Monday, May 27, 2013

Review - "The Dragon Murder Case" (1934)

The last Philo Vance movie which I looked into, "The Kennel Murder Case" featured the standard lock-room, impossible crime mystery. The next film to be released, "The Dragon Murder Case" took the concept of the impossible crime one step further. While going for a late night swim, a man jumps off of a swimming pool diving board and doesn't resurface. There were a number of witnesses who saw him up into the pool, but even after the pool is drained his body is nowhere to be found. What happened to him and where did he go? Detective Philo Vance (Warren William) steps in to investigate.

The premise of S.S. Van Dine's "The Dragon Murder Case" has got to be one of the best in the mystery genre. It takes the usual impossible crime scenario and builds upon it dramatically. It's a great concept and one of the best ideas for a mystery story that I have come across. However, the execution is let down somewhat by the introduction of a second plot device which really doesn't go anywhere. However, let's focus on the positive first. Aside from the premise, the film's greatest asset is Warren William as Philo Vance. William has great charisma and he looks as though he's a ball playing the part. His performance is thus far the  most pompous and most true to the original character of the detective. You also never forget that this Philo Vance is firmly integrated in high society. He waltzes around the first part of the film dressed in a tuxedo, smoking an endless number of cigarettes and playing a game of billiards with his friend, D.A. Markham.

In addition to the characterization of Philo Vance, the rest of the movie succeeds in portraying the high society in which the story is set. The opening moments find the characters driving about in luxurious cars and the set of the house in which the story is set is beautiful with a number of strategically placed fish tanks. It's a beautiful sight to behold. Perhaps some of the reasoning behind this great direction and characterization is because the movie was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. Humberstone, a few years later, directed some of the very best Charlie Chan mystery films at 20th Century Fox and was also behind the wheel of Fox's brilliant film noir, "I Wake up Screaming."

The rest of the cast of the movie is rather ho-hum. While it's good, it is by no means excellent acting, although Eugene Pallette makes a welcome reappearance as Sergeant Heath and he continues to carry on the role brilliantly in the presence of the new cast. Character actor Lyle Talbot is also on hand as one of the murder suspects. Talbot was a distinguished character actor appearing in 320 titles. Aside from a great amount of television work he also appeared as Commissioner Gordon in the 1949 serial, "Batman and Robin" and had the distinction (perhaps misfortune) of being cast in two films for the notorious Ed Wood in the late 1950's opposite Bela Lugosi.

Warren William (center) alongside Eugene Pallette (left)
and Robert McWade (right) in "The Dragon Murder Case"
While the mystery angle of "The Dragon Murder Case" is excellent, the dragon part is not. The swimming pool in which the man disappears is supposedly haunted by a great water demon and when the pool is drained there are claw-mark footprints on the pool's sandy bottom. This aspect of the story really does not succeed at all and one wonders why it was included at all. In fact aside from some continued babbling from one suspect about the water monster, the theory is not exploited in the film. To a modern day viewer, the answer to the mystery may be rather explanatory, but there is no credence at all to the idea of a dragon living in the swimming pool. However, this one must be blamed on S.S. Van Dine. Oh well - it doesn't mar the film all that much.

With a great central mystery and some fine acting from Warren William and Eugene Pallette as well as wonderful direction from H. Bruce Humberstone, "The Dragon Murder Case" is one of the best Philo vance films in the series. We're treated to another impossible crime and despite that rubbish concerning a water monster in the pool, it work out well. "The Dragon Murder Case" easily gets a 4 out of 5 stars from this reviewer.

Notes: Again, this film is well preserved on The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection. No extras are provided for this film, however the picture and sound quality are good for the most part. Thus far, I have had no problems with the DVD at all, despite the fact that it is a DVD-R, which may be off-putting to some potential buyers.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sixth Doctor Part X - "Time and the Rani"

I finally end the Sixth Doctor's tenure - and I end it with this?

Oh dear...what to say?

Following "Trial of a Time Lord" which was sort of a mixed bag in my opinion, Colin Baker left Doctor Who, foregoing the role of the Sixth Doctor. However, since that character appears for about a minute on screen here, I must review it (just like with "The Caves of Androzani").

Normally at this point in the review, I'd give a brief summation of the story as a whole. Well, that's kind of hard to do considering "Time and the Rani" did not have much of a plot at all. It was a jumbled mess and all I could fathom was that it had to do with the newly regenerated Doctor (played by Sylvester McCoy) having to fight the Rani (Kate O'Mara) who has kidnapped a number of renowned scientists - and there's a giant brain. And there's bat-like monsters with three eyes, some green people and lots of rocks.

Although most of the 1970's episodes of Doctor Who were filmed in a quarry which doubled as an alien planet, there was something about the presentation of it which made the quarry seem like an alien planet. However, here I knew that this was a quarry and all I could see were a lot of badly-costumed actors running around some rocks. But that's sort of beside the point. Classic Doctor Who didn't have the best production values, so what? I can overlook that. What I cannot overlook is that the whole thing didn't make any sense. As I said above, there was no plot. And if there was one, I sure didn't see it.

