly got a sense of style and if I saw more of this guys movies I suspect I’d begin to be able to narrow down just what box of tricks the director is using to draw your eyes into the frame. Certainly there are a lot of almost over composed, low angle shots which make for instant and iconic still photographs if torn away from the context of the motion picture they are a part of. Maybe it’s that element of the films technical make up which kept me from having a bad time with this movie. Nevertheless, with all that said, I’m still going to recommend this movie because it’s not without it’s charm and Tura Satana (who unfortunately ended up in movies like Astro Zombies, reviewed here ) seems to be one of those deadlier than the male members of her species who most people might find fascinating. Don’t necessarily go out of your way either but, if you see these pussycats speeding fast within your radar, it might be worth some of your time to check them out. They might set your motor purring.

Thursday 16 January 2014

Paranormal Activity - The Marked Ones

Marking Bad

Paranormal Activity - The Marked Ones
2014 USA
Directed by Christopher Landon
Playing at UK cinemas now.

Warning: There will be some spoilers in here.

Okay... so if you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’ll probably know that I adore the Paranormal Activity films, at least the ones which were made in the USA... I’ve not been able to get a subtitled copy of the Japanese sequel to the original movie, Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night due to, presumably, the Hollywood studios suppressing a release in English speaking countries (I can only, at time of writing this article, track down versions with Italian or French subtitles... so please let me know if you have any leads to picking up a decent, English subtitled DVD of the same).

This sixth (depending on how you choose to count them) entry into the series is a sideways swipe of a movie, shot as a fill in to bridge the release gap between Paranormal Activity 4 and the next one in the series, erm, Paranormal Activity 5... although my understanding is that Paranormal Activity 5 was done and in the can before this one was even made. Is that correct? Maybe the producers don’t have much confidence in it.

Anyway, up until now, although I loved the first in the series... I always considered that movie to be the weakest of the films, not because it wasn’t any good - it was. It’s just that the first one wasn’t scary like the other ones turned out to be. However, now I’ve seen this installment, I’d have to say that this is now my least favourite of the series, not because it isn’t scary... it really is. Scary as hell. The usual high blood pressure and heart attack inducing shenanigans ensue, especially if you are going to see this in the company of a young, impressionable audience at the cinema. However... I did have some really big problems with this movie too.

My biggest problem, though, is that I didn’t sympathise with any of the main protagonists of the movie and, frankly, I didn’t care what happened to them. One of the two main guys is fresh from his College graduation and, frankly, I just assumed that a lot of his time before the spooky goings on were happening, and all through the film, would be about getting himself a job and becoming an upstanding, working citizen.


He and his friends are just, basically, thugs. Lazy teenagers who just seem to think its fine loafing around, acting goofy, playing mean pranks and doing nothing to help themselves. Seriously, this lot are worse than the kids in Attack the Block but, whereas in that film the issues inherent in the chemical make up of the so-called “heroes” was addressed at various times in the movie, here it’s just accepted that these are typical teenagers somehow... and presumably the film’s primary target audience of cinemagoing teenagers is supposed to identify with them. Lord help us if they do!

Another big problem is that the found footage style of film-making, which has served the series so well right from the start of the franchise (before they even figured out this would be scary, cheap and profitable enough to be a franchise) is adhered to as it should be... but with absolutely no apparent reason for this to be the case. Seriously, at least the other films in the franchise made a passable effort to justify the use of found footage media. Using surveillance cameras and switching to different sources to build a picture where the use of video of camera equipment would be justified. Here the main protagonists don’t even have a camera fetish like a couple of the characters in the past films. Here they just seem to be intent on recording stuff when they obviously are not interested in the camera in the slightest and will even remember to pick up the camera when they are running for their lives.

Seriously? The producers expect us to believe this?

The actions by various characters in this film defy credibility and that means I didn’t buy into it the way I would in a film where that layer of super-realism was deliberately used. I would have thought this is something the film-makers would have realised. The [REC] films abandoned this style a little way in to the third entry in that series and, although I didn’t agree with that departure from the format myself, if the writers couldn’t have written what they wanted to show credibly within that found footage format then you can see why they decided to rid themselves of those shackles. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is a good film to use as an example of why you wouldn’t continue with that format if you can’t write convincingly for it.

