Film Review – TAXI DRIVER (1976)

Taxi Driver (1976; USA; Metrocolor; 113m) ∗∗∗∗½  d. Martin Scorsese; w. Paul Schrader; ph. Michael Chapman; m. Bernard Herrmann.  Cast: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Leonard Harris, Martin Scorsese, Joe Spinell. A mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran works as a night-time taxi driver in New York City where the perceived decadence and sleaze feeds his urge for violent action, attempting to save a preadolescent prostitute in the process. Intense character study with De Niro excellent in the lead. His descent from both engagement and disgust in the sleaze he sees all around him to violent redemption is portrayed with troubling authenticity. Herrmann’s imposing score and Scorsese’s use of New York locations add to the noirish nightmare atmosphere. The violent finale is shocking, whilst the film’s coda confused many with its contradictions. [18]

Film Review – EVEREST (2015)

Everest (2015; USA/UK/Iceland; Colour; 121m) ∗∗∗½  d. Baltasar Kormákur; w. Lem Dobbs, Justin Isbell, William Nicholson; ph. Salvatore Totino; m. Dario Marianelli.  Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Elizabeth Debicki, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, John Hawkes, Clive Standen, Michael Kelly, Martin Henderson, Vanessa Kirby, Thomas Goodman-Hill, Mia Goth. A group of expeditionaries attempt to climb Mount Everest. Based on a true story this is a Hollywood-ised treatment that nevertheless is an engaging experience due to some breath-taking photography and strong performances. The set-pieces sometimes lack the thrills one would expect, but this is a more a tale of endurance and will. Clarke and Brolin are excellent, whilst Gyllenhaal is also memorable in a hippy-style turn. Also shot in 3-D. [12]

Film Review – SICARIO (2015)

Sicario (2015; USA; Colour; 121m) ∗∗∗∗  d. Denis Villeneuve; w. Taylor Sheridan; ph. Roger Deakins; m. Jóhann Jóhannsson.  Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Dylan Kenin, Frank Powers, Bernardo P. Saracino, Edgar Arreola, Marty Lindsey. An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico. Absorbing and tense thriller powered by excellent performances from Blunt and Del Toro and realistically staged and shot action sequences. Dark operations are presented as the only solution to an escalating drug war and the film carries no prisoners. Thought-provoking script by Sheridan. [15]

Film Review – THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)

Ghost Breakers, The (1940; USA; B&W; 85m) ∗∗∗½  d. George Marshall; w. Walter DeLeon; ph. Charles Lang; m. Ernst Toch.  Cast: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Willie Best, Anthony Quinn, Noble Johnson, Paul Fix. A radio broadcaster, his quaking manservant, and an heiress investigate the mystery of a haunted castle in Cuba. Hope and Goddard look to repeat the success they had with THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) and largely succeed. Hope is more assured here and his one-liners are sharper. The set-up is a little protracted, but the payoff in the haunted castle is suitably spooky. Top class art direction by Hans Dreier and Robert Usher adds to atmosphere. Based on the play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard. Previously filmed in 1914 and 1922 then remade as SCARED STIFF (1953). [PG]

Film Review – THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939)

Cat and the Canary, The (1939; USA; B&W; 74m) ∗∗∗∗  d. Elliott Nugent; w. Walter DeLeon, Lynn Starling; ph. Charles Lang; m. Ernst Toch.  Cast: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal, Douglass Montgomery, Gale Sondergaard, Elizabeth Patterson, George Zucco, Nydia Westman, John Wray. When an eccentric family meets in their uncle’s remote, decaying mansion on the tenth anniversary of his death for the reading of his will, murder and madness follow. The archetypal haunted house comedy thriller with Hope in a career defining role as the reluctant hero and Goddard making an effective debut as the heiress who is being victimised. Some nifty one-liners from Hope mix with effectively spooky atmosphere heightened by cinematographer Lang’s superb use of lighting. Sondergaard is also excellent as the mysterious housekeeper. Goddard and Hope would re-team for a follow-up a year later in the similarly themed THE GHOST BREAKERS. Based on the play by John Willard. Previously filmed in 1927 and remade in 1978. [PG]

Book Review – STARSTRUCK (1975) by Ernest Tidyman

image1STARSTRUCK by ERNEST TIDYMAN (1975, W.H. Allen, 217pp) ∗∗∗

Blurb: A violent summer storm over New York hits an incoming private jet and sends it crashing into the side of the Empire State Building where it rests precariously embedded. Disturbing passions are already simmering among the VIP passengers, many of whom have secrets to hide – secrets that are sure to be revealed whether they survive or not. And now fear comes to grow as the nail-biting hours draw themselves out. The world’s most famous singer… the country’s vice-president… the new black hope prize fighter… the terrified funny man whose pregnant wife is about to go into labour… these are some of the passengers whose lives depend on Drummond, the explorer, and his co-adventurer, Hitachi, called in to secure the remains of the plane, lodged like a huge arrow nearly seventy storeys up.

