Dressmaker, Murderer, and Arsonist?

DATELINE:  Dunga-Hill Something, Australia

audrey winslet As Tilly Dunnage

When you have an Australian comedy-murder mystery-revenge story called The Dressmaker, you may begin like a house afire. Sadly, it ends the same way literally, which is not so hot.

Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth are both highly watchable in the lead roles, and extremely attractive.

Though when Tilly (Winslet) arrives in 1951 back to her childhood home looking like a Parisian model, her opening statement indicates that she is out for revenge. Alas, that doesn’t really transpire until almost the end of the movie. Mostly she torments the rugby teams.

We never saw Audrey Hepburn play an arsonist/murderer.

Kate Winslet looks stunning coming off a bus in the middle of the outback, looking like the Paris runway was down the street. The film echoes many 1950s movies, like the Audrey Hepburn vehicles where she wore the best Dior.

The film is highly entertaining for the first 90 minutes, then sinks by its own dead weight. And we do mean dead.

The Dressmaker comes with her Singer sewing machine and starts to make gorgeous gowns and day wear. We did wonder where all that material came from. Why quibble?

With stylish clothing worn by the women cast in stunning transformation, it is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s appearance in Sabrina. Indeed, the film is a throwback to 1950, when the characters even go see Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.

Of course, the rub is that the dressmaker has amnesia when it comes to having murdered a childhood playmate. The police sergeant is a cross-dressing friend, thank heavens.

Did Winslet‘s character kill a young boy? With the cast of characters being strangely off- putting, you will be intrigued. For a while.

The movie devolves into soapy opera in the final 30 minutes. There are so many deaths you need a scorecard to figure out who’s killing whom and why.

However, the early visuals are so striking and unforgettable, you almost forgive the bad ending.

 

Beware, My Lovely, or the Man Shows Up

DATELINE: TV Beats the Movie!

audie Frightening Audie!

You have to love an old movie that uses a comma for direct address, as in Beware, My Lovely.

You might think this was a detective movie—but it is about a psycho who has come to torment the resident of a rooming house. In this RKO special of 1952, it’s Ida Lupino as a landlady running a boarding house after World War I in 1918—and her unpleasant visitor is Robert Ryan as Howard, a certified early version of Norman Bates.

Tall and menacing, we wondered how Miss Lupino, still young and attractive, could not be a bit threatened by this actor who made creepy and brutish villains one of his specialty. The film is based on a stage play by Mel Dinelli, which struck a chord with us. We wrote about it in a biography of Audie Murphy called Audie in Vietnam!

In fact, we realized that we saw this play done live on television by Audie Murphy and Thelma Ritter in 1960! It’s still available for those who look hard. Now that was quite a feat: Audie Murphy, the boyish war hero turned cowboy star, played against type.  He was so innocent-looking, the Norman Bates element was horrifying in a year before Hitchcock released Psycho.

Thelma Ritter was a marvelous old character actress who could play tough or vulnerable, but seemed a helpless victim. And, her little dog is not entirely happy with the handyman who shows up to torment her. Murphy draws upon some inner demons in one of his best performances.

The movie featured about 25 minutes of pre-story development that the TV special eliminated. Of course, to see Robert Ryan apparently black out and murder someone in the first minute of the movie put a different spin on the story.

Beware, My Lovely is not bad—but we think better performances were given by Audie and Thelma a few years after this film bombed. The Man with Murphy’s Howard the psycho is available on YouTube for free.

Endeavour 5.4, Colours

DATELINE: Nazis at Oxford

 Jack Bannon

Jack Bannon, as Sam Thursday

With the latest episode of Endeavour entitled “Colours,” referring to racial and military problems, the focus switches to some extent to the adult children of DCI Fred Thursday.  Sam and Joan are definitely problems (Jack Bannon, Sara Vickers) to their by-the-book policeman father.

Sam has been in the military for the past two seasons but returns as a suspect and witness to a murder on a local army base. Jack Bannon returns to the series for a shot and a conflict with Fred (Roger Allam). Daughter Joan has begun to be socially conscious and is arrested at a protest against segregation.