Well, I have to talk about something positive - Sylvester McCoy. The Seventh Doctor is great. He's not in top form here since this is his first story, but the Seventh Doctor is a great character. I really do like him, despite some of the conflicted opinions concerning his tenure. And as surprising as it may seem, I actually rather like the new titles. While I feel as though the '80's titles (used by the Forth, Fifth and Sixth Doctors) are some of the best, the overly 1980's feel of the new titles and theme is sort of overwhelming, but it's not bad. Here take a look:

Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor
Aside from the Seventh Doctor and the overtly 1980's feeling from the episode, there's not much more praise I can give to it. While the Rani was a good villain in her first appearance, she is far worse here. It's not the fault of Kate O'Mara since she's a pretty competent actor, but she's let down by the script. She spends the first few episodes trying to trick the post-regenerative Doctor into thinking she is Mel, his companion (played by the ear-bleedinngly screechy-sounding Bonnie Langford). She's not much of a threat towards the Doctor here.

In my mind, "Time and the Rani" is the epitome of a bad script and it is probably the weakest story that I have seen of the Doctor Who Classic Series thus far. I have not heard anyone defend this story before, so I have to assume viewers are in agreement with me about this particular adventure. It's just a dull, uninteresting story and does not have the feeling of a momentous regeneration story. The story is saved from the brink of complete disaster by Sylvester McCoy's quarky sense of humour (getting to see him play the spoons was hysterical), but little else. It's a rather disappointing ending to the end of the Sixth Doctor's era.

A Retrospection: Colin Baker was one of the best of the eleven Doctors and surely the most underrated. I loved the Sixth Doctor immensely, but he was indeed let down by bad writing which marred episodes like "The Two Doctors," "Trial of a Time Lord" and "Time and the Rani" even though he didn't actually appear in this episode. He may have started from humble beginnings, but the Sixth Doctor is indeed a great part of the show's history. As I write this, I toy with the idea of beginning where the show started - taking a look at the First Doctor adventures. But that's a deliberation for another time.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review - "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933)

Before he was Nick Charles, William Powell played another society sleuth, this time the conceited, upper-crust detective Philo Vance. In the late 1920's, Powell portrayed the character twice before the role was taken over by Basil Rathbone in 1930's "The Bishop Murder Case." Three years elapsed before Powell returned to the part of Vance for one of the best mystery films to emerge from the early 1930's - S.S. Van Dine's "The Kennel Murder Case."

Archer Coe is found dead in a locked room with a gun in his hand. The police attribute his death as suicide, however when Vance (William Powell) arrives at the scene of the crime, he begins to suspect otherwise. Vance believes that Coe was murdered by his brother, Brisbane, who has disappeared to Chicago. However things became a bit more complex when Brisbane Coe is found dead - his body found in the downstairs closet of Archer's house.

"The Kennel Murder Case" is a great film mainly due to the fact that it has such a strong plot. The story is one of the best-plotted of the Philo Vance movies. There are plenty of suspects to sift through and motives. Plus we're given a lock-room mystery and some brilliant detective work from Vance. The fact that "The Kennel Murder Case" is such a well-plotted story might have lead to the decision to remake this story in 1940 as "Calling Philo Vance." The best performance in the movie is from William Powell who is really a pleasure to watch as Vance. He is able to convey the pompous attitude of the detective, while still remaining charming. This film predates Powell's tour-de-force performance in "The Thin Man" by one year, but already one can see the beginnings of "The Thin Man" detective, Nick Charles here.

Other performances in the movie are rather mixed. Aside from William Powell, the other stand-out performance comes from Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath. Pallette is a joy to watch and he suited perfectly for the part. The director of "The Kennel Murder Case," Michael Curtiz, would go on to work with Pallette again in 1938 when Pallette played Friar Tuck in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" opposite Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. Other actors well-known to silver screen enthusiasts appear among the cast of the film. Ralph Morgan (Frank "The Wizard of Oz" Morgan's brother), Arthur Hohl, Paul Cavanaugh and Mary Aster also turn up as suspects.

William Powell as Philo Vance
As I mentioned above, "The Kennel Murder Case" was directed by Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was a well-known director throughout the 1930's working in a number of different genres. He is perhaps best-known for his swashbuckling epics such as "The Adventures of Robin Hood" or "Captain Blood," but in his early days in Hollywood, Curtiz also dabbled in films such as the "The Kennel Murder Case." One year earlirer, the German director mounted back-to-back productions of "Doctor X" and "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" - two well-known and highly regarded pre-code horror films starring Lionel Atwill. With Curtiz at the helm of this production, the movie is quite innovative for its time. There is a lengthy flashback sequence towards the end of the movie and a well-placed crane shot. There are also some point-of-view shots, which are quite striking for early 1930's film. This film should be watched with some aspects in mind when one views this movie since it is a striking and good-looking film.