There are some good moments in this one though. The scenes where the old hand held electronic game Simon, which was popular for a year or two in the late 1970s, is used as a variation of a ouija board, is fun but, this also brings problems of its own. If this film is aimed at teenagers, and I’m pretty sure it is, they’re probably not going to remember an old toy which was briefly popular nearly 40 years ago. So... nice idea but maybe a little too low tech for the teenage audience Hollywood producers tend to target.

There are also a fair few cameos from previous episodes in the series, which is nice, including the surviving daughter from Paranormal Activity 2 and, most interestingly, Katie (a regular character in all the US installments in the franchise) and Micah, her husband who was killed at the end of the first film.

Wait? What?

The film is set in 2012... so how does this happen?

Well, if you’re paying attention during one of the “young thugs doing research” sequences of this one, you will hear references to time travel, when talking about the demon spirits and, presumably, the witch army we have seen the coven recruiting for in previous episodes. And, yeah, there’s a sequence right at the end of this one which dovetails straight into the first movie, via time travel. And I have to say that this is the tackiest writing choice I have seen in the franchise. Also a self defeating one because, if you’re building a demon army, you might as well do it in the past and there you go, it’s already done before you know it. Yeah, I know. First born sons etc need to be waited for... but then they can be whisked back in time and still exist then, I would guess... whether they were born or not. In fact, if that’s the case then the demons already know the outcome of their work, surely? It’s all very confusing and I think this element is something which is going to trip the franchise up later on down the line. But they’ve committed to it now so there’s not much anyone can do about it. Kind of a hard element to overlook in the grand scheme of things.

And that’s about it as far as Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones goes. As you would expect, the film is well acted by all the performers. Yes, acting really unsympathetically most of the time but at least you can kinda believe in them. I do think the franchise has taken a bad step with this one though. Of course, if you’re into these films, you really do need to see this one as it’s another jigsaw piece of the overall story... but I’m hoping the next one is better than this mess of a movie. The first “not so good” entry in the series.

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Sherlock - His Last Vow

Bow Vow

Sherlock: His Last Vow
Airdate: 12th January 2014

Warning: One big spoiler at the end but I will warn you in the text before this happens.

Well this is an interesting contrast to the other two episodes comprising this third series of Sherlock. Whereas the previous two were trying to keep up the lightning fast pacing and the quick fire dialogue, they both seemed to be suffering from having a lot of padding to them... possibly as a symptom of that very same style of pacing they were trying to maintain.

This third and last episode of Series Three doesn’t suffer from the same problem. In fact, even though it’s crackling along almost faster than the speed of the imagination, it still feels like they’re kinda trying to cram too much into the episode and you maybe feel like you almost want it to slow down a little.


It’s a good episode, though, tying up the arc started in the first of this series (a small arc, to be sure, with such stupidly tiny season lengths) regarding the man behind the John Watson bonfire in the first episode and it also has a kinda “surprise” arc which was almost... again, “almost”... something you didn’t see coming until it happened regarding a new, regular character who also started out in the first of these three episodes. And actually, that sums up the contents of this particular installment quite well...

It’s an episode where there are a lot of what are presumably supposed to be twist revelations throughout but, I’m afraid, one where everything is quite obvious before it’s actually revealed... Sherlock’s girlfriend and why; the identity of the assassin; the mind palace... which is what happens when you plot a convoluted story without enough episodes and years gone by to throw people off the trail by letting them become used to characters over a period of time, I guess.

However, where this one at least scores in that sense, depending on your point of view, is that you don’t see most of the twists until they’re almost upon you... for most, not all, of the episode I was only a few minutes ahead of the game and this is because, I would imagine, that the blistering pace of the editing coupled with the always excellent flair for visual metaphor was entertaining and distracting enough that, apart from the whole “mind palace” thing which is kinda obvious from the start, you’re only five minutes ahead the whole time.

Now, I’m trying to be cagey here because I don’t want to give away the ending to this one for people, but I still need to talk about it so forgive me if it seems like I’m talking around the subject for those who have seen the episode. Holmes' final solution to the problem was not, as some have said, out of character in any way in terms of violent solutions sometimes being used on a problem... these are sometimes required in the kind of milieu this character inhabits (and, frankly, it was an obvious move in this case). However, what is out of character is the fact that Sherlock couldn’t deduce what was really going on, and what his big mistake was, in plenty of time to work out another solution... especially when most of the audience had probably got there before him.

This kinda continues the theme which really hit home in last weeks episode, that they seem to be making Sir Arthur Conan Doyles character a lot less smarter than he used to be (especially after the way they’ve built him up in the last two series’) and a lot more human. I think they really need to be a little more careful here. Holmes should have been on top of things and if they carry on too much in this vein then the audience, let alone some of the other characters, may start to lose faith in him. This is, after all, Sherlock Holmes, the great literary detective, not Inspector Clouseau.

However, as I said earlier, the episode was extremely entertaining, and I was especially happy with this one because it was more in keeping with the tone of the first series in terms of having three very good, even excellent, episodes as opposed to the second series which had an absolutely brilliant opener and then kinda lost its way. So I am really pleased, in general, with this third series.

One other minor criticism of the episode is this though...

And it’s a big spoiler so please do not read further unless you’ve seen this or have no real interest in seeing it...

Like Mycroft, who is only mentioned in four of the original stories, Moriarty is not a regular character in the original source material. He actually appears only once and is mentioned a few more times. That’s it. So the bit at the end of this episode which very much seems to be signalling that Moriarty is not dead and has kinda come to Holmes’ rescue, probably quite deliberately, in that Holmes now seems to be needed and will therefore beat his murder charge, is more or less built on the reputation that this character has had over the years. He’s not a regular character but, since people seem to need a Napoleon of Crime type of counter-point for their heroes in modern day story telling, this is probably a good way to keep people’s interest without actually leaving it on a proper cliff hanger (thank goodness).

I would have to say, though, that I was kinda expecting something like this to happen with Moriarty before long. He is usually depicted as being the equal of Holmes in intellect and so, if Holmes can fake his own death, it should be no problem for James Moriarty to also figure out similar arrangements (and I never did believe that suicide at the end of the last series anyway). But so what... as per usual, the performances in this episode were all great and help make the characters believable, the imagery was fine, the editing and music stunning... etc. A real triumph of a TV show, once more, and veering away from the direction it was taking in the last series, which is a good thing. Looking forward to Series Four, preferably in less than two years though.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Shadows Over Chinatown

Toler Powered

Shadows Over Chinatown
1946 USA
Directed by Terry O. Morse 
Monogram - Warner DVD Region 1

Shadows Over Chinatown is the penultimate of the Charlie Chan films to feature Warner Oland’s replacement, Sidney Toler. I reviewed his final film in the role, before Roland Winters continued in the series, in my review of The Trap (here).

The film starts off very promisingly... 13 passengers on a bus in a rainstorm, including Charlie Chan, Number Two son Jimmy and regular chauffeur Birmingham Brown (as played by Victor Sen Yung and comedian Mantan Moreland), are forced in to a stop to sort the bus out. This is almost a perfect recipe for a murder mystery, I thought to myself, as I was expecting the whole film to be set in the large passenger waiting room... however, it was not to be and is only a brief stop to get the plot up and running and also have someone make an attempt on Charlie Chan’s life.

Two things happened in this opening sequence. One was that I spotted, right off the bat, that one of the background passengers, who even has a couple of words, is an uncredited appearance by John Hamilton... who would, in later years, go on to play Perry White opposite George Reeves in the 1950s TV series, The Adventures of Superman. So it was nice seeing him for the brief amount of screen time he gets here.

The other thing that happened, which popped me right out of the movie, is the little bit where the passengers come into the interior of the bus station. In long shot, the aforementioned Hamilton is seen making a show of taking off his light grey raincoat, to reveal a much darker suit, and then removing his hat before sitting down at the right of the screen. However in the next shot, which is a close up grouping of the same set of characters, he is sitting with his raincoat on and all done up. If I could spot that on what may be my first viewing (I may have seen this one back in the 1980s, I’m not sure) then I’m sure audiences back in 1946 seeing it on a much larger screen would have spotted that error as well. It’s a big one and I had to wind it back to make sure I hadn’t got confused with the characters and believe what I’d just seen. Such a shame.