Ernest Tidyman’s 1975 novel was the writer’s first foray into the disaster genre. Indeed a screenplay was developed simultaneously in the hope of cashing in on the success of movies such as Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. It also resonates closely with The Towering Inferno in its skyscraper setting. The first half of the book is taken up by slowly introducing a sleazy set of celebrity characters in Las Vegas. All the genre elements are played out through this familiar VIP cast, which includes a singer and his home-loving brother and fiancee, a comedian, a boxer and his doctor mentor, the vice-president and his mistress, a reporter, etc. Tidyman is excellent at giving these characters depth through his third-person subjective approach. Once the plane hits a storm and is smashed into the sixty-eighth floor of the Empire State Building leaving the surviving passengers stranded inside as the plane is suspended above West 33rd Street, Tidyman racks up the tension and introduces the book’s two heroes – explorer and mountaineer Drummond and his sidekick Hitachi. His heroes, though, are less well drawn than the passengers as their introduction is brief before they are immediately plunged into the action. The book gathers pace during the attempted rescue as the tensions between the fire department, the secret service and Drummond rise, whilst the passengers are pulled together as a group by their survival instinct. The resulting finale, however, is somewhat disappointing in that many of the character plot threads are left unresolved. It all feels a little rushed. Whilst Tidyman’s book is largely derivative and has its flaws, at 217 pages it is also a quick and entertaining read, but it does little to push his credentials as a writer.

Film Review – THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Man from U.N.C.L.E., The (2015; USA/UK; Colour; 116m) ∗∗½  d. Guy Ritchie; w. Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman, David C. Wilson; ph. John Mathieson; m. Daniel Pemberton.  Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christopher Sciueref, Susan Gillias, Luca Calvani, Nicon Caraman. In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons. Shallow and lightweight, but increasingly entertaining rework. Cavill is too smug and Hammer too psychotic to capture the charm of the original characters. Ritchie, however, elicits a certain kitsch feel from the derivative script. Based on the TV series that ran from 1964-8. [12]

TV Review – THE MUSKETEERS (2014-6)

THE MUSKETEERS (2014-2016, UK, Colour, 30 X 60m episodes) ∗∗∗∗

Cast: Tom Burke (Athos); Santiago Cabrera (Aramis); Peter Capaldi (Cardinal Richelieu – series one only); Howard Charles (Porthos); Alexandra Dowling (Anne of Austria); Ryan Gage (King Louis XIII); Tamla Kari (Constance Bonacieux); Maimie McCoy (Milday de Winter); Luke Pasqualino (D-Artagnan); Hugo Speer (Captain Treville); Marc Warren (Rochefort – series two only); Matthew McNulty (Grimaud – series three only); Rupert Everett (Governor Feron – series three only).

Created by Adrian Hodges
Executive Producers: Jessica Pope; Adrian Hodges (series one and two); Simon Allen & Simon J. Ashford (series three)
Music: Murray Gold, Paul Englishby

Series One (2014) ∗∗∗½
Set on the streets of 17th Century Paris, the Musketeers, Athos, Aramis and Aorthos, are far more than merely royal bodyguards for King Louis XIII; they are inseparable, loyal unto death and committed to upholding justice. when D’Artagnan arrives in Paris to avenge his father’s death he soon impresses the three Musketeers and quickly discovers kindred spirits in these boisterous soldiers. Together they must fight for honour, for valour and for love, whilst outwitting the shadowy Cardinal Richelieu.

Series Two (2015) ∗∗∗∗½
The Musketeers return in a stunning second series that explodes from the screen with more thrills, action and adventure than ever before. As France teeters on the brink of war with Spain, the death of Cardinal Richelieu has left a void that could yet be filled by an even darker threat. More mercurial and combustible than the Cardinal, Rochefort has a concealed agenda that may bring the whole realm to ruin. Vividly evoking the grit and grime of 17th century Paris’s mean streets, this gripping take on the iconic classic is visually spectacular and bursting with invention.

Series Three (2016) ∗∗∗½
Heroes on the battlefield, the Musketeers return from the Spanish front to a Paris seething with resentment, a city on the brink of starvation. The corrupt Governor Feron has been running the capital for his own ends, aided by the brutal Red Guard. But behind Feron hides an even greater menace. Lucien Grimaud is a vicious gangster with a powerful hold over the governor. While Feron might be reasoned with, Grimaud deals only in chaos and rage. Ordered to the heart of this simmering crisis, the Musketeers must face their most treacherous test yet. It’s a task that will challenge their allegiances to the crown, throw their personal lives into turmoil and compromise their loyalty to those they love – and to each other.

A series that started a little shakily in trying to establish a serious tone amidst the good humoured banter and the swashbuckling action, ultimately found its stride during a riveting second series dominated by Warren’s colossal performance as the scheming spy Rochefort. The final series took an even darker turn but drained a little of the good humour and spark from between the leads. A splendid penultimate episode set us up for a fan-pleasing finale that would tug at the heartstrings and thrill in even measures. Mixing standalone episodes and both season and series long plot threads concerning intrigue in the palace, it was always interesting and often enthralling. The cast was strong with Maimie McCoy making an alluring and evil Milady, whilst Burke is perfect as the brooding Athos. Gage was delightfully eccentric as King Louis and Dowling stoic as Anne, who has a secret she must keep from the King. The location work and photography are superb and give the series its authentic and rewarding period feel.