To sum up, "The Kennel Murder Case" is a real pleasure to watch. While there are some scenes which are obviously padded and some over-the-top performances, the movie doesn't suffer too greatly. It's a great movie to watch both for its well-done mystery, but also for its technical aspects which were truly ahead of its time. I award this movie a 4 out of 5 stars.

Notes: "The Kennel Murder Case" is also to be found on the Warner Bros. Archive Collection. The sound and picture quality are decent. The DVD collection doesn't feature much in anything I'd consider "bonus features" but there are some trailers for the individual films, however despite the fact that "The kennel Murder Case" was released with a theatrical trailer, there isn't one provided on this DVD.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review - "The Name of the Doctor"

As River Song would say 'spoilers...'

I'm a little late with this review. Usually I write this reviews following the show, but my mind was just blown following the airing of this story I couldn't coherently put together a formal review of the Season 7 finale. So, I will try my best to create something here which can be easily followed and not just a flow of consciousness.

Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax call upon Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and Professor River Song (Alex Kingston) when they discover that the Doctor's greatest secret which he has planned on taking to the grave has been discovered. The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara arrive on the battlefields of Tenzalore, the place where the question, the first question, the question which never be answered shall be spoken...Doctor Who?

Written by Steven Moffat, "The Name of the Doctor" is one of the best season finales which I have ever seen. It brilliantly answers all the questions we had regarding Season 7 and ties in with the sixth season as well. The answer as to who Clara, the impossible girl, who has died twice in the Doctor's presence was, was genius. It was also nice how in answering the question of her identity, we were treated to some clips from the classic series featuring the Second, Third, Forth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors. What's more, we actually saw some colourized footage of the First Doctor (played by William Hartnell) stealing the TARDIS. This episode also saw the return of the always watchable Richard E. Grant as The Great Intelligence and he did a great job as the villain.

And while we're discussing villains, I feel like I should mention the Whispermen. What were supposed to be really scary villains were just really underwhelming here. Yeah, they looked cool, but they didn't do a whole lot. The creepiest scene in which they appeared was when one morphed into the Great Intelligence personified. However, one scene which really stands out is very underwhelming especially when the monsters look really cool but do not contribute to the story whatsoever.

The acting was good overall in this episode. Coming off of his acting tour-de-force from last week, Matt Smith doesn't shine as much here. However, the scene in which he discovers that he must go to Trenzalore is heartbreaking. The fact that he begins crying and his very subtle acting is fantastic. He also interacts very well with Alex Kingston as River Song. Chronologically, this story is River's final story. If this were her final appearance on the show, it would have been a grand send-off. It was all very moving and the two had great screen chemistry.

The final twist of this episode was great and it is one of the few times that I have ever fallen to my knees and yelled at my television. The final shot which introduces us to John Hurt as yet another incarnation of the Doctor was wonderful. Steven Moffat is an evil genius though - he leaves us with a tremendous plot twist such as this and then tells us we have six months until it's resolved! What shall now follow will be six months of fan speculation and theories. The 50th Anniversary special cannot come soon enough. Aside from John Hurt we have Matt Smith and David Tennant (as to the 10th Doctor) to look forward to.

While "The Name of the Doctor" wasn't as good a season finale as "The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang" from Season 5, it was a tremendous story which brought an end to an overall excellent series of Doctor Who. Overall, I'd give "The Name of the Doctor" a 4 out of 5. Well now, I'll take a little hiatus from Doctor Who and from this blog in general. I'm in the middle of a number of things at present and although I shall continue to post, I feel like I should make you aware my blog output may not be what it usually is in the coming days and weeks. Nevertheless, I hope you continue to stop in to The Consulting Detective. I try to keep an ace or two up my sleeve every once and a while.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sixth Doctor Part IX - "Trail of a Time Lord"

My lord, members of the jury and those from around the world, we are gathered here today to see whether the 14-part Doctor Who serial "Trail of a Time Lord" is worthy material. This inquiry shall look into the lost 23rd season as well as look into the individual episodes which compromise this serial. Will this be final proof that Colin Baker shall be vindicated? Let's take a look closer.

"Doctor Who" was on hiatus for 18 months following the 22nd season. Plans for a 23rd season were in the works and would see the return of numerous villains including the Celestial Toymaker, the Ice Warriors, the Master, the Rani and Sil (from "Vengeance on Varos"). For anyone interested in what that 23rd season would have looked like, click here for a short documentary narrated by Colin Baker.

What eventually came about was "Trail of a Time Lord" a 14-part serial which encompassed the entire 23rd season. The Doctor (Colin Baker) has been taken out of time and is put on trial for meddling in the affairs of time and the universe. It soon becomes apparent that the prosecutor known as the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) is willing to do anything to bring down the Doctor and the evidence in the Doctor's favour may have been tampered with. Will the Doctor be able to survive?

