Film review: The Black Camel (1931)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Hamilton MacFadden. Writers: Barry Conners, Philip Klein, based on the novel by Earl Derr Biggers. Starring: Warner Oland, Sally Eilers, Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Dorothy Revier, Victor Varconi, Murray Kinnell, William Post Jr., Robert Young, Violet Dunn, Otto Yamaoka, Hamilton MacFadden.

A film team from Hollywood is shooting a picture in Honolulu, and its star Shelah Fane (Revier) is soon found murdered. Whodunnit? Well, it’s up to Chinese American police inspector Charlie Chan (Oland) to find the truth behind the slaying and its seeming connection to another murder in Hollywood three years ago. Chan gets able assistance by mysterious psychic Tarneverro (Lugosi), but can he be trusted? After all, he looks and sounds like Dracula.

The Black Camel is the second of Oland’s Charlie Chan mysteries, of which an endless number was made (well, forty-four of them, with other – also non-Asian – actors taking on the role following Oland’s death in 1938).

The film is a pretty basic old school murder mystery, with a set of suspects in an exotic location, mysterious clues and a colourful detective. While not lacking in cleverness – the final and most important clue being quite original – the entertainment you’ll get out of this story is entirely dependent on what you think of the genre. Me, I don’t mind it, but there are only so many ways a whodunnit cookie can crumble, and even a well executed surprise reveal of the killer’s identity fails to elicit more than a tepid “oh, that’s kind of unexpected” from me these days. Others may, and will, feel differently, and the mystery as such is well thought out, has pleasing twists and a really kind of unexpected ending.

Apart from the solid writing (on the part of Biggers and the screenwriters), the big attraction of The Black Camel is the cast. It’s always fun seeing Warner Oland (also known as Dr. Yogami in Werewolf of London), but one wonders what he thought of a career that had him playing almost exclusively Asian characters despite the fact that he was really just plain old Werner Ölund from Sweden – even his accent in his movies sounds far more Swedish than Chinese. Nevertheless, he was very good at what he did, which is to say play vaguely racist stereotypes in hugely popular detective and horror films, and The Black Camel wouldn’t be half as entertaining without him.

Then there’s Dwight Frye as the intensely disagreeable butler Jessop. Though more cultivated than Renfield or Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz, he’s certainly no friendlier, and it’s great to sit back and enjoy Frye’s inimitable snark. He has a decent sized role, but goes uncredited just the same. Hollywood wasn’t kind to him.

The big draw, however, and the reason I picked this particular Charlie Chan movie, is Bela Lugosi, playing one of the many psychics in turbans that would become a staple of his career. Tarneverro is different, though, an urbane, normal man of extremely high intelligence who endeavours to advise his clients through the medium of a little occult showmanship to make his sometimes bitter counsel easier to swallow. It’s actually a very good part for Lugosi, and one that comes with a few narrative turns of its own.

So it’s nice to admire the Hawaiian scenery and the cult actors, and if you like murder mysteries, this is a pretty decent one, but the problem with The Black Camel is one it shares with many other films of its genre: people go on and on talking about events which are never shown, making the whole thing a curiously uncinematic experience.

Rating: 5 of 10.

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Film review: Before I Hang (1940)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Nick Grinde. Writers: Robert Hardy Andrews, Karl Brown. Starring: Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Ben Taggart, Evelyn Keyes, Bruce Bennett, Pedro de Cordoba, Don Beddoe.

Dr. John Garth (Karloff) is working on a rejuvenation serum, but before he can perfect it, he is tried and condemned to death for mercy killing one of his patients. He is permitted to continue his work in prison while awaiting his execution, but things go horribly wrong when he injects himself with a batch of the serum made from a dead murderer’s blood.

Boris Karloff appeared in several films about benevolent scientists acquiring murderous inclinations, and Before I Hang is one of the good ones. For a relatively low-budgeted 1940 horror flick it has an unusual amount of depth to it, as it spends quite a bit of time eloquently discussing various ways of thinking about ageing and death. Far from being boring, this philosophizing anchors the film and makes it feel more mature than it really is. The expected scientific mumbo jumbo is present too, naturally, but it doesn’t sound quite as silly as it usually does in this sort of thing.

Before I Hang has a carefully thought out script with some points of real freshness to it, but of course the mission given to the screenwriters was to write a movie where Boris Karloff goes crazy and kills people, because that was what the audience wanted to see. Consequently, the shining facets of originality wink out one by one as Before I Hang goes further and further into serial killer cliché, but Grinde and the actors manage to keep even those parts sincere and suspenseful.

