Curse of the Jade Scorpion, The (2001; USA; Technicolor; 103m) ***½ d. Woody Allen; w. Woody Allen; ph. Fei Zhao; m. Jill Meyers (clearances). Cast: Woody Allen, Dan Aykroyd, Helen Hunt, Charlize Theron, Elizabeth Berkley, Wallace Shawn, David Ogden Stiers, Brian Markinson, John Schuck, Peter Linari. An insurance investigator and an efficiency expert who hate each other are both hypnotized by a crooked hypnotist with a jade scorpion into stealing jewels. Lightweight Allen film has some nice touches of parody on 1940s film noir and Raymond Chandler. The verbal sparring between Allen and Hunt is also reminiscent of screwball comedies from the era. High production values and a good supporting cast add much to the mix. Notable amongst them is Theron as a spoilt rich floozy. This was Allen’s most expensive film to date. 
Doctor Who: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (TV) (2018; UK; Colour; 49m) *** pr. Alex Mercer; d. Jamie Childs; w. Chris Chibnall; ph. Sam Heasman; m.Segun Akinola. Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Mark Addy, Phyllis Logan, Percelle Ascott, Jan Lee, Samuel Oatley. On the planet of Ranskoor Av Kolos, lies the remains of a brutal battlefield. But as the Doctor, Graham, Yaz and Ryan answer nine separate distress calls, they discover the planet holds far more secrets. Who is the mysterious commander with no memory? What lies beyond the mists? Who or what are the Ux? The answers will lead the Doctor and her friends towards a deadly reckoning. Season finale lacks the sense of occasion of previous seasons. The story is okay, but again the alien threat is too easily nullified and there is no real sense of jeopardy as everything feels so rushed – it was a mistake (one of many) not to sprinkle some two-parters into this series. The performances are uneven, with Gill and Cole too wooden in their parts. The best performances come from Addy and Walsh. Jodie Whittaker appears to have settled into a one-tone approach to her performance as the Doctor and many of the jokey lines feel more than a little bit wearisome. It’s all nicely shot and the visuals are very impressive. The theme of “cause and effect” by tying into THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH feels tokenistic. It provides a bookend feel to the season, but there is no real sense of wonder or surprise. An average end to what has been a disappointingly average series.
Sad news to hear of the death of John Donald Francis Black (December 30, 1932 – November 29, 2018), who was a major contributor to the success of the original Shaft.
Ernest Tidyman had adapted his own novel in a literal fashion for the original screenplay. Gordon Parks drafted in Black, a very experienced TV and screenwriter, to tighten up the plotting and dialogue. The result was a co-writer credit. The movie was shot using Black’s revision as its basis. Gordon Parks added his own magic and with Isaac Hayes’ score and Richard Roundtree’s assured starring role debut, it became an unlikely hit. MGM was saved from bankruptcy and the Blaxploitation genre took off in Hollywood. His prolific career in TV (including Star Trek, Laredo, Hawaii Five-O, etc.) demonstrates the breadth of his skills.
Black died peacefully of natural causes at the Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. A statement from his publisher Jacobs/Brown Press on behalf of his widow, Mary, can be accessed here.
You’ve Got Mail (1998; USA; Technicolor; 119m) ***½ d. Nora Ephron; w. Nora Ephron, Delia Ephron; ph. John Lindley; m. George Fenton. Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton, Steve Zahn, Dave Chappelle, Greg Kinnear, Dabney Coleman, Jeffrey Scaperrotta, John Randolph, Heather Burns, Hallee Hirsh, Cara Seymour, Katie Finneran, Michael Badalucco. Two business rivals hate each other at the office but fall in love over the internet. Hanks and Ryan replicate their SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE routine in this amiable romantic comedy. Their on-screen chemistry adds significantly to the predictability of the story. Whilst much of the scenario is overly contrived it maintains a warmth and a sprinkling of satire that proves enough to win through. Based on the play “Parfumerie” by Nikolaus Laszlo previously filmed as THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940). [PG]
Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (TV) (2018; UK; Colour; 50m) ***½ pr. Nikki Wilson; d. Jamie Childs; w. Ed Hime; ph. Denis Crossan; m.Segun Akinola. Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Eleanor Wallwork, Kevin Eldon, Christian Rubeck, Lisa Stokke, Sharon D Clarke. On the edge of a Norwegian fjord, in the present day, The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz discover a boarded-up cottage and a girl named Hanne in need of their help. What has happened here? What monster lurks in the woods around the cottage – and beyond? For the most part, this episode is intriguing and tense. The mystery is well plotted and has characters emotionally invested. Whilst conceptually this has been the most challenging episode of this series it has also been the most rewarding, showing that strong writing is what has been missing for most of this series. But the episode threatens to implode into silliness with the talking frog, which deflates much of the tension that has been built up to that point. Why did the writers and producers think this would make the episode more dramatic? It comes across as a gimmick which derails what could have been the best episode of the season by far. As it stands it is still one of the better representations of Chibnall’s vision in this disappointing run of stories. That the last three episodes, none of which have been written by Chibnall, have come closest to the series’ template show that there is still life in the concept with thoughtful writing. Let’s hope Chibnall can pull the rabbit from the hat in the last episode and the New Year special – otherwise, this will almost certainly go down as the worst series of the new run.
