Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review - "Doctor Who: Time of the Doctor"

Warning: Spoilers are coming...

"The Time of the Doctor" is the end of an era - Matt Smith's final episode as the Doctor. This is the day that fans of Smith's Eleventh Doctor (myself included) have dreaded. The question is, does "The Time of the Doctor" successfully wrap up Smith's tenure? Let's find out.

A mysterious signal is being projected to all corners of the universe from an unidentified planet, drawing in hundreds of alien ships. Also answering the call is the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). Arriving on the planet, the Doctor soon discovers that it is Trenzalore, the planet on which he will die. And the message is coming from the Time Lords - they're asking a question, a question which never be asked - Doctor who? In order to prevent the Time Lords' return, the Doctor's enemies, including the Daleks and the Cybermen have waged war upon the planet, and only the Doctor can save it - but at what cost?

"The Time of the Doctor" managed to pile a whole lot of plot into a sixty-minute Christmas special. While the above synopsis may seem confusing and drawn out, it does not even begin to explain away the complexities inherent in the episode. This is not to say that a complex story is bad, and in Steven Moffat's defense, everything is explained away and put to rights come the conclusion. Yet, his script suffers from some obvious padding. The beginning portion of the episode was obviously inserted for some cheap laughs, and the sub-plot about Clara hosting Christmas dinner for her family really doesn't go anywhere. Once the story moves to the planet of Trenzalore, the action picks up a bit.

Much was made in promotional material of the return of the Doctor's most famous enemies including Daleks, Cybermen and the Weeping Angels. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, these monsters only make fleeting appearances, especially the Weeping Angels. But, they make the most of their one scene and are as usual pretty creepy. One Cyberman (or part of one) turns up in the form of the Doctor's newest comrade, Handles, a disembodied Cyberman head. Bravo to Steven Moffat and Matt Smith for making us feel sympathetic for a head of steel.

Matt Smith makes his final bow as the Doctor
In terms of performance, Matt Smith does an excellent job, turning in one of his best performances. This time around, the part of the Doctor came with some added challenges as he ages into an old man serving as the protector of Trenzalore. Facing his own mortality, the Doctor is certain that he shall die on Trenzalore without regenerating, but is granted a new set of regenerations by the Time Lords. Matt Smith's performance was excellent, especially in his regeneration scene, and he's awarded one of the Doctor's greatest last lines: "I will always remember when the Doctor was me."

"The Time of the Doctor" has been pretty good up to this point - I have managed to let go of my favourite Doctor and then things suddenly went downhill. The regeneration happened so quickly that if you blinked you were liable to miss it. The viewer was suddenly confronted with the sight of a very confused-looking Peter Capaldi, who remarks on the colour of his new kidneys. I cannot possibly judge Capaldi's performance because he was on screen for less than a minute. In the past, we have at least gotten some indication of what the new Doctor will be like from their first few minutes on screen, but Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor remains an enigma. I cannot help but feel that if some of the episode's opening minutes had been trimmed or cut out, we would have had a much better regeneration scene.

"The Time of the Doctor" certainly had its ups and downs. Though it featured a brilliant performance from Matt Smith, it had a contrived opening and a lacklustre ending, which even the best performances from Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman could not elevate. Therefore, I give "The Time of the Doctor" 3.5 out of 5.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Lost Without my Boswell

Sherlock Holmes is probably the character we enjoy so much. We read the canon to read Holmes' brilliant deductions as he unravels baffling mysteries. Yet, Sherlock Holmes is only a part of a pair - a pair of the greatest literary creations of all time, and the pairing of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson certainly changed the mystery genre forever.

Sadly, Dr. Watson is overlooked nowadays. The narrator of almost all the canon stories is often left behind in all forms of media. Today, I want to right that wrong by taking a look at Dr. Watson and how he is just as important to the canon as the world's greatest detective. To start, I thought it would be best to examine Watson's role as story's narrator. Aside from four short stories, Dr. Watson is the main narrator of the original canon. His role as an observer and analyzer in part makes him what Holmes is. Both men keenly analyze a situation - in the detective's case it's a crime and in Watson's its the actions of his friend.

I will be blunt when I say that the stories in the canon which are not narrated by Watson fall rather flat. "The Mazarin Stone," which is narrated in the third-person has developed something of a reputation as one of the weakest short stories. "His Last Bow," again told in the third-person is slightly better. However, the stories which are told from Sherlock Holmes' own point of view are certainly curiosity of the canon and I don't think they rank highly on most people's list of favourite Sherlock Holmes stories.

What is best about Watson's narration is that he actually plays a part in the stories as well. The detective's assistant acting as storyteller certainly goes back to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." However, Poe's unnamed narrator really doesn't function as much of a character. Even detectives who emerged in Holmes and Watson's wake didn't pay a great deal of attention to the narrator. Case in point - the Philo Vance novels of S.S. Van Dine are in fact narrated by Van Dine. Yet, he does nothing to drive the plot forward. He is merely there to write about Vance's incredible deductive feats. Watson on the other hand has a history, friends, acquaintances and is far more well-rounded.

Nigel Bruce - you shall be vindicated!
Dr. Watson has sadly gotten a bad rap in most forms of media. Of course, Watson is not as smart as Holmes, but he is by no means an idiot. Watson is a competent medical man and a soldier. So where does the notion of a dim-witted Watson come from? The suspect who gets the finger of guilt pointed at the most is Nigel Bruce, who co-starred opposite Basil Rathbone throughout his fourteen film run. To be truthful, Bruce's comedic Watson is pretty far removed from Doyle's original. But, I like Bruce's Watson (so what if that's heresy), so it's time to defend this version of the good doctor.

Nigel Bruce is a skilled comedian, and he runs the gambit from physical comedy to deadpan delivery. Both 20th Century Fox and Universal put Bruce's excellent comedic skills to good use, and wrote the part of Dr. Watson accordingly. In retrospect, it makes sense. Despite the fact that Doyle's Watson is a well-rounded individual, he can at times be relegated to the sidelines as he acts as a story's observer, which is pretty difficult to represent on screen. At least, Nigel Bruce's Watson had something to do, even if it was making something of a fool of himself. What's more, Nigel Bruce's Watson was not the first time the doctor had been portrayed as a comic foil. H. Reeves Smith who appeared as Watson in 1929's "The Return of Sherlock Holmes" (the first talkie Sherlock Holmes film) played the part for laughs and Ian Fleming who starred opposite Arthur Wontner wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Lately, Watson has gotten a much-needed re-evaluation. The two current Watsons in media - Martin Freeman and Lucy Lui - have taken the part to new highs. Freeman's Watson is one of the best since Edward Hardwicke in the Granada series with Jeremy Brett. Freeman manages to capture the character's intelligence while enthusing the part with a striking humaneness. Bravo to Martin Freeman, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. Lucy Lui's Watson has improved greatly since her initial appearance in "Elementary," and has lately been taking centre-stage, even eclipsing Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes in terms of deductive reasoning. The real question is - does this push the envelope a bit too much?

Dr. Watson is just as important a character as Sherlock Holmes. The good doctor revolutionized how mystery stories are told. The Queen of Crime Agatha Christie certainly took a page from Doyle's book in crafting her character of Captain Arthur Hastings, who is in essence Hercule Poirot's own Watson. Hastings is obviously a Watson homage as both men are military men caught up in the work of their detective associates. One wonders if the detectives who came after Holmes would have flown solo if it weren't for Watson. Sherlock Holmes himself said in "A Scandal in Bohemia" that he would be lost without his Boswell - his only friend, colleague and biographer. Dr. Watson gave us humane insight into the inner-workings of Sherlock Holmes' brilliant cognitive skills. It is true - every Holmes needs his Watson.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review - "Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain"

This is all folks - "Curtain" marks the final episode of "Agatha Christie's Poirot," the brilliant ITV detective series which has been running for more than twenty years. It has (for the most part) been the holy grail of Agatha Christie media. But, the show had one final hurdle to overcome - adapting its finale. What with the show's penultimate episode, "The Labours of Hercules," being a tremendous let-down, did the show's conclusion improve any?

Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) is ailing and confined to a wheelchair. The detective returns to Styles, the mansion at which he solved his first case in England, which has been turned into a guest house. Poirot invites his old friend, Captain Arthur Hastings (Hugh Fraser) and Hasting's daughter, Judith, to the house as well. Upon his arrival, Hastings learns that Poirot has an a secret motive for inviting his friend - Poirot fears that a murder shall take place, and even he doesn't have any idea who the perpetrator could be. Before long, Poirot's prediction comes to fruition and soon Hercule Poirot will find himself investigating his last case.

"Curtain" was certainly an improvement over "The Labours of Hercules." This time, the episode actually felt akin to Christie and followed the plot of her novel more-or-less. In terms of plot, "Curtain" is interesting in that it feel more like a thriller than a mystery. There isn't the typical archetype of sifting through motives, suspects and alibis. In fact, most of the story is centred on the psychology of the characters, and in this way, Poirot manages to catch the perpetrator.

Yet, Agatha Christie manages to weave in one of her most surprising twist endings - which I will of course not spoil here. I never suspected the outcome to be what it was, and the adaptation certainly did the twist ending justice. I'm sure that for someone watching "Curtain" for the first time would be floored by the episode's ending.

David Suchet (seated) and Hugh Fraser
in "Curtain"
In terms of acting, special attention must be drawn to David Suchet and Hugh Fraser. The two men hardly shared any screen time in "The Big Four," so seeing them interact together for the first time since 2002 was nice. Hastings really is the episode's focal point, and we get to see new sides to the captain's character. he is perhaps more mellow than usual, but that is probably a result of the darker subject matter of the episode.

As always, David Suchet turns in a fine performance, surely one of his best. Suchet underplays most of his scenes, including a brilliantly-staged confrontation with the murderer.

The only point which "Curtain" failed on was its emotional impact. After watching the episode, I came away truly impacted by what I saw, but I did not feel saddened that A) Poirot had passed away in the episode and B) "Agatha Christie's Poirot" has come to an end. Perhaps it is merely chalked up to the way in which the ending was handled, sadly in an almost after-the-thought manner, which did not make me feel as emotionally invested as I have felt with other television finales. What's more, I would have loved for the beautiful Poirot theme to have played once last time. The television show's theme music has been used less and less recently, and I feel as though using the music would have been a nice nostalgic touch.

In all, "Curtain," was an excellent finale to "Agatha Christie's Poirot." Featuring a fine plot and acting, the episode was a nice farewell to one of the best detective shows on T.V. I give "Curtain" 4 out of 5 stars. Though "Agatha Christie's Poirot" has had its extreme ups and downs throughout the years, it will still have a place in my heart as one of the finest television programs I have come across.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Top 5 Things that Have Made Sherlockians Happy

I am going to be a little outspoken for this one. Of course this list will be my own personal opinion, but I'd like to speak on behalf of most Sherlockians. The following is a list of the top 5 things which without doubt evoked something of a smile from fans of the world's greatest detective.

# 5 - "Come at once if Convenient..." - Say whatever you like about the two Warner Bros. Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. Some fans love them - some fans hate them. They are surely partially responsible for breathing the back of life breath into the detective if nothing else. However, most Sherlockians criticize the films due to the presentation of Holmes as an action hero.

But, both films in the franchise have paid homage to Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories. The hints are subtle, but if you know your canon, there are times that will make you smile. One of the most memorable moments for me at least, was in "Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows." While infiltrating Professor Moriarty's munitions factory, Holmes dispatches a note to Watson which runs: "Come at once if Convenient...if Inconvenient come all the Same."

While the little scene doesn't propel the plot forward at all, it is a superb moment for Sherlockians as it of course references the note which Holmes sent to Watson in "The Adventure of the Creeping Man." The vignette also proves that someone behind the scenes of the film knows their Sherlock Holmes very well.

#4 - Titan Books - As I have written elsewhere, Sherlock Holmes pastiches are in an abundance. Some of the best pastiches I have come across have been released through Titan Books. The publisher is behind "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" series, a book series which reprinted a number of out-of-print pastiches. These included "The Veiled Detective" a brilliant character study by David Stuart Davies, "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" by Richard Boyer, the finest version of the untold story I have come across and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes" by Loren D. Estleman.

Recently, Titan Books' series has included some newly-published works from authors including Guy Adams, James Lovegrove and George Mann. In addition to pastiches, Titan Books is also responsible for printing some excellent non-fiction books. David Stuart Davies' "Starring Sherlock Holmes" and Alan Barnes' "Sherlock Holmes on Screen" are both essential guides to Sherlockian film.

#3 - Doctor Who Series 7 - I know what you're thinking - how is connected with Sherlock Holmes? The second half of the series (which commenced with the 2012 Christmas special, "The Snowmen") owes something to the great detective. "The Snowmen" scripted by Steven Moffat is truly Sherlockian in nature. The Victorian milieu and mysterious style evoke the Sherlock Holmes stories exactly. Arthur Conan Doyle is directly mentioned, and the Doctor even dresses up as the detective in one scene - surely the highlight for me.

The Doctor does a bit of sleuthing in Mark Gatiss'
"The Crimson Horror"
Later in the series, the TARDIS team of the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) returned to Victorian England to investigate "The Crimson Horror," an episode written by Mark Gatiss. Gatiss' episode mirrors the Sherlock Holmes stories even more, and sees the Doctor doing quite a bit of detective work. What's more, one of Doyle's many untold stories, The Repulsive Red Leech, is referenced in dialogue.

It will always - always - bring a smile to my face when Sherlock Holmes is referenced outside of Sherlockian circles. These nods and asides to fans of the detective are sure to make one crack a smile - or at least a grin.

#2 - Doyle Reprints - With the success of "Sherlock," the BBC has reissued the Arthur Conan Doyle canon adorned with photos of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Surely a marketing ploy from the BBC, the book series has at least spawned some new interest in the canon.

These recent reprints are only the most recent set of re-releases. Whenever I go into a mystery section of a bookshop and see multiple copies of "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" or "The Hound of the Baskervilles," I'm instilled with a sense of confidence. Sherlock Holmes has been a part of this world for more than 100 years, and it doesn't seem like he's on the way out at all.

#1 - Montage - The montage in the beginning of the "Sherlock" series 2 opener, "A Scandal in Belgravia" contains some of the most brilliant references to Arthur Conan Doyle ever. Although played for laughs, the montage, which sees Sherlock and John investigating a number of obscure cases. Cases referenced include: "The Speckled Band," "The Greek Interpreter" and "The Naval Treaty."

One of Steven Moffat's many sly references
Not only does the opening feature references to Doyle, but other pieces of Sherlockian interest. John Watson's blog counter is forever stuck 1895 (a nice acknowledgement of Vincent Starrett's poem, "Always 1895") and another entry is entitled, "Sherlock Holmes Baffled," the title of the great detective's screen debut in 1901. Writer Steven Moffat has without doubt created one of the greatest pieces of Sherlockian fan service in years.

I'm sure that there are others, and if none of the above things made you a satisfied Sherlockian, I understand. Any others that I left out? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review - "Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Labours of Hercules"

"The Labours of Hercules" was an unusual choice for the penultimate episode of "Agatha Christie's Poirot." The book, which is really a collection of short stories, would have made for much better adapting in the late '80's, when the show was still adapting Agatha Christie's short stories to the screen. But, as I saw with "The Big Four," the production team behind the show can make unusual stories work well. Did they manage to do it again?

Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) is on the trail of the thief, Marrascaud. The cunning criminal has evaded capture before, but the Belgian detective is sure he can snare him. But everything go awry and a young girl ends up murdered. Poirot contemplates retirement, that is until he's enticed into a case by his chauffeur. It seems that the young man's sweetheart has disappeared to a villa in the Swiss alps with her employer. Poirot heads for the hotel where she is believed to be staying and soon discovers that not only is Marrascaud rumoured to be at the hotel, but soon there's a murder...

I do apologise if the synopsis for "The Labours of Hercules" is a bit vague, but I honestly had very little idea what I was watching. While "Dead Man's Folly," the show's previous entry was a great success, this episode was dire indeed. I have sadly never read Christie's collection of short stories (it sits on my shelf so hopefully I won't neglect it for long), so I cannot say which elements of her book made it into the adaptation. If there were any, it seems like they were thrown together without much thought as to whether it would move the plot forward. Much of the first half was occupied by characters sitting and talking to each other, about topics which couldn't possibly have any bearing on the plot. It was not until the episode's half-way mark did anything befitting the mystery genre occur.

It is a real pity that this story would end up being the penultimate episode to the entire series' run. It was very disappointing, especially since it had such great talent behind it. David Suchet handled Poirot brilliantly. Though the detective is supposed to be depressed in the story's beginning, as a result of his failure to capture Marrascaud, Suchet restrained his performance wonderfully. One only needs to look at the equally upsetting adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express" to see that Poirot is quite capable of hamming it up. While we;re talking about positives, visually the episode was great. The interiors and exteriors of the hotel and the alps were beautiful.

Alas, "The Labours of Hercules" was a major disappointment. I would have rather seen ITV adapt Christie's play, "Black Coffee" than this. I am forced to give "The Labours of Hercules" 1 out of 5 stars. But don't worry, I'm not so critical of "Curtain."

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Little Bit of Apprehension

The Internet is once again abuzz, especially in Sherlockian circles, following the release of the second promo for "Sherlock" Series 3. (Click here to see it) Of course I'm excited. I have been waiting for the third series since the finale last year (it seems like it was much longer ago). Yet, I cannot help but feel somewhat apprehensive about it all.

Maybe it's just the BBC's style of advertising. It's rather hard to explain, but after I watched the newest thirty-second promo, I felt as though something was off. The ads just seem to fall a bit flat and are uninspiring. You would never know from watching these that the show is in any way connected with Arthur Conan Doyle's tremendous stories. I suddenly had a flashback to watching the teasers for Series 2 and feeling the same thing. I can only venture a guess as to why I feel this way.

To me, "Sherlock" is a show all about the story. The plot, dialogue, the little references to the canon is what makes me come back time and time again. It's the brilliant acting and direction - everything about the show just puts a smile on my face. The BBC's promotion for the show lacks all of this. Granted, we are only given thirty seconds to wet our appetites, but it simply doesn't seem to ring true to me. Somehow, I always end up a little nervous - has the show fallen flat? Will everything will be different now? My fears are dissolved upon viewing, but I cannot help but feel this way.

Whose get better advertising - "Doctor Who"
or "Sherlock?"
I am not well-versed in advertising, so I have no idea how the BBC could rectify their ad campaign for "Sherlock." I'd say that it needs to be a bit more exciting. Perhaps a teaser with a bit more bombast, something to get us fans really excited. It is perhaps a bad comparison, but watch this trailer for the "Doctor Who" 50th anniversary (click here). Something about this ad just made me so excited, in a way that none of the "Sherlock" teasers have.

It just seems unusual that's all, and I feel like I'm the only one who came away feeling more apprehensive than excited after watching. Nevertheless, "Sherlock" cannot come quickly enough though!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review - "Agatha Christie's Poirot: Dead Man's Folly"

"Agatha Christie's Poirot" continues with "Dead Man's Folly," which is one of Christie's later, though still extremely clever novels. It is rather bleak in tone which suits the series excellently. "Dead Man's Folly" is the third to last episode of the series and the last to feature mystery writer Ariadne Oliver.

Mrs. Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker) has been invited to Nasse House in Devon by its owner Sir George Stubbs (Sean Pertwee). Sir George and his wife Hattie bought the house from the Folliat family and there is some tension and animosity between the two families. A village fete is being held on the grounds of the mansion and Mrs. Oliver is in attendance to stage a 'murder hunt.' As she explains it, it's rather like a treasure hunt only a murder must be solved. Only, it's not a real murder - that is until the victim turns up quite dead. Mrs. Oliver only has one person she can turn to - Hercule Poirot (David Suchet).

I will be honest and say that I had never read Agatha Christie's "Dead Man's Folly." I was however familiar with the story having seen the 1980's television adaptation featuring Peter Ustinov as Poirot. Unsurprisingly, this version of Christie's story was more entertaining and as I gather much closer to the plot of the book. It is certainly one of Christie's most interesting plots, at times bordering on the fantastical, but staying within the realms of the believable. The denouement, which I will not spoil here, is not Christie's best, but to someone who did not know the plot of the book, I can see how one might be surprised.

As expected, David Suchet turns in a fine performance as the little Belgian sleuth. There is not much to say about his performance aside from the fact that he does a good job. Zoe Wanamaker is excellent as ever as Mrs. Oliver, this episode being her last for"Poirot." Zoe Wanamaker's Ariadne Oliver was one of the most enjoyable things about these last episodes of "Poirot." She captured the character's eccentricities brilliantly, easily making her my favourite addition to the show's cast. Sean Pertwee also turns in an fine performance as Sir George Stubbs. To those interested in just how small the world is - Sean Pertwee is the son of Jon Pertwee who has gained notoriety today as playing the Third Doctor on "Doctor Who."

In terms of production, "Dead Man's Folly" is one of the best-looking episodes of the series. Interestingly enough, the episode was filmed at the Greenway Estate, which was Agatha Christie's home and probably served as the inspiration for many of her stories. In the excellent book, "The Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie," author/editor John Curran reveals a sketch of the estate done by the authoress which later ended up inspiring the setting for another Poirot novel, "Five Little Pigs."

Overall, "Dead Man's Folly" was another stellar episode, surely making the 13th and final series of "Agatha Christie's Poirot" among the show's finest. I give the episode 4 out of 5 stars. The question is - would its final two episodes retain this level of quality? We'll find out...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review - "Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor"

Warning: This review will contain spoilers. Viewing "The Day of the Doctor" before going any further is highly recommended

50 years have culminated in a truly monumental television event. Doctor Who has changed dramatically since its debut in 1963, yet "The Day of the Doctor" the 50th anniversary celebratory episode of the show managed to honour the show wonderfully. But, was the episode worth the wait for Whovians across the world?

U.N.I.T (United Nation's Intelligence Taskforce) is in need of the Doctor (Matt Smith). When he and Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive at the National Gallery, they discover what's afoot. Something - or someone - has escaped the paintings. Soon the Doctor discovers that there's a link to the Time War, the greatest conflict in the universe's history in which the Time Lords and the Daleks were annihilated.

The Doctor has been running all his life from his actions during the war - it was he who wiped out his entire race. The Eleventh Doctor will have to team up with his Ninth (John Hurt) and Tenth (David Tennant) incarnations to save the universe from an almost indescribable threat.

For months, writer and showrunner Steven Moffat has boasted that "The Day of the Doctor" will change the show forever. Despite the fact that his boasts sounded profound, they were not unfounded. "The Day of the Doctor" has changed the show - by adding an entirely new Doctor! In any other case, I don't know how I'd feel about such a dramatic change, but Moffat has managed to pull this off really well. Whether the inclusion of the so-called War Doctor (as played by John Hurt) will change the Doctor's numbering system hasn't really been determined yet. John Hurt was probably the most unique aspect of the episode, and he did a truly fantastic job holding his own with Matt Smith and David Tennant in all their scenes together.

The Three Doctors
"The Day of the Doctor" also did a nice job of paying homage to the show's previous fifty years. The episode opened with the original title sequence as well as a duplicated opening shot of a constable walking down Totter's Lane and the Coal Hill School. Elsewhere, there were homages to Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethebridge-Stewart, the former head of U.N.I.T, and Susan, the Doctor's grand-daughter. The surprise inclusion was Tom Baker as the museum curator, who may or not have been the Doctor. Despite the fact that Baker said he was involved in the special, I remained rather skeptical, so seeing him involved was nice. The biggest surprise was a brief (and I mean brief) cameo from Peter Capaldi as the next Doctor. Despite the fact that I will miss Matt Smith immensely, seeing Capaldi on screen, albeit only for a short time, made me very excited.

Alas, "The Day of the Doctor" was not perfect. The Zygons, an alien race who had only appeared once before in the show's history, turned up to act as the episode's villains, but they were very underused. Their subplot went almost nowhere, and was never resolved. This was very disappointing, yet the Zygons themselves looked awesome, and I hope they return sooner rather than later in future series. Joanna Page, who had a fairly substantial role as Queen Elizabeth I, was also pretty underwhelming. She didn't really elevate the part any, and came across as a carbon-copy of the comedic queen in the stellar "Blackadder II."

But, a few rotten apples did not spoil the whole bunch. Matt Smith and David Tennant were both excellent (as always) and their chemistry with John Hurt with tremendous. The episode looked amazing, and I can only imagine how it would have looked in 3D on the big screen. I'm sure it would have been quite a sight. "The Day of the Doctor" did exactly what it was supposed to do - honour 50 years of brilliant television and provide an excellent story. I feel as though the episode's final shot - all eleven doctors standing, staring at their home planet Gallifrey will become one of the show's most iconic images. In all, "The Day of the Doctor" gets a 4 out of 5 from me.


On a related note, I want to include a short review of "An Adventure of Space and Time," the docudrama documenting the creation of Doctor Who in 1963. The film starred David Bradley as William Hartnell, the actor who played the First Doctor, and he was simply breath-taking. The movie chronicled Hartnell's transformation from a grumpy old man into a universally-loved figure on the show. Brian Cox and Jessica Raine were equally brilliant as Sydney Newman, the creator of the show, and Verity Lambert, the original producer respectively. 

Not only was the docudrama very entertaining and informative (the TARDIS' noise was achieved by running a key across a piece of wire), but it was incredibly moving. The film ended on the day of filming Hartnell's regeneration into Patrick Troughton, and Hartnell's obvious sadness at leaving the show was very moving. In the show's most brilliant moment, Hartnell glances across the TARDIS' console and sees Matt Smith standing on the other side - a symbolic act of connecting all fifty years of the show. Even if this is end for the First Doctor, the show will go on. "An Adventure in Space and Time" was quite brilliant and I award it 4.5 out of 5 stars. Overall, both Doctor Who 50th anniversary celebration stories were "fantastic!"

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why "Murder By Decree" (1979) Is Perfect

There was something about the 1970's for fans of Sherlock Holmes. Not only was Nicholas Meyer's pastiche, "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" initially published, but that decade saw the release of Billy Wilder's "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," an adaptation of Meyer's novel, and "Murder by Decree," one of the finest Sherlock Holmes movies ever made. Today, I submit to you an analysis of this fine film, submitting it as a Portrait of Perfection.

"Murder by Decree" wasn't the first Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper films to ever hit cinema screens. Thirteen years earlier in 1965, John Neville starred as the great detective in "A Study in Terror." Today, the film is regarded as being something of a campy curiosity. Released during the very successful run of "Batman" on American television, posters for "A Study in Terror" promoted the film as featuring "the original caped crusader." Things certainly changed by the time that "Murder by Decree" rolled around. It features a far darker plot, draws off of real events and characters and features one of the finest portrayals, yet one of the most controversial,portrayals of Sherlock Holmes.

Much like "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" and "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" there is something very different about this version of Sherlock Holmes. Christopher Plummer's Holmes is a kindhearted, very sincere man, at odds with the cold, calculating genius portrayed in Arthur Conan Doyle's originals. That doesn't mean that this Holmes is any less brilliant than his literary counterpart. Holmes still manages to unravel a tangled skein of events surrounding the Ripper murders, but he feels far more empathy towards all those involved. Whereas Holmes said in "The Sign of Four": "A client is to me a mere unit, a factor in a problem," this Holmes is more trusting and sincere.

Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Holmes
and Watson in "Murder by Decree"
The choice to play the character this way was Christopher Plummer's, and he does a fantastic job as the detective. Plummer truly elevates the detective from the screen and makes him seem like a well-rounded individual. This Sherlock Holmes is obviously a man who enjoys his work, but even he is not unaffected by the brutalities of the Ripper killings, and come the movie's end, one wonders how normalcy will return to Baker Street for Holmes and Watson. Speaking of Watson, James Mason gives a stellar performance as the good doctor, and truly one of the finest ever committed to screen. This Watson is a competent medical man, witty and good under pressure. In short, Mason is one of the closest representations of Arthur Conan Doyle's original doctor. The rest of the cast is equally brilliant. "Murder by Decree" has perhaps the finest cast of any Sherlock Holmes films including: Susan Clark, Frank Finlay, Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold and John Gielgud.

"Murder by Decree" is also notable for the fact that it portrays the Jack the Ripper realistically and with real characters. The harsh living conditions which were the norm in London's impoverished Whitechapel district are brilliantly recreated here. Add to that enough fog to swallow up two pictures, and "Murder by Decree" is positively dripping with atmosphere. The film's plot, centred around the so-called 'Royal Conspiracy' makes for engaging viewing, even if the theory has been more or less discounted by most Ripper historians.

Speaking more personally, "Murder by Decree" is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes films. It is by far one of the most brilliant Sherlock Holmes films I have ever seen, and perhaps one of my favourite movies in general. It is in my opinion essential viewing for any Sherlockian.

So what about you? Have you seen "Murder by Decree?" Is your opinion of this movie as high as my own? Or does the dark subject matter and atypical portrayal of Sherlock Holmes turn you off? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review - "Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Big Four"

"Agatha Christie's Poirot" continues after a fine adaptation of "Elephants Can Remember," which was broadcast in June, with "The Big Four." "The Big Four" is without doubt the most unusual of all Agatha Christie's novels. It reads like a Penny-Dreadful thriller and features none of the tight plotting which have made Christie's novels so beloved by mystery fans. To say that "The Big Four" is a curiosity is an understatement - and it seemed almost impossible to adapt to the screen. So, how was it done?

The answer: change plot details! Usually when an episode of "Poirot" dramatically changes the plot of a Christie novel, it doesn't go over so well with me. But this time things were different. The story is now set in the days before World War II. Poirot (David Suchet) is in attendance at a peace party gala at which a Russian chess master will display his talents in a symbolic act of uniting the two halves of Europe. But, four moves into his match, he slumps over dead - apparently caused by a heart attack. Hercule Poirot isn't so sure and as more unfortunate events begin to surround the peace party, rumours spread that an international group of villains calling themselves The Big Four are involved.

Despite the fact that much of the plot was changed, I am actually quite fond of this adaptation of "The Big Four." Even though its heresy to even think such a thing, I feel like this episode actually improved upon its source material. Christie's book reads like a wanna-be Edgar Wallace or L. Ron Hubbard, and what adapters Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallbard managed to do was to make the story feel like Christie. There's suspects, clues and a last-minute reveal with a typical explanation. What's more, many of Christie's original plot points are retained, so one cannot say that "The Big Four" doesn't have a passing resemblance to the novel.

Poirot (David Suchet) is reunited with Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran)
Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) and Captain Hasting (Hugh Fraser)
What excited me most about this episode is that it would see the return of Poirot's friend and colleague Captain Arthur Hastings as well as his secretary Miss Lemon and Inspector Japp. These characters had not been featured in an episode of "Poirot" for nearly ten years, and they were sorely missed. Philip Jackson, who plays Japp, had the most to offer in this little reunion as the inspector acts as Poirot's assistant throughout the episode. My biggest quibble is that Miss Lemon and Hastings have little to do in the episode. I am probably the minority, but I always liked Captain Hastings so his minimal involvement was rather disappointing. 

Overall, "The Big Four" was a very pleasant surprise. It surpassed my expectations dramatically and proved to be very entertaining. I only wish that the featured characters from yesteryear had had more involvement in the story. But, I give "Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Big Four" 4 out of 5 stars. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The World Through a Sherlockian's Eyes - A One Year Celebration

And so I have reached another milestone - I have been blogging for one year. In those 365 days I have shared with you the best, the worst, the most surprising and the most anticipated things concerning the world's greatest detective. I'd just like to take a moment and say that it has been so much fun. For years I have needed an outlet to share my thoughts, opinions and other obsessive rants and through this site, I have managed to do that. The best part is - people actually seem to like it! There were few things more exciting for me than finding links to my blog on such wonderful websites as At the Scene of the Crime, The Sherlock Holmes Society of St. Charles and Always 1895. Today, I'd like to celebrate my one year anniversary with a personal post about what I think it truly means to be a Sherlockian.