We are in the midst of 1968 where Fred and his wife Win may be entering ballroom dancing contests, but murders seem to be rampant at Oxford. Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) always closely tied to Thursday and his children must remain objective.

Indeed, Chief Bright (Anton Lesser) takes Fred Thursday off the case because of his family connection to the death of a model (whose parents were Nazi sympathizers during World War II).

If all these complications seem to be mounting up, you need only see one suspect who has a photo of Hitler at her wedding in the early 1940s. It ties in neatly with the racial turmoil and prejudice at Oxford in the 1960s.

Characters continue to evolve: as two women in Morse’s life are moving onward to other police colleagues (DCI Strange and Joan & policeman Shelley and DC Fancy). This will certainly leave Morse in the lurch and explains 20 years later his bachelorhood in the original series.

Complex, subtle, and filled with red herrings, the series continues to provide challenging mysteries.

 

Spin Dry Man

DATELINE: Smarty Pants

spin dry

If you want a movie that gives a disservice, try The Spinning Man. This is one of those intellectual mystery movies, which is to say, you won’t have clever a plot, only an overwrought one.

The movie has all the ingredients for an excellent film, so what went wrong? The movie deals with a prickly, pompous, persnickety, philandering professor of philosophy who is suspected of a murder by a persistent police detective. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled plots too.

Stars are Pierce Brosnan and Guy Pearce. We presumed Pearce was the cop and Pierce was the suspect. How wrong we were to fall into the plot hole. That’s a great start.

However, we’ve known our share of philosophy professors at small private colleges—and none has been as obtuse and arrogant as Guy Pearce’s Dr. Birch. He antagonizes the police needlessly when they question him about a missing female student whom he may or may not have known.

Pearce is snide, even to his long-suffering wife (Minnie Driver) who also begins to think he not only sleeps with an array of beautiful nubile young students but may be responsible for something dastardly.

Pierce Brosnan’s detective is an intellectual equal to the professor, and he may be put off by the abject hostility. Okay, we know some professors see police as enemies. And, personal flaws render some police detectives to a parochial beat.

We then are thrust into one of those philosophical conundrums like you found with Guy Pearce in Chris Nolan’s film about memory. Lightning does not strike twice.

The audience is hung out to dry when solutions seem to come tumbling out. We were left a tad irritated more than intrigued, which is never good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decree, Ripper, & Sherlock Holmes

DATELINE: Solid Sherlock Entry!

Mason & Plummer

Back in 1979, another tandem of Sherlock and Dr. Watson came in the form of Christopher Plummer and James Mason. You certainly could not find a better pedigree. The film is Murder by Decree, one of the lesser entries in the Holmes movies.

The film deserves a better fate than to be forgotten.

Director Bob Clark (of Porky’s and Christmas Story) surrounded them with a stellar cast of actors (Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Susan Clark, David Hemmings) and some bad set-up minatures of London.

You can expect superior performances—and the Holmes/Watson team is highly watchable, though we took umbrage with Holmes wearing his deerstalker hat in London and showing tears after interviewing a woman in a mad house.

The idea of Holmes chasing after Jack the Ripper is always a staple notion of Victorian crime, though it is not part of the original Conan Doyle canon. Indeed, it seems as if someone decided to plunk down Holmes in the middle of a serious murder conspiracy theory of 1979.

The idea that the Ripper was a member of the royal family has been floated in various situations, but never played for a fictional interpretation with these results.

Blame seems aimed at the usual suspects of conspiracy theory. The culprits here are, once again, freemasons of the 33rd degree who now seem to be covering up the Ripper (other tales make them complicit in UFOs and the Kennedy assassination). With all the top government officials involved, we wondered where Mycroft might be.

In this incarnation, the Ripper plot goes right to Queen Victoria and her Prime Minister. This story seems to support the notion that the monarchy of England deserves to be dismissed. Of course, it is too radical even for Americans.

The politics of religion dominates the story as Catholics and Jews are also made part of the investigation, albeit as victims of prejudice and hate.

 

Endeavour 5.1 Returns to Egghead Crime

DATELINE: Thinkers Apply

 Shaun Evans Morse’s Code

Young Morse, now a detective sergeant at the Oxford, England, constabulary, returns for a fifth season of Endeavour. It is welcome murder mystery territory, adjacent to Agatha Christie Land in an episode called “Muse.”

