you've gotta love those old hitchcock anthologies. although, given the fact that the stories were presumably drawn from the pages of alfred hitchcock's mystery magazine, there's not much content that's in the way of what i would call mystery.
most of the stories in this volume seem to fall into a pattern. a nasty person or persons do nasty stuff and typically get what they deserve in the end, usually by way of a late-breaking twist. more often than not the alert reader will be able to see these twists coming from about a mile away. which makes for an entertaining if not very substantial reading experience.
the standouts among this group of fourteen stories are the feel of a trigger, by donald westlake, which is a fairly straightforward account of a pair of cops apprehending a known murder suspect. also of note, august derleth's the china cottage. it's another of the many adventures of his sherlock holmes knockoff, solar pons. the only tale here that i'd really call a proper mystery story, it’s a locked room yarn that's arguably not among the best examples of this sub-genre, but is fun reading nonetheless.
also worthy of note, hitchcock's own tongue-in-cheek introduction, in which he offers some grim alternate endings for well-known movies. going into this i just assumed that it must have been ghostwritten on his behalf. but it's got that exceedingly dry hitchcock wit down so well that either he actually wrote it or found a stand-in who could mimic his style perfectly.
starring clive owen, keira knightley
for epic portrayals of the arthurian legend it's going to be pretty hard to outdo king arthur, a 2004 movie that may have outdone what's arguably its most epic predecessor - john boorman's monumental 1982 movie excalibur. for me king arthur hasn't lost anything even though this was at least the fourth or fifth time i've seen it.
the notion of taking arthur's story and turning it on its ear is hardly a new idea. one of my favorites is a series of about a half dozen or so books by jack whyte in which he strips out all of the magical and fantastic elements and leaves the reader with a perfectly serviceable version of the legend. which is essentially what king arthur attempts to do.
after a brief opening scene with a young lancelot leaving home to fight for rome, we jump forward about fifteen years. the knights of the round table, those that are left, are all sarmatian (from the region that's now iran) warriors who are required to spend fifteen years in service to the romans. if you do the math then you'll realize that it's time for them to fly the coop. but there's a twist, as a bishop germanus explains to their commander - a roman named arthur.
as the romans are pulling out of britain, a great saxon horde is massing to come down out of the north and lay the land to waste. the scenes of the saxons on the move are pretty ominous stuff, with their war drums, thousands of marching feet (or so it would seem) and eerie chanting. turns out there's a prominent roman family living near hadrian's wall that needs to be rescued. the weaselly bishop informs arthur that his men cannot have their walking papers until they complete the mission. though they carp and moan and know that it's nearly a suicide mission, they are a band of brothers, after all, and grudgingly agree to this one last foray. any resemblance to the dirty dozen or the wild bunch may or may not have been intentional.
the knights arrive at the roman outpost not long before the saxons and make haste in evacuating it, including a number of people found in a grim dungeon of sorts, one of whom is a woad named guinevere. woads in this movie are just another name for the real-world picts, a painted warrior people who lived north of the wall and wasted no opportunity to harass their neighbors to the south.
as the saxons move southward it becomes obvious to arthur that he should put aside his feelings about the woads and accept their offer of an alliance. but not before the small band of knights must face off against a splinter force of saxons on a frozen lake in a scene that might remind some viewers of the battle of thermopylae. it's strictly over the top action movie stuff, this scene, but it does keep you clinging to the edge of your seat.
against all odds, the crew makes it back from their mission almost intact and are given their walking papers after all. they start walking but when they see that their old leader arthur is apparently going to try to take on the saxons singlehandedly, they naturally have to rally round him one last time. and i'll say right here that battle scenes in this type of movie have a tendency to be rather dull, but this one was the rare exception. you can almost guess how it turns out but getting to that point's a lot more gripping that in most action flicks.
given that it's essentially just an epic buddy movie, king arthur relies pretty heavy on this small band of warriors. there are six of them, plus their leader and they are a fairly diverse group. i have to say i didn't care much for clive owen's arthur, who's prone to speaking in great oratorical flourishes throughout and not much else. as for lancelot, he just seems to be bewildered most of the time. gawain and galahad just don't seem to get all that much to do.
which leaves it to the other three to carry most of the group scenes. there's ray winstone as bors, the hard-drinking, hard-loving family man who says exactly what's on his mind. there's ray stevenson as dagonet, a fierce burly fighter who turns out to have something of a heart of gold and who saves the day in the frozen lake scene. and then there's mads mikkelsen as tristan, the silent, mystical type with a trained raven and a decidedly offbeat way of looking at the world.
also worthy of note, keira knightley as the kick-ass woad warrior woman - though it's a bit of a stretch to imagine someone so slight whupping big beefy saxons in hand to hand combat. there's little or no magic or supernatural stuff to speak of here, though merlin, the woad leader, is said to be a magician, of sorts. also worthy of a considerable accolade is stellan skarsgård as cerdic, the muttering leader of the saxons, who, though he's starting to get up there in years, doesn't take any mess from anyone.
which is about all i've got to say for this one, except for an enthusiastic two thumbs up.
from a play by ladislas fodor
the deardens - lady helen and sir alan - are throwing a party one night for a host of well-heeled guests when, unbeknownst to them, someone crashes the party. he makes his way to lady dearden and proceeds to blackmail her over some past indiscretions her husband was involved in. given that sir alan is about to move up in the world from his position as a successful barrister to attorney general, lady dearden figures it's best to capitulate.