For a Few Dollars More (1965; Italy/Spain/West Germany; Technicolor; 132m) **** d. Sergio Leone; w. Sergio Leone, Fulvio Morsella, Luciano Vincenzoni; ph. Massimo Dallamano; m. Ennio Morricone. Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonte, Joseph Egger, Benito Stefanelli, Mara Krup, Klaus Kinski, Mario Brega, Aldo Sambrell, Luigi Pistilli, Panos Papadopulos, Roberto Camardiel, Luis Rodriguez, Tomas Blanco, Lorenzo Robledo. Two bounty hunters with completely different intentions team up to track down a Western outlaw. Follow-up to FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is more expansive and adds a subtle layer of black humour. Eastwood and Van Cleef make for a formidable pairing and their verbal jousting is enjoyable. Memorable scenes include Van Cleef’s humiliation of Kinski and the protracted shootout finale. Morricone contributes another top-class score. Not released in the U.S. until 1967. Followed by THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966). 
Doctor Who: The Witchfinders (TV) (2018; UK; Colour; 50m) *** pr. Alex Mercer; d. Sallie Aprahamian; w. Joy Wilkinson; ph. Tim Palmer; m.Segun Akinola. Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Alan Cumming, Siobhan Finneran, Tilly Steele, Tricia Kelly, Arthur Kay, Stavros Demetraki. The Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz arrive in 17th century Lancashire and become embroiled in a witch trial, run by the local landowner. As fear stalks the land, the arrival of King James I only serves to intensify the witch hunt. But is there something even more dangerous at work? Can the Doctor and friends keep the people of Bilehurst Cragg safe from all the forces that are massing in the land? A promising storyline with one or two effective scenes is undermined by a cluttered TARDIS crew trying to find enough to warrant their inclusion. Finneran delivers a strong performance, notably when she becomes possessed, but the script is not as strong as it should have been, failing to drive sufficient tension from the narrative. So, what could have been the strongest episode of this new set becomes yet another triumph of style over content. The visuals are what give the story its atmosphere and the make-up work is excellent too, but the story lacks depth due to the rush to cram a lot of material into the running time. The introduction of the alien threat late in the day leaves no room for further exploration of backstory or motivation. Ultimately, this is a story that would have benefited from room to breathe.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018; UK/USA; Colour; 134m) **** d. Bryan Singer; w. Anthony McCarten, Peter Morgan; ph. Newton Thomas Sigel; m. Becky Bentham (music supervisor). Cast: Rami Malek, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Lucy Boynton, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Allen Leech, Aaron McCusker, Jess Radomska, Max Bennett, Michelle Duncan, Ace Bhatti, Charlotte Sharland, Ian Jareth Williamson, Dickie Beau, Jesús Gallo, Jessie Vinning. Biopic drama following the life and music career of rock band Queen’s charismatic singer Freddie Mercury. Biopic is propelled by Malik’s extraordinary performance as one of the greatest rock showmen of all time. The actor accurately captures Mercury’s strengths as a performer and his weaknesses away from the limelight. This is not a portrait of the band but a study on the effect that fame has on talent. That the talent won through, albeit briefly, is brilliantly demonstrated in the finale of the band’s performance at Live Aid in 1985. 
IN A HOUSE OF LIES (2018) ***½
by Ian Rankin
Published by Orion, 2018, 372pp
Blurb: Everyone has something to hide… A missing private investigator is found, locked in a car hidden deep in the woods. Worse still – both for his family and the police – is that his body was in an area that had already been searched. Everyone has secrets… Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke is part of a new inquiry, combing through the mistakes of the original case. There were always suspicions over how the investigation was handled and now – after a decade without answers – it’s time for the truth. Nobody is innocent… Every officer involved must be questioned, and it seems everyone on the case has something to hide, and everything to lose. But there is one man who knows where the trail may lead – and that it could be the end of him: John Rebus.
The 22nd book in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series sees the retired detective feeling his age as his deteriorating health leads him to quit smoking and limit his drinking. Bored, he grasps at the opportunity to help his former partner, DI Siobhan Clarke, by re-investigating an old case. Meanwhile, Clarke herself is deeply embroiled in a murder investigation whilst fighting off an internal enquiry into her conduct.
Rankin steers away from any major political and social issues and concentrates on the mechanics of the two cases. The murder mystery involves a high-ranking businessman and a film producer as well as two corrupt cops, giving the novel a few narrative strands to weave together. Of course, there is a link between these threads and Rebus again locks horns with his nemesis Big “Ger” Cafferty who is tied to both.
Nothing too surprising here, just another well-written crime mystery by a writer who knows his craft. It’s difficult to see where Rankin will take his lead character as he ages in retirement and struggles with ill-health.
The Rebus Series:
Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991) ***
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992)
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996)
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999)
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001)
Resurrection Men (2002) ****
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006) ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½
ComicBook.com reports New Line has released the official synopsis for their Shaft sequel to be released next summer. The synopsis reads as follows:
“Shaft is the next chapter in the film franchise featuring the coolest private eye on any New York City block. JJ, aka John Shaft Jr. (Usher), may be a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, but to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death, he needs an education only his dad can provide. Absent throughout JJ’s youth, the legendary locked-and-loaded John Shaft (Jackson) agrees to help his progeny navigate Harlem’s heroin-infested underbelly. And while JJ’s own FBI analyst’s badge may clash with his dad’s trademark leather coat, there’s no denying family. Besides, Shaft’s got an agenda of his own, and a score to settle that’s professional and personal.”
The film is a follow-up to 2000’s Shaft and again stars Samuel L Jackson as John Shaft, nephew of Richard Roundtree’s original John Shaft. Roundtree reprises his role and they are joined by Jessie T. Usher playing Jackson’s son. Tim Story directs the screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow.