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Thursday, December 26, 2013

shadow of doubt - 1935

shadow of doubt
from a story by arthur somers roche
1935

not to be confused with the much more popular hitchcock film, shadow of a doubt, which came along eight years later, shadow of doubt rolled out during the heyday of comic mystery cinema, in 1935. i've become a big fan of these movies but i didn't even realize that this one fell into that category until i started watching.

even then i didn't realize that this was a comic mystery, given that it gets off to a rather slow start. fortunately, i wasn't in a particularly impatient mood on this particular day and so i stuck with it and it wasn't long before things began to pick up considerably.

shadow of doubt stars ricardo cortez as sim sturdevant and viriginia bruce as his main squeeze, actress trenna plaice. it's not too far along into the proceedings before they've both become suspects - along with a few others - in the murder of a thoroughly unlikable playboy type, movie producer len haworth. before long sim's wealthy old aunt melissa decides she's going to leave her home for the first time in about a quarter of a century and get to the bottom of the mess.

which is where things really start to pick up. early on, aunt melissa is a rather formidable presence but nothing to write home about. when she slips in private detective mode things turn decidedly zany and the patient viewer is rewarded for toughing it out through the early bits.

the obvious comparison here is to edna may oliver, the best of the three actresses who played hildegarde withers in the various adaptations of stuart palmer's fiction. aunt melissa obviously has a bit more of a nest egg than palmer's withers, a schoolteacher, but they are both sturdy women of a certain age who are not particularly inclined to put up with any crap from anyone. i kept waiting for aunt melissa to lash out and belt someone with the cane she carries everywhere, but as to whether she actually does, you'll have to see for yourself.

cortez also turns in a great performance and there are outstanding supporting roles from regis toomey as a gossip columnist and ivan f. simpson as aunt melissa's long-suffering and always deadpan butler (who's racked up a debt of $78,000 playing cards with her over the course of the decades).

as for the plot, it's serviceable enough, but nothing special, as is so often the case with these flicks. which is to be expected and it really doesn't detract from the film's overall greatness. i'd rank shadow of doubt right up there with the best of the palmer movies, the thin man series and any of the others of those great comic mysteries of yesteryear. don't miss it.

here's a rather entertaining contemporary review from the new york times.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

miss pinkerton - 1932

miss pinkerton
from a story by mary roberts rinehart
1932

in a career that spanned about a half century, mary roberts rinehart wrote a number of popular mysteries, among other things. included in her mystery output were five books that chronicled the adventures of nurse and amateur detective, hilda adams. the first of these, the buckled bag, appeared in 1914 and the last, the secret, in 1950. among the others was miss pinkerton, which was published and adapted for the big screen in 1932.

if you like your mystery with a good dose of "old dark house" mixed in for effect then be sure to add this one to your must see list. most of the action takes place at a gloomy old dump whose owner's nephew has just shot himself - or so it would seem. said owner is so distraught that a nurse (guess who?) is called in to help take care of her. she, in turn, is pressed into service by the police to help them gather evidence.

it's joan blondell, as adams, and george brent, as inspector patten, who keep things moving along here. the tone is light and upbeat, in spite of the gloomy surroundings and the grumpy old butler and cook, who spend most of the movie moping around and looking severe. the interaction between adams and patten was quite lively and i couldn't help being reminded of stuart palmer's hildegarde withers and oscar piper, another fictional/celluloid crime-solving duo from this era - though rinehart's characters are considerably younger.

as for the plot, well, it's nothing to knock your socks off, but it's passable. overall, i found it quite watchable and a great example of the light comic mystery movies that seemed to be all the rage in the thirties and forties.

this contemporary new york times reviewer though the story was a bit old-fashioned, even back then. which is a fair enough criticism. here's a decent overview of hilda adams, if you need to know more. apparently miss pinkerton was remade, for whatever reason, as the nurse's secret, just nine years later. here's the imdb entry.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

secrets of the manor house

secrets of the manor house
produced by pioneer productions
aired on pbs

if you're like me and doubtless many other americans who aren't quite sure exactly what an english manor house is or how one works you owe it to yourself to take a look at secrets of the manor house. i was lucky enough to catch a rerun on my local pbs station recently. the connection to the sort of fiction and film we feature at this site is a pretty obvious one, but the show helped put a lot of things in perspective for me. here's an excerpt from the pbs blurb for the show:

exactly 100 years ago, the world of the british manor house was at its height. it was a life of luxury and indolence for a wealthy few supported by the labor of hundreds of servants toiling ceaselessly "below stairs" to make the lives of their lords and ladies run as smoothly as possible. it is a world that has provided a majestic backdrop to a range of movies and popular costume dramas to this day, including pbs' downton abbey.

but what was really going on behind these stately walls? secrets of the manor house looks beyond the fiction to the truth of what life was like in these british houses of yesteryear. they were communities where two separate worlds existed side by side: the poor worked as domestic servants, while the nation’s wealthiest families enjoyed a lifestyle of luxury, and aristocrats ruled over their servants as they had done for a thousand years.


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Saturday, December 14, 2013

the bat - 1959

the bat
starring vincent price, agnes moorehead
1959

the circular staircase, a novel by mary roberts rinehart, appeared in many different forms in the years following its first publication in 1908. by 1915 it was already the subject of a silent film of the same name. in 1920 it was adapted as a popular play called the bat by the author and dramatist avery hopwood. this was further adapted into a silent version called the bat in 1926 and with sound in 1930 as the bat whispers.

the bat made its way to tv in a 1953 episode of broadway television theatre and the circular staircase was produced for the tv anthology series climax! three years later. three years after that, in 1959, it was time for the bat to make its way to the big screen again in a version that starred horror movie standby vincent price and agnes moorehead (people from my generation know her best from her role as endora, on the tv series bewitched).

moorehead takes the starring role in this version of the bat, playing cornelia van gorder, a well-to-do mystery writer who rents a mansion where all manner of unsettling things are going on. there's a large sum of money missing from a nearby bank and several people really want it and a maniac killer named the bat is on the loose and that's about all i'll say about the nuts and bolts of it all.

if you're a fan of old dark house stuff (guilty) with a dash of mystery thrown in - and there usually is - you'll probably go for this one. although i have to say that the pace was just a bit on the glacial side and i found my attention lagging a bit in the latter stages. overall the movie felt like it might have been made three decades earlier. i don't recall if i saw the earlier version, the one that actually was made about three decades earlier, and i might be confusing my bats with my cats as in the cat and the canary (1927, 1939) but these old dark house mysteries do tend to blend together sometimes.

here's a brief contemporary review from the new york times that also considers a hammer remake of the mummy (it's not like this current fever for remaking movies is a new thing, mind you).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

alfred hitchock's games killers play

alfred hitchock's games killers play
1967

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.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

the unguarded hour - 1936

the unguarded hour
from a play by ladislas fodor
1936

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.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

the last legion - 2007

the last legion
starring colin firth, ben kingsley
2007

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.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

charlie chan in egypt - 1935

charlie chan in egypt
based on a character created by earl derr biggers
1935

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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

the ruby raven, by michael dahl

the ruby raven
by michael dahl
1999

silly me. the fact that finnegan zwake, protagonist of the ruby raven, is a teenaged boy who lives with his mystery writing uncle, should have tipped me off to the fact that it's a young adult novel. which fact i didn't pick up on until i did some additional research on the series, which apparently numbers five volumes.

if i'd known this in advance, quite honestly, i might not have picked it up. but since i was already part of the way through i was sufficiently absorbed in the story to keep going. it's a tale that finds zwake and uncle stoppard headed to occo (a country that's supposedly located near morocco) for the ruby raven ceremony. this is a prestigious and lucrative prize for mystery writers, who have to be present to actually win the million smackers.

the rest of the nominees also get to split a million dollars and so when some of the nominees start winding up rather dead-ish the assumption is that someone is covering their bases and trying to insure that they get a bigger slice of the pie. but things get a little more complex as the story progresses and there are some reasonably interesting - if perhaps a bit farfetched - twists and turns along the way.