There are plenty of other detectives out there - Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chan, Lord Peter Wimsey etc. The list goes on and on. None of them shall ever eclipse Sherlock Holmes for me. I was introduced to the Sherlock Holmes stories as a child and my profound interest in the character has grown exponentially. Why do I love this particular fictional character so much? Maybe it's a simple matter of having been exposed to the stories for so long. Maybe it's the fact that at heart, I've always wanted the abilities which Holmes possesses. Honestly, who hasn't at least once wanted the ability to assess a person's character and behaviour simply by looking at them? Or let's take that one step further - who hasn't ever wanted to attempt to read someone's mind? Holmes manages to do so easily in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box."

There has been no better time to be a fan of Sherlock Holmes than now. The media is simply flooded with points of Sherlockian interest: "Sherlock" is preparing for its third season, rumours spread concerning a third Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes movie, pastiches are being written and published at an alarming rate. It's almost too much to comprehend.

I will say without much hesitation that most people today know of Sherlock Holmes through the Guy Rictchie films or "Sherlock." The latter has developed a fan base at an alarming rate, and though its cult following is perhaps not as large as "Doctor Who," it still has it devoted followers. Sadly, I feel that many people who watch "Sherlock" have never been exposed to Arthur Conan Doyle's originals, so many of the show's most clever moments are missed entirely. Even if "Sherlock" introduces its viewers to the original short stories and novels, I cannot help but think that some may feel a twinge of disappointment as "Sherlock" and the Sherlock Holmes canon are two very different entities. Now, don't get me wrong - I love "Sherlock" and feel that it is a fantastic show and surely the greatest Sherlock Holmes offering since Jeremy Brett's heyday. But, as I have written elsewhere - the term 'Sherlockian' applies today more to the BBC show than the character.

I do not for one moment regret my slight obsession with all things Sherlock Holmes. Everyone needs an interest in something and mine just happens to be the world most famous detective and very possibly the world's most famous literary figure hands down. It's nigh impossible for someone not to have heard of the name Sherlock Holmes and even if they have not, they are surely acquainted with the infamous pipe and hat. Undeniably, Holmes has changed the world and I think for the best.

In terms of the mystery genre itself, imagine if Holmes never existed. I don't know if the genre would have come so far. Would it have fizzled out with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue?" I don't know if I'd say that, but the countless numbers of characters who emerged in the great detective's wake may never have existed. Thanks to the excellent 1970's series, "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes," I was introduced to some of the more obscure Victorian detectives - Dr. Thorndyke, Professor Van Dusen, Carnacki, etc. Though each of these characters are well-rounded in their own right, they all owe something to Arthur Conan Doyle's famous creation. Therefore, I make the argument that these characters may never have existed. Going forward, would Agatha Christie have gained notoriety for creating Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, two characters who both have their links to Sherlock Holmes.

Arthur Conan Doyle revolutionized the mystery genre. Next time you walk into the mystery section of your local bookshop thank two people - Edgar Allan Poe for creating the genre and Doyle for turning it into what we know today.  With the creation of Sherlock Holmes, the literary world, the movie industry et al were changed forever. There are few things which have not been impacted by the world's foremost expert in criminal detection. And that's how a Sherlockian sees the world.


I would just like to take a moment and thank my fellow bloggers. So many of you who have visited this site and left comments I am indebted to as you truly inspired me to start this blog. Your websites are all bookmarked on my computer and they make for very entertaining reading. I don't think I'd be where am I today without your sites. So I thank you.

And to all my readers, I thank you too! Here's to 2014!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review - "Doctor Who: Touched by an Angel"

"Touched by an Angel" is quite brilliant. That is the only way I could possibly consider starting this review. It is only the second Doctor Who novel which I have finished (despite the fact that I own quite a few), but it was a fantastic book. It's full of wonderful, real characters, a fine plot and is actually quite thought-provoking. This review will also focus on the fine audiobook version which I bought on which was performed by Clare Corbett. So, let's take a closer look.

Mark Whitaker is an ordinary man. He is employed at a London law firm, and goes through day-to-day life without incident. That all changes when he receives an envelope in the mail - enclosed are wads of bank notes and a letter, written in his own handwriting. The letter includes a list of instructions which if followed will allow Mark to save his wife - who died in a car accident nine years earlier. Soon, Weeping Angels are on his trail and there is only one man who can save him - the Doctor.

What works best about "Touched by an Angel" is its characters. Mark is the central character of the novel and he is a very identifiable, very real man. As we're introduced to him, you cannot help but feel so bad for Mark and his lose. Given the opportunity to save his late wife, one wonders if they would jump at any similar opportunity (though this is a sci-fi novel). While we're on the subject of characters, the representation of the Doctor, as played by Matt Smith, is excellent. The same must be said for Amy Pond and her husband Rory, the Doctor's companions. Author Jonathon Morris has captured the actor's voices brilliantly, and he manages to weave these characterisations with his original ones.

The plot of "Touched by an Angel" is also interesting. In terms of Doctor Who, it is unusual as the Doctor travels back in time and follows Mark Whitaker throughout different stages of his life. While this may not sound incredibly exciting, it is very interesting. The plot further adds depth to the characters. This low-key, character-driven story is indeed at odds with the typical Doctor Who story, and I think that it would be difficult to adapt to the screen. That's not to say that it wasn't an entertaining book - just a different one.

Sadly, the book wasn't perfect. Scenes set in the 1990's include just about every possible '90's reference or cliche. And whenever the plot picked up some steam (towards the end), it felt at odds with the rest of the story. I also cannot help but feel that Jonathon Morris likes the Weeping Angels too much as they crop up everywhere in the story. As opposed to their appearances on TV, the Angels are not used sparingly here, and this does diminish their creepiness.

As I wrote at the top of this review, I listened to this book via the audio version available on The novel was read by Clare Corbett who did an excellent job, giving each other their own distinctive voice. She also managed to do an excellent impression of Matt Smith's enthusiastic Eleventh Doctor and Karen Gillan's Amy Pond. My only complaint would be that her voices for other male characters did fall a little flat as it sounded like she was out of breathe speaking their parts. Nevertheless, Corbett did a fine job and I wouldn't say no to listening to another Doctor Who she reads.

"Touched by an Angel" was an excellent Doctor Who story. It features some fine characters and plot elements and the story cannot help but make you feel a number of emotions. It was a grand book and I hope to finding more Doctor Who-related items penned by Jonathon Morris. "Touched by an Angel" receives 4 out of 5 stars from me.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Great Hiatus

Hello all! I like to begin by saying that the month of October was an incredibly busy one for me, so my output on this blog was minimal. Then, as soon as my schedule cleared up, I was all set to return to The Consulting Detective, when I encountered some problems with Blogger. It appears as though the problem has not yet been remedied - specifically it involves being unable to format my text around pictures. If any of my fellow bloggers are experiencing difficulties, fell free to leave a comment below.

So, what can you expect from me coming soon? Well, in five days (10 November), it will be this blog's one year anniversary and I am working on my celebratory post. In addition, I have a review on the way for the Doctor Who novel, "Touched by an Angel" by Jonathon Morris. The review will focus on the book as well as the audiobook version read by Clare Corbett. Reviews are also on the way for the two most recent episodes of "Agatha Christie's Poirot": "The Big Four" and "Dead Man's Folly."

On the Sherlockian front, there is going to be another addition to the Portrait of Perfection category - the 1979 film, "Murder by Decree" starring Christopher Plummer as Holmes. I will also be looking at the novel, "The Valley of Fear" and why it is underrated by the Sherlock Holmes community. 

Thank you to all those who read this blog. I promise you some more material on the way. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #1 "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938)

The moment you have all been waiting for has arrived - my pick for the best Basil Rathbone film. If there's one thing that you should have picked up on from these reviews, it's that I love swashbuckling epics. My top three picks have all fallen into the sub-genre. My number one favourite Basil Rathbone film is 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood."