Despite a respectable body count, this is not a terribly violent film, the murder scenes mainly focusing on Karloff’s personality switch from good man to violent psycho. These scenes are atmospheric and beautifully shot, as is most of the movie, but at least one of them is somewhat too protracted and loses some tension because of it. There’s another sequence where a piano recital goes on for circa forever, and which could have used a bit of trimming. On the opposite side, there are a couple of instances where dramatic events are told rather than shown (Garth’s violent convulsions being the standout example), which is a pity, since showing us these things would have made for a more energetic movie.

Good old Edward Van Sloan aside, Before I Hang is carried in its entirety by Karloff – he is in almost every scene, and for once hardly any time is wasted on pointless filler with the obligatory young couple (Keyes and Bennett). Luckily, Karloff does a fine job, even though the part hardly stretches his acting range: he does his usual soft spoken old sweetheart, spiced up with a few instances of his usual silent, wide-eyed lunatic. The changing between these two personalities is something Karloff pulls off expertly, but there’s nothing in Before I Hang that we haven’t seen him do in other films. Furthermore it seems that he, at only fifty-three, no longer wanted to do anything physically demanding, a conclusion I draw from the absence of the convulsion scene and the very obvious fact that he’s replaced by a very obvious stunt man in his one big fight.

Before I Hang is cliché handled with intelligence and dignity, as well as a generous helping of good old craftsmanship, and it’s a very watchable film, one of the best of Karloff’s lesser known efforts.

Rating: 7 of 10.

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Film review: Asphalt (1929)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Joe May. Writers: Fred Majo (Joe May), Hans Székely, Rolf E. Vanloo. Starring: Gustav Fröhlich, Betty Amann, Albert Steinrück, Else Heller, Hans Adalbert Schlettow, Rosa Valetti.

Conscientious young constable Albert Holk (Frölich) manfully intervenes in a minor jewel store theft, but is soon seduced by the beautiful thief Else (Amann) and reduced to an abject state of love, hate and remorse.

As a sort of proto-noir, I do find Asphalt quite interesting in the way it lays out many of the noir staples, such as an honest man being lured into crime by a wily femme fatale. Like many prototypes and pioneer efforts, however, this film isn’t the best example of its genre.

The first half hour is all but interminable as Else cries and cries and cries, mainly during a car ride that seems to take forever. Once she has finally manipulated Albert into taking her to her apartment rather than the police station, the story finally gets going, and remains uncomplicated but engaging the rest of the way through.

There are some wrinkles to the tale, but little in the way of the twists and convolutions typical of this kind of thriller. The movie plods along over an obstacle course of intense emotion (although Heller is the only actor guilty of “silent movie acting”), deception and a bit of violence. Asphalt is vaguely reminiscent of Der Blaue Engel in the way its male protagonist deteriorates under the hand of a seductive woman, but Der Blaue Engel is much more gripping on every level.

The psychology is more interesting than the story beats themselves. Else is hardly a subtle manipulator, and one must assume that Albert, being taken in by her transparent lies, must be extremely gullible (not unlikely for a young, idealistic man still living with his parents) and in fact does most of the work deceiving himself, seeing in Else what he wants to see: a young woman driven to theft by desperate circumstances, whereas in reality she has no pressing need to commit her crimes.

Probably the best thing about Asphalt is its visuals. From thronging people and traffic in the streets to chiaroscuro corridors with alternating shadow and light, there’s always something fresh to look at which heightens the atmosphere in each scene. The script and Günther Rittau’s cinematography work splendidly together on a number of highly intelligent shots that foreshadow the ending, and others which contrast Albert’s and Else’s post-coital reactions: she’s shown in her bed with a sated, cat-like look on her face, whereas Albert is seen in his bed being highly distraught and ashamed by his actions. In other scenes, the camera is very active: following, searching, almost inquiring into the locations where it finds itself.

I wish that Asphalt had more thriller tension, because as it is, it’s a film to look at rather than watch: it has all kinds of pleasing visual splendors to convey, but it lacks urgency and originality in the narrative at its core. It’s a drama that’s not dramatic enough, and I think some tighter editing would have been enough to increase suspense and emotional investment, because many shots linger for so long that they lose their potency.

Asphalt  is a decent thriller drama that may be too typical for its own good, but still provides a feast for the eyes.

Rating:  6 of 10.

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Little Lee to All Appearances

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by Mistlake

Little Lee to All Appearances

1

I didn’t know the guy all that well, so I can’t really tell his story, only what I’ve perceived of it. That, to my mind, is quite intriguing enough to get on with.

His name was Lee, and quite a few people called him Little Lee, with good reason. He was short, but no weakling. He was in fact stout and barrel-chested and looked quite fit, sporting a fierce little face surrounded by closely cropped hair which he sometimes shaved off altogether, and an amazingly long, thin strip of blond beard. This facial hair made him look like a miniature Viking warrior, or one of Tolkien’s Dwarves. He loved the latter, probably because they gave him some precedent for small people being tough as nails.

And tough he was, at least tolerably so. He was a security guard, mainly transporting money hither and yon, and you don’t get to do that kind of work unless there are some grounds for believing that you can handle yourself. The fact that he had this job was, however, more than a little ironic, but I’ll get to that.

My pal Rick had known Lee forever, and they were thick as thieves, and a while after Rick and I became friends, he introduced Lee to our little circle. He didn’t show up often, but he had a fine sense of humour and was as opinionated as the rest of us, so he was good fun and always welcome whenever he decided to join us.

He was rather original, one could say eccentric. One of the first things he told us was how he was more addicted to caffeine than anyone he knew, to the point that he sometimes woke up at night and had to have a couple of cups of coffee in order to go back to sleep. This kind of reaction to stimulants is something I associate with bipolar disorder, but I never saw any signs of it in Lee.

Other things I could observe first hand, like the way he would bring his “crafts” to our gatherings: he would sit there chatting while using small tools to fasten one metal link to another to create chainmail coifs, the kind medieval knights would wear under their helmets. He said a full chain shirt would be too much work, but he would happily toil away at the coifs, gaining in skill and dexterity as time went on.

Then there was his surprising lack of cynicism. He was full of bluster and loved talking tough about what he would do to anyone messing with him, using a big, defiant voice that to me always came across as an act. And I do believe it was, because the mildness and sense of right and wrong would readily come to the surface at a moment’s notice. My friends and I had a brutal jargon, and when I was once enthusing over the usefulness of little old ladies for determining whether or not a wire fence was electrified, Lee went all stony-faced and used his gruff voice to tell me in no uncertain terms that such things weren’t funny and that I should have more decency. I got a little annoyed – I was only joking, and he was behaving as though I was tossing an actual little old lady at an actual electric fence – but in the end we both let go of it, and now I find this side of Lee rather endearing.

By the sheerest coincidence it wasn’t long before the company Lee worked for took over the money transports for the store where I worked, which meant we saw more of each other. Before even appearing from the elevator at my job, he would boom “Experience Points!” (that’s a video game thing if you don’t now) to let me know he was there, and while conducting his business he would regale me and anyone else in the back office with stories. One of my co-workers, a little old lady (whom I had never once thrown at an electric fence), all but choked on her tea when Lee told us how the food dye in a soft drink had turned his tongue blue so that he looked like he’d just given “an oral orgasm to a Smurf”.

Sometimes at work he would have time to go outside for a smoke, and then he would usually be more serious. He would talk about the dogs he and his girlfriend Liza bred. Later on, I got to meet a couple of them, and they gave truth to the adage “like master, like dog”: they were vicious-looking little furry crocodiles who couldn’t have been friendlier. During those smokes, Lee would also talk about Rick and the way he was in a rather hopeless living situation due to financial troubles which had in part been caused by Rick’s and Lee’s friend Keith, who had been rather reckless in his youth. Here too, Lee’s humanity would shine through, his empathy for Rick equaling and surpassing mine in soft, pensive comments that I found quite touching.

Lee had problems of his own, of course, as we all do, although his main one was, like most things about him, rather odd. One day he told me, as a continuation of the talk about Rick’s money trouble, that his, Lee’s, job represented a conflict of interest, by which I took him too mean that as a security guard he represented, to some extent, law and order and was expected to behave in a certain way even on his own time. He didn’t. It turned out, and this was the first I’d heard of it, that he was a member of a biker gang. Not one of the really bad ones, but one fond of causing a bit of a ruckus which sometimes necessitated the intervention of the police. Lee’s employers had evidently had a talk with him about this behaviour, even though nothing had come of it as of yet. I’ll admit to being a bit surprised. For all his bluster and gruffness, I had a hard time picturing Lee as a serious hell raiser, but he was adamant about the whole thing being a real dilemma, and insisted that if he’d been able to afford it, he would have quit his job immediately out of loyalty to his gang. I tried to sound like I understood completely, whereas in reality I had no idea what to make of such strange allegiances.

2

When you get beaten up at a biker club, I think you’re well within your rights to demand to at least be beaten up by the actual bikers. That’s no more than a reasonable expectation, after all. My life often has a sense of the surreal, however, so when I got my ass handed to me at a biker club, it was by a rather random individual with mental issues and an inability to hold his liquor, an individual who like myself was merely a guest at the club and had no connection to it. To cap off the absurdity, and in direct opposition to the reasonable expectations quoted above, the bikers then expelled me from the premises for disturbing the peace. OK, so they were a little rough when getting rid of me, but on the whole they were disappointingly civilized about it all.

I hadn’t really wanted to go to the party. I’m a bit of a chicken, and Rick’s enthusiastic gushings about “biker club” and “lots of booze” rang a warning bell or two in my head, but it was his thirty-fifth birthday, and Lee had gone to some trouble arranging the party for him at the club, so I thought I’d better put in an appearance. I’m sure I also thought “what’s the worst that could happen?”.

Lee and a few other club members acted as security, and the rural red-and-white wood building was by some miles too cute to be the headquarters of a mean band of road ruffians, so I was lulled into a false sense of security. There were too many people for my taste, but for Rick’s sake I was happy about the turnout, and I got a chance to talk to him, Lee and their by now reformed friend Keith, all of whom were affable and brilliantly entertaining people. I got drunk, much like everyone else, and struck up a conversation with the mentally troubled individual I touched upon earlier (I have no idea how Rick knew a psycho like that, but there he was), and within another hour or so I was on a train home, nurturing a few cracked ribs and a profusely bleeding, equally cracked nose, not to mention a pair of knees that wouldn’t work properly again for a couple of years. But this isn’t my story, and I mention this violent incident only because it was the precursor to the last time I saw Lee for half a decade.

3

It was a couple of weeks after the delightful bash (ambiguity of expression fully intended), and I was sufficiently recovered to make my way to Rick’s for an evening of drinks and banter. Upon arrival I was surprised at seeing Lee present, his demeanour halfway between his usual brusqueness and a delicate embarrassment which he clearly didn’t know what to do with. I acted weirdly myself, putting on a deeply uncharacteristic chirpiness which told the world that being beaten into a pulp of meat and bone fragments had certainly had no emotional effect on me.

Needless to say, the general mood in Rick’s living room was a bit awkward for a while, before Lee, his mighty chest expanding with a large intake of air, told me that he blamed himself for the misunderstanding, and that it had come to his knowledge that I had in fact not been the instigator of the fight, and that he was sorry they had ejected me rather than my assailant.

You must understand that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me. The number of times anyone has apologized to me for … well, anything, I can easily count on … no, I can’t, because like I said, that doesn’t happen to me. It was a grand thing, and I found myself almost tearing up, a reaction that was made even harder to contain when Rick said he had called up the psycho and told him they were no longer friends and that he could go to hell. That’s the quality of friends I had back then, and I did love them for it.

Lee didn’t stay long, and when he left, I got the distinct impression that he had heard I would be there that day, and had turned up only to deliver his apology in person. Lovely thing, but I had no way of knowing that this was the last proper conversation I was to have with him. In fact, after this I only saw him once more.

4

“I think I’ve lost Little Lee”, Rick said, genuine sadness in his eyes.

I thought it a rather melodramatic utterance both in wording and content, but we were a little bit tipsy, so some of that was to be expected.

“How’s that?” I asked, becoming aware as I spoke that I hadn’t actually seen Lee myself for a couple of months, whereas he normally showed up at the store once a week or so.

“He’s not returning my phone calls or texts”, Rick elucidated, “and I can’t get hold of Liza either.”

I’d had Liza on Facebook for a while (Lee didn’t partake) until I’d grown tired of her posting twenty pictures a day of her bleedin’ crocodile dogs. Lee had emphatically stated that he did not want any children – I guess that’s why she got obsessed with the whole dog thing.

Rick went on to say that he hadn’t been able to get in contact with Lee for months, and I did grant this to be a peculiar thing. Rick, Lee and Keith were childhood buddies and had gone through all kinds of crap together. For Lee to suddenly break off contact after all these years was just this side of unthinkable. I asked whether Rick had any idea what the reason might be.

“I may have slept with Liza”, he said sheepishly.

Yeah, I’d heard that story before. Apparently there had been a party where much alcohol had been imbibed and many memories blacked out. The morning after, Rick and Liza had awoken in the same bed, mostly clothed but with no recollection of what, if anything, had transpired the previous night. Depending on your mindset, this kind of event – or more likely non-event – might be enough for someone to wish no more to do with an old friend, but even if Lee had been the type to dismiss Rick due to this, and I don’t think he was, there was still the fact that it had occurred years ago and that Lee had been aware of it for most of that time. Why would he be on chummy terms with Rick all that time and then suddenly decide to shut him out? It made no sense, and I told Rick so. He agreed, but said he had racked his brains and been unable to come up with any other reason for Lee’s behaviour.