a rather exotic location and plenty of humor, if you like that sort of thing, but if you're looking for a mystery of the sort where you can deduce who's doing all the killing by the clues provided you're pretty much out of luck. unless i had a whopping mental lapse at some point along the way, i can't recall the killer even being mentioned before the end. but it's a pretty entertaining yarn all the same, enough so that i'm going to drop by my local library and pick up another book in the series.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

one frightened night - 1935

one frightened night
based on a story by stuart palmer
1935

wait a minute, philo vance. i'm going with you.
(the great luvalle, to sheriff jenks)

it was a dark and stormy night. really. more about that in a moment.

i still haven't gotten around to reading any of stuart palmer's fiction but i've reviewed a number of the films adapted from that fiction, specifically the ones starring the spinster detective, hildegarde withers. further research shows that palmer had his hand in a number of other film projects over the years, either adaptions of his stories or direct contributions to screenplays.

palmer is credited with providing the story for one frightened night, but whether it's an original story penned for the movie or an adaptation of something else he wrote is unclear. the movie came out in 1935, the same year that saw the release of murder on a honeymoon, the third of the withers adaptations.

it is upon a dark and stormy night that the wealthy mr. jasper whyte gathers a gang of relatives and others to his creaky old mansion. never mind that the storm seems only to show itself at very random intervals and usually only between scenes. let's not nitpick. in the absence of his estranged and long-lost granddaughter, whyte has decided to give away his millions to all of those assembled, just in time to beat out a new inheritance tax that goes into effect at midnight. so much for planning ahead.

well, wouldn't you know it, just about the time that whyte is breaking the good news to the group, a young woman turns up, claiming to be said granddaughter. if that wasn't coincidence enough for you, here comes yet another young woman (and her magician companion) who also claims to be the granddaughter.

i won't say too much more about the plot, except to say that not everyone survives the night. the whodunit elements here are nothing spectacular but i found this one to be quite entertaining nonetheless. it's as much "old dark house" as whodunit, with all of the action taking place in and around the mansion. and while a number of the characters are quite bland, whyte and the great luvalle (the magician) are interesting enough to save the day. fans of the lone wolf movies, of which i've reviewed quite a few, will recognize fred kelsey (sheriff jenks), who played a detective in a number of installments of that series.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

house of mystery - 1934

house of mystery
from a play by adam shirk
1934

yeah i'm up to my neck in apes. (inspector pickens)

"an ancient curse and a killer ape are contained inside an old dark mansion." thus goes imdb's nice and tidy elevator pitch for house of mystery. well, to paraphrase a certain popular cinematic catchphrase - you had me at killer ape. as a long-time three stooges fan it never really occurred to me until recently to question the preponderance of killer apes in certain old works of cinema. it just seemed perfectly natural, but the more you think about it i guess it's not.

in any event, house of mystery gets underway in asia, in 1913, where an arrogant archaeologist named john prendergast is doing such a lousy job of winning friends and influencing people that a group of hindu priests proceed to unleash their killer ape in residence and then put a curse on him when he kills the ape. as we move to the current day, a diverse and mostly loopy group of backers of his expedition are working with an attorney to get their money back.

prendergast, who has changed his name to john pren, is now confined to a wheelchair and is also quite wealthy. he agrees to cough up some dough if the backers will agree to spend a week in his old dark house (for no apparent reason that i could discern). a few murders ensue, each of them preceded by an ominous jungle drumbeat and there may or may not be another killer ape involved. a trio of dimwitted cops turn up and the matter is solved, though not necessarily as a result of their bumbling efforts.

i've watched quite a few movies lately that straddle that nebulous barrier between mystery and old dark house and this is another one of them. as i've said before i've got a weakness for this sort of thing, no matter how slapdash and silly it might be. house of mystery is hardly a great work of cinema but i found it quite entertaining nonetheless.

Polaris, by Jack Mcdevitt

Polaris
By Jack McDevitt
2004

I don't keep close tabs on the hard science fiction sub-genre of mystery - or is that the mystery sub-genre of hard science fiction? In any event, we'll leave that debate for another time and simply note that it's probably not a very crowded field of endeavor.

Polaris is the second of a series in which Alex Benedict, a successful antiquities dealer to the stars, is called upon to solve assorted and sundry mysteries. This time around he and his assistant Chase Kolpath are trying to find out what happened to the crew of the Polaris, a craft that carried a gang of celebrity thrill seekers and scientific types to view a once on a lifetime spectacle of stellar destruction.

Toss in the fact that it all took place some decades ago, mix in a good bit of rough stuff from a party or parties who prefer not to see the mystery solved and things proceed at a lively pace until it's all wrapped up. While I thought the solution left perhaps just a bit to be desired, all in all this was not a bad piece of work.

Friday, October 25, 2013

God Emperor of Dune, by Frank Herbert

God Emperor of Dune
By Frank Herbert
1984

I don't recall how long it's been since I last read Frank Herbert's dune books and that suggests that it's been a while. Since the last read-through I'd formed the notion that God Emperor of Dune was the best of the bunch. Now that I've read it again I'd like to revise that notion and suggest the Children of Dune is the best of them.

God Emperor of Dune finds Leto, son of Paul Atreides, about 3,000 years into his reign as the God Emperor, a creature who is a combination of man and sandworm. Which is an interesting enough concept but what it means in this volume is that the all-knowing, all-seeing Leto is basically rather bored with existence. The downside for the reader is that he tends to pontificate at rather great length, perhaps in an attempt to transmit that boredom to us. It worked.

Actually, that comes off as a little more harsh of a critique than circumstances warrant. There are some fairly interesting plot threads that find the usual Dune factions scheming and conniving and hoping that they'll be able to knock of the old worm. Which is no small feat and I won't say how it turns out except to say that things pick up quite a bit at the end and Herbert winds things up in a fairly interesting manner.

It's worth a look but only after you've read Dune and Children of Dune. And Dune Messiah, if you're keen to, though you wouldn't be missing much if you skipped that one.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

the ghost walks - 1934

the ghost walks
from a story by charles belden
1934

it was a dark and stormy night. of course.

maybe somewhere along the line i've run across an old dark house movie i didn't like. but nothing comes to mind right now. director frank strayer actually made the monster walks about two years before the ghost walks and though i have yet to see that one it's apparently an old dark house flick as well, though the two don't seem to be linked in any other way.

as the ghost walks gets underway, a hotshot broadway producer, his nerdy (male) secretary and a playwright have a minor accident and are forced to take refuge at a foreboding house of the old and dark variety. there are already several people on hand and it's not long before things start to go awry, with some rather nefarious deeds taking place, but there's a pretty interesting twist early on that i won't spoil.

which colors much of what follows and before it's all said and done a number of the people who have gathered at the house have gone missing and a lunatic has escaped from a nearby asylum and there's a picture with eyes that move and a number of other gimmicks common to movies of this breed. and plenty of comic relief, not the least of it provided by the hotshot producer and the nerd, who spend a great deal of their on-screen time bickering.

alas, there is no killer ape. but life is full of disappointments and the movie doesn’t suffer too badly for it. all in all i'd rank this one a little bit higher than average as far as this sort of thing goes.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

r.l. stine's haunting hour

the r.l. stine craze came along too late for me to really appreciate, but a while back i thought i might try out r.l. stine's haunting hour. it's a horror anthology tv show that airs on a cable channel called the hub. if you guessed that it's geared toward a younger demographic you get a gold star. if you guessed that there's nothing there for adults you might need to rethink your position.

the show is into its third season now and i've caught quite a few episodes. while there were some that didn't grab me there were probably a lot more that did. production values are quite high, the acting and writing are a cut above and as a general rule episodes are not too "childish," for lack of a better word.

if you're only going to try one episode of the show then go all out and try two. grampires was the two-part opener for the third season and it's one of the best episodes i've seen. i've never been a fan of vampires and all of the vampire mania of recent decades hasn't done anything to convert me, but grampires proves that there's still a way to spin this sub-genre in a way that seems fresh. what's especially noteworthy is how the episode manages to blend humor with a few fairly decent scares.

for my money the best of the show ranks right up there with any of the horror tv anthologies of yesteryear. so if you've never heard of it or if you've steered clear because it's kid's stuff i'd encourage you to give it a look.