King Richard the Lionheart has been captured on his return from the Crusades, and his brother Prince John (Claude Rains) has his eye on the throne. Oppressing the masses, it seems as though the commoners are helpless against Prince John and his right-hand man, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Rathbone). One man stands in the way of their total control - an arrow-toting vigilante called Robin Hood (Errol Flynn). As Robin gathers together his band of merry men, he falls in love with Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). Exposing the truth about how poorly Prince John is treating the people, she joins Robin in his quest to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Simply stated, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is a very fun movie to watch. Even by today's standards, some of the action scenes are standouts. I won't spoil any of the best moments, but rest assured "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is exciting from start to finish. Part of what makes the movie so good is the level of enthusiasm from all the players. Errol Flynn, who stars as Robin Hood, is excellent. Since his career-making performance in 1935's "Captain Blood," the actor had become associated with swashbuckling costume epics. It seems like Flynn is having a very fun time playing the part, and his joviality transfers wonderfully to the screen.

The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Olivia de Havilliand is excellent as Maid Marian and Claude Rains is at his evil best as Prince John. Rains is one of this reviewer's favourite actors and aside from his brilliant performance in 1933's "The Invisible Man," Rains is at his finest here. Basil Rathbone, much like Flynn, seems to be having a ball in his part. Rathbone is seldom seemed so menacing or intimidating as he does in this movie. His performance is a testament to how fantastic he was as an actor, and it for that reason that I cite this movie as one of Rathbone's greatest performances.

Flynn (left) and Rathbone (right)
What is also notable about the movie is that it was produced on such a grand scale. The sets created for the film are breathtaking - especially the giant dining hall which is glimpsed early on in the film, and provides Robin Hood with a brilliant entrance. With a deer which he has caught and killed slung over his shoulders, Robin forcibly gains entrance into the dining hall and takes a seat opposite Prince John. It's a stunning vignette and one of the film's standout moments. (I know I said I wouldn't spoil anything - but I had to wet your appetites) As can be expected with a film of this sort, there's plenty of swordplay and the climatic duel between Flynn and Rathbone is brilliant - surely the finest sword duel ever committed to film. Fencing expert Fred Cavens was Warner Bros.' instructor when it came to sword duels, and he choreographed many of the most outstanding duels committed to film. Cavens also worked with Basil Rathbone two years earlier when Rathbone had co-starred in a 1936 adaptation of "Romeo & Juliet."

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" is based entirely upon the original legends which persist concerning the cunning thief. Many of the Robin Hood myths are crammed into the script, which means that a real plot does sort of fall by the wayside. Though this could be a problem, I think that this manages to make the movie exciting, as it bobs and weaves its way through the Robin Hood mythos. In fact, in my background research for the movie, I discovered that a jousting sequence was excised from the final film, which would have only added to the spectacle prevalent in the movie. Yet, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture - losing out to Frank Capra's "You Can't Take It With You."

And so, I conclude this series of five reviews. For those of you anticipating more Sherlockian-related posts, they will be along soon. In the meantime - what are your favourite Basil Rathbone films? Do you agree with my Top 5 list? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #2 "The Mark of Zorro" (1940)

After my last review concerning 1935's "Captain Blood," which was filled with enthusiasm and euphoria, you must be wondering how an adventure, swashbuckling-type of movie could top that. Well, 1940's "The Mark of Zorro" appears to have done so, as it is one of my very favourite films and my pick for the 2nd best Basil Rathbone movie.

Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) returns to his native California from an extended trip in Spain to find his homeland very different. The people are being oppressed by a powerful and corrupt ruler, Luis Qunitero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his deadly right-hand man, Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). To fight back against the injustice, Vega masquerades as Zorro, the town's vigilante who will stop at nothing to protect the people.

"The Mark of Zorro" was produced at 20th Century Fox, who during the 1940's, wasn't well-known for action, adventure dramas. The studio specialized in mystery movies and some of the finest '40's Film Noir emerged from the studio. It is perhaps for that reason that "The Mark of Zorro" feels as though it were filmed on a smaller, less expensive scale, than other swashbucklers of the time. The fact that "Zorro" has less of a grandiose air is not a bad thing though. If anything, it adds realism to the more or less secluded Southern Californian setting. It also provides a nice contrast between the poor citizens of the community and the wealthy, corrupt government who oversee them.

Starring in the duel role of Diego Vega and Zorro is Tyrone Power, who in the early '40's, was still making a name for himself. The previous year, Power had played the title role in Fox's 1939 biopic, "Jesse James," which garnered the actor some stardom, but it was his contribution to "The Mark of Zorro" which solidified Power as a romantic, leading man. Linda Darnell makes for a fine love interest - her acting is fine, but her character as Lolita Quintero, the corrupt governor's daughter, is somewhat bland. On a side-note, Darnell is perhaps best remembered today as a sleazy lounge singer who is murdered in the 1945 thriller, "Hangover Square."

Rathbone (right) and Tyrone Power (left) in the climatic
sword duel from 1940's "The Mark of Zorro"
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Rathbone, who is absolutely fantastic as Captain Esteban Pasquale. It is interesting to note that Pasquale is more-or-less a stooge to the main villain, but Rathbone manages to steal the show. From the moment he appears on screen, it's obvious that Pasquale is up to no good. Practicing his swordsmanship, he produly tells Diego: "Some men toy with their canes, monocles or snuff boxes. I toy with a sword." Throughout the film, Rathbone's performance is grand, enthusing the part with subtle hints of black comedy. And when Rathbone is playing a sword-toting villain in a swashbuckler, there is of course going to be a duel. The sword duel in this film is brilliant, excellently executed. It is, unlike other fine sword duels committed to celluloid, confined to a small space, but this manages to heighten the suspense and adds an element of claustrophobia.

Overall, "The Mark of Zorro" is a very enjoyable, though a slightly atypical swashbuckler. Much like all of the films in this countdown, I highly recommend it.

Coming Next Time: Well...I think I'm going to keep my number one pick a secret

Friday, October 18, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #3 "Captain Blood" (1935)

I am of the opinion that we, the movie-going audience, still love pirate movies. Surely that's one of the reasons the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies are still so popular? Films glorifying the actions of pirates have come a long way since their start, but I do not know if any of them have surpassed 1935's "Captain Blood" in terms of style, production and entertainment. It is this swashbuckling epic which ranks as my third favourite Basil Rathbone film.

Dr. Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is accused of treason during the Monmouth Rebellion. Blood is sold into slavery in Port Royal, Jamaica, where he comes under the watchful eye of Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill) and his daughter, Arabella (Olivia de Havilland), who he falls in love with. Blood leads a rebellion against the colonel and takes to the seas to make a career off plundering ships as the most feared pirate of the seven seas.

"Captain Blood" was the second of three big-screen adaptations of Rafael Sabatini's popular adventure novel. I have never the book, but if its anything like this move version, it is great fun. "Captain Blood" is an immensely entertaining adventure film, and surely one of the finest epics I have ever come across. What is most surprising about the film is Errol Flynn, who at the time of the movie's production, was a relative unknown. The actor's prior credits included a few supporting roles and cameos and only one lead - as Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutiny aboard the H.M.S Bounty in "In The Wake of the Bounty," a 1933 Australian film never released in the United States. Warner Bros. was certainly taking a risk casting Flynn as the lead in this movie. The same applies to Olivia de Havilland as Arabella Bishop. "Captain Blood" was only her third film.

Basil Rathbone (right) in a duel to the death with Errol Flynn
in 1935's "Captain Blood"
The supporting cast of "Captain Blood" is made up of some veteran actors, and they compliment the newcomers to the screen excellently. Of note is, of course, Basil Rathbone as the pirate captain Levasseur. Though Rathbone has a small role in story, his part is an important one as he provides the true turning point in Captain Blood's character. When Levasseur and Blood strike up a partnership, Levasseur and Blood eventually butt heads which leads to a duel to the death. I'll say now that I love sword duels on film, and "Captain Blood" features one of the best. In real life, Basil Rathbone was one of Hollywood's finest swordsman, and it's obvious that he exhibits true skill throughout. Meanwhile, Lionel Atwill turns in a fine performance as Colonel Bishop. Similar to Rathbone's Levasseur, Bishop is a character we're supposed to hate, but Atwill manages to make the character strangely likable by enthusing bits of comedy throughout. It is obvious that both Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill are having a grand old time playing their parts in this film, and their joy really does translate brilliantly to the screen. Rathbone would reunite with Flynn later in life - crossing blades with the actor in 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and the two would share the screen in my number four pick, "The Dawn Patrol."