I did think it strange myself, but the only additional information Rick could provide was that nothing had befallen Lee; Keith had seen him several times on the town during these silent months.

Lee and I weren’t close, and we never spent any time on our own, apart from his brief visits to the store, so I won’t pretend that I lost any sleep over his disappearance from our lives. But I did wonder, and was reminded every so often when Rick would bring it up, sounding more forlorn and bewildered each time. As things turned out, I eventually got an explanation. Rick never did.

5

Four years later Rick dropped dead from an aneurysm, the sort of thing you think only happens in the movies. For various reasons the funeral had been delayed, so I’d had time to go through a couple of phases of grieving, but on the day of the burial, I was mostly just feeling numb and depressed. Despite my preoccupation with the enormous void left by Rick, there was a curious tingle at the back of my head as I wondered if by any chance Little Lee would see fit to turn up. It was hardly the foremost thing on my mind, but it was persistent and wouldn’t go away.

The funeral was on a bright day in early September, and as I walked up the asphalt path among well-tended lawns, I could clearly see a gathering of familiar and unfamiliar figures around the stone stairs outside the non-denominational chapel. One of them was Keith, standing out, being at least as big a guy as Rick had been, and lo and behold, he was talking to a small, compact figure who could only be Little Lee.

Approaching, I noticed that Lee was chatting in his accustomed way, covered in that thick veneer of crusty cockiness that I’d never quite believed in. He seemed perfectly at his ease, as if there were no questions in Keith’s mind regarding the reasons for his absence of several years. When Lee noticed my presence, he behaved pretty much the same way towards me, greeting me as if we’d seen each other only yesterday.

Not only did he behave as usual, he looked basically the same as well: hair closely cropped, long strip of beard twisting and fluttering in the mild wind, face that of a self-assured fighting dog. The only real difference to his appearance was his clothes. He was wearing a nice, crisp white shirt instead of his usual denim and leather attire, and this was of course hardly unexpected in view of the event at hand. I was rather bemused, though, to see the incongruous thing he was wearing on top of the shirt: a thick denim vest that made him look even stockier.

I didn’t need to see the back of the vest to understand that it was one of those biker gang things that say “Fire Demons” or “Hell Blazers” or something of similar unoriginality, the kind of things worn by members at all opportunities, since they were always expected to “represent” the gang. I didn’t react much to Lee’s getup, except inasmuch that I thought the combination of biker vest and dress shirt rather comedic. I was, like I said, rather numb, and there was something more important poking at my mind than Lee’s dress sense: I wanted to ask him why he had abandoned Rick.

I didn’t ask. I think my reasons for this were fairly good. While I did exchange some news and low-key jokes with Lee outside the chapel, I really wasn’t in any shape to initiate a serious, potentially hostile discussion – I was simply too sad and tired. My other reason was more rational, and would have been rather clever if it had worked out. The thing was that Rick had mentioned that if he were to die, he wanted his friends to have one hell of a party in his memory. Rick’s fiancée, who was already tottering under her grief and all the chores and all the bickering with relatives, had reluctantly arranged for what she regarded as Rick’s last wish, so the day after the funeral there was indeed to be one hell of a party in her and Rick’s apartment. I cunningly thought that asking Lee about his disappearance and non-contact would be far easier at the party, where we could get away from other people and fuel our conversational courage with generous libations.

Having resolved to proceed accordingly, a certain apprehensive gnawing disappeared from my belly; one I hadn’t even known was there until it went away. Clearly, I had subconsciously embellished the question of Rick and Lee with an importance that perhaps it didn’t deserve, as if it was part of Rick’s estate, an unfinished bit of business that I needed to clear up on his behalf.

On the chapel steps, Lee told us of his trip there. He had of course travelled by motorcycle, and had been pulled over for speeding. I couldn’t help but notice from his story that he must be known to the cops, since according to him they had commented snidely that he was looking unusually dapper today. He recounted his response in that tough guy voice he favoured: “Yeah, you usually dress for an occasion like a funeral”. This comment and his explanation of it, that he was going to pay his last respects to an old friend, had made the cops let him go without fining him. The story interested my currently vague, anesthetized mind. Lee was giving lip to policemen now? Policemen who knew him at least by sight?