Monday, October 14, 2013

the phantom of crestwood - 1932

the phantom of crestwood
from a story by bartlett cormack and j. walter ruben
1932

most of the movies from the thirties and forties that i review here contain rather strong elements of comedy and many would probably qualify as comedies first and mysteries second. not so for the phantom of crestwood, which elicited barely a snicker. i'm pretty sure it wasn't meant to but it was a nifty piece of work all the same.

this one falls firmly into the old dark house sub-genre but with a stronger element of whodunit than many of the others i've seen. the gist of things is that jenny wren, a young and not at all unattractive woman, has summoned a quartet of wealthy and powerful men whom she's had dealings with in the past to a gloomy old estate called crestwood. once they've all gathered she puts the squeeze on them for a rather sizable amount of money.

given all that, is it so hard to believe that ms. wren is soon bumped off? i'd say not. at which point gary curtis (ricardo cortez), a fellow with a shady past and a gang of thugs on hand, turns up to sort it all out. i think i missed a key plot point in all this but apparently curtis believes for some reason that he'll be fingered for the crime if he can't prove who really did it.

all of which is rather nicely executed, if you ask me, and there's plenty of that old dark house atmosphere to add spice to the proceedings. this one's definitely worth a look, if you go for that sort of thing.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

sword of the rightful king, by jane yolen

sword of the rightful king:
a novel of king arthur
by jane yolen
2004

jane yolen is one of those writers who probably gives a lot of other writers fits - even those who feel that they are relatively hard workers. the well-known author of books for young adults and children has turned out about 300 works in all in the course of her career and a few of these have tackled the arthurian legend she's so fond of.

most notable of these are probably the young merlin trilogy and this volume, which the author says began life as a short story. i'm well past the target age for this type of book but i thought i'd give it a whirl anyway. i found that though i had some reservations about the whole affair, it was actually quite a page-turner overall.

as things get rolling, morgause (morgan le fay, in many versions of the legend) is plotting to take power from arthur, who is already king. four of her five sons are dispatched to arthur's court and the story is told mostly from the perspective of gawaine, the oldest. as for merlinnus, he's no spring chicken in this version of the yarn, but he's still pretty sharp and decides to come up with a pr gimmick (essentially) involving a sword and a stone that he hopes will cement arthur's position as the big cheese.

what follows is mostly a straightforward yarn that presents these parties working toward their respective goals and that's that. yolen does throw in a pretty great twist along the way that totally blindsided me but then again i'm probably not as clever as the average young adult reader.

the biggest drawbacks for me as i read this one is that it was just one small segment clipped from the greater whole of this story and didn't really seem all that substantial. one might have expected a few books to precede it and several more to follow, but in a brief q&a at the end of the book yolen says she has no interest in continuing into the darker areas of the legend. my other minor quibble was with morgause, who is presented as a rather cartoonish villain and an incarnation of pure evil who has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

first knight

first knight
starring sean connery, richard gere, julia ormond
1995

much like king arthur, another big-budget hollywood epic that followed it by about a decade, first knight is an example of a rather curious creature - a movie that takes the arthurian legend and turns it on its ear. though it doesn't do so nearly to the same degree as the later movie.

so where to start? how about with director jerry zucker, better known for movies like airplane, naked gun and ghost, a guy who has come right out and said that he really wasn't the best person to be directing such a movie as this. and indeed he wasn't.

in my recent reviews of excalibur and merlin, i noted that they both make the mistake of trying to pack in too much of the legend into 140 and 182 minutes, respectively. that's one mistake first knight doesn't make. it chooses instead to take one relatively obscure arthurian yarn and spin it off into a movie, along with focusing on the better known antics of lancelot (richard gere) and guinevere (julia ormond).

at the heart of this story is one prince malagant, a scurrilous sort who's straight out of central casting, villain dept. and who's harrying arthur's people by razing villages, obliterating the populace and that sort of thing. when he abducts guinevere, who's recently arrived at camelot and is due to be hitched to arthur, lancelot springs into action and singlehandedly rescues her.

which kidnapping and rescue are quite ludicrously over the top and suited more to an errol flynn-styled swashbuckler than anything else. and what better time than right now to talk about gere's portrayal of lancelot, who is essentially portrayed as a superman with a snotty attitude and hair that's oh so very gq.

guinevere comes off somewhat better here, perhaps because she's an actual human being rather than the cardboard cutouts that feature in so many arthur movies. as for the third member of that infamous love triangle, the first thing that jumps out about sean connery as arthur is that he's certainly no spring chicken. as for whether a scottish accent is really appropriate for arthur, well, probably not.

all of which can be overlooked since connery serves pretty much as the anchor of the movie. arthur is the good guy of the piece, plain and simple, and connery plays him with a level of calm authority that's hard to beat. as for the rest of the actors, well, there aren't really any, aside from ben cross as boris badunev/prince malagant. yes, there were a bunch of guys sitting around the (somewhat impressive) round table in a number of scenes and presumably they were the knights of said round table but you could pretty much categorize most of them as glorified extras.

first knight was panned in many quarters and i wouldn't necessarily disagree, but on the other hand i have a pretty high tolerance for even mediocre arthur movies. this one had a few moments that were actually quite impressive, though more for the staging than anything else. probably the best of these being when guinevere arrives at camelot at night to be welcomed by arthur and all of the knights carrying torches and then gets her first glimpse of camelot itself. arthur and guinevere's wedding ranked quite high on the spectacular meter as well.

i guess the best i can do is to damn this one with faint praise and say that you could probably do worse (no page boy haircuts in sight and no one breaking into song, at least) but you could certainly do a lot better.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

the crooked circle - 1932

the crooked circle
starring zasu pitts, james gleason
1932

the crooked circle is distinguished by the fact that it's supposedly the first movie to be shown on television, in 1933, at a time when there probably weren't too many tv owners out there to tune in. there's not really that much else to distinguish this one, except that it brought together zasu pitts and james gleason, who played hildegarde withers and oscar piper in two of the later cinematic adaptations of stuart palmer's fiction.

i wasn't so fond of pitts as miss withers and her role here bordered on downright grating. actually i couldn't quite figure out what relationship she had to anyone else in the movie, given that she spends most of her on-screen time playing that old tried and true (and tedious) character of the scaredy cat who's nearly incoherent with fear. gleason's cop character is not that far removed from his inspector piper, though the brooklynese is a bit thicker and he's lower in the ranks.

as for the plot, it pits the sphinx club, a group of amateur crime solvers, against the crooked circle, who dress in robes and hoods, mutter incantations and have marked the head of the aforementioned club for death.

which is really just an excuse for assorted and sundry parties to gather in an old dark house and trot out all of your favorite old school mystery and old dark house clichés (no guy in an ape suit, though). which is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, at least not for me. i tend to be very forgiving of even the dopiest of the old dark house movies and so i found this one fairly entertaining, in spite of its ineptness.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

merlin

in my recent review of excalibur i noted that one of its few shortcomings was that it tried to cram in too much of the arthurian legend. i theorized that the ideal vehicle might have been a lord of the rings-styled three movie package or perhaps a miniseries. the 1998 tv miniseries merlin wasn't quite the ticket but there are far worse ways to spend three hours of your life.

as is the case with mary stewart's five-volume take on the arthurian tales, this is (obviously) merlin's story. it gets underway before he is even born/created when a bad egg known as queen mab decides to whip herself up a wizard type to help bring "the people" back to "the old ways." as nearly as i can tell mab does not figure in any of the arthurian legends and doesn't turn up in any literary works until shakespeare. a queen mab also makes a notable appearance in a somewhat renowned poem by percy shelley.

miranda richardson's take on mab is somewhat along the lines of an aging goth/wiccan with a hissy/screechy voice that begins to grate after about 30 seconds. she's bad to the bone and she has a sidekick to help do her bidding. that would be frik, who's portrayed by martin short and who was initially something of a major drawback for me.

as much as i like martin short (clifford and primetime glick, in particular), early on he provides just a bit too much comic relief for this type of story. the writers also chose to saddle him with some truly tooth-grinding anachronisms such as pirate outfits and whatnot. the good news is that before it's all over frik's character changes rather dramatically and becomes one of the standout characters of the entire piece. but enough about that.