At first glance, the premise for this season sounds excellent. I for one am partial to legal, court-room thrillers and seeing the Doctor in this setting seemed fantastic. Most people who have a problem with this series is that the adventures are interrupted by the court room scenes which detracts from the actual story. I must disagree. I found the break in action to be quite interesting and I liked the semi-comic interludes between the Doctor and the Valeyard (or is the Scrapyard, Brickyard, Boatyard etc?). But what of the actual stories? "Trial of a Time Lord" is comprised of four stories - each one titled after the season's release. Let's take a quick look at each one.

The Mysterious Planet - This first episode does a good job of balancing the adventure and the trial sequences. We're presented with a familiar situation - the Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant) land on a strange barren planet whose inhabitants live under the ground, ruled by a powerful, sadistic robot. A group of resisters live on the surface and the Doctor and Peri soon themselves in a war to survive. As a first episode, this story isn't bad. It's good some good concepts and it did make for engaging watching. Colin Baker has mellowed out considerably and he is really a likable guy. Plus, the show has beautiful production values now and although the special effects are a bit dodgy, I think this season is one of the best-looking of the Classic era.
The Doctor is taken out of time

Mindwarp - Oftentimes considered the best story from this series, I will have to respectively disagree. I just felt really disinterested by this whole story. The Doctor and Peri find themselves on yet another alien planet where they find themselves face-to-face with Sil, from "Vengeance on Varos" who is now engaged in some illegal arms trading. In addition, one of the alien's king needs a new body and it seems as though Peri may be the perfect specimen. As I said above, the story just failed to hold my interest. It moved along at such a slow pace and I didn't care what happened to the characters. Sil, who was such a terrifying villain from "Vengeance on Varos" seems to have made a complete 180 degree character change. he no longer has the menacing air which he did originally and it seemed as though he has thrown into the mix needlessly. Guest star Brian Blessed does the best with the script he's given and as always he has an over-the-top screen presence and he's the saving grace of his tepid story.

Terror of the Vervoids - This was probably my favourite episode from the season. The Doctor and his new companion Mel (Bonnie Langford) find themselves on a passenger space ship in the future. It soon transpires that one of the guests is a ruthless killer and there is something in the cargo hold which could wreck havoc on the ship if it escaped. This was by far the best story of the series, although perhaps I'm somewhat biased since it was obviously inspired by the works of Agatha Christie (in fact guest star Honor Blackman can be seen reading a copy of Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express"). The episode is filled with some great twists and turns and we see a brilliance to the Doctor we haven't seen in a while.

The Ultimate Foe - In the final installment, the Doctor discovers that the Valeyard has been altering evidence for see the Doctor die and he escapes into the Matrix, an alternate universe where the Valeyard reigns control. I really don't know what was supposed to be happening in this story. There were some great scenes - the episode one cliff-hanger was brilliant, but aside from that it just feels like a jumbled mess. Michael Jayston gets to take centre-stage here and he portrays the villainous Valeyard brilliantly. But that doesn't make up for the jumbled mess which finishes off this serial.

To be honest, I haven't even scratched the surface here but seeing how this review is getting pretty long, I'll try and sum up. Colin Baker is brilliant as usual and he remains the most criminally underrated Doctor of the lot. The level of the writing was rather sub standard for the time and I found myself rather unattached to the action of two of the four stories. The introduction of Bonnie Langford to the TARDIS crew was an interesting move (she only screams five times in "Terror of the Vervoids" - she does it a lot more in episodes to come), but she was by no means the best companion to enter the blue box. "Trail of a Time Lord" was a rather underwhelming end to the Sixth Doctor's tenure. Colin Baker left the series at the end of this series and his shoes were soon filled by the umbrella-toting, scheming, spoons-playing Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor. Stop back next time for a glimpse into the Seventh Doctor.

Coming Next Time: I finish out my look into the Sixth Doctor's tenure with the introduction of the Seventh Doctor in "Time and the Rani."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Adventure of the Perfidious Plot Device

As much as I hate to rain on our Sherlockians of the Internet parade, there is one thing which we must admit, if we have not already. The character of Professor James Moriarty is a plot device. A good one mind you and one has developed his own life, but he only started out as a plot device with the purpose of killing Sherlock Holmes.

If you're familiar with the story, feel free to skip this paragraph. In 1893 after having written two novels and two complete series of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle had had enough. He wanted to focus on different forms of writing and he felt that Holmes had eclipsed him. So in a bold move, Doyle wrote "The Final Problem" which introduced readers to Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime and the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in the city of London. After escaping the city to Switzerland, Moriarty pursues Holmes to the summit of the Reichenbach Falls where the two topple to their death.

That's how it would have been if Doyle had gotten his way. With his detective as dead as a doornail, Doyle moved onto different work, only resurrecting Holmes seven years later in "The Hound of Baskervilles" since the plot lacked a central character to tie it all together. In 1903 Holmes made his reappearance in "The Empty House" and his literary character has since prospered. Nevertheless, we must still face the inevitable. Professor Moriarty was only intended to appear in one story and then die. He would be Holmes' ultimate foe and the great detective would die in an act of heroics.