During his recital of this little anecdote he was all bravado, the side of him that I had always found a little amusing and just a teensy bit annoying, but when he asked why certain other friends of Rick’s and mine weren’t present, I told him they’d been in an accident and was in the hospital, whereupon that other part of him emerged, all empathy for and worried questions about people he arguably didn’t know well and definitely hadn’t seen for years.

The funeral was what it was, and is a story for another day. Afterwards, Lee left rather abruptly on his bike, and I was in no state to spend much energy thinking about him.

6

I should have known Lee wouldn’t come to the party. Just like he had appeared at Rick’s place only to apologise to me for the biker club incident, he had gone to the funeral only for the specific purpose of paying his respects; he had no intention of reinitiating contact with any of us.

Rick’s apartment was crowded, something I have a hard time handling, but which in this particular instance I found comforting, since I liked the idea of so many people caring enough about Rick to turn out for his farewell binge.

And a binge it was. Rick had left his fiancée with an ample stock of rum, which she insisted we empty before the night was out. I usually don’t drink hard liquor these days, so I got thoroughly blitzed and still to this day don’t remember the last couple of hours we spent at the party. The earlier parts I recollect with all the more clarity. As the alcohol made people relax there was a lot of conversation about Rick from all kinds of people who had known him, and to me that was rather cathartic.

Perhaps naturally, I eventually gravitated towards Keith. He was Rick’s oldest friend and had the same kind of teddy bear cordiality. In the midst of a series of anecdotes about Rick out on the balcony, my consumption of rum obviously reached the perfect point, for all of a sudden I thought it the most natural thing in the world to ask Keith about Little Lee. I told him how distraught Rick had been over Lee’s inexplicable desertion, his agonising over the reasons for it, and the story about Rick’s maybe-maybe-not encounter with Liza.

Keith was just drunk enough to have that delightful twinkle in his eye that reminded me of Rick, which meant he was willing to take most things in his stride, strange as it may have seemed to him that I brought up this subject all of a sudden. Perhaps he was flattered to be asked his opinion, because he gave his words on the matter a serious attention quite different from the gregarious reminiscences he’d been spouting thus far.

Like me, he discarded out of hand that the Liza story would have had anything to do with Lee’s decisions. Instead, he told me things I didn’t know and which, more importantly, he apparently hadn’t told Rick, for whatever reason.

I hadn’t bothered reading the back of Lee’s vest at the funeral. Had I done so, I would have found that the name written there was that of a different biker club from the one where I’d had my head bashed in. That gang had been a bunch of rowdy motorcycle enthusiasts playing at being the real thing, that much I knew. The one that Lee had left them for was an actual, honest to goodness hanger-on group intimately connected with one of the big, infamous criminal biker gangs, one of those outfits who hope to one day be taken up into the main gang as full members. Lee had, then, gone from pretending to be an outlaw to actually becoming one.

Keith’s supposition was that this new gang had made certain demands on Lee. That would explain the fact that, as Keith told me, Lee was no longer living with Liza (whether they still had any kind of relationship I do not know, nor whether he still had his old job), and that he had broken off contact with all his old friends outside of the gang. From what Keith had heard from Liza, Lee spent most of his time living at the new club, which seemed to have in its statutes that at least one member must always stay in the building as a custodian and guard.

To me it all sounded rather sect-like, and it did make all kinds of sense in view of Lee’s vanishing act and his refusal to even grant Rick an explanation. My reaction to Keith’s information was a mixture of two parts: one was a species of elated revelation when I finally, after several years, received enlightenment, and one was a permeating, deep sense of sadness.

The party went on, within deepening alcoholic fogs. While I’m not proud of how drunk I got, I still appreciate the fact that I had such a complete blackout that I can’t remember leaving Rick’s apartment for the very last time. In some weird way, that makes me feel like I can deny the fact that I ever left, and that Rick’s and my friendship is a thing of the past.

7

So what’s my take on this whole Little Lee business? I must repeat that I didn’t know the guy very well, but sometimes a wealth of knowledge about someone can obscure the pertinent facts about them, so perhaps I am, after all, in a fairly good position to have an opinion.

It’s my belief that Lee, like a lot of more or less odd people, had been searching his whole life for belonging, for a group of people with whom he could fit in. He had an image of himself, a kind of persona he’d developed over the years, and in the end he was happy to find somewhere to belong which corresponded to the needs and wants of that persona. Does it correspond to the needs and wants of who he really is underneath all that external show? I don’t know, although I have my thoughts about that. And I have this niggling feeling that there’s more to those chain coifs than I have been able to work out.

TV series review: House of Cards, season 3 (2015)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2015 by Mistlake

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Created by: Beau Willimon, based ever more theoretically on the novels by Michael Dobbs and the mini-series by Andrew Davies. Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Eliabeth Marvel, Lars Mikkelsen, Mahershala Ali, Molly Parker, Paul Sparks.

