LETHAL WHITE (2018) ***
by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Published by Sphere, 2018, 650pp
Blurb: When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic. Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside. And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that…
The fourth Cormoran Strike novel is a long, twisting mystery with a sophisticated plot and a colourful cast of eccentric characters. Rowling has a tendency to increase the page count in her series novels as they progress. There is certainly enough complexity in this mystery to warrant a longer novel, but at 650 pages you have to ask whether this could have been pruned back. The domestic stuff, whilst helping flesh out the central characters, does often get in the way of the developing mystery. Rowling is seemingly running story arcs through these novels as a hook for the reader to return for the next instalment.
The book initially progresses slowly through a blackmail plot against a government minister during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. Robin goes undercover to tease out information against the perpetrators. At the half-way point, the story takes a sharp turn and the plot thickens into a murder mystery. The pace quickens from here as the detective duo gradually unravel the mystery and the finale is a tense play-off. Whilst the plot here is probably the most labyrinthine of Rowling’s novels at the same time it is perhaps the least involving. Most of the characters come across as either spoilt, rich brats or anarchists with a chip on their shoulder. The reader, therefore, would be happy to see any of them unmasked as the chief villain. The only sympathetic major character outside of the two detectives is the mentally disturbed Billy. The resolution of his story of sinister childhood memory is much more satisfactory. There is also a tendency to gloss over of the police involvement in the case. Their seeming happiness for Strike to do their job for them does not ring true and there is an absence of the conflict evident in the earlier books.
Rowling has created a likeable detective team with this series and I look forward to their next outing but hope Rowling’s editors have more of a say in its pacing.
Entertainment Weekly has published what they say is the first official image from the upcoming Shaft movie due to be released in June of 2019. The image shows the three generations of Shaft – Jessie T Usher, Samuel L Jackson and Richard Roundtree – with Alexandra Shipp.
Jackson had this to say of his return to the role he first played in 2000: “He’s mellowed a bit. He’s not quite as crazy and cynical. Maybe a bit more devil-may-care the last time we saw him. But still an extremely dangerous and funny character.”
Out of the Past (1947; USA; B&W; 97m) ***** d. Jacques Tourneur; w. Daniel Mainwaring; ph. Nicholas Musuraca; m. Roy Webb. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Steve Brodie, Richard Webb, Virginia Huston, Dickie Moore, Frank Wilcox, Mary Field, Paul Valentine, Ken Niles, Oliver Blake, James Bush, John Kellogg. A private eye escapes his past to run a gas station in a small town, but his past catches up with him. Now he must return to the big city world of danger, corruption, double-crosses and duplicitous dames. Classic film noir is brilliantly structured and immaculately directed by Tourneur with crackling dialogue. Mitchum and Greer give standout performances as opportunistic lovers thrown together by fate. Douglas is the sleazy gambler making up the triangle. Cross follows double-cross and it hangs together until its ironic final twist. A masterclass in film-making. Mainwaring adapted his own novel “Build My Gallows High”, which was also the UK title of the film on its original release. Remade as AGAINST ALL ODDS (1984). [PG]
Last Picture Show, The (1971; USA; B&W; 118m) ****½ d. Peter Bogdanovich; w. Peter Bogdanovich, Larry McMurtry; ph. Robert Surtees; m. Phil Harris, Johnny Standley, Hank Thompson. Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, Randy Quaid, Joe Heathcock, Bill Thurman, Jessie Lee Fulton, John Hillerman, Noble Willingham, Grover Lewis, Kimberly Hyde, Gary Brockette, Sharon Taggart. In 1951, a group of high schoolers come of age in a bleak, isolated, atrophied West Texas town that is slowly dying, both culturally and economically. Superbly acted drama populated by imperfect characters trying to make a sense of their lives in a dying Texas town. Bogdanovich gives the characters room to breathe and adds a directorial flourish to create an overarching sense of sadness. The 1950s setting is realistically realised through Polly Platt’s production design and Surtees’ black-and-white cinematography. Won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Johnson) and Supporting Actress (Leachman) as well as receiving six other nominations. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry. Director’s cut runs 126m. Followed by TEXASVILLE (1990). 
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.