What I found so interesting about this is how Moriarty has taken on a life of his own. It is a rare occasion to find a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in which the character of Moriarty is not mentioned or written about. He has gone on to become just as famous as Holmes and Watson, becoming invariably tied to the great detective. What's more, Moriarty was the first "criminal mastermind." His presence in the canon paved the way for dozens of villains to come. In my mind, most of the James Bond villains owe something to the old mathematics professor.

Non-creepy fan art - YAY!
Even though he has been expanded upon greatly since his inception, Professor Moriarty has remained more or the less the same. He's still the evil mastermind plotting the downfall of Sherlock Holmes and carrying out some evil schemes all the while. The most radical change in character for Moriarty has come in the BBC series, "Sherlock" and it's not a bad one. Moriarty becomes the embodiment of Holmes' evil side. Sherlock and Jim Moriarty (played brilliantly by Andrew Scott) are essentially two sides of the same coin. And even then, there'll not all that different. "I may be on the side of the angels," Sherlock says, "But don;t think for one second that I am one of them." Surely it's one of the most brilliant lines in the show and really adds new depth to the Moriarty relationship.

In addition to "Sherlock," Moriarty has been captured on screen a number of times. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce faced three different Moriarty's in their series of 14 films. Moriarty was played by George Zucco, Lionel Atwill and Henry Daniell in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (1939), "The Secret Weapon" (1943) and "The Woman in Green" (1945) respectively. The professor has also been played by Eric Porter, Malcolm McDowell, Richard Roxburgh, Vincent Price (well sort of), Anthony Andrews, Jared Harris and Sir Laurence Oliver. And that's only the tip of the ice-berg. Moriarty has appeared in so many different forms - from the king in a game of Sherlock Holmes chess to having his own novel by Kim Newman (which I really ought to get around to reading).

I just find it incredible what has occurred to the character of Professor James Moriarty. What originated as a one-off plot device has became something far greater. Professor Moriarty is tied to Sherlock Holmes just as much as the pipe, the deerstalker hat and Dr. Watson are. He has become one of the most popular figures in Sherlockian culture and I think that he'll continue to be for a very long time.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review - "Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver"

Again, spoilers if you have not yet seen the have been formally warned

I love the Cybermen. When I began watching Doctor Who, I found them to be quite terrifying. The fact that they are so human and yet not is perhaps what's so scary about them. They are devoid of emotion and intent on destruction no matter what the cost. So did this episode which sees the return of the Cybermen live up to the promise of restoring this terrifying angle?

Following closely on from last week's episode, the two children Clara looks after as a nanny tag along in the TARDIS. The Doctor (Matt Smith) decides to take them to the "biggest and best amusement park in the universe." What he doesn't realize is that this planet has been ravaged by the Cybermen in the past and although it may seem as though there are no Cybermen left, something sinister and evil is lurking, lying in wait...

"Nightmare in Silver" was written by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman, a prolific author has dabbled in a number of different genres writing books such as "Coraline," "American Gods" and "Neverwhere." The third of which was recently adapted into an audio drama featuring the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Sir Christopher Lee. Gaiman also wrote "The Doctor's Wife," the most beloved episode of Series 6 by many. I am certainly the minority, but I felt as though "The Doctor's Wife" was a rather overrated episode. Yes - it was good, in fact one of the best episodes of Series 6, but it receives so much recognition which I feel is somewhat unwarranted. I'm sorry and please save your cabbage and tomatoes until I've finished.

In my mind, Neil Gaiman has actually surpassed himself with this story. It begins right away and it never lets up. The story is able to get across a great deal of plodding exposition quickly and in true Neil Gaiman fashion we're introduced to a host of quarky characters straight away. The tension is also great throughout these early stages of the story. The reveal of the chess-playing Cyberman was also great, and I loved how it was based off of a real automaton in the late 18th century which toured the Thirteen Colonies beating the likes of Benjamin Franklin at games of chess.

As to the actual Cybermen, I thought they were great. The creepiest part of the whole thing was how little we actually saw of them. While some people might criticize the episode for not showing the Cybermen enough, I felt like seeing little of them actually added to the overall spookiness of them. Towards the middle of the episode there was a brilliant shot of the Cybermen emerging from their tombs and a countless number of them flood the television screen. It was a brilliantly composed shot and it was truly our first glimpse of the enemy in this episode.