"Captain Blood" is I think the pirate film to end all pirate films. Later in life, Errol Flynn would take to the seven seas as a pirate in 1940's "The Sea Hawk," which is a fine film in its own right, but it cannot possibly eclipse "Captain Blood." It is such a great adventure film and one which I highly recommend to anyone.

Coming Next Time: Its another swashbuckler - "The Mark of Zorro"

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review - "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes" (1968)

In the grand scheme of things, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes," the 1968 BBC television series, is one of the most important in Sherlock Holmes' history. It was only the second time that a real attempt was made to bring Arthur Conan Doyle's work to the small screen. Yet today, this influential series is largely forgotten.

The story of how the series made to the screen begins in 1964. The BBC was in the midst of their first Sherlock Holmes television series which starred Douglas Wilmer as the detective and Nigel Stock as Watson. Wilmer had become infuriated by the production staff, finding the shoot a hectic and un-enjoyable one. When the series debuted, it stirred little interest, however upon a second transmission, the show gained popularity and the BBC commissioned a second series. However, Wilmer refused to return. The search was on to find a replacement for the actor. Eventually, Peter Cushing was chosen to play Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Stock returned to the part of Dr. Watson.

Much has been made of the series' production history, especially in the excellent book, "Sherlock Holmes on Screen," by Alan Barnes, but little analysis of the show's episodes have seen print. So, the following will focus mostly on the existing six episodes which have been recovered. Much like early "Doctor Who" serials, much of this show's run is lost to the pages of history due to the BBC's emphatic "junking" policy. The series kicked off in grand style with a two-part adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," making it the second adaptation to feature Cushing in the lead. As would become the custom with the series, the episodes follow, the plot doggedly follows Doyle's novel. That, however, is the least of the episode's worries. "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is truly let down by a lack of location filming. The moor, which becomes a character in itself in the book, is barely glimpsed here, and so much of the book's atmosphere is lost.

One cannot blame the BBC though. "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes" was filmed quickly and relatively inexpensively making location shooting not the easiest of tasks. The studio-bound locations would not impact many of the other episodes which survive, but it does hinder "The Hound of the Baskervilles" greatly. Next was an adaptation of "A Study in Scarlet," an oddity amongst Sherlockian adaptations. By omitting Holmes and Watson's initial meeting, as well as streamlining the American back-story, "A Study in Scarlet," proves to be a brisk and enjoyable mystery, and my personal favourite of the surviving episodes. Peter Cushing is still in top form here, and despite being in his late fifties at the time of shooting, still seems young and agile.

The next surviving episode is "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," which makes the most of its limited location filming. This episode also provides us a look at Cushing wearing the infamous deerstalker hat and cape, a point which he brought to the attention of the crew. Cushing made it a point to emulate all possible points from the canon, and therefore only wore a deerstalker hat when it was shown in Sidney Paget's original stories. He also refused to wear the typical Inverness cape, as it was not the type of clothing Holmes was depicted wearing in the original stories. It is for that reason that most scenes in the series found the actor donning a homburg or top hat and dispelling many of the conceptions regarding the great detective. Location shooting was also imperative for the next surviving episode, an adaptation of "The Sign of Four," which in this reviewer's opinion is the series' weakest. Far too much plot is crammed into a single 45-minute episode, rendering the entire story a rushed and jumbled mess. What's more, attempts at creating any hint of romance between Dr. Watson and Miss Mary Morstan, per Doyle's novel, fall flat. Luckily, the last surviving episode, "The Blue Carbuncle," does improve upon its predecessor. It provides the series' finest character moments between Holmes and Watson, and manages to end the series on a good note. I am quite partial to this particular adventure on a whole and this adaptation nicely plays up the Yuletide-spirit inherent in Doyle's original.

As I noted at the top of this review, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes" is important in the great detective's television history. Despite the fact that it is far from perfect, it is interesting to see how much this particular show paved the way for Granada series featuring Jeremy Brett. It is almost unfair to give the series a true rating as so much of it is lost today, but I will certainly recommend it. If you are a self-respecting Sherlockian and you have not yet sank your teeth into this series, you really should. I think that you will be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #4 "The Dawn Patrol" (1938)

You can easily argue that "All Quiet on the Western Front" is the definitive World War I drama. However, one of the finest films ever to depict the Great War was released by Warner Bros.' in 1938 and features a fine ensemble cast of Errol Flynn, David Niven and Basil Rathbone. That film is "The Dawn Patrol."

Stationed near the German border in France, Courtney (Errol Flynn) and Scott (David Niven) are two aviators. Outnumbered by the Germans and low on resources, the circumstances have truly taken their tole on the squadron's commander, Major Brand (Rathbone). Brand would rather fly the missions himself rather than have young, inexperienced men shot down on their first flight. However, soon Brand is called away from the squadron and appoints Courtney as his successor. What sort of impact will the conflict have on the happy-go-lucky Courtney and will he survive the war?

"The Dawn Patrol" is a brilliant character study, especially for its lead characters. It is interesting to note that the film has a very small cast, unusual for war epics, but this helps develop the characters extremely. All three leads are very real, humane characters and the limited cast helps establish the closeness and develop a real kinship amongst them. Most notably is Flynn who turns in one of his finest performances. Although Flynn is brilliant in his swashbuckling, sword-toting types of roles, his down-to-Earth performance here is excellent. It was not very often that Flynn was able to play a "normal" human being and this film shows that Errol Flynn had acting chops which could match the best of them.

From Left to Right: David Niven, Errol Flynn
and Basil Rathbone
David Niven also shines as Courtney's friend, Scott. Though I have not seen much of his work, I am always impressed by Niven's range as an actor. He seemed just as capable of performing comedy (see "The Pink Panther" or "Around the World in Eighty Days") as he was performing drama. Much like Flynn and Rathbone, Niven's character is very down-to-Earth, and by the film's conclusion he is probably the one who is most affected by the events which have transpired. He gives a tremendously moving performance, the same which applies to Rathbone as the squadron commander. Though Rathbone's character of Major Brand is hardly a warm and cuddly guy, he's not the film's antagonist. Brand is constantly suppressing his inner guilt. He has no choice but to send young, inexperienced flyers into battle, wrought with the knowledge they will probably not make it beyond their initial flight. Rathbone's performance here is more than usually sincere and it's probably due to the fact he saw action on the front-lines during the war, and I wouldn't be surprised if he managed to channel that into his performance.

"The Dawn Patrol" is a movie which is likely to linger in the memory long after you've seen it. It's one of the finest examples of war drama I've ever come across and certainly gives the aforementioned "All Quiet on the Western Front" a run for its money as the finest World War I film out there. The same year as "The Dawn Patrol's" release, Rathbone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in another 1938 film, "If I were King." Rathbone ultimately lost to Walter Brennan, but I feel as though if Rathbone had been nominated for "The Dawn Patrol," Mr. Brennan may not have been so lucky. "The Dawn Patrol" is a fine film which comes highly recommended from me.

Coming Next Time: "Captain Blood" - Enough said

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #5 "Son of Frankenstein" (1939)

To those of us in the Sherlockian world, we're liable to forget that Basil Rathbone was involved with so much more than just a series of 14 movies featuring the world's greatest detective. Today I begin a series of reviews of my top five favourite Basil Rathbone films (not Sherlock Holmes-related). We begin with 1939's "Son of Frankenstein" released by Universal.

The success of "Son of Frankenstein" would decide Universal's fate in 1939. Universal had since the release of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" in 1931, been the leading provider of horror films in Hollywood. However by the time of 1935's "The Raven" starring Bela "Dracula" Lugosi and Boris "Frankenstein" Karloff, the censors were cracking down on the amount of horror present in a movie. Great Britain banned horror films all together. It seemed like Universal was doomed.