A blu-ray of series three alongside a collection BD box-set containing all three series will be released on Monday 15 August and comes highly recommended.

Dynamite reprint of Tidyman Shaft originals commences

ShaftCoverIn May 2014 Dynamite Entertainment announced it had purchased the literary rights to Ernest Tidyman’s creation John Shaft. The purchase was prompted by comic book writer and author David F Walker, who was given responsibility of writing new Shaft adventures in both comic book and prose forms. The result was the brilliant comic Shaft: A Complicated Man and the less effective, but nevertheless entertaining Shaft: Imitation of Life. Walker’s commendable novel Shaft’s Revenge completed the relaunch.

Last month Dynamite followed through on its promise to republish the original Ernest Tidyman novels by releasing 1970s Shaft on 20 July. This is the first time the novel has been available in a new print version in the US since the 1970s. Recently Shaft was also reissued in Italy via publisher SUR. Whilst the 7-book series has been available in a German translation as well as audio books, BIGSUR10_Tidyman_Shaft_coverShaft excepting, it has not been published in the UK since 1977.

Dynamite’s Shaft is presented in a similar format to Shaft’s Revenge and has a stylish retro cover by Robert Hack resembling the UK Corgi paperback covers for the series in the 1970s. Whilst I am delighted that Dynamite are seeking to re-introduce Tidyman’s work to a modern audience, I am slightly disappointed by the standard of presentation of the text inside. Paragraph indents are far too deep and the method of scanning the original text has resulted in some typos. The same issues were apparent in Walker’s Shaft’s Revenge. More care should have been taken in the editorial stage. I hope these problems are resolved ahead of publication of the promised second Tidyman Shaft novel Shaft Among the Jews, for which there is a preview in this reprint. That said it is great to see the first book on the bookshelves again, hopefully introducing a new generation to one of crime fiction’s most enduring characters.

Whilst Dynamite continues to fly the flag for John Shaft there is, as yet, no further news on New Line’s development of a new Shaft movie. David Walker’s open letter to the producers was trailed heavily in the press last year and although New Line attempted to reassure fans that they would not turn Shaft into a comedy, the hiring of writers known for their comedic approach did little to allay such fears. Since then it has all gone quiet. Let’s hope the producers have taken time to reflect on recent events in the US and will proceed in producing a Shaft for a modern audience whilst maintaining the essence of Tidyman’s creation.

Book Review – THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND (2015) by Stuart Neville

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by STUART NEVILLE (2015, Vintage, 362pp) ∗∗∗½

Blurb: When 12-year-old Ciaran Devine confessed to murdering his foster father it sent shock waves through the nation. DCI Serena Flanagan, then an ambitious Detective Sergeant, took Ciaran’s confession after days spent earning his trust. He hasn’t forgotten the kindness she showed him – in fact, she hasn’t left his thoughts in the seven years he’s been locked away. Probation officer Paula Cunningham, now tasked with helping Ciaran re-enter society, suspects there was more to this case than the police uncovered. Ciaran’s confession saved his brother Thomas from a far lengthier sentence, and Cunningham can see the unnatural hold Thomas still has over his vulnerable younger brother. When she brings her fears to DCI Flanagan, the years of lies begin to unravel, setting a deadly chain of events in motion.

Stuart Neville’s sixth novel focuses on a new lead character, DCI Serena Flanagan, who made her first appearance in a supporting role in Neville’s previous book, THE FINAL SILENCE. Flanagan is a driven character, but also a wife and mother, who has recently recovered from breast cancer surgery. This element of her life links into a sub-plot about the tragic killing of a friend who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. This sub-plot is primarily designed to draw the reader into believing that Flangan’s instinctive approach to detection is accurate and sets her apart from her colleagues as the rest of this particular scenario is played out rather disappointingly.

The main plot, concerning the release of juvenile murderers Thomas and Ciaran Devine, is a fairly straight-forward psychological thriller. Flanagan’s approach in gaining Ciaran’s confidence by playing on the teenager’s crush on her leads to tensions with colleagues in her department. The author highlights Flanagan’s sexual rejection by her husband, following her surgery and contrasts this with her confused feelings for the handsome, but disturbed young man. Flanagan’s exploitation of Ciaran in an attempt to find the truth about a pair of murders – one historic and one present – adds some electricity to an otherwise predictable story. Thomas’ manipulation of his younger brother is well observed and, as ever, Neville’s writing is never less than absorbing.

In its final chapters the story adopts a more conventional approach with the brothers invading Flanagan’s home and then later the resultant manhunt and its ultimate resolution. Neville smartly quickens the pace by shortening his chapters and sentences whilst making effective use of the cliffhanger to keep the reader turning the pages.

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, then is an exciting, if predictable, read that confirms Neville as one of the strongest crime fiction writers around. He is to continue using Flanagan as his main character in the follow-up SO SAY THE FALLEN. She is an interesting character and will undoubtedly develop in Neville’ capable hands.