The Dueling Doctors
However, the real star of this episode is Matt Smith who is brilliant as always. However, this time his acting chops are extended a bit as the Doctor must battle his evil side. The Doctor begins a Cyber conversion and therefore must defeat the Cyber-Controller who is trying to take over his body. The Doctor must gamble his life over a game of chess. Matt Smith is brilliant in this dual role and his subtle change in character is wonderfully executed. With just a little change in his voice and facial expression, he is able to convey a completely different character. I thought that this was possibly Matt Smith's finest hour in the show and surely one of his greatest performances in the series thus far. However, not all the acting and characterization was not up to Matt Smith's level. The characters of the two children, Archie and Angie are incredibly tedious and annoying. Luckily, they do not have too much presence in this episode, but it was rather detracting in the episode's early stages.

In all "Nightmare in Silver" was a brilliant episode. I loved it immensely - Matt Smith was brilliant as was the writing and atmosphere. I know I didn't talk about her in the body of this review, but Jenna-Louise Coleman came into her own in this episode and has become one of the most well-rounded characters in Doctor Who's history since it returned to screens in 2005. The Cybermen were incredibly creepy and it was a wonderful upgrade. I award, and I use the word "award" with great honour, "Nightmare in Silver" a 4.5 out of 5 - thus making it one of the best episodes of Doctor Who in a long time.

Coming Next Time: All will be revealed in "The Name of the Doctor" (Here's a bit of something to wet your appetites)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review - "The Bishop Murder Case" (1930)

As Ogden Nash wrote:

            Philo Vance,
            Needs a kick in the pance

Few detectives have rivaled Philo Vance for the level of arrogance, pure pompousness and the abundance of unneeded words in his vocabulary. In retrospect, it's rather shocking that a man like this should be able to live on in a lengthy series of novels and then become popular in media.

I have never had the pleasure (or is misfortune) to read one of the original Vance novels. All of them are available on Kindle for a good price, so I may look into them in the future. For now, my knowledge of Vance comes from the series of films which were made about the detective beginning in 1930 and ending in 1940. For the longest time these films were not available on DVD. Luckily, Warner Bros. Archive Collection recently released all of them in the "Philo Vance Murder Case Collection." And so, I begin a series of reviews from this new DVD set with the first film in the collection, 1930's "The Bishop Murder Case" starring Basil Rathbone as Philo Vance.

"The Bishop Murder Case" was one of the first books to use the theme of people being murdered according to nursery rhyme. Joseph Robin, who goes by the name of "Cock Robin" is discovered murdered - with an arrow through his heart, much like the old nursery rhyme. All evidence seems to indicate a young man named Raymond Sperling, but Vance (Basil Rathbone) is not so sure. When a second murder occurs, also per a nursery rhyme, Vance and his friend District Attorney Markham have a far greater problem on their hands.

It's actually rather difficult to review this movie since I have not read the book, so I cannot say if the film follows the plot or not. I have some feeling that it does and if so there are points in the book which must be absolutely bonkers. "The Bishop Murder Case" has a quite eclectic cast of suspects everyone from the elderly professor to a hunchbacked man creeping through the shadows. In the style of the early talkie films, most of the actors over-act in the extreme. Modern day viewers should be warned - there is a lot of scenery chewing being done here. However, Basil Rathbone does not. Rathbone is truly the saving-grace of this film.

When "The Bishop Murder Case" was filmed in 1930, Rathbone was the second actor to take on the role of the society sleuth. William Powell had already played Vance twice in 1929's productions of "The Benson Murder Case" and "The Canary Murder Case" - the first two Philo Vance novels. Rathbone may seem like an unusual choice for the role of Philo Vance, perhaps because he has become synonymous in our minds as Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone's Philo Vance is a bit more reserved and less standoffish and pompous than the original. At times, he almost seems like a pretty likable guy who just so happens to be very good at solving mysteries. Rathbone's performance is stellar and he really paves the way for his future characterisation of Sherlock Holmes. The rest of the cast is sort of forgettable although there is Roland Young who puts in an appearance as one of the suspects. He doesn't have a great deal to do, but he makes the most of his time on screen.

As a mystery, "The Bishop Murder Case" is somewhat lackluster. It's got a wonderful premise which foreshadows later books such as "And Then There were None" and to some extent, "The ABC Murders." The only problem with early Hollywood adaptations of mystery novels is they try to end themselves too quickly. There is hardly enough time to build any character development before we've reveled that X is the murderer and you should all be surprised. There are plenty of suspects in this movie, and the identity of the murderer is finally reveled, it's very surprising but we have no time for this to sink in before the title card telling us the movie has come to and end is flashed up on screen.

In all, 1930's "The Bishop Murder Case" is an entertaining movie. There are certainly worse ways of spending an hour and twenty minutes. Basil Rathbone is wonderful in an early performance and really allows Philo Vance to mellow out. If anything this movie should be viewed more as an example of early movie making than a real mystery film. I award it 3 out of 5 stars.