And then, after an attempted murder in which Chan is saved from certain death by the birthday watch his son gave him stopping a bullet, the bus journey continues and the plot switches to the big city... which is a shame really.

Now then, this film is really not terrible and had me entertained throughout... but it did seem a little tired and lazy for a Charlie Chan mystery, to be sure. For instance, the identity of the killer, who I’m not about to reveal here, is someone who I was suspicious of throughout the whole movie and so it came as absolutely no surprise when the killer is finally revealed. Which is a shame because I was really hoping I was wrong and there are enough suspects in this one... at least at the start of the film... by the end they’ve kinda thinned out a bit due to either transforming themselves into allies of Charlie Chan or turning up on the receiving end of a bullet or knife blade.

The usual comedy shenanigans of Victor Sen Yung and Mantan Moreland are all present and correct, although in some sequences they are starting to get a little surreal and, in all the sequences, I’m afraid that they feel like exactly what they are... comedy padding to puff up the running time.

All the performances are fine, though, and if the script does seem very lacking at some points, it’s at least convoluted enough to keep the characters up to various pursuits... even if the identity of the killer seems to be more and more obvious as each fresh corpse turns up. The dialogue seems equally jaded, for this humble viewer, too... with the usual Chan aphorisms and retorts seeming a little less cute or charming and a far cry from the sparkling pearls of wisdom that had turned up in other films starring either Oland or Toler in the role.

All in all though, this is not a spectacularly dull film and the overall feel, while maybe not a solid, mystery thriller, is still one of “they don’t make movies like these anymore”... while at the same time begging the dubious question of... “But, should they?”

I am, however, very pleased that Warner Brothers have seen fit to release this Region 1 boxed set of four, previously unreleased on commercial DVD, Charlie Chan films, which includes this Toler film and three of the Roland Winters entries. I’ve only ever seen one of Winter’s films, in a previously released box set, so am looking forward to watching the three in here to see how well he does in comparison to his predecessors. Reviews of those three will be coming soon... watch this space.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Noirish Project

Truth Paste

Noirish Project
Directed by James Devereaux
Private screener

Clarification Disclaimer: Please note that, while I freely gave my time and costs to Noirish Project, I produced three campaigns (60s UK/US, Italian 70s and modern) and a couple of early teaser pieces only... comprising around 30 finished designs (and generating hundreds of files). I also designed one set of title cards and a “video on demand” header. Since my work on the project, other factors have come into play and, as far as  know, my artwork is now not being used. I don’t know whether my title cards are still in the film but I would guess/hope not since that would, obviously, further dilute the brand strength of the movie in relation to the poster campaigns. I am clarifying this here, not so much as to distance myself from the project but to firmly establish to any future collaborators who require my expertise in design matters that some of the stuff surrounding the project has not been produced by me and therefore the quality and consistency of the layout and typography on certain pieces should not be mistaken for my own. I actually have a degree in graphic design and over a quarter of a century in the field, so I’m not in the habit of making any typographic mistakes or poor judgemental decisions within the realm of my work unless insisted on by a client. So please don’t judge me by some of the  stuff you may have seen surrounding this project as I may well not be guilty. I wish James Devereaux every success with this and future projects and, as always, I hope you enjoy his unique spin in his work.

Noirish Project is a movie by actor/writer/director James Devereaux which you might have been hearing about on the internet for a while. It was a project I first got caught up in last year when I was invited to produce a poster campaign for it, which kinda snowballed into three (see here) and also got me on board with designing the static title cards for the film itself. So I was pleased to, just recently, be able to see an internet preview of the movie and to see how the film lived up to my expectations of it.

I’d have to say, it’s a pretty good watch...

Following two credit cards, the film starts off with a long, static establishing, almost panoramic shot of the city of London with a train pulling in from left of shot to right and slowing down to make way for another coming in from the opposite direction before travelling on its way. Knowing the director’s concerns and previous history in the arena of short films, somewhat, even before the shot had finished, I immediately took this as a metaphor for the way people approach each other, fail to communicate and then pass each other by. So, yeah, that first opening shot is kinda representative of the whole movie in a way.