Morse’s first name is Endeavour, though no one ever calls him by that. As played by cutie-pie Shaun Evans, he is an anti-social, opera-loving, crossword puzzle kind of guy. He is, according to one of his colleagues, “prickly.” We like him.

The series returns for its longest season, owing to its growing popularity, and its setting which is the Swinging 1960s. As this fifth season opens, we are on the edge of the historic assassination of Martin Luther King. It’s not a plot device, merely a marker of the times.

If there seems to be a flaw in the series, it is that the Beatles haircuts that were all the rage of Carnaby Street and London appear to be absent in the students of Oxford as shown here.

As for the murders in academia, we find ourselves once again mixed in with a dangerous group of scholars. Between organized crime and academic dons, Morse must weave his over-educated presence, fitting into neither world. He is amused when his superior, Fred Thursday (Roger Allam’s crusty vet) talks tough to thugs.

This season the usual supporting cast members all return—the business-oriented female cop (Dakota Blue Richards) who respects Morse and likely finds him attractive but unapproachable. She must stoically stand in the interrogation room while a prostitute suspect slices and dices Morse’s character with a scathing psychological analysis on the mark.

There is the coroner with his macabre humor, and the head honcho Anton Lesser as the standoffish commander of the precinct.

This case centers on a Faberge Egg, now on display and likely to be stolen when a series of odd murders occurs in conjunction with its showing before auction.

The suspects are always cleverly lined up, and the red herrings are never ahead of Morse’s eye.

This was a juicy, intelligent murder mystery to start the new season, which is rushing headlong into the world crises of the 1960s and 1970s. Every little movie is a gem and, in this case, a jolly good egghead story.

 

Experience’s Billy the Kid

DATELINE: Westworld for Real

when billy

When PBS tackles Billy the Kid (a moniker if ever there was), you have something tantamount to Fox News covering Donald Trump. Yes, Americans have a thing for serial killers and serial idiots.

You probably can find a gulf of differences between Trump and Bonney, but they are under the skin self-styled self-important American icons. One was rich and one was poor, but both saw themselves as Robin Hood. They took what they wanted.

For the second season premiere of American Experience, the show decided to do a one-hour special on the Kid. This is a distinct disadvantage in a visual age when there is but one recognized photo of Billy. We see it ad nauseum.

Don’t look for clips from your favorite Billy movie because this is a real history documentary. They eschew Audie Murphy, Emilio Estevez, and Robert Taylor, all of whom epitomized what the experts talk about in movies made a generation or two ago.

And, the show trots out the usual so-called experts on the West, all of whom now see Billy as a kindred spirit to the mistreated Mexicans and Navaho. Yes, he is a civil rights champion.

Billy picked up Spanish language quickly. He had a good ear, but the rest of his face was wanting. However, these experts show us the face of an ugly adolescent and call him “handsome.” You know you are not in Kansas, but in Lincoln County.

The episode also sets the Range War as a version of the War of the Roses: you have Irish immigrants versus British aristocrats with a hired army of mercenaries, including Billy fighting against his own Irish roots.

The legend escaped, but the boy was gunned down in a notorious bedroom shooting. No one mentions whether he was sleeping with a girlfriend, or boyfriend. He was a cop killer with bad press. Like Trump, he decided what law enforcement he approved and called his media following biased.

The short bio dismisses much in an effort to stay on target. Their target was out of range before this so-called documentary started.

Dr. William Russo is author of the historical fiction, When Billy the Kid Met Ben Hur, which examines the Kid’s relationship to Governor Lew Wallace.

 

 

 

 

We’ll Be Hanged Hangman

DATELINE:  Pacino & Shahi

 Hangman stars

Al Pacino is at an age when Robert DeNiro plays comedy roles, but Pacino is still looking at detective action thrillers.

He is a bit long in the tooth, and we worry when he falls down that he may break a hip. He looks great actually.

In Hangman, he has chosen the role of a detective who retired a year ago (at 77) and is back on special assignment with his young partner (Karl Urban) when a serial killer calls out their badge numbers.