though mab has created merlin (sam neill), who is born in the traditional human fashion, she finds before long that he is not content merely to do her bidding. it's this tension between the two that powers the story. along the way we have a fairly traditional arthurian storyline presented but with a lot of magical whoop-dee-doo and special effects added to spice things up.

early on we see vortigern (rutger hauer) and uther going at it, with merlin and mab each backing a horse in the race. uther comes out on top, of course, and proceeds to blow his lead by seducing the wife of one his allies. which dalliance produces the once and future king known as arthur. who is not a particularly engaging character in this telling of the tale and his father uther even less so. ditto for lancelot and guinevere. to tell the truth i've always found the tale of their infidelity to be tedious at best, and this time around was no exception.

i guess it's no surprise that these characters are all somewhat unexceptional, given that the story is more closely focused on merlin and mab, and to a lesser extent on frik and nimue (isabella rossellini), merlin's love interest. and though he gets a relatively small amount of screen time jason done, as mordred, comes close to stealing the show, though his intriguing performance would have benefited if he'd dialed it back a notch or two.

interesting arthurian trivia bits here include a score by trevor jones, who got one of his first big breaks doing the same for excalibur. also on hand, nicholas clay, who played lancelot in the earlier film and whose role of lord leo here is a relatively minor one.

i guess you could sum this one up by saying that if you were to imagine a miniseries version of the arthurian legend as produced by hallmark entertainment (who did indeed produce this one) with a pretty decent budget, great locations and cinematography and some big name talent (also helena bonham carter, james earl jones, and john gielgud) then this is what it would look like.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

excalibur

excalibur
screenplay by rospo pallenberg and john boorman
1981

the film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth. (john boorman)

i've long since given up trying to keep track of how many times i've watched the movie excalibur. maybe there's a better example of a movie attempting to encapsulate the entire arthurian legend in less than two and half hours but i have yet to run across it.

which is perhaps the only major flaw that i've ever been able to find with excalibur - that it tries to cram just a bit too much into too short of a running time. if there was ever a great candidate for a four or six hour mini-series i'd say this would be it. or perhaps turn it into three movies like peter jackson did with tolkien's lord of the rings. interesting to note that in his pre-excalibur days director/writer boorman tossed around the idea of doing that very project.

as excalibur gets underway merlin and king uther connive to get the latter hooked up with the lady igraine, despite the fact that she's already the wife of one of uther's key allies. they pull it off and a child is conceived, but merlin has already made the condition that since he assisted in the subterfuge the child will be his. that child is arthur, of course. after merlin takes him away, uther follows and is ambushed and killed, but not before he drives the sword excalibur into a large stone on a hill in the woods.

which, if the viewer hasn't already figured it out, is a pretty good indication that this is going to be a "traditional" retelling of the arthurian legend. by which i mean that it presents the tale with most of the parts that were added in layers over the course of many centuries and none of this stripping out of the magical and fantastic elements that some recent writers have attempted, thank you very much.

from here the story hits many, if not most, of the major points of the legend. there's young arthur pulling the sword from the stone after older and much burlier knights have all failed. there's camelot and a quite impressive round table. there's the good and noble (and rather skilled) warrior lancelot, who becomes arthur's loyal friend, but of course that loyalty gives way in the face of guinevere's charms.

and, of course, there's morgana le fay, arthur's half-sister and nemesis to both merlin and the king. she connives to have a son by an incestuous relationship with her brother and it's this son, mordred, who will be the downfall of arthur. but not until many of the knights of the round table have been done in on a lengthy quest for the holy grail.

all of which is sufficient to keep me on or near the edge of my seat even after numerous viewings. no need to keep heaping on the superlatives, but i will point out a few things that especially contribute to the success of the movie.

that would be the music, for one. while there's an original score in there somewhere (by trevor jones) it's overshadowed by the many well-chosen snippets of wagner. there's also a key excerpt from the o fortuna segment of orff's carmina burana, and correct me if i'm wrong, but this was before the use of the latter became something of an action movie cliché.

the other standout here are the visuals, which flip back and forth between pastoral scenes set in landscapes so lush and green that one suspects trickery on the part of the cinematographer. these are offset with numerous scenes that are so dirty, smoky and gritty that one almost wants to pause the action and go take a bath.

for whatever reason i find myself without one of those snappy closing paragraphs one is supposed to use to cap off a review. about the only other thing i'll say is that it's hard to watch any cinematic work of arthuriana without having it spoiled just a bit by flashbacks to one of the other great king arthur movies. you know the one.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dune: House Harkonnen & Dune: House Corrino

Dune: House Harkonnen
By Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
2000

Dune: House Corrino
By Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
2001

My tentative plan was to read/re-read all of the Dune books, including the ones by Frank Herbert and the ones that came after. I started off with a few of the Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson books and then moved on to their Dune prequel trilogy - the first three Dune books they wrote. I wasn't knocked out by any of the Herbert/Anderson books but I found them entertaining enough - at first.

It was somewhere during Dune: House Harkonnen that I began to feel some stirrings of discontent. They continued to stir as I finished that book and moved on to Dune: House Corrino and they kept stirring. It was somewhere during all of this that I decided to finish that volume and move on to the "real" Dune books.

Which may not hold up as well as I'd hoped. That remains to be seen since it's been a long time since I've read any of Frank Herbert's original Dune books. As for the Herbert/Anderson books, they proceeded in more or less typical Dune fashion, dealing with the exploits of all of the many and varied factions that make up that universe.

But I found a few things to be increasingly problematic as time went on. In no particular order they were the violence, the characterization, the lack of real suspense and relatively uninspiring plot lines.

Let's start with the violence. My thoughts on this might change as I go back to the frank Herbert books. As I recall it those books were fairly violent but a lot of the violence seemed to be hinted at or understated and was relatively subtle. I'm not at all averse to violence if it seems to further the ends of the story but as things moved along it began to seem that Herbert/Anderson tackled this in a way that was quite gratuitous and overdone.

Which kind of ties into my grumble regarding characterization. Which can be summed up by saying that it seemed that most of the characters were clearly either white hats or black hats, with very little grey that I could discern. While the Baron Harkonnen, in particular, and his immediate circle of bad eggs were always presented as being fairly unredeemable in frank Herbert's books, i seem to recall that it was done with some subtlety, as opposed to the over the top and almost cartoonish treatment by Herbert/Anderson.

I guess the lack of suspense is something of a given when you're dealing with a prequel that presents characters who will appear in the "original' volumes. But it was hard to work up too much concern when these characters got in a pickle, knowing for a fact that they would survive. Last up, there's that plotline, which ranged far and wide, as Dune books tend to do, but in this trilogy seemed to mostly be focused on the takeover of Ix by the Tleilaxu and a certain piece of conniving between the latter and the Emperor Shaddam. Which was just too far removed from the events of the Dune books proper for my tastes.

