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Devil to pay
17 June 2019
An atmospheric and entertaining dark fantasy feature inventively directed by William Dieterle and starring those two old stagers Walter Huston and Edward Arnold in the title roles as they fight over the soul of a young man, Jabez Stone, in this adaptation of the Faustian legend.

As the film opens, we're introduced to struggling young farmer Stone and his family in mid 19th Century New Hampshire, his stern but supportive old mother and his meek, pious wife, who, at the end of his tether after a string of bad luck, invites the devil into his life by offering his soul for two cents if only his luck would change. Enter Huston as Old Nick, or as he's called here, Mr Scratch, in an eerily arresting scene, the first of many in the film, to take advantage of Stone's weakness to promptly sign him up to seven years of prosperity in return for his soul to be delivered up when that time is up.

Sure enough, Stone's prospects immediately turn for the better, but at the expense of his own Christian good-nature as he binds his fellow farmers to him in usury, hardens against his wife and mother and even condones the conduct of his openly rebellious young son as he defies his mum. In this he's helped by the chilling presence of Belle, a wild beauty, inserted by Mister Snatch into Stone's life by means of another startling introduction scene, almost immediately the baby is born. As the seven years tick by, with Scratch and Belle leading Jabez to perdition, there seems to be only man who can come to Stone's rescue, the good-natured, upstanding Daniel Webster, the future presidential aspirant for New Hampshire and it's to him that Stone's wife turns as a last resort to beg him to try to prise her husband from the Devil's grasp. Thus, in a titanic trial by the damned, convened by Scratch in Stone's mansion with the ghosts of bad men from American history, traitor Benedict Arnold most prominent amongst them, presiding, Jabez's fate is decided.

Huston is terrific as Mr Scratch, playing his character almost like a demented leprechaun at times, but still with a steely eye for his business with Arnold a good foil for him once they join battle. Simone Simon plays her role of temptress with demonic relish while James Craig and Anne Shirley shine as the young couple at the centre of the storm, although if Craig says "Concarn it!" one more time, I think I'll throttle him. The special effects are excellent, especially one concerning a flying axe and it's all helped by an early Bernard Herrmann soundtrack.

All in all, a suitably spooky, thought-provoking morality tale and as for that cheeky finishing shot, just watch out, Mr Scratch could be coming for you next time...
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Forget me knot
14 June 2019
While not in the same class as Fritz Lang's "Fury", (one of my favourite movies) on the same subject as mob rule, "They Won't Forget" for all its faults still makes a strong case against lynch law, which has to have been director / producer Mervyn LeRoy's primary intention here.

I understand that the prejudicial case against the defendant in this film was watered down to a simple North / South divide, when the actual source case on which the film is based was against a Northern Jew. I personally found it hard to credit that Yankee / Confederate bias alone could motivate so many of the locals to overlook the skimpy evidence raised against Edward Norris's Robert Hale character as to firstly convict him and then snatch him from the train taking him to prison to ruthlessly hang him themselves.

Interestingly, the film doesn't choose to resolve the question of who actually murdered young Mary Clay, which only helps to reinforce the anti-lynching message as the now dead man's widow's condemnatory words are the last spoken, leaving them ringing in the ears of the prosecuting District Attorney Claude Rains and hell-raising reporter Allyn Joslyn.

I found LeRoy's direction to be of mixed quality. On the debit side, he allows Rains to shout and point like a preening peacock, especially with his over-the-top grandstanding in the extended courtroom scenes, uses awkward devices like cutting to a screen-filling megaphone to commentate on the trial's progress and worst of all stereotypically treats a key witness, a black janitor, as a cringing, spineless simpleton, completely at the mercy of powerful white men. To his credit though, he effectively puts over Hale's destruction by metaphorically cutting to a speeding train snatching the night mail from a gallows-like stand and hey, he does discover Lana Turner, who in her brief screen time, makes a big impression as the unsuspecting young victim.

I wondered the whole length of the movie about the film title until that final scene when the distraught widow delivers the eulogy to her late husband's blinkered accusers which seemed to make clear to me the film's message was as much against capital punishment as lynching. Rains' overacting besides, there are better, more restrained performances in his considerable wake by the hapless young couple caught up in the maelstrom, Edward Norris and Gloria Dickson, Otto Kruger as the powerless defending attorney and a young Elisha Cook Jr as the victim's disgruntled boy-friend. The girl's two brothers and cousin who head up the mob however would give the Three Stooges a run for their money with their taciturn obtuseness.

Like I said, a movie of mixed quality but the central message struggles its way through and for that at least, director LeRoy is to be commended.
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Trumbo (2015)
Treachery, troubles, tribulations and Trumbo
12 June 2019
I have lately been reading up on and listening to a lot of podcasts on the Blacklist and so inevitably came to this recent biopic of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, whose eventual accredited work at the end of the 50's on the major films "Spartacus" and "Exodus" is generally accepted as effective proof that the Blacklist had at last been broken.

Starring Bryan Cranston in the title role as the charismatic, principled writer, it tells his rise, fall and rise again story amongst those of many others in the era, so positing the contrasting points of view and political stances taken by many of his contemporaries, many of them famous, during this troubled time in American history.