The film then starts proper with what I can only describe as a “slow chase” or trail sequence which sets the tone for the movie quite accurately, as it’s kind of like watching a muffled urban road movie punctuated by the odd, sobering contrasts of absurdist humour stabbing out from the dialogue’s inescapable bursts of human non-connection as played by the two skillful lead actors of the piece - Alfie Black as Billy and James Devereaux himself as Jimmy. This non-communication is aggravated or exasperated by the fact that it’s fairly obvious from the start, and made implicit by the end of the movie, that one character is "playing" the other throughout the course of the film.

However, the intent and inherent contradiction of one of the characters at the basic level of story, serves the bigger picture in this case. Devereaux’s films are not about story. Story is, for the most part in his works, at least the ones I’ve seen so far, a necessary evil which needs to be served at ground zero in order to get you to see the real movie and what it’s about. In this particular case, the strong humour and plot device of the recovery of some paste pearls are the window dressing and the shelving for a study of two people who are dislocated from each other, basically pointing out the alienation which is part and parcel of everyday living in the 21st century.

For example, that slow trail sequence at the opening of the film, which dislocates you a little in its construction, followed by a shot where the old 180 degree rule is nicely broken in such a way that you are left on a shot of two park benches with James and Alfie entering from screen right (instead of left, where you'd expect to see them coming from), serves to re-enforce this sense of disengagement by disorienting the viewer somewhat in the way the movie is decoded.

Many of the shots in this movie are very well designed but even they serve to back up this overview of general disruption. A shot of Billy and Jimmy standing against a wall with windows, for example, is well chosen since Jimmy’s shoulders are precisely aligned with where the texture of the wall ends and the windows begin. This leaves the head of his character and, to a lesser extent but certainly in contrast to this, that of Billy, existing in split sections of the frame, sectioning off the characters in multiple planes within the same space.

Yet another shot, splits planes horizontally towards the camera as a character walks towards a pub in the background and we suddenly realise there are cars going past him between us and the camera and, again, more in front of him. This sudden chopping up of the perceived reality of the situation by displacing the casual viewer in space seems to be a constant theme throughout the movie, and this is aided immensely by both the writing and the performance, as the rightly suspicious Billy is bamboozled throughout the film’s running length.

Other examples of the visual fractures would be a long sequence where everything is slightly out of focus or the fact that a close up or series of close-ups will appear before any kind of establishing shots in certain sequences, a psychological trick I first saw used in a 1960s movie in an effort to prime the audience for a certain mindset but which is used more overtly here as a way of transitioning with a kind of jagged and brisk cut. This transition of contrast is something which occurs again and again throughout the movie and is equally reenforced by the different sound designs for each section, rubbing against each other in the mix.

The film incudes a minimum of characters but the appearances of Gerald Davidson and The Doctor and the always lovely Liane Rose-Bunce as Miss Haverford West in a scene which plays out in terms of indifference, aggression and ultimately absurd and over the top humour, is a welcome one and helps propel the story, such as it is, back into the realm of the two hander and into the true interests of the writer.

That’s probably as much as I want to say about this project at this point. One, because I don’t want to spoil it for you and, two, because I’m possibly too close to the project to want to get too involved with it as a reviewer. What I can say, though, is that the film continues to see the development of Devereaux as a writer/director who seems to be developing his unique visual language in a progressive fashion with each project I see him complete. If you get the chance to see this film then I would urge you to go take a look as it captures the essence of British zero budget film-making as it is at present in an interesting and, more importantly, endearing way. For more details, see the Norish Project web site here...

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Sherlock: The Sign Of Three

Best Man Standing

Sherlock: The Sign Of Three
Airdate: 5th January 2014

Warning: When you eliminate all the stuff from this article which wouldn’t, in any way, spoil the episode for you, what you’ll be left with, no matter how improbable, will be a big bunch of spoilers. Sorry.

Okay... so that was a little bit different then... and when I say a little bit different I actually mean this episode seems to have taken a heck of a lot of us out of our regular Sherlock comfort zone and sent us orbiting at a tenuous distance for a while, before bouncing back down to planet Baker Street again.