So it's on to Dune now and I'm curious to see just how those books will hold up after all these years. As for whether I'm going to tackle any more of the half dozen or so Herbert/Anderson books that are still out there, that remains to be seen.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

dune: house atreides

dune: house atreides
by brian herbert and kevin j. anderson
1999

over the course of the past few months i've read and reviewed three of the "other" dune books, the ones that weren't written by frank herbert. i certainly wasn't knocked out by them but at the time i found them entertaining enough and ranked them as decent efforts. then i went back to the first of the brian herbert and kevin j. anderson dune books - dune: house atreides - and found that by comparison those other three books didn't perhaps fare as well as i thought.

which is not to say that this one is on the level of the first four dune books, which get my vote as the best of the bunch, but in retrospect this one feels much more like a dune book than those other three sequel/prequel volumes.

but about that title. for my money, though the title suggests otherwise, this book wasn't focused that closely on house atreides, or at least no more than any other dune book. the usual suspects are presented here, although the action takes place for the most part a few decades before the events of the first book of the series.

thus the baron harkonnen is still a slim, trim and dashing fellow, rather than the corpulent monstrosity we see in that first book. but he's still a pretty awful guy and as he's just been made governor of arrakis, he turns his attention to seeing how much profit he can siphon off from the spice production there. imperial planetologist pardot kynes also turns up on dune and before long finds himself being accepted into the ranks of the insular fremen.

there's also a corrino plot thread, that focuses mainly on prince shaddam and hasimir fenring's efforts to see that the former is installed as emperor sooner than anyone would have expected. back on caladan, the story deals with duke paulus atreides - grandfather of paul atreides - and his young son leto, and we also see threads that concern the always scheming bene gesserit, a young duncan idaho and a rivalry between the ixians and the tleilaxu.

a pretty interesting piece of work overall and a worthwhile kickoff to the trilogy that leads up - after a fashion - to the events of dune.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

the winds of dune

the winds of dune
by brian herbert and kevin j. anderson
2009

much as paul of dune set out to fill the gap between the events of dune and dune messiah, so too does the winds of dune seek to fill the gaps between that latter volume and children of dune, the third book in the original dune series. did you get all that? if not, please consult your scorecard.

it's a volume that might just as easily have been called bronso of ix, although that probably wouldn't have done much for sales. i don't recall much, if anything, being said about bronso in the original frank herbert books. but in several of the sequels and prequels he is included as paul atreide's childhood friend, though they later become estranged. bronso spends much of this book spreading propaganda aimed at taking the increasingly messianic and tyrannical new emperor down a few notches.

while paul makes a very brief appearance here, much of the novel plays out in that period after he's disappeared into the desert at the end of dune messiah but before the events of frank herbert's next book start. there are also flashbacks to some childhood events that are focused mostly on the bronso/paul relationship.

one of the more fascinating characters in the dune world, at least for my money, was alia, paul's younger sister, who is born with all of the abilities of a full-blown bene gesserit reverend mother. unfortunately, in herbert's children of dune, as well as here, she was painted a little too neatly as a maniacal villain type. which i found a waste of potential, given the directions such an interesting character might have taken.

as with the previous two dune sequel/prequels that i reviewed here, the winds of dune was entertaining enough but hardly knocked me out of my seat. if you can't get enough dune you'll probably like it well enough, but if you haven't read the original books in the series yet i'd recommend focusing your efforts there.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

the crystal cave, by mary stewart

the crystal cave
by mary stewart
1970

i've long been meaning to read stewart's five-book retelling of the arthurian legend, but i just never seemed to get around to it. after reading phil rickman's the bones of avalon, a historical mystery whose title refers to the remains of king arthur, i had just enough arthurian legend to inspire me to seek out more. the choice actually came down to stewart's series or another very well-known one by t.h. white (who also wrote at least one mystery, as i only recently found out). in the end i went with the stewart series, the one that was most readily available at my local library.

the crystal cave is merlin's (myrddin emrys) book and as it sets the stage for the legend, arthur does not appear at all. as things kick off we are presented with merlin at six years old and even at this early age he and most of those around him are aware that he's different from most boys. he's not athletic like the other kids, he prefers to keep to himself and most notably he is given to flashes of insight that he doesn't quite understand yet, except to realize that they are not normal.

it's significant at this point that merlin does not know who his father is, something he'll discover in the course of the book. he lives at the court of his grandfather, one of many minor kings who dot the british landscape in this day and age and as the years pass he nearly falls victim to various political intrigues that eventually drive him from his home land. but not before he discovers the cave mentioned in the title and the man who lives there and becomes his mentor.

as merlin leaves britain he eventually takes up with ambrosius, the high king of britain, who is laying low, building up his forces in preparation for the day when he'll return to his chaotic home land and restore order. just as notably (and perhaps more so) merlin meets the king's brother uther. while they don't quite hit it off, their destinies will be inextricably intertwined as the story progresses.

ambrosius and uther are successful in the campaigns in their home land and after a time the former dies and uther assumes the crown. he is not nearly as level-headed as his late brother and essentially risks his kingdom to have the wife of a fellow nobleman. merlin lends a hand in seeing to it that uther has his way in this, but for motives that are entirely his own and it's right about here that the first book of the saga ends.

which was quite a yarn, if i do say so myself, and i wasted no time in moving onto the second volume - the hollow hills.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

sisterhood of dune

sisterhood of dune
by brian herbert and kevin j. anderson
2012

in hindsight i realize that it might have been best to read the first three books of the dune series before trying sisterhood of dune. that's the first three books chronologically, as they play out in the dune universe, not the first three to be written. it's a trilogy that chronicles the war between men and intelligent machines that constitutes the butlerian jihad, an era only mentioned in passing in the "proper" dune books, as i recall.

while the title sisterhood of dune suggested to me that it would be focused primarily on the bene gesserit, who play such an important role in the series, that's not entirely the case. their formative years are covered here, in a book that commences about a century after the events of the aforementioned jihad, but a number of the other groups, schools or whatever you want to call them are covered as well, including the suk medical practitioners, an early version of choam and the spacing guild, the human computers known as the mentats, and the swordmasters school.

if that wasn't enough we see a continuation, more or less, of the man vs. machine theme, as the fanatical anti-technology crusader manford torondo wreaks havoc on a number of fronts. we also are presented with a variety of sub-plots that deal with early ancestors of the atreides, the harkonnens, and the ruling corrino family. there's even a short foray to the planet which gave the series its name - arrakis aka dune - where we encounter the fremen, or as they're still known in this day and age - the freemen.

which is a pretty full plate and i've probably missed a few stray ingredients here and there. it's a reasonably entertaining look at the formative years of various entities that make up the dune universe but it's obviously pretty far removed from the world of frank herbert's original books. not surprisingly, what i found the most interesting were those all too brief segments that did actually take place on dune. the big downsides for me this time around, various characters - including torondo - who seemed just a bit too villainous and all around blackhatted to be entirely believable.

ultimately, i found sisterhood of dune reasonably diverting, but i don't see myself ever coming back around for a re-reading, something i've done countless times with the first four of the frank herbert volumes.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

paul of dune

paul of dune
by brian herbert and kevin j. anderson
2008

if you read frank herbert's first two dune books, dune and dune messiah, then it probably didn't escape your attention that there was a significant gap between the two. at the end of the first book paul atreides and his fremen forces have defeated the emperor and claimed the planet arrakis for their own. as the second book takes up, atreides is now the emperor himself and is reluctantly presiding over a bloody jihad that has already killed billions and which he seems powerless to stop.

which is where brian herbert and kevin j. anderson's paul of dune fits into the larger picture. i haven't read any dune books for quite some time and i only read a few of this duo's books back, so i was surprised to see that they've now written about twice as many as frank herbert's original six volumes.

paul of dune essentially spins two main stories, though each contains the usual myriad of plot threads that readers of the dune series have come to expect. the main story deals with what happened during that missing decade or so between the first and second books. it's a passably interesting version and worth a look, though given what would come later in the series it seems that the authors laid it on a little thick with the new emperor's lapses into tyrannical behavior.

the other story, and the one that didn't interest me nearly as much, finds us hearkening back to the days just before dune takes place, with a variety of incidents that take place in the life of young paul atreides. not bad stuff really, but for my money the authors could have jettisoned all of it and focused primarily on that other plot strand.

having only read one or two of these ancillary volumes before and not having read any dune books at all for quite some time i couldn't help wondering if this one would hold my interest. aside from the aforementioned reservations, i'd say that it did for the most part. it didn't match up to the first four of the "real" dune books, my favorites of the lot, but for serious fans it's probably worth a look.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

the bones of avalon, by phil rickman

the bones of avalon
by phil rickman
2010

as a general rule historical mysteries set in times prior to the victorian era haven't held much appeal for me, at least not thus far. but i'm kind of a sucker for anything with an arthurian theme (and i'd give a special nod to jack whyte's nine-volume the camulod chronicles) so i decided to branch out a bit with phil rickman's the bones of avalon.

while i wouldn't go quite so far as to say that the bones of the title, being those of king arthur, were a mcguffin, the author could probably have substituted something else entirely without affecting the story all that much. which is not to say that it was a bad story. not at all. i liked it quite a bit, with perhaps one relatively minor reservation.