There is some initial interest in seeing this movie because of the cast, and Sarah Shahi (Person of Interest) as the young, tough woman captain of the force in some small city.

For some reason inexplicable to anyone, Pacino plays his detective with an Andy Griffith, aw shucks, Mayberry accent. He’s the only one with such a speech impediment among the New York actors.

If that were not weird enough, the serial killer wants to play Hangman, literally, hanging his victims with a letter carved into their bodies.

Well, if koo-koo descends into ridiculous, we do not find it sublime. We’ve had our fill of brilliantly smart serial killers. We are challenged to stay with this film, mainly because of the actors.

The plot does not thicken: it curdles. We discover both detectives have a personal connection to victims, but this does not disqualify them from the case.

And, to make matters worse, there is a Lois Lane type tagging along to all the crime scenes. When told not to obstruct justice, she enters the case and compounds trouble. Call her the plot hole.

It’s enough to throw in the noose and call it a hang dog day afternoon. Just terrible, and what a waste of talented actors.

Death Wish 45 Years Later

DATELINE: Willis Versus Bronson

 death 3

Bruce Willis is every bit as good as Charles Bronson in the remake of the classic Brian Garfield story. But, the movie is less about vigilantes this time and more about revenge.

A new version of Death Wish, 2018, seems like yesterday’s headlines.

If you want to match up Willis versus Bronson, you may be making the wrong comparison. Both are brilliant in the role of Paul Kersey, though Bronson always seemed more dangerous than smarmy.

Taking the law into his own hands, Paul Kersey is back for a new generation, armed with smartphones, video surveillance, and automatic weapons on every city block.

The more things change, the worse it becomes in American society. Indeed, the media chorus in the movie keeps telling us that Chicago is a murderous city. The senseless cruelty seems on a par with fifty years ago.

Gun control is a joke in 1974 and is a punchline now.

The 1970s might seem like a placid time next to today’s weekly shoot’em ups. However, the movie stays with the split-screen approach to story-telling that was the rage in the 1970s. We have a definite throwback movie here.

This time Bruce Willis has a brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) as a foil, but the police exasperation is partly admiration for the Grim Reaper’s work. You know the police will never convict, nor apprehend Paul Kersey, though the 1970s movies better explained why they let him get away.

When Willis shoots the bad guys, you still have the urge to commend the vigilante killer and excuse gun control as a bad idea. This time Kersey is a top-notch big city surgeon, obviously dedicated to life-saving. Bronson’s Kersey was a big business architect.

He has his eyes opened even with his father-in-law (Len Cariou in a delightful cameo) and with the commissioner of police (Stephen McHattie, a long-ago familiar face).

The shoot out is a stand off.

Serpent’s Time in the Pup Tent

 DATELINE:  Best Actor for Mamba

serpent

The Serpent is an effort under 90-minutes that tries to rejuvenate an old Hitchcock claustrophobic situation.

Two people are stuck in a small tent with a black mamba.

Well, okay, we are ready to give it a go: it seems a shorthand for giving us the creeps. Since most people have a great disdain for snakes, you immediately build in a horrid, bone chilling concept.

Like all movies of this sort like Snakes on a Plane, the first 30 minutes is exposition on what is the set up. Director Amanda Evans has her snake and cake too. From the get-go, you have role reversals. The husband is at home making dinner, and the philandering wife is now being pursued by her stalking boyfriend.

Oh, yes, the husband happens to be an etymologist with creeping insects at his research heart. He plans to go out on a highly important trip somewhere to the outback of South Africa (well, you don’t find black mambas in upstate New York).

The wife is American, and the husband is one of those bland scientists who looks like a boy scout. He dumps his co-scientist and takes his wife to the Edenic wilderness. Big mistake and rather unprofessional.

By now you realize the husband is named Adam, and the wife is named Gwynn. The serpent is named mamba. He warns her that a little birdie will go crazy if there are snakes around, but she never notices—and leaves the tent flap open during a bush visit.

Suffice it to say, the best performer here is the snake. With his open mouth and smiling visage, he seems to coil around the naked bodies with all the perversity of Jack the Ripper. He’s the star.

While using his wife’s phone for a nightlight, hubby Adam finds texts from her boyfriend. Talk about a night killer.

