Sunday, November 24, 2013

the unguarded hour - 1936

the unguarded hour
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.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

the last legion - 2007

the last legion
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.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

charlie chan in egypt - 1935

charlie chan in egypt
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.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

the ruby raven, by michael dahl

the ruby raven
by michael dahl

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.