that would be the personality of the main character, dr. john dee, a fictionalized recreation of a real-life character who was apparently attached to the court of queen elizabeth i. the dee of the book could be described as what passed for a scientist in his day though he could also be described as a sorcerer, conjurer, astrologer, or what have you, depending on who's doing the describing.

which, quite frankly, is not a good thing to be in england in 1560. this is a place that's fraught with a great deal of political and religious turmoil, which in dee's case, has resulted in him nearly being burnt at the stake. this goes a long way toward describing his personality, which (understandably, i guess) is suspicious and very fearful, almost bordering on paranoia. which didn't make him a particularly sympathetic or likable character in my book but the strengths of the story helped to make up for that.

which story concerns a small expedition to glastonbury, a key site in arthurian legend, mounted in hopes of recovering the bones of arthur. dee is part of the expedition, but not long after arriving another member of the party is found murdered in a way that suggests a ritual murder. dee is smitten by a local healer and undertakes a mystic vision, of sorts, with her assistance. but as the hue and cry goes up to find the murderer circumstances demand that he toughen up and take certain matters into his own hands in a way he's not accustomed to doing.

while i found myself grumbling about the languid pace of this one early on, the author kicked things up considerably later on, with the result that the last half to one-third of the book zips right by. i especially liked he how used a plot point that will seem relevant to modern-day readers, but it wouldn't be fair to go into any more detail about what exactly it was.

while i liked rickman's book it hasn't inspired me to seek out any more historical mysteries just yet. however, it did motivate me to finally take a crack at mary stewart's five-volume retelling of the arthurian legend.

francis in the haunted house - 1956

i think i can honestly say, without any reservations, that francis in the haunted house is the best movie that i've ever seen that featured a talking mule investigating a murder in a haunted house.

i don't know if there's anything else i can say but i'll certainly give it a try. for those who may not be aware, francis the talking mule was apparently quite a hit back in the fifties. "he" starred in a series of seven movies, of which this is the last of the bunch. co-star mickey rooney, the human lead here, took over for donald o'connor, who played that role in the first six films. all of which took place, it should be noted, about five years before the debut of tv's (the famous) mister ed.

if you guessed that the proceedings take a rather lighthearted tone here, well duh. after witnessing a murder early on, francis enlists the help of rooney in investigating it. which leads to complications for the latter since the police are wondering how he came to know so much about the crime. since he can't really reveal where he got his info this leads to numerous scenes (overdone a bit, if you ask me) of rooney being hauled off to the police station and given the third degree. of course, everything gets sorted out in the end.

none of which makes for great art or even a particularly engaging mystery story but what would you really expect from a movie starring a talking mule? though i will say that if you can put your brain on hold for a while there are probably worse ways to spend about an hour and a half.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

famous spoilers you might not want to read

darth vader is a horse
norman bates' mother turns out to be the stepmother of larry the cable guy's mother
buffy slays vampires
rosebud was charles foster kane's pet hippo
schindler's got some kind of list

Sunday, June 23, 2013

stages of partying

party like mother teresa
party like a guy who'd probably rather be doing something in a laboratory
party like a rock star's great aunt
party like a duck
party naked
party like a goose
party like it's 1999
party like a chickadee
party hearty
party your ass off

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

children's book titles that might not be completely appropriate

where the girls go wild things are
the cat shat in the hat
the lion, the bitch, and the wardrobe
the sulfurous ass wind in the willows
the whorehouse at pooh corner
james and the giant mildewed toenail
charlie and the asshole factory
are you there, god? it's me, you shithead

Friday, June 14, 2013

reasons why babies are deserving of our scorn

prone to shriek their fat heads off with little or no provocation
sometimes grow up to be donald trump
contribute not squat to the gross domestic product
seemingly content to wallow in their own filth
incapable of engaging in sustained political discourse
no fashion sense
rarely create engaging works of sculpture
don't have the common sense the good lord gave to a duck

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

least loved breakfast cereals

kelloggs skin flakes
toasted baby feet
shredded rat
lowlife
plumbers cracks
count retchula
frosted dingleberries
carrion chex
lice krispies
cream of poodle
fruity marbles

Monday, May 13, 2013

fat wife jokes from a guy who doesn't get the concept

my wife's so fat that when she sits around the house she finds it a much needed rest
my wife's so fat that i'd like to see her go on a diet
my wife's so fat that you need to shut up
my wife's so fat that she really is rather rotund
my wife's so fat that it's probably not so good for her health

Friday, May 10, 2013

japanese monster movies you've probably never heard of

kramer vs. godzilla
the three faces of megalon
mechagodzilla vs. the abercrombie and fitch models
breakfast at tiffany's with mothra
rodan vs. the cast of 60 minutes

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

if more things were named after charles manson

bed bath and charles manson
chuck e. cheese's
charles manson scouts of america
I can't believe it's not charles manson butter
abercrombie & charles manson
charles manson institute of technology
weekend at bernies with charles manson
charles manson's babies r us

Thursday, April 25, 2013

a letter to pantene uk, from c. francis patel

my friendly hair helpers of pantene - sincerely, and of a good evening,

i am seek advise for these several matters of pertinence. please advise asat and sooner.

the horse is make to sit up in the bed as it make to fly whilst i am shampooing it. please advise.
please advise of where i may make purchase of the pantene horse shampoo.

please advise. greetings - sincerely, and of a good evening,
c. francis patel
esq., phd., ret.

[reply]
thanks for taking the time to contact us - we value your opinions and appreciate your questions and
concerns. we've received a lot of email lately and are not able to reply to them as quickly as we'd
like. we're working hard to get caught up and hope to respond to you soon. in the meantime, we
invite you to visit our company website where you can link to faq's about p&g and our products.
www.pg.com

linda
procter & gamble consumer relations

Monday, April 8, 2013

if it was appropriate to refer to god as my bro

for my bro so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.
thou shalt have no other bros before me.
in the beginning, my bro created the heavens and the earth.
in the beginning was the word, and the word was with my bro, and the word was my bro.
the heavens declare the glory of my bro; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Too Many Clients, by Rex Stout

Too Many Clients
By Rex Stout
1960

One of only a few Nero Wolfe books that I haven't read yet, Too Many Clients is now one of the Wolfe books that I'd rank near the top of the heap - with perhaps one relatively small reservation. But I'll get to that in a moment.

Things kick off in fairly standard fashion for a Wolfe novel. A high-powered business type approaches Archie due to concerns that he's being followed. Archie doubts that Wolfe will take the case and sends the man away and what do you know - it's not long at all before said businessman's body is discovered and there's little doubt that he's been murdered.

But there's a pretty interesting twist in all of this and one that I won't reveal. One of the frequent criticisms of the Wolfe books - and it's one that I've made quite a few times myself - is that he wasn't exactly what you'd call a master of plotting. I'd be willing to call this book one of the exceptions to that rule, although it hardly is in the rank of the likes of Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr.

But it wasn't the plot that stood out for me in Too Many Clients, interesting though it was. What really worked best in this one was Nero Wolfe himself and specifically his interactions with the various players in this particular drama. You could make the argument that Archie Goodwin is the tough guy, hardboiled, private eye counterpoint to Wolfe's cerebral great thinker of a detective, but something that's not so often remarked upon is what a formidable opponent the big guy can be.

No, Nero Wolfe is not likely to come at you with guns blazing or fists flying, though he did show a considerable amount of physical toughness in The Black Mountain and it's been made pretty clear that in his younger days he was hardly a pushover when it came to this sort of thing. But as this book in particular shows, Wolfe is still no pushover even now that he weighs a seventh of a ton, but simply prefers to use words as his weapon, something that he does with great skill.

So about that small reservation. That would be the ending. Not the whole thing, but just a portion of it, which seemed to be a bit clichéd and just didn't quite ring true. It's the sort of thing that Stout used on at least one other occasion, if I recall right, and while it didn't really detract from the story that much overall, I would give it one minor demerit.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

a letter to pantene australia, from c. francis patel

dear hair friends of pantene, sincerely, and good morning,

i am seek advise for the following matters of pertinence, to wit. please advise asat and sooner.

would the copywriters law permit to name the horse pantene?
the horse sleeps too many after shampooings and is terrificly somnolent. does pantene make horse
somnolent? please advise.

please advise. greetings - sincerely, and good morning,
c. francis patel
esq., phd., ret.

