book: These Violent Delights (2012) by Sharon Linnea

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Because I’ve spent part of my professional life writing about movies, I have a fascination for novels that have the cinema or moviemaking as a backdrop. When I spotted These Violent Delights for sale a few months ago I therefore snapped it up: a murder mystery set in and around the making of a classic movie, what larks!

Twenty years ago young Anastasia Day was plucked out of nowhere to star as Isolde in hotshot director Pierce Hall’s screen adaptation of the Tristan and Isolde legend. Since then she’s known love and tragedy, and has become an agoraphobe subject to panic attacks. When plans are announced for a twentieth-anniversary rerelease of the movie and everyone seems to want to rope recently widowed Anastasia into them, she begins to realize that far too many of the cast and crew seem to have shuffled off this mortal coil under curious circumstances. Could someone be conducting a vendetta against the participants in the movie?

Well, of course they could.

With a small group of surviving friends from the original production whom she trusts — or can she? — Anastasia sets about Continue reading

book: X (2015) by Sue Grafton

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It’s 1989 and series PI Kinsey Millhone works on three cases alongside each other, all of them pro bono, and in so doing discovers that an opinion she’s held about someone for years was in fact misplaced.

The most significant of the three cases concerns a man who has obviously behaved appallingly throughout his life and who, as Kinsey teases out more evidence, seems to have been — still indeed be — a serial killer. Then there’s the matter of a divorcing wife who wants, as one last piece of revenge, to swipe from under her husband’s nose the Turner painting he doesn’t realize he owns. And finally there’s the problem of Kinsey’s new neighbors, who seem to be something other than what they’d like the world to believe they are.

Of course, we expect that eventually Kinsey will discover Continue reading

Don’t Answer the Phone! (1980)

US / 95 minutes / color / Hammer–Castle, Scorpion, Crown International Dir: Robert Hammer Pr & Scr: Robert Hammer, Michael D. Castle Story: Nightline (seemingly unpublished) by Michael Curtis Cine: James Carter Cast: Flo Gerrish (i.e., Flo Lawrence), James Westmoreland, Ben Frank, Nicholas Worth, Denise Galik, Stan Haze, Gary Allen, Michael D. Castle, Pamela Bryant, Dale Kalberg, Paula Warner, Gail Jensen, Susanne Severeid, Tom Lasswell, Chris Wallace, Victor Mohica, Corinne Cook, Joyce Ann Jodan (apparently sic), Chuck Mitchell.

A movie that was in its day something of a sensation, its VHS incarnation being a peripheral player in the UK’s Video Nasty furor. Viewing it today, this seems something of an overreaction, and even at the time there were plenty of nastier, more violent and more nudity-packed videos around—some of them coming from recognized studios and being reviewed by the cognoscenti. This isn’t to offer an apologia for Don’t Answer the Phone!: it’s a thoroughly reprehensible movie that leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. It’s maybe for exactly this reason that it has gained a minor cult following.

Flo Gerrish as Lindsay

Los Angeles is being terrorized by serial sex killer Kirk Smith (Worth), a delusional Vietnam vet, amateur bodybuilder, commercial photographer—both mainstream and porn—and general all-around psychopath prone to chatting to his dead father, to God and, on the call-in lines and using a cod-Hispanic accent, to the regular radio phone-in show hosted by local psychologist Dr. Lindsay Gale (Gerrish), whose professional hackles are raised by the symptoms described by “Ramón.”

Nicholas Worth as Kirk

The first murder we see is of the fifth known victim of the killer the cops and media have imaginatively nicknamed The Strangler. She’s a nurse called Dory (Kalberg), and is in fact the only one to be attacked having just answered the phone. Quite how the movie came to have the title it has is anyone’s guess.

When Smith kills one of Lindsay’s patients, Continue reading

book: The Little Stranger (2009) by Sarah Waters

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A few years ago I read Waters’s The Paying Guests and, while I was in many ways impressed, I didn’t actually love the book. It was beautifully written but didn’t seem to me to deliver what it should for a novel of such prodigious length. Waters, I thought, was an author I ought to keep an eye out for, but only lackadaisically so.