There’s a biblical story in here somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Remember: Unforgettable Movie!

DATELINE: Kosher Death Wish

Remember Two Old Pros!

Atom Egoyan’s film Remember is a geriatric thriller. That’s no put-down. We like films with a twist, and this one is so twisted that it is frightful. This is not your grandfather’s Boys from Brazil.

Christopher Plummer plays Zev, a man suffering from dementia in a nursing home with another man named Max who is played by Martin Landau.

As if the ironies were not enough, Landau (once Rollie Hand on the old Mission Impossible) gives Plummer an impossible mission.  He is to hunt down and assassinate an escaped Nazi war criminal.  What can a 90-year old with memory problems do in his spare time? Two survivors of Auschwitz find their fates in a nursing home.

You might say this is balderdash, but the old man is hell-bent on his mission of vengeance, with his memories programmed by a retired Simon Weisenthal Nazi hunter.

There is no stopping Plummer’s man on a mission. He must bring justice to a Nazi guard who killed thousands, and there are a handful of suspects.

We are in awe that Landau and Plummer have their great roles in advanced old age.

Plummer’s character must have constant reminders of who he is and what his goal is: through written instructions from Max and coaching phone calls. Otherwise, he will simply forget who he is and what he must accomplish.

Some unkind critics dismissed the shocking ending as Death Wish put into concentration camp form. It is compelling and suspenseful, a walk into the abyss of Alzheimer’s Disease and decrepitude.

Clues abound as to what is truly happening to the old man named Zev. We found ours when he sat down at the piano and played a Hollywood favorite in dozens of movies, the Death Theme from Wagner’s grand Tristan & Iseulte.

The final minutes of the film will stun you.

Fincher’s Movie Zodiac in Contrast to History TV

DATELINE:  Docudrama Versus Reality TV

 Fincher style Gyllenhaal & Downey Play Detectives

The new series on History inspired us to go back to 2007 and see what David Fincher did in his big budget, all-star movie called Zodiac.

Suffice it to say, there is some overlap: and the series claims to have discovered an earlier killing by Zodiac at UCLA that was shown ten years earlier in the Fincher film version.

Of course, Fincher uses poetic license to personalize victims and their final conversations; we have no idea what was really said, but his version is fairly likely.

The movie uses big stars in rotating coverage: the newspaper cynical reporter is Robert Downey, Jr., who calls Zodiac a latent homosexual—and then fears for his life that he will be a target.

Mark Ruffalo is the San Francisco detective in full 1960s fashion mode, and quite amusing. Brian Cox steals every scene playing flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli.

The most important character is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Chronicle cartoonist who is an amateur sleuth and is equal to the trivia that Zodiac was fond of using. He notes that Richard Connell story, “Most Dangerous Game” that Zodiac admires—but the movie never did its homework. The story was a short story, not a book.

You may well wonder at the enormous stupidity of everyone at the newspaper, passing around evidence and ruining fingerprints, etc., with nary a thought. And you may wonder why a cartoonist is at the high-level meetings. Described as a “retard” and “Boy Scout,” throughout the film, Gyllenhaal looks like he is auditioning for his next role as a gay cowboy.

If you haven’t had your fill of demented serial killers (called mass murderer in the movie), then you might want to annotate the TV series with a first-rate movie.

Hunting for Zodiac Killer: History (s1) for Openers

DATELINE: Armchair Detectives

 zodiac killer Purported Zodiac Killer

Whether you’re hunting for Hitler or cursing Oak Island, you know you must have clicked onto the streaming History channel.

Their first season of Hunt for the Zodiac Killer delivers exactly what you come to expect from the cable TV’s pop history purveyors. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you like your reality stars always self-congratulating each other for their brilliant detective skills.

If The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer sounds like one of those fake news documentaries, you probably would be right. Yet, it is a cold case and being insoluable should not mean it is not ripe for re-examination.

Fifty years after the legendary1960s serial murderer unofficially killed 37 innocent people and left a calling card of cryptological taunts with a unbreakable code, the network has assembled a reality show with a formula that can’t miss entertaining fans of psycho monsters running amok.

These researchers give Zodiac his due—and find even more victims to offer History Channel and history buffs.