[reply]
thanks for contacting us.

while i'm happy to hear how well you enjoy pantene, we can't recommend it's use in this manner. our
products have been thoroughly evaluated to do what we say they'll do and, therefore, we can only
recommend them to be used in the manner it was intended for. still, i'm forwarding your comments on
to the rest of our pantene team.

with that being said, we'll need additional information pertaining to your copyright question.
please write back and provide us with additional details pertaining to your use of a trademarked
name, so we can better direct your request.

thanks again for writing.

p&g team

Sunday, March 3, 2013

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, by Agatha Christie

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
By Agatha Christie
1940

You're talking like a thriller by a lady novelist. (Inspector Japp to Hercule Poirot)

In my relatively limited experience with Agatha Christie's Poirot books, it has almost always seemed that the great Belgian detective was a supremely confident and rather unflappable sort. So it came as something of a surprise as this volume opened to find that confidence shaken by something as mundane as a visit to the dentist.

Of course, this being Christie, it stands to reason that we're not seeing Poirot go to the dentist just for purposes of character development. As coincidence would have it, not long after Poirot's appointment concludes he finds out that his dentist has apparently done himself in. Or has he? Well, yeah.

And the plot thickens, as they so often do. The interesting thing about this one is that it's not long before it takes an abrupt turn from being a garden variety whodunit - for lack of a better term - into being something rather different. It would be a mild spoiler to get into this, in my opinion, and it's the type of thing I don't usually care much for in crime and mystery fiction but Christie handles the whole affair so skillfully that I quite liked it.

At one point in the proceedings Poirot remarks that one of the other characters has "the brain of a hen." Which is about how I felt when Christie finally began to work her way around to the solution. This came from way out in left field, if you ask me, but I thought it was nicely done and there was nothing in it that made me want to cry foul.

Then there's the mystery of why this book needed at least three different titles. The 1964 Dell paperback edition that I read was titled An Overdose of Death, with a cover note that the original title was (the quite dreadful) The Patriotic Murders. But apparently the book started life as One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, which makes a great deal more sense, given the content of the book itself. Perhaps the ways of publishers are one of the truly great mysteries.

In any event, whatever you want to call this one, I'd call it an entertaining piece of work that's likely to befuddle the average reader - or maybe it was just me.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Many Deadly Returns, by Patricia Moyes

Many Deadly Returns
by Patricia Moyes
1970

I read a book by Patricia Moyes some time back, before starting this site. If memory serves, it was Twice in a Blue Moon and it was okay but it didn't knock me out of my socks. Many Deadly Returns, which was published almost a quarter of a century earlier, came close to doing just that.

There's nothing in this book that brings anything new or revolutionary to the whodunit - which would have been quite a feat for anyone writing such a work in 1970. But for my money Moyes succeeded in taking some of the time-honored conventions of the form and shaping them into an eminently satisfying whole.

As the story is getting underway, the children of Lady Crystal Balaclava - Primrose, Violet, and Daffodil - and their spouses are preparing to make their annual pilgrimage from various locations around Europe to her English country house to celebrate her birthday. As per custom, one daughter will bring a fancy custom-made cake, another a case of fine champagne and another a bouquet of exquisite roses.

As the celebration is going strong Lady Balaclava proceeds to keel over. Detective Inspector Henry Tibbet (Moyes' regular series character) happens to be on hand because of Lady Balaclava's (well-founded) fear that she was about to be snuffed out and he is rather distraught that the victim was taken out - apparently by poison - right under his own nose.

It's hard to give much more in the way of specifics from here on without spoiling things so I'll just reiterate that Moyes went on to weave a skillfully told tale that kept me riffling through the pages. The fact that I was able to identify the killer - something that I don't often do - may be a commentary on the author's skills with plot, but I'd like to fool myself into thinking that I'm getting better at this sort of thing.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Movie - The Corpse Came COD

The Corpse Came COD
Based on a story by Jimmy Starr
1947

I'm no scholar when it comes to this sort of thing but I'd say that by 1947, when The Corpse Came COD was released, the best days of the comic screwball mystery movie were already in the rear view mirror. It was the same year that saw the release of Song of the Thin Man - the last (and some would say the least) of the Thin Man movies.

But Corpse showed that there was still a little life left in this old sub-genre. The story for this one was based on a 1944 book by one Jimmy Starr, who was a Hollywood reporter and whose protagonist Joe Medford just happened to be in the same line of work. Other Medford books include Three Short Biers (1945) and Heads You Lose (1950). More on this offbeat trilogy here.

Let's start with that title, while we're at it. No symbolism there, but a rather literal interpretation of the events that open the movie, when a Hollywood starlet is asked to cough up 400-some odd dollars to take delivery of a rather large crate that contains some fabric samples and, well...you know. Turns out that said starlet knew the stiff, who was a costume designer who worked with her at the movie studio.

Not knowing who to turn to starlet Mona Harrison decides on Medford, a sort of friend and would-be paramour. He honors her trust by turning the incident into a scoop and before long another reporter - Rosemary Durant - begins to sniff around. And of course it's right about here where that whole screwball battle of the sexes thing begins to kick in, though perhaps not to such good effect as in other films of this breed.

The plot thickens quite a bit from here, with more than a few twists and turns until winding its way to what, at least for me, was a decidedly offbeat and unexpected finish. Maybe a more attentive viewer would have seen this one coming but not me.

I found this one entertaining enough and quite a bit more so than this contemporary reviewer from the New York Times.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Murder She Wrote: The Murder of Sherlock Holmes, by James Anderson

Murder She Wrote:
The Murder of Sherlock Holmes
By James Anderson
1985

If you hang around this site at all you might know that James Anderson is one of the authors I go out of my way to praise. That's the late James Anderson, by the way, who wrote a bunch of mystery fiction but most notably a trilogy of country house mysteries that were published between 1975 and 2003. Read my reviews of these books and an overview I wrote about the trilogy, here.

What I didn't realize until recently is that among the other books Anderson wrote were three novelizations of episodes of the Murder She Wrote series. They are The Murder of Sherlock Holmes, Hooray for Homicide, and Lovers and Other Killers and were apparently issued in a convenient omnibus edition for anyone who absolutely has to have them all.

Just for the fun of it, I decided to try out the first one - The Murder of Sherlock Holmes, which is based on the two-part series opener that was in turn based on a story by series creators Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter S. Fischer. I've watched a few episodes of Murder She Wrote but not this one, although after reading the book I'll probably seek it out just for curiosity's sake.

Given the constraints inherent in writing a novelization I had no illusions that much of Anderson's style was going to shine through here and for the most part it didn't. Although it seemed that perhaps a few flashes of his dry wit managed to reveal themselves. As for the mystery, it's not a bad one, given that it first saw the light of day as an extended TV episode.

The gist of the thing is that aspiring mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher hits it big with her first book as the story opens and is whisked off (reluctantly) to New York City for a whirlwind publicity tour. At a costume party hosted by her publisher someone in the guise of Sherlock Holmes gets bumped off. Fletcher soon finds that she has a stake in determining who did the killing and works along with local law enforcement - who are actually pretty amicable about this - to crack the case.

I don't know that I'd go quite so far as to recommend this one and I probably won't read the other two by Anderson but there are certainly worse ways to pass the time.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dark of the Moon, by John Dickson Carr

Dark of the Moon
By John Dickson Carr
1968

Gather round while I relate to you the epic saga of how I attempted to make my way to the end of John Dickson Carr's Dark of the Moon. I picked up a cheap paperback copy quite some time ago at a used bookstore and I was rather keen to read it. After doing so for a short time I put it aside. Then I came back to it. Then I put it aside. Then I came back to it. Then I put it aside. You get the point.

Finally I put it aside for good, on a stack of books that I intended to trade in at the aforementioned store. Or so I thought. Many months later, more or less on a whim, I dug the book out of the stack and started it again. And found, to my surprise, that it was relatively smooth going. For a while, anyway, until about the two-thirds mark, when I put it aside again. Finally, not so long ago, I came back to it and finished it off.