however she later finds that a man is being tried for killing his wife and that something she saw on the day when she dropped off the blackmail money could clear his name. but she can't come forward without sullying her husband's name. coincidentally (perhaps a bit too much), her husband is the prosecuting attorney trying this case.
and it gets even more muddled from there, with one thing leading to another and sir alan himself being charged with another crime. which is about all i can give away about this one, except to say that, given the small circle of characters, it's no great shakes to figure out who the real culprit is.
but it's a somewhat entertaining piece of work nonetheless, with strong performances from loretta young and franchot tone as the deardens and some mild comic relief from roland young, as their wisecracking friend, bunny. no great shakes as a whodunit but worth a look even so. trivia fans should note that henry daniell, who plays the bad egg here, later went on to play moriarty in the woman in green, one of the basil rathbone sherlock holmes films. director sam wood also did the honors for the marx brothers in a night at the opera and a day at the races.
starring colin firth, ben kingsley
i'm a sucker for a good old-fashioned historical epic and in a pinch i have been known to settle for a somewhat mediocre historical epic. which is about where i'd rank the last legion, a five-year-old movie that i was not even aware of until it aired on ifc recently. nor was i aware that it was a film that tackled certain aspects of the arthurian legend, a fact that only became gradually apparent as i was watching.
in some ways the last legion resembles king arthur, which predated it by about two years and both movies kind of resemble war movies that deal with conflicts that came along many centuries later. the resemblance is mainly in the fact that a motley band of warriors have gathered together to tackle one last big mission.
in the case of the last legion the motley band are the personal guard of the young roman emperor, romulus augustulus. the group is led by aurelius (colin firth) and not long after the emperor is sworn in (or whatever the correct term is) the goths decide to overrun rome and sack and pillage and do all those things that the goths apparently did so well.
while the goth leader is quite keen to bump off the young emperor he's persuaded that to do so would make him a martyr and would thus be a mistake. so he exiles him and his mentor ambrosinus (ben kingsley) to a nearly impregnable island fortress - the key words here being "nearly impregnable." because, of course, any motley band of warriors worth their salt can easily make mincemeat out a paltry challenge such as this.
at which point the gang find that they've essentially been sold out by the roman senate and they determine that their best course of action is to go to britain and try to hook up with that last legion mentioned in the film's title. of course, they're followed by a contingent of goths who are not so happy that the boy emperor and ambrosinus have been spirited away.
it's not really a spoiler to reveal that aurelius and the boys, with the help of that last legion, combine to kick the asses of the enemy, but i won't reveal what any of this has to do with the arthurian legend. i will say that it's probably not any more farfetched than some of other theories having to do with said legend.
i'll also say that the last legion probably wasn't a particularly good movie, but since i'm kind of fond of this sort of thing i might not be as objective as i could be. i can't exactly pin down what i didn't like about it although the kickass indian warrior woman who joins up with firth and the boys seemed particularly farfetched and gratuitous. i guess what i'd pin it down to is that the film had something of a modern-day action movie sensibility with all of the trappings of the early dark ages draped over it, if that makes any sense.
while i wouldn't go so far as to steer anyone away from the last legion i'd remind you that there are probably better choices in this subgenre, including the aforementioned king arthur and of course the granddaddy of all arthur movies - excalibur.
based on a character created by earl derr biggers
the latest adventure out of charlie chan's casebook lifts the sage of honolulu several notches above the philo vances and the perry masons. where these eminent sleuths are curiously helpless until the fifth or sixth assassination has removed most of the suspects from active competition, charlie requires only two murders for a good running start.(andre sennwald - new york times)
a little while back i decided it would be a good idea to finally get around to reading a charlie chan novel. i liked it quite a bit. by the same token i thought it might be a good idea to finally get around to watching one of the zillion or so charlie chan movies and charlie chan in egypt just happened to be the one.
the title role here was played for the eighth time by swedish-born actor warner oland, who would go on to play chan eight more times. yes, chan is in egypt this time around, trying to sort out the matter of some missing antiquities when he falls in with some archaeologists and their circle. one of their number has gone missing and before long is found inside a sarcophagus, the victim of foul play.
as the quotation listed above suggests, that's not the end of it, as another murder soon follows and then an attempted murder after that. pausing just long enough to toss off a quaint homily ever now and then, chan considers the evidence and the small circle of suspects and manages to figure it all out, including the seemingly clever (but actually flawed) method used to commit one of the murders.
not a bad outing overall, though you'll have to put your political correctness on the shelf to get through it. while some of the portrayals of egyptians are rather ridiculous, it's the role of snowshoe, played by stepin fetchit, that stands out like a sore thumb. since there have been several books written on fetchit there's no need to rehash any of that here. but even ignoring the un-pc aspects of his role, i'd rank this as one of the more irritating characters i've seen. then again, the new york times reviewer referenced above said, "the cast includes stepin fetchit, the master of slow motion, who manages as usual to be both hilarious and unintelligible." so i guess it's all relative.
had they turned their telescopes to the neighboring planet of exodosus, they might have noticed a different story. for the surface of the large, once deserted planet was now dotted with numerous spaceball military installations. neutron artillery guns, interstellar transports, hover tanks, and other prime examples of spaceball military might dotted the landscape, and that wasn't counting everything that had been set up below the surface.