And it wasn’t a bad thing either.

Which is a relief, actually, considering the track record of the middle episodes in past two series. This one was very much though, a Sherlock murder mystery masquerading as something entirely different... swallowing up its cake aggressively while still managing, just about, to maintain it at the end for future edification.

That is to say... the mystery element which is part and parcel of a Sherlock Holmes adventure was certainly not approached in the most straightforward manner and this episode, focusing on the wedding of Dr. John Watson and Mary Morstan (played in the most accomplished manner possible, of course, by Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington), was more a picture of the way Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Holmes perceives the world and how he thinks that world perceives him... which is not entirely as he would have thought, I believe.

So, a character study... but masking a murder mystery which approached the main narrative focus in the form of both anecdotes and intrusions into that story flow, before it all came together at the end. Let’s look at the opening sequence, for example...

Rupert Graves carried the first five minutes of frustration and rage admirably, in a manner that may seem, at first, a little over the top but was actually completely appropriate to the broad strokes required for such a fast paced opening. While a return to the series of Vinette Robinson as Sergeant Sally Donovan helped give Graves’ Lestrade character the sense of community and camaraderie needed to pull off a sequence worthy of a predictable, but no less humorous for it, punchline. He basically gives up on a collar he has been waiting to make, jumping through various hurdles for a couple of years and, when that final goal is in his sights, he drops everything and leaves Donovan “holding the baby” as it were, so he can rush off and respond to an “urgent” text from Sherlock. He brings all the back up he can in the form of responding police units and, when he rushes to Baker Street to find that he is only required to help provide funny stories about Watson for Sherlock’s best man speech his reaction is perfect... but so is Sherlock’s as we realise that he didn’t anticipate Lestrade bringing the cavalry with him.

Later on, in a scene told in flashback, like the majority of the sequences comprising this episode, Holmes reaction to Watson approaching him to be his best man, since he counts him as his best friend, is complete silence because he is unprepared for that possibility. This re-enforces the idea made evident in that earlier scene, that Holmes has no idea that he is valued by his friends in this manner.

Which is interesting and, to be honest, the whole episode was done with a large amount of humour but I noticed there was a general trend to humanise and chip away at the personae of this incarnation of Holmes which, while I might find that kind of approach a novel and interesting thing to do with an episode at some part in the life of this television series, is something which I think may have best been held off until the production team had got a more sizeable amount of episodes under their belt.

Even the brilliant Mary plays off Holmes and Watson against each other, to get them back into the groove of working together and it’s clear that each of them think they are both “in on it” to help out the other one’s piece of mind... unusual for Holmes to fall for something so obvious I reckon. They were definitely hacking away at the old IQ points in this one I can tell you.

The flip side of that is, of course, that it was both brilliantly acted and, for the most part, this character study was beautifully executed in terms of the way various scenes and incoming pieces of data invaded the storyline in an often metaphorical fashion - a courtroom doubling up in Sherlock’s mind for a jury rigged, multi-Macbook chatroom in his living room, for example. And, although I personally found the drunk scenes to be a little long and over-wrought (many people loved these scenes, though, judging from the tweets) and, quite possibly, just kept in at this kind of length as padding, the use of the standard typographic overlays reduced to vague and mostly unhelpful observations was a brilliant way of getting the information across and maintaining the humour of the situation.

For the most part though, the episode was pretty cool and pretty watchable. Although I am souring a little towards Mycroft’s personae, it has to be said... and a little bit of experimental transitioning using split scene wipes back and forth like a 1960s movie on acid was, I thought, badly executed in the way it was used in this episode.

The music was customarily groovy, with some nice variations on the sub theme which seems to be the “real” leitmotif for Holmes and Watson in action. I did, however, notice that, like Doctor Who lately, there was a fair amount of old music from the show recycled and tracked in at various places. Which is a shame but, you know, TV is mostly done on the cheap in this country, despite what they charge for TV shows on DVD and Blu-Ray.