Which might lead one to believe that I didn't like this book very much. But that's not quite true. Right here, I'll note that I'm not real well versed in Carr, having read perhaps ten of his books in all. But from reading the opinions of others I gather that his later books are not nearly as well regarded as the earlier ones. If Dark of the Moon is any indicator I think I can see why. This was the fourth to the last of the books to be published before his death in 1977 and the last to feature his series character Gideon Fell.

Who is called to the house of an acquaintance on a coastal island in South Carolina, a state where Carr apparently spent his later years. After rather a lot of slow-paced preamble and working around to the point someone is bumped off in a manner that anyone who knows Carr will find familiar. This time around the master of the impossible crime trots out another of those sandy beach type gems, in which the victim is found in an expanse of sand with no footprints around but his own.

The pace hardly picks up from here, if I do say so myself, but eventually the whole meandering conglomeration of a contraption of a story works its way around to one of those lengthy reveal scenes. As for the explanation of the crime, I wouldn't go quite so far as to cry foul, but I would say that the author really stretched my credibility to the limit. Of course, if the killer had merely clocked the victim with a blunt object and been done with it it would hardly have been a proper John Dickson Carr book, now would it?

I guess what I found trickiest about this book, as I've noted, was that languid pace and meandering nature of the plot. Perhaps it was because he was getting up in years and living in and writing about a place where things move at a slower pace that things played out this way. On the plus side, however, Carr does what I've always felt he does best - perhaps as much or even more than all that impossible crime stuff - and that's to create a truly memorable atmosphere and sense of place.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Amendment of Life, by Catherine Aird

Amendment of Life
By Catherine Aird
2003

I haven't read a lot of Catherine Aird's books but I've been impressed with those titles I've taken for a spin so far. I actually read Amendment of Life some time back, before starting this site, but I thought I'd give it another go, something I rarely do regardless of who the author is.

I'll say at the outset that while I liked this one I didn't think it quite measured up to some of the other Aird books I've read, especially The Stately Home Murder, which is at the top of my heap thus far. Like all of Aird's books (with perhaps one exception?) this one focuses on Inspector C.D. Sloan, who solves crimes with the help of - or perhaps in spite of - his dimwitted sidekick, Constable Crosby, and his clueless boss.

This time around Sloan is called to Aumerle Court, another one of those grand estates that turn up in so much British mystery fiction. The nifty twist this time around is that the estate boasts a hedge maze (think The Shining) of the sort that people pay to wander into and get lost.

Well, as the discerning mystery fiction fan could easily deduce, this would be a pretty blitheringly obvious place for a stiff to turn up and what do you know? Of course, it's only a matter of time before Sloan and Crosby run the culprit to the ground and it's here where I felt that Aird faltered perhaps just a bit.

I'm not all that fanatical about the need for fair play in this type of mystery novel and I didn't think Aird really did play completely fair, mind you. But what I had the most problem with was that the solution ultimately seemed just a bit too farfetched to swallow. There were also a few too suspects to really make things sporting for the reader.

So I probably wouldn't recommend this as the first Aird book someone would want to read but even Aird on an off day is worlds ahead of a lot of other writers.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Formula for Murder, by Carol McCleary

The Formula for Murder
by Carol McCleary
2012

As I've noted before, there's something about the Moors that I find an appealing setting for a novel. Which was what first drew me to Carol McCleary's The Formula for Murder. When I found out that it was a historical mystery that paired real-life reporter Nellie Bly with the likes of H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle I have to admit that I was a bit put off by what seemed like a gimmicky Superheroes of Literature type premise.

But since I already had the book in hand I thought I might as well give it a try and I'm glad that I did. McCleary has apparently written three of these Nellie Bly books in all and they all seem to take a similar approach in teaming the famed muckraking reporter with other well-known personalities of the day.

This one doesn't quite count as a whodunit, for my money, but there's a pretty interesting mystery at the heart of it all. It kicks off with a rather gritty scene that finds Bly in a morgue in London identifying the corpse of a young female colleague. McCleary doesn't really pull any punches here or anywhere else in the book and she provides an interesting perspective on the life of a female reporter in an age when that sort of thing wasn't really done.

As for the mystery, you could safely say that there are some elements of pulp fiction here, with a mad scientist, of sorts, doing some of those unholy experiments that mad scientists always seem to dabble in. As for the guest stars, H.G. Wells - who is not yet a popular writer - gets the most screen time. Wilde, not surprisingly, is a likable rogue with no apparent concern for what anyone else in the world thinks of him. Conan Doyle only makes a few brief appearances, but when he does he more or less serves as the anchor of this diverse group.

Recommended.

Trivia fans, take note. The real Nellie Bly apparently tried her hand at mystery fiction, with The Mystery of Central Park, which was published in 1889.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Movie - Dangerous Blondes

Dangerous Blondes
Based on a story by Kelley Roos
1943

So you've got a well-heeled husband and wife couple who solve crimes in their spare time. He's been known to raise an elbow now and then and he definitely has an eye for the ladies. She tolerates the latter with good grace and there's plenty of witty banter going back and forth between the two. Well, that's gotta be...Barry and Jane Craig.

I have yet to read any fiction by Kelley Roos, but I hope to get around to it eventually. More about this husband and wife mystery fiction writing duo here. Dangerous Blondes is based on the Roos novel If the Shroud Fits and I can't help thinking that the resemblance to Nick and Nora Charles is not wholly accidental. The Thin Man movies were never short on comedy, which is a quality that seems even more evident here, but there's also an okay mystery at the heart of things - the killing of a wealthy old dowager type at an advertising shoot in a gloomy photo studio.

Which was a pretty entertaining piece of work as these comic mysteries go and I found as watchable - or more so - than most of them. Watch for the elevator gag that was resurrected in a Don Knotts movie some decades later and there's a fun quiz show parody that opens the movie and pits a team of police detectives against a team of detective fiction writers (headed by Barry Craig). Can you guess who wins? For that matter, can you guess which of the aforementioned cracks the case? Well, no prize for that one.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movie - Forty Naughty Girls

Forty Naughty Girls
Based on characters created by Stuart Palmer
1937

Having watched the other five of the Hildegarde Withers movies that were made in the Thirties I couldn't very well skip over this one. But I have to say that I wasn't expecting much - and that was about what I got.

I've reviewed all of the other installments here and written an overview article on the Withers character so I'm not going to devote much ink to this one. It was the last and the least of the movies to feature spinster schoolteacher Withers and her partner in (solving) crime, Inspector Oscar Piper.

The problem here, as with the previous installment - The Plot Thickens - is Zasu Pitts, who simply was not right for the main role. The mix of ditziness and befuddlement that she brings to the character is not what one really expects after the first three movies starring the formidable Edna May Oliver and a follow up starring Helen Broderick. James Gleason turns in a typically good performance as Piper, as he did in every one of the movies, but it's not enough to save the sinking ship.

The plot, if you must know, mostly takes place backstage at a theatre, where various acts of mayhem take place, mostly while a show is going on - a show Withers and Piper just happened to be attending.

Leonard Maltin's capsule review says, in part, "Final Hildegarde Withers mystery-comedy is just plain awful, with Pitts and Gleason getting involved in a backstage murder." I don't know if I'd go quite that far - or maybe I would. But I did kind of like the armor scene. Maybe it's the Stooge fan in me.

Here's a brief take on things from the New York Times, who weren't quite as hard on this gem as Maltin or yours truly.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Crime-Solving Couples of Yesteryear

Crime-Solving Couples of Yesteryear
By William I. Lengeman III

In kicking off an article about amateur detectives of yore, most of whom just happen to be married, the obvious opener would a play on the phrase “’til death do us part.” Since I’m not clever enough to come up with anything I’ll invite the reader to insert their own. In any event, here are a few great couples from way on back. Some are best known for their appearances in fiction while others are remembered for their time spent on the big screen.

Tommy & Tuppence: Chronologically speaking I suppose you’d have to start this list with Agatha Christie’s Tommy and...

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