My opinions, dear reader, have changed.

It’s 1947, somewhere in Warwickshire in England’s northish west, and middle-aged Dr. Faraday is called to the local manor, Hundreds Hall, to help the surviving members of the Ayres family. It’s not the first time he’s been there: as a child he was sneaked into the place by his mother, who’d once spent several years as a servant to the Ayreses.

Terrible things begin to happen in Hundreds Hall. A visiting child has Continue reading

The Stick Up (1977)

US / 101 minutes / color / Backstage Productions, Trident–Barber Dir & Scr: Jeffrey Bloom Pr: George Pappas, Arnon Milchan (uncredited) Cine: Michael Reed Cast: David Soul, Pamela McMyler, Johnny Wade, Michael Balfour, Tony Melody, Norman Jones, Gordon Gostelow, Connie Vascott, David King, Leslie Hardy, Glynn Edwards, Robert Longden, Cyd Child, Liz Smith, Pat Durkin, Alan Tilvern, Mike McKenzie.

According to Arnon Milchan’s biographers Meir Doron and Joseph Gelman, in their Confidential: The Life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon—Arnon Milchan (2011), fledgling producer Milchan was so appalled by this movie that he demanded his name be removed from the credits. Watching The Stick Up today, this seems something of an overreaction. The movie’s no world-beater, but it’s an amiable enough crime comedy. It has something of the picaresque feel to it of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973), although with less of the ambition (or, some would say, pretentiousness), less of the social satire and, mercifully, considerably fewer minutes of running time.

Pamela McMyler as Rosie

It’s 1935, the time of George V’s Silver Jubilee, and American wannabe gangster Duke Turnbeau (Soul) is traveling by car through Devon on his way to London and his very first armored car heist. Stopping at the roadside garage/café of Sam Turnwick (Balfour), he finds himself picked up by Irish waitress Rosie McCratchit (McMyler).

David Soul as Duke

Michael Balfour as Sam

Continue reading

book: Patrick Butler for the Defence (1956) by John Dickson Carr

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I was reading one of Curtis Evans’s excellently illuminating essays at The Passing Tramp the other day and noticed that he dismissed Patrick Butler for the Defence as among Carr’s relatively few stinkers:

Carr returned to the present with regrettable results. He brings back the odious Patrick Butler, one of those modern-day Carr characters who postures intolerably as if he’s stepped out of the seventeenth century, and throws in some of his most exasperating women, all of whom parade around in a miracle problem plot adulterated with extraneous matter.

I’ve come across similar comments elsewhere, and they’ve always rather puzzled me, because I’ve recalled thoroughly enjoying this novel. Mind you, as I mentioned to Curt in the comments, the last (and only) time I’d read the book was in the mid-1980s. He replied that it had been a long while since he’d read the book, too, and that he perhaps ought to give it a reread to see if his views had changed at all in the interim. This seemed good advice for me as well. Mirabile dictu, I was able to find my ancient battered Green Penguin, and down I sat.

And Continue reading

Blue Ruin (2013)

US, France / 90 minutes / color / filmscience, Neighborhood Watch, Lab of Madness, Paradise City, memento, RADiUS-TWC Dir & Scr & Cine: Jeremy Saulnier Pr: Anish Savjani, Richard Peete, Vincent Savino Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidné Anderson, Abby Horton, Bonnie Johnson, Sandy Barnett.

A rural neonoir of a quality that any Hollywood studio would be happy to brag about, this is not only an indie production but an indie production crowdfounded in part through Kickstarter. From such a description you might expect there to be something amateurish about the final product, but not so. There’s not a weak performance here, and there’s no failing on technical grounds. Little wonder Blue Ruin has received a bundle of accolades, such as the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, the Special Jury Award at Marrakech and a Top Ten listing by the USA’s National Board of Review; it’s a movie that’s seriously good.

Dwight (Blair) lives out of his car, subsisting by scavenging and petty theft, breaking into homes while the families are out so he can have the occasional bath.

Macon Blair as Dwight, before . . .