So... kinda looking forward to next weeks season finale but really hoping they eschew the cliffhanger ending for something with a little more closure to it this time around. And also hoping that they don’t kill off Louise Brealey’s character anytime soon, as I think she has a lot more to offer the writers in terms of character development rather than to just go out dying while saving Sherlock’s life or some such. We shall see what we shall see.

Sunday 5 January 2014


Awe Topsy

by Patricia Cornwell
Little Brown ISBN: 978-1847445322

And so, as I have been doing every year for the past 20 plus years of my life, I come to the first of my annual Christmas rituals. Sometime early on in the Christmas holiday, preferably on the 25th December, the same day I unwrap this annual present from my parents, I crack open Patricia Cornwell’s latest Scarpetta novel and find out how some of my favourite characters are doing...

Marino, Benton, Lucy Farinelli (my absolute favourite) and of course, Dr. Scarpetta herself.

And they’re all here present and correct and, I’m happy to say, in fairly equal measure in this one - sometimes the odd character doesn’t turn up so much due to how appropriate they are to the story but this one has them all.

Now I had a bad patch with some of Cornwell’s Scarpetta novels a little while back. I didn’t mind that she switched from 1st person to 3rd person narrative so much (although that left me fearful for Scarpetta’s life... it’s harder to kill your main character off when you’re seeing it through that person’s eyes) as the fact that some of the books seemed just, I dunno, less well written than the ones I used to read of old. If you’ve been reading my annual reviews of her books this last three or four years, you’ll also know that she’s won me back over time... her latest batch of novels have been absolutely as good as anything she’s written before and Dust is no exception to this rule.

This one continues with her return to first person narrative and, what that does, is keep you on your guard and on edge in a different way. You know pretty much from the early chapters of the novel that there is a killer afoot and that Scarpetta thinks she is being watched. I’m not going to give anything away but, since you know her unseen adversary is in the background, when characters such as the aforementioned regulars in the series leave the view of “Scarpetta’s eyes” in the story to check things out in a different location... you are instantly worried that Cornwell’s going to kill a regular off while Scarpetta is still just getting started at the main crime scenes.

Like a fair few of her later works, in terms of the scale of the story, Dust is a chamber concerto rather than a full blown orchestral symphony of crime... which I know she is also more than capable of from her earlier books. However, this doesn’t make the details and the suspense of the story any less compelling. In fact, like a lot of artistic disciplines, concentrating on a limited palette in terms of time and location, as this one does (the majority of the book takes place in around a 24 hour period), the focus on the heart of the main attraction is made all the more intense and potent from it. As any reader of Cornwell’s creations will probably concur, with Scarpetta it’s all in the details and the details are made all the more interesting by the political and criminal machinations which touch on the Scarpetta family at a close personal level... I really don’t want to say too much and spoil it here so, please forgive me if I seem a little cryptic in my description.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the plot is, as usual for this writer and her characters, fraught with peril but the slowed down time frame means you can spend time with the characters and share their feelings and personal agendas in a way that you might not have the luxury to do in a globe-trotting caper. The characters are such rich characters to work with anyway, that I felt relieved that Cornwell was able to pass the time with them... as observed by her eagle eyed Dr. Kay Scarpetta incarnation. Although, I would love to see a Lucy Farinelli series of books at some point, truth be told.

As the story slowly progresses and you slowly begin to realise the political ramifications and potential threat to characters who are dear to your heart, the more you will speed through the novel at a rate of knotts. It’s another page turner from Cornwell who does her best to keep you leafing through those pages in the most entertaining and enlightening manner possible as you rush towards the final solution. A solution, in this case, which is more about villains than murderers, in many ways, but I won’t explain that one either... you’ll just have to read it.

There was one strange chapter or flashback early on in the novel to a conversation between Scarpetta and Marino, many years in the past, which puzzled me a little and it felt a bit like using a sledge hammer to crack a walnut when it came to the emotional point she was making... but then again I’ve no idea if she’s building up to something for a future novel so lets see how that goes. She does that sometimes, I’ve noticed, although the little interview material and the tweets I’ve seen her make suggest that these seemingly engineered moments may, in fact, be a subconscious manifestation in terms of the way she seems to picture her style of writing. It doesn’t matter though... I’m sure it will either manifest itself or not and I look forward to her work, as always, as one of the most fulfilling annual rituals I indulge in.