Fast forward a couple of years to late 1938. A single cinema which was low on income put "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" on a double bill in hopes of turning a good profit. The public's reception is almost indescribable. It was obvious that horror films were back in vogue and Universal Studios was more than willing to supply it. A third installment in their Frankenstein series was scripted and soon found its way under the watchful eye of master filmmaker Rowland V. Lee. Soon Basil Rathbone was cast as the title character. Boris Karloff took up the role of the Frankenstein Monster for the third and final time. Bela Lugosi was cast as Ygor, the broken-necked blacksmith in one of the actor's finest performances. The ingredients were perfect for a spectacular horror film - and that's just what happened.

Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) is returning to his ancestral home with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter, (Donnie Dunagan). Little does Wolf realize the name of 'Frankenstein' has become reviled by the villagers of the town ever since his father Henry Frankenstein brought to life a monster which went on a killing spree. While exploring the ruins of his father's laboratory, Wolf meets Ygor (Bela Lugosi), the blacksmith who was hanged years before after being accused of body snatching. Ygor survived the hanging and has since taken refuge in the ruins of the lab where he has befriended the Monster (Boris Karloff). Though still alive, the Monster is very weak and Ygor implores Wolf to restore him to health. Wolf consents and soon the Frankenstein Monster is on the loose again...

"Son of Frankenstein" truly is Universal's blockbuster horror film. It is by far the most spectacular-looking horror film they ever made, and this sense of grandeur goes a long way towards making the whole movie feel so epic. Usually, I think a sense of claustrophobia works best when it comes to horror films, but the fantastic sets (such as Castle Frankenstein or the lab) evoke great moodiness. The acting also goes a long way towards creating an incredibly moody atmosphere. Co-starring in the movie is Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, the village's representative of the police. Krogh has horrible, vivid memories of the Monster which killed his father and tore off his arm. Atwill evokes great sympathy as the inspector whose hopes for a military career are prevented by his run in with the Monster.

Basil Rathbone meets his father's creation (Boris Karloff)
Interestingly, for such a fine film, it was Boris Karloff's final straw when it came to playing Frankenstein's creation. Karloff felt as though there was no challenge inherent in the role. Karloff had originated the role in 1931's "Frankenstein" and along with director James Whale returned to the sequel, "Bride of Frankenstein" with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek as that movie is depicted as being a dark comedy sending up the horror genre. Perhaps Boris Karloff was somewhat founded in leaving the role of the Frankenstein Monster after this film. The Monster is only granted a little screen time, and he is more or less a tool used by Ygor to exact his revenge. However, Karloff's swansong in the role still has some brilliant moments and in the long run, this film would provide the Monster's last greatest moments. Universal's subsequent installments in the Frankenstein series could never live up to the initial three films, partially due to the studio being unable to thoroughly replace an actor to play the Monster.

What is most fascinating about Basil Rathbone in this film is that it was one of the first times the actor got to play a hero. As we'll see with some of my future picks for Top 5 Rathbone films, prior to this movie, the actor was typecast as a villain. Getting the opportunity to play the film's hero was a great coup to Rathbone, especially since he lost out playing two parts he desperately wanted: Dr. Frederick Steele in "Dark Victory" and Rhett Butler in "Gone with the Wind." One wonders if Rathbone's involvement in this movie was a deciding factor for him getting the role of Sherlock Holmes only a short while later in "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

Basil Rathbone and director Rowland V. Lee reunited twice more at Universal Studios. Following close on the heels of "Son of Frankenstein" was "The Sun Never Sets" which starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Lionel Atwill. Part war propaganda piece part thriller, "The Sun Never Sets" didn't perform well at the box office. Rathbone returned to Universal in late 1939 for "Tower of London" which reunited him with Boris Karloff. "Tower of London" gave Rathbone the opportunity to chew some scenery as Richard III in this historical epic which united Rathbone and Karloff with Ian Hunter, John Sutton, Barbra O'Neil and Vincent Price. But neither of these films could top "Son of Frankenstein." It is an extremely entertaining film which boosts fine performances from all involved. Positively dripping with atmosphere, this movie also  has the distinction of being responsible for jump-starting the horror genre once more.

Coming Next Time: Rathbone joins Errol Flynn and David Niven in one of the most moving World War I tragedies ever filmed - 1938's "The Dawn Patrol."

Monday, September 30, 2013

Review - "Ghosts of Christmas Past"

The wait for Big Finish's next Sherlock Holmes series, "The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes" is a lengthy one. So imagine my surprise when I came across another Big Finish audio, starring Nicholas Briggs as Holmes! Though not officially part of the Sherlock Holmes series issued by Big Finish, "The Confessions of Dorian Gray: Ghosts of Christmas Past" is of particular interest to any Sherlockian and is the subject of today's review.

It is the Christmas of 1912. Dorian Gray (Alexander Vlahos) is returning to London after an extended stay in Europe. His trip turns sour however when his portrait, a painting of great importance to Dorian is stolen from his hotel. Those who have stolen the portrait have only one request for Dorian - he must kill Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, Holmes (Nicholas Briggs) had returned to London for a brief visit from his home on the Sussex Downs to spend Christmas with Mycroft. Taking up lodgings temporarily at Baker Street once more, Holmes spies a man loitering outside, a man who resembles Professor James Moriarty. How could the Napoleon of Crime be alive 20 years after his death at the Reichenbach Falls? Dorian Gray and Sherlock Holmes will have to join forces to find out.

Dorian Gray, an impressionable young man who sells his soul in order to remain forever young while his portrait ages, was the product of Oscar Wilde's imagination. Wilde's only published novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" was published in Lippincot's Magazine in the July of 1890. Today considered a masterpiece of horror and symbolism, the character of Dorian Gray has taken on new life in the form of Big Finish's audio series, "The Confessions of Dorian Gray," all of which starring Alexander Vlahos. I have not listened to any of the other installments in the series, so I cannot compare them to "Ghosts of Christmas Past," yet if they are anything like this audio, then they are very enjoyable.

According to David Stuart Davies' excellent book, "Starring Sherlock Holmes," screenwriter Alan Cubbitt was considering writing a Sherlock Holmes-vs.-Dorian Gray story following the 2002 version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Cubbitt scrapped the idea, claiming that the supernatural events present in Wilde's novel made it hard to fit into the Conan Doyle canon. This problem did not seem to daunt Tony Lee, writer of "Ghosts of Christmas Past." Supernatural had been present in Big Finish's other Sherlock Holmes audios, most notably the Sherlock Holmes-vs.-Dracula story, "The Tangled Skein," so it perhaps doesn't seem too far out of place here. As per Doyle, Holmes is presented throughout as skeptic, and his discounting of the otherworldly doesn't change even when faced with overwhelming evidence.

Vlahos (left) as Dorian and Nicholas Briggs
(right) as Holmes
Nicholas Briggs is great as Holmes, though the detective is more of a secondary character this time around. The real star is Alexander Vlahos as Dorian Gray, and he does a fine job. I am somewhat surprised that Dorian was presented in something of a sympathetic light here, and I'd say my biggest quibble is that Vlahos simply did not convey the "evil" side of Dorian Gray. Particular credit is due to Rupert Young as Moriarty, who is thoroughly menacingly as the Napoleon of Crime. I only wish that Young could have been provided more material. Moriarty is such a ripe character and the performance is so good, it's a shame that there isn't more for him to do. It seems as though Holmes' arch-enemy was thrown into the mix to pad out the story's running-time.

Nevertheless, "Ghosts of Christmas Past" was an excellent Big Finish audio recording. It is a great addition to Nicholas Briggs' Sherlock Holmes repertoire, and boosts fine acting, writing and plotting. The story is wrought with suspense and I will not lie - it had me on the edge of my seat as the audio reached its climax. I do not hesitate giving "The Confessions of Dorian Gray: Ghosts of Christmas Past" 4 out of 5 stars. As I mentioned above, this audio marked my first exposure to Big Finish's Dorian Gray series, and I hope that it is not my last.