. . . and after

One day a friendly cop (Anderson) explains to him that Wade Cleland Jr (Barnett), the man convicted years ago of murdering Dwight’s parents, is about to be released from prison. Dwight, despite his habitual timidity and diffidence, Continue reading

book: Stinker from Space (1988) by Pamela F. Service

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Yes, it was of course the title that grabbed me. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Service’s work before — although long enough ago that I now can’t remember any details — but when I recently saw this one for sale I simply had to have it.

The story’s pretty simple. Tsynq Yr, an alien in flight from the evil empire, crashlands on earth. His mortal body is dying of its injuries, but luckily the people of his species have the ability to transfer their mind to a new body. He transfers into the body of the first intelligent creature to come his way . . . which just happens to be a skunk. Thereafter Tsynq Yr can’t initially understand why the dominant lifeforms on this novel planet tend to react to his approaches with . . . wariness.

Yet he manages to make friends with Continue reading

book: Easter Island (2003) by Jennifer Vanderbes

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A beautifully written and genuinely fascinating novel that loosely interweaves two stories, set in different time periods, of women scientists coming to Easter Island, one of the most remote spots on the planet, and there managing to overcome the sexist prejudices of their day and establish themselves as independent individuals. While following their stories, we pick up along the way lots of juicy bits of information about sciences like botany, paleobotany, linguistics (did you know that Easter Island was one of only five locales where humanity invented written language, the others being China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Mexico?), palynology (the study of small particles in nature, in this instance of pollen) and biogeography, not to mention dollops of science history and a plausible explanation of one of history’s great mysteries. I’ve probably missed a few of the sciences the narrative touches on.

The first story is that of Elsa Beazley, recently married to a much older husband because it’s the only way she can think of to protect her intellectually challenged younger sister from the attentions of the eugenicists, then enjoying a political vogue in the UK. Easter Island seems the perfect refuge for Elsa, a place where she can Continue reading

Blackhat (2015)

US / 133 minutes / color / Legendary, Forward Pass, Universal Dir: Michael Mann Pr: Thomas Tull, Michael Mann, Jon Jashni Scr: Morgan Davis Foehl Cine: Stuart Dryburgh Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis, Ritchie Coster, Holt McCallany, John Ortiz, Yorick van Wageningen, Wang Leehom, Christian Borle, Jason Butler Harner, Spencer Garrett, Andy On, Danny Burstein, Archie Kao, Abhi Sinha, Manny Montana, Liang Shi, Kan Mok, Kirt Kishita.

Michael Mann’s movies can sometimes suffer from impenetrable plotting, and indeed the plot of Blackhat is supremely complex, with a large cast of integral characters, yet I found it refreshingly lucid. It’s a technothriller in something approaching the William Gibson mode, although—as arguably befits a screen presentation—with the accent more on the thrill than (except perhaps visually) the techno. I gather this emphasis was even more exaggerated in the trailers, which portrayed Blackhat as essentially a hackneyed action movie; that marketing misstep has been blamed for the offering’s dire performance at the box office. For me, although I have some deep reservations about Blackhat (see below), I also found it compulsively watchable, as much because of its conceptual cleverness as anything else, shootemups and chases included.

Tang Wei as Lien

A hacker uses a type of code known as a remote access tool (RAT) to sabotage a nuclear power station in Hong Kong. Soon afterward, in the US, a variant of that same code is used to manipulate soy prices such that the hacker makes a hefty profit. The Chinese authorities, investigating the power-plant incident, put the matter in the hands of Captain Chen Dawai (Wang), a military cyberneticist who studied at MIT.

Dawai recognizes the basis of the code. He and his MIT roomie and best friend, Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth), devised it for fun many years ago. The hacker—the “blackhat”—must have found it online somewhere and downloaded it before adapting it for their own nefarious use.

Wang Leehom as Dawai

Dawai and Nick are thus the two ideally qualified individuals to spearhead the hunt for the malefactor. Trouble is, Nick’s serving a lengthy sentence for cybercrime . . .

You can guess the next bit. Dawai negotiates with the FBI’s Continue reading