President Walker having stepped down, VP Francis Underwood (Spacey) becomes president by default, but he has designs on actually being elected for next term, and as part of that intention and in order to be remembered as a great president, he instigates a couple of grand initiatives. These blow up in his face, much like his deteriorating marriage to Claire (Wright).

Here’s the season where this show quietly tip-toes away from its original inspiration, the British House of Cards, towards its new one, The West Wing. Once he has shed his gleefully vicious House of Cards mask, we see Underwood turning into a relatively benign uncle whose main flaws are an adamant desire to remain president, and taking his wife and her talents for granted.

I have complained in the past of how the politicians on this show seemingly have little else to do than plot against one another, but this season that has certainly changed: Underwood is all work and no play, leaving the demented intrigues to his former Chief of Staff, the by now rather unhinged Doug Stamper (Kelly), and to Russian president Viktor Petrov (Mikkelsen).

Stamper being willing to do very nasty things to get back in Underwood’s good graces is one of two enduring elements making this season feel like House of Cards, the other one being Mikkelsen’s devastatingly magnetic performance as the Putin-like Petrov, which adds the otherwise sorely missed dash of “high ranking psychopath” flavour Underwood himself fails to provide. In fact, Petrov is more like Underwood than Underwood himself this time around, even running circles around him in the scheming department. Underwood is quite fangless here, twice saying to the audience that he would kill someone “if not for the fact that” – the old Underwood would have found a way to actually kill them and get away with it instead of just making idle threats. Petrov is left to provide the dark fun, then, but his story peters out eventually to no great effect. At least Stamper’s narrative, though a tad too protracted, ultimately furnishes the season’s high note of unpleasantness.

Primarily, the third season focuses on the Underwoods’ marriage and the preparations for the forthcoming presidential race, which will no doubt be front and centre next season. Claire being as enigmatic and contradictory as ever is both interesting and annoying, but either way, her gradually formulated conclusions about her relationship with Francis contribute some sort of backbone to a season which in most other ways is all over the place.

As for the campaigning, it includes some dark dealings which in the end go nowhere, and by and large it seems neither more nor less dirty than any real world American presidential run. It is fun, however, seeing Underwood’s rival for the Democratic nomination, highly idealistic Heather Dunbar (Marvel), by and by lowering herself into utilizing the Underwood brand of slimy underhandedness. Again, however, this shows us another character doing the sort of thing we’re really expecting from Underwood himself.

With the main character having lost most of his edge, finely portrayed though he is by Spacey, and turned into an almost bumbling figure, House of Cards feels on the verge of toppling, because tolerably written as it is, it’s too lightweight to have any hope of being the new West Wing. My hope, then, is that it will leave the recent bright lights of regular ol’ politics and return to the creepy shadows of proper House of Cards entertainment.

On the whole, season 3 appears as one big setup for a probably more interesting fourth season, and that is a bit of a problem, because House of Cards is a lot like Santa Claus: it delivers its presents on only one day of the year, which means they’d better be good, since there’s a year’s wait until next time, and no one wants Santa to arrive only with a promissory note of better gifts next Christmas.

Rating: 6 of 10.

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TV series review: Agent Carter (2015)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2015 by Mistlake

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Created by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, loosely based on various sort-of-related comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and others. Starring: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Dominic Cooper, Enver Gjokaj, Shea Whigham, Bridget Regan, Ralph Brown, Neal McDonough, Ray Wise.

This review contains some spoilers.

Following her distinguished service in World War II, Peggy Carter (Atwell) joins intelligence agency the SSR, where she’s treated disrespectfully due to being a woman. When industrialist Howard Stark (Cooper) asks her for help clearing his name from accusations of treason, she gets the chance to show herself equal or superior to her colleagues, but the dangers are vast, since sinister forces are after the powerful inventions stolen from Stark’s secret vault.

Agent Carter serves up much to like. The beautifully realised 1940s setting permeates everything from set construction and costume to lighting and music, making the show look like a noir film, if those had been shot in rich colours. The feminist angle is interesting too, showing from a woman’s perspective just how oppressive and restrictive the “man’s world” of most of the 20th century was compared to today. The writing is competent as well, certainly a couple of notches above Agent Carter’s “parent show” Agents of SHIELD, and there are several memorable characters, including Carter herself, confidently and convincingly played by Atwell.