Notes: "The Bishop Murder Case" is wonderfully preserved on "The Philo Vance Murder Case Collection" released by Warner Bros. Archive Collection. Although there are no special features to be had, the movie is in good condition. It's not perfect, but that can be expected from a movie which is 83 years old. The sound quality isn't the greatest - you have to strain to hear what some characters are saying, but the picture quality is great. To anyone who might have heard that the Archive Collection didn't feature any quality DVD transfers, this series does have nice-looking movies. In the first place one shouldn't be too picky - these movies are finally on DVD. And that's good enough.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Review - "Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror"

As usual, if you have not seen this episode, make sure you see it before you continue

I approached "The Crimson Horror" with mixed feelings. The episode was written by Mark Gatiss, one of my favourite writers, set in the Victorian era and promised a bit of a horrific nature, but reports indicated that this story would be Doctor and companion-lite. In other words - the Doctor isn't the main attraction here. So, how did I end up feeling about this story?

It's 1893. Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax (a trio of detectives last glimpsed in "The Snowmen") are asked to investigate the strange goings-on in Yorkshire. Bodies have been discovered, waxy and bright red and no one can discover what's wrong with them. What's more is there a connection with the mysterious Mrs. Gillfylower, owner of the Sweetville Mill, and what's happened to the Doctor?

I will say right now, I was very surprised by this episode. I didn't know exactly what to expect from this story and it exceeded any expectations that I may have had. It proved to feature a great deal of atmosphere, some fine performances and was an all-around fun time. Mark Gatiss has written yet another fine episode, and possibly one of his best. What he captured best was the mysterious element of the story. Although we know almost from the start that Mrs. Gillyflower is the villain of the piece, there are a number of twists and turns which the viewer encounters during the episode. I'll try to refrain from spoiling them because there was one aspect of the story I really didn't see coming. In addition, the Victorian setting is presented wonderfully. Episodes like this make me wish that the BBC would invest in a period-set Sherlock Holmes series (though I LOVE "Sherlock" - so don't get me wrong).

"The Crimson Horror" promised that it would feature Vastra, Jenny and Strax a great deal, and it did. It was great fun to see how the problem lands in Madame Vastra's hands and what leads this rag-tag group to Yorkshire. How the Doctor and Clara became involved was wonderfully presented as well through a very well-done flashback sequence. What was rather curious though was the fact that this episode wasn't really all that Doctor-lite. He appears perhaps a bit later than he usually does, but he takes center stage thereafter. In some respects it follows the pattern set by "A Good Man Goes to War." The Doctor is talked about a good deal during the opening stages and then appears and takes over.

It's a bowler hat...bowler hats are cool
Performance wise, the episode was dominated by Diana Rigg and Rachel Stirling as Mrs. Gillyflower and her daughter, Ada respectively. The real-life mother and daughter team were both fantastic in this story. You could accuse Dame Diana Rigg of hamming it up a bit, but it really fit in with the over-the-top nature of the story. The entire plot was absolutely bonkers - and yet I really liked it. The whole plot was really wild and over-the-top giving it the feel of a pulpy novel or penny-dreadful from the time. That aspect of this story was quite entertaining and it went a long way towards creating some of the Victorian England atmosphere. Oh - and Mark Gatiss managed to weave a Sherlock Holmes reference into his script. At one point the Doctor refers to the titular Crimson Horror as "the repulsive red leech." Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle should recognize that from "The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez."

So, I'll sum up here. "The Crimson Horror" was a much better than I thought that it would be. Featuring great performances from Matt Smith, Diana Rigg and Rachel Stirling, the story also boosted great atmosphere and a truly crazy plot. It was a lot of fun to watch and it kept me entertained for 45-minutes. And to be honest, that's really what I hope for when I watch "Doctor Who." Against all odds, "The Crimson Horror" is awarded 4 out of 5 stars.

Coming Next Time: It's the return of the Cybermen (and Neil Gaimen) in "Nightmare in Silver." (Click here for a teaser)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Sixth Doctor VIII - "Revelation of the Daleks"

Oftentimes regarded as one of the best, and certainly one of the darkest Doctor Who serials in the show's history, "Revelation of the Daleks" is thought to be the crowning achievement of the show's 22nd season. But, do I have the same opinion as all the others? I'm liable to have a very different outlook than most other reviewers. So, shall we take a look?

The Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant) arrive on the planet Necros. What appears to be a very quiet, snow-drenched planet is anything but. Lurking deep with in the basement of a great funeral home is the "Great Healer," who is in fact Davros (Terry Malloy) the creator of the Doctor's arch-enemy, the Daleks. What neither the Doctor nor Davros know is that Davros has a price on his head and it's only a matter of time before events reach a critical stage.

I will give this serial one thing - the premise is excellent. The Doctor and Peri arriving on a creepy, snowy planet and having Davros, surely one of the show's creepiest villains, living in the cellar of a funeral home is very scary stuff. What's more, there are some very intense scenes involving the attempted assassination of Davros and how he is creating a new race of Daleks. These elements together, if blended properly, could have made a fantastic and very scary episode. However in my mind, "Revelation of the Daleks" is a wasted opportunity. Perhaps the biggest problem I have with this story is the fact that the Doctor is a minor character. This is a similar problem that I had with "Attack of the Cybermen." Every time the Doctor and Peri get involved with the situation, the story shifts to someone's else's view point.