When you put two retired homicide detectives in the field doing legwork like Sam spade and Philip Marlowe, then match them with a couple of cryptographical scientists and nerds with computers, you stir deliberately.

You have suddenly a fascinating show.

The gum shoes and the nerds play ping-pong with the clues. We keep telling ourselves that a supercomputer that has been programmed to think and act like a serial killer is not a good idea.

We keep wondering when the computer will turn into the Forbin Project supercomputer  or HAL from 2001. Then again, the Zodiac maniac seems even brighter than Carmel, the computerized serial killer finder.

Before you know it, you may be hooked on the revelations. Several police departments refused to cooperate, at their own peril. They look like impediments to the crime solving.

By turning the zodiac killer into a mad genius, the show has a winning formula – and a frightening one.

 

Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders with Suchet’s Poirot

DATELINE:  A Worthy Series

ABC

Suchet as the inimitable Hercule

David Suchet’s bravissimo performance over two decades as Hercule Poirot might be appreciated many times. This week we took in The ABC Murders again.

The climactic murder scene takes place in a cinema where Hitchcock’s Number Seventeen is on the screen as a backdrop for the serial killer. We suspect the Master of Suspense would approve.

The Agatha Christie story became the first full-length movie episode from the delightful TV series. For that reason alone, the plot is clever and intriguing. Christie uses a device that brings together the grieving family of the serial ABC serial killer as Poirot’s band of intrepid sleuths.

The notion that the victims’ family would want to take an active role in catching their beloved one’s killer is compelling, even if Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) is exasperated by his friendly nemesis with the mincing steps, and obsessive neatness.

Poirot’s demeanor as a private investigator remains firm in its resolve, but already we begin to see in the nuances of Suchet’s performance that Poirot is beginning to become jaded and horrified by the endless murders he deals with.

Indeed, this serial killer sends Poirot a series of letters, challenging him to stop the carnage. It becomes so personal that the Belgian detective is more distracted by his moral repugnance.

As his aide-de-camp Captain Hastings, Hugh Fraser matches Suchet as the obtuse man of action—as they both seem weary from four seasons of sadistic killers. Pauline Moran’s Miss Lemon, Poirot’s dedicated secretary, is absent from this episode.

Christie had such brilliant creativity in finding ways to develop characters and contrive plots that are truly mysteries to entertain an audience.

Over the length of the Poirot series, bringing all the stories to film (something the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series could not do), is a monumental achievement, matching the flavor of the literature of the Christie stories with film plays. A large debt is owed to Suchet, the driving force behind the detective.

 

 

Rupert Everett as Sherlock Holmes

DATELINE:  No Deerstalker Here

Everett Holmes 

with Ian Hart as Watson.

We wondered back in 2004 why Rupert Everett’s fascinating take on Sherlock Holmes did not lead to a series. It was around the time that Jeremy Brett had passed on—and a new Holmes was certainly ripe for the picking.

Granada TV and PBS passed on Everett’s interpretation, much to our regret.

Instead, we had the dreadful Robert Downey movie version—and the marvelous updated Cumberbatch TV Sherlock.

Yet, for our money, the classic look and demeanor of Everett was delicious enough. In the Case of the Silk Stocking, not part of the canon, we had a story that was part of the problem. It dealt with sexual problems in the multiple murderer—and Holmes was brought up to date by Watson’s fiancée who now is an American psychologist.

The other problems with the story-line featured cruel mistreatment of women, largely teenage girls brutally killed in a fetish demeanor. Holmes does not help much with his misogynist attitudes that may be accurate, however off-putting. Indeed, when he intrudes on the bedroom one a teenage girl, it seems almost creepy.

On Rupert Everett these foibles work to the flaws of Sherlock.

Ian Hart’s Watson is a tad too smug, and Helen McCrory as his American spouse-to-be is too much a concession to political correctness.

We were delighted to see Michael Fassbender in an early, important role. But, the film belongs to Everett who makes Sherlock’s tired, drug-addled character quite intriguing. There is a sharp undercurrent of sexual malaise in this Holmes, played by the openly gay Everett.

What a shame he played the role only here. It’s a worthy effort in the history of Sherlock performances.