But although it oozes quality and has a decent mystery story at the centre of its espionage/sabotage concept, it seems to me that the creators of the show should have dialed everything up a little. For example, the dialogue is good, but could have been great, especially in the often humorous interactions between Carter and Stark’s butler-cum-adventurer Jarvis (D’Arcy). The action sequences have oomph and showcase just how powerful a fighter Carter is, but they’re seldom all that outstanding, except one or two featuring “Dottie” (Regan). The mystery is good, but the revelations it offers are warm rather than blistering hot. The show takes place within the Marvel Universe, which it uses competently but without that whizz-bang punch of recognition and amazing connections that could have been there (for instance, they put none less than Ray Wise in charge of sinister Marvel oil company Roxxon, but nothing comes of this plot strand). All of this decent capability gradually grows frustrating and paradoxically disappointing – the show turns out merely good when it initially promised greatness.

The Marvel Comics connections are rich and its elements well chosen: apart from Roxxon Oil, we get to meet the Howling Commandos, Tony Stark’s father Howard, Jarvis the butler, Doctor Faustus (although not named as such in the show), a surprise finale cameo, and a precursor to the Black Widow, among other elements large and small. All of this is well done, whereas the previously established link between Carter and Captain America is less elegantly utilised, and seems to be there A) because it’s expected (Carter and the Captain had a relationship in the first Captain America movie), and B) as a red herring.

Where Captain Carter wins is in its expertly balanced tone, somewhere between early James Bond comedic suavity and more austere cold war thrillers, all spread like custard over a world that seems almost like ours … except when it happily gallops into comic book science fiction. It is, I dare say, the very tone Agents of SHIELD was initially going for but failed to reach. As a consequence of this ambience, Agent Carter is fun virtually all the time and keeps you dashing madly along with Carter in her adventures even when your brain’s buzzkill centre keeps telling you “they could have done more with this” or “that wasn’t very clever, was it?” and so on. Fun is, just like in the comics, the whole raison d’être for something like Agent Carter, and in that regard it delivers continuously. We could have used a stronger season finale, some dialogue sharpening and perhaps a less harebrained endgame from the main villain, but this show still sends the pulse pounding, the Marvel reference-o-meter pinging and the old sense of adventure soaring. Not great, but quite, quite good.

Rating: 7 of 10.

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Film review: Birdman (2014)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu. Writers: Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo. Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough.

Down on his luck former movie star Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is trying to revitalize his career and prove he can be more than Hollywood superhero Birdman. To do this, he adapts a Raymond (Short Cuts) Carver book for the stage for himself to star in, but his coworkers, notably volatile Broadway actor Mike Shiner (Norton) and the women in his life, keep causing him trouble. And he is still haunted by a crass, foulmouthed version of the hero he used to play.

With its long, continuous shots and literate dialogue, Birdman feels more like a highly visual stage play than a Hollywood movie, and that is of course eminently suited to the story. Above everything else, this is a character study, focusing on Riggan but giving ample spotlight to the other people in his life as well. It’s detailed, beautiful material, equal parts agonizing and belly laugh funny. There’s also a strong streak of bleak poetry running through both dialogue and visuals, creating a world space that is at once limited to the Saint James Theatre, and encompasses a wide vista of imagination and magical realism.

Riggan must have been written specifically for Keaton, of course, since he has the perfect baggage for the part: he had early success as Batman (Riggan last played Birdman in 1992, the same year Keaton made his last Batman film, Batman Returns) and subsequently a career slump which I predict will end thanks to Birdman. I was never very fond of Keaton for one reason or another, but here he is simply magnificent, pulling out everything he has to give this broken but still fighting man so much blood, guts and sweat that one becomes transfixed by his ordeals.

The supporting cast is excellent, too, with Norton also playing someone close to himself, or at least to the public perception of him as a “difficult” actor. Stone gets more to work with than I’ve ever seen her get before, in the juicy part of Riggan’s cynical former drug addict daughter.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is knowingly sordid, all the characters being damaged and afflicted, doubting and fearful, and so it may not sound like a lot of fun, but it is. I don’t know when I laughed so much watching a drama film, and the dark humour tells us a great deal about the people we are watching, like when Riggan jealously turns off a broadcast detailing Robert Downey Jr.’s success as Iron Man; Riggan doesn’t want to be Birdman anymore, but it annoys him that others have successfully followed in his footsteps and, as it were, taken his crown.

The movie might be five or ten minutes longer than it needs to be, and the drums-only score started to bug me after a while, but this aside, Birdman is a splendid, profound film that digs deep into its characters while commenting wittily on the superficial obsessions and trends which preoccupy the human species. And it feels original – how often does that happen?

Rating: 9 of 10.

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