What's more, the Daleks do not have a key role to play in this story. It's a wonder why they were even included - this is a story about Davros, their creator. The Daleks only make an appearance in the end of the second episode and even then they don't do a whole lot. Again, wasted opportunity to use the show's most infamous villains. If the show had not included the Daleks, perhaps it might have been a bit better since we wouldn't be waiting for their arrival the entire time. Lastly, this story simply has too many characters. This story has about 15 characters and we really get characterization from a few of them. I understand that multiple story lines are supposed to be converging together here, but couldn't we have eliminated some of these characters from the story?

The Doctor with Davros (Terry Malloy)
On the positive side, Colin Baker is excellent as usual. When he is involved in the story, he's quite good and his interactions with the characters are great. The other stand-out performance is Terry Malloy as Davros. The creator of the Dalek race, Davros was introduced to viewers in the 1975 episode of Doctor Who entitled, "Genesis of the Daleks." Since then, Davros had made three more appearances before this story, and Terry Malloy is quite excellent. This version of Davros is a egomaniac bent on domination no matter what the coast. Malloy is able to deliver a number of chills up and down one's spine throughout the story. He succeeded in doing the same when he was reunited with Colin Baker for a Big Finish production entitled "Davros" which serves as something of a prequel to this story.

Following the completion of "Revelation of the Daleks," Doctor Who was nearly cancelled by the BBC. The show was on hiatus for 18 months and an entire season's worth of material was scrapped. When the show returned in late 1986, the show found itself on more ways than one.

Coming Next Time: I serve as the jury and deem whether "Trail of a Timelord" is worthy Doctor Who material - or not.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Respect the Queen of Crime

Agatha Christie is the world's best-selling author behind the Bible and Shakespeare. She is regarded as one of the greatest authors of our time, crafting some of the most ingenious and intricate plots of the mystery genre. Everyone acknowledges her brilliance, and yet she doesn't deserve the respect which she deserves.

The most disrespect towards Christie seems to come from those who should be the most fond of the Queen of Crime. In the ITV series of "Agatha Christie's Poirot" and "Agatha Christie's Marple," the adapters have done a wonderful job of reworking Christie's greatest plots. I will try to sort this out logically, but this is something of an angry rant against those adaptations which have twisted Christie's works dramatically.

On the plus side, the early adaptations of "Poirot" were excellently done. Of course, these episodes did have to change some things to make the story fit the screen, but for the most part these stories were loving recreations of the original novels. One felt the ground begin to rumble a bit with "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," which changed details unnecessarily and botched the ending of the story entirely, but this little misstep was rectified by "Lord Edgeware Dies," which I think is one of the show's best adaptations. However the greatest changes to Christie's novels were made during the next few seasons. Novels like "Sad Cypress," "Death on the Nile" and "The Hollow" were needlessly being changed around. "Death on the Nile" is a real disappointment since it had already been adapted - quite well in the 1978 theatrical version.

"Agatha Christie's Poirot" reached a horrifying crescendo when the show failed to adapt "Murder on the Orient Express" convincingly. "Murder on the Orient Express" is arguably Poirot's greatest novel, and surely the most famous one. I love the 1974 version of the book - it's one of my favourite movies and it shows how a mystery should be adapted. Instead of trying to create a worthwhile episode, this shows gives us a Poirot who is a religious fanatic, who would rather discuss theology than sink his teeth into a mystery. This played no part in the book at all, so one wonders why were given this at all?

Perhaps Poirot can solve this one...
However, what's been done to Poirot is hardly anything compared to the poor things they've done to Miss Marple. At the time of this writing, "Agatha Christie's Marple" is entering its sixth series. Many of the stories for this show are in fact not Miss Marple stories. A large number of these episodes were novels which did not feature any series detective, and Miss Marple is fitted into the story. For the upcoming sixth series, Miss Marple will appear in "Endless Night" - which is not a Miss Marple novel.

So one has to wonder why it's done. No matter how hard I try, I cannot understand what would make the adapters of Christie's books change them so drastically. Perhaps these adapters still labour under the assumption that Christie's stories were "cozies" and are not serious enough to contend with the likes of the overly dark and melodramatic "Law & Order" and what not. If that's the case then Agatha Christie shouldn't have to contend with other shows. Changing the details of the story and pointing the finger of guilt at another character entirely for the sake of making things more serious or risque is a terrible excuse to change the works of the undisputed Queen of Crime. What's more, I continue to watch these shows. At times, I feel like I should not seeing what a travesty to her original stories they can become, but some Agatha Christie is better than no Agatha Christie.

Do you have anything to add to this growing controversy? Is there a specific instance in any of these recent adaptations which really get your goat? Leave a comment, and perhaps we mystery enthusiasts of the Internet can come to some formal conclusion to the mystery of the unsatisfying adaptations.