If you’ve never read a Scarpetta novel before, then Dust actually isn’t a bad jumping on point as she makes the relationships between the various characters quite clear throughout the novel for first time readers... although personally, since the characters don’t stay the same and do progress and grow throughout the series, I would still point you back to her earlier novels and recommend you read them in order if you want to get “the full Scarpetta” effect. Either way, I’d recommend you get yourself to a point at Christmas where you can get a healthy dose of “me time”, prepare some cheese and crackers, pour yourself a glass of port or sherry, and crack open a Scarpetta novel. Always a good piece of advice, I reckon.

Friday 3 January 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The Desolation Of Tolkien

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
2013 USA/New Zealand
Directed by Peter Jackson
Playing now at cinemas in the UK.

Okay then. I suppose I’d best write this thing... although I’ve not been looking forward to it.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug has a great musical score by Howard Shore... and that’s one of the very few positives I can really identify in it.

To elaborate on that first item... Shore did wonders with his scores to similarly bad adaptations of the works of Tolkien for Peter Jackson and his score here, both in the film and as a stand alone listen, is no exception. It is a work of beauty which will live on long after the film has been forgotten. Absolutely gorgeous.

As to the rest...

Well this film takes bits of Tolkien from here, there and everywhere and tries to weave them into the basic, compromised skeleton of The Hobbit at every twist and turn of the narrative. Some bits come from Tolkien and other bits are merely stolen from him. The orcs, for example, if memory serves me correctly, have no place being in The Hobbit. If people were worried about a thin children’s book being turned into 9 hours plus of movie just to try and capitalise in the success of the hasty pseudo-adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, then this film in particular shows them that they had every right to be. It’s padded out almost beyond recognition and even the casual reader of Tolkien (I admit, it’s been about three decades since I last read his stuff) will detect the extensions and travesty at large throughout the movie.

As much as I am still angry about all of the stuff Jackson left out and abbreviated in Lord Of The Rings, I am as angry about all the stuff he’s mockingly stuffed into these so-called prequels. I recognised occasional feint bits of Tolkien amongst the wreckage that is The Desolation Of Smaug and even the comical barrels sequence had been enlarged to a kick ass battle/chase sequence involving orc and elf carnage which turned it into an epic instead of staying with the modest childrens book that The Hobbit was intended to be. The Lord Of The Rings was an epic book... The Hobbit was not. The only thing that really bound it to the sequel that Tolkien went on to write, was the one ring. And while Tolkien was indeed guilty of making changes to the original text for future editions after the success of his more adult themed sequel, and I’m thinking of the changes to Smeagol’s character to make him more obsessed and hostile to Bilbo regarding the ring, he never went fully gung ho “George Lucas, Greedo shoots first” revisionist on his original tale the way Peter Jackson is trying to use The Hobbit as a lead in for his original trilogy of films.

As a movie, divorced from its relationship from the original work, I’m afraid it doesn’t do much better. I quite enjoyed, to an extent, certain passages of the initial movie but this one didn’t nearly keep me as entertained as the first one did and it’s not what I’d choose to see at the movies if I wasn’t already invested in it by having seen the previous four...

It’s well acted, more than competently edited, has great special effects and, as I remarked at the start of this review, has an incredibly beautiful score. It’s just such a shame that the intent behind the decision to layer on all this extra and unwieldy stuff into a trilogy just to make tons of money from the initial audiences to the first trilogy are the main motivation behind the decision to make these films. It shows itself up in every frame of film. It even has something not dissimilar to the furnace scene from Alien 3 spliced into it when we get to the scenes of Smaug. It just felt wrong.

So... brilliant music, which was expected and which I will continue to listen to for a long time and catch any concerts I can if Shore tours it like he did with his music from The Lord Of The Rings. However, like so many gorgeous scores written for bad movies (Jerry Goldsmith was a master at getting those kinds of projects to work on), the film fails Tolkien quite badly, in my humble opinion... although it’s obviously going to make tons of money. So Jackson and the studios can certainly sleep well on that. Job done.

At some point, though, I’d love to see some proper movies made from Tolkien’s original books.