No one film can take in all of the different stories and nuance all the different shades of opinion of the day and so this one concentrates its focus on major characters such as of course Trumbo but also his fellow travellers such as left-leaning actor Edward G Robinson, fellow banned writer Ian McLellan Hunter and the opportunist low-budget film producers the King Brothers who took advantage of the sudden availability of quality writers at cut-price rates to churn out screenplays either uncredited or under pseudonyms for their trashy but profitable low-budget features. Railed against Trumbo and his cohorts on the side of the House of Un-American Committee are numbered the influential harridan gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Mr American Hero himself, John Wayne, although on both sides I didn't understand or approve of the use of fictional composite characters like Arlen Hird, standing in for important individual writers like Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz or major studio producer Buddy Ross for Dore Schary and Walter Wanger. Whilst I understand the need to reduce the headcount in telling a story involving so many different people, I still felt that this downplayed and ultimately denigrated the contributions of important individuals, especially that of Maltz who completely disagreed with the forgiving tone of Trumbo's valedictory speech in 1970 at the end of the film while accepting an important industry award where he exonerates his accusers in the same sentence as their victims.

Anyway, putting verisimilitude to one side, difficult as that maybe in such a representation of history, the film certainly gripped and entertained from start to finish. It showed Trumbo as the swimming-pool radical he was, happy to espouse Communist views even as he lived a luxurious lifestyle with his wife and young family and didn't flinch from showing his own dramatic fall from grace particularly when he is incarcerated in prison, his only comfort being that this ironically turns out to be shared with his also now imprisoned main accuser, disgraced H.U.A.C. leader J Parnell Thomas. I certainly savoured Trumbo's withering put-down of Thomas when they meet inside that at least Thomas was behind bars for actually committing a crime (tax evasion), almost as much as his riposte to the hectoring bluster of all-American Wayne by asking him where he served during the war.

Cranston is excellent as Trumbo, highlighting the man's contradictions but ultimately the courage of his convictions as well as his crankiness towards his supportive but neglected family unit. The sense of time and place is effectively rendered with fine cinematography and a subtle jazz-flavoured soundtrack.

The film I believe pretty accurately portrayed the events of the time and while of necessity telescoping events for the sake of brevity, nevertheless shed further light on a disgraceful episode in the entertainment industry of the time. If nothing else, it made me re-appraise my opinion of till now one of my favourite Golden Age Hollywood actors Edward G Robinson. Wayne's hypocrisy, on the other hand, I was well aware of.
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The Front (1976)
Black to Front
10 June 2019
Or the blacklisters' revenge. Written by formerly blacklisted screenwriter Howard Bernstein, directed by another formerly blacklisted director Martin Ritt and starring a number of formerly blacklisted actors, most prominently Zero Mostel, in his final screen role, "The Front" must have been one of the first Hollywood features to openly portray the events of that most tawdry episode in Tinseltown's chequered history, the Hollywood Blacklist of the late 40's and 50's.

Woody Allen is the designated front-man for at first just one blacklisted screenwriter friend, a downtrodden cashier with a gambling problem, but attracted by the earnings potential of fronting for other struggling writers, as well as the fringe benefits of a boost in personal status and I suppose inevitably for any Allen starring film even when he hasn't written it himself, a pretty young woman who falls for the writer in him, he's soon submitting any number of scripts to a hungry TV producer taking 10% off the top for himself.

The tone of the movie is somewhat light and not as dark and scathing as I might have expected or indeed wished. Too much is made of Allen's pat neurotic characteristics, as we see in his early scenes with his businessman brother who bales out his debts and later his relationship with the attractive but principled younger script editor played by Angela Marcovicci, who he's soon prising away from her steady boyfriend, mainly due to her admiration for his written work, which of course he's not penned.

That said, there is a powerful second plot around Zero Mostel's character, very obviously I'd imagine a self-portrait of the man's own younger self, a loud and lairy comedian who sees his work dry-up due to his youthful flirtations with leftist politics and who is pressured by the suits representing the FBI and the House of Un-American Activities Committee to cooperate and name names, most prominently Allen's rising star.

The film climaxes with both Allen and Mostel's ultimate reactions to this pressure, one tragic, the other in its way noble, although immediately Allen delivers his John Garfield-ian response to his questioners, he's feted by the public as a hero and falls into Markovicci's waiting arms to the soothing strains of Sinatra's "Young At Heart", which while contrasting with Mostel's fate, still seemed too simplistic and gratuitous to my mind, even as I appreciate he's heading off to jail as he does so.

Still, if this is how actual Blacklist participants, Bernstein and Ritt, wished to portray events which affected them personally at the time, who am I to argue, only, having recently read up on and listened to a number of blogs on the subject, I think I'd have preferred a harder-hitting, bleaker expose of those troubled times and probably with a different actor in the lead role.
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Funny bone
8 June 2019
Possibly the best screwball comedy of them all, it's amazing to realise that "Bringing Up Baby" wasn't that great a success on initial release. Grant and Hepburn had appeared together before (they eventually made four films together), but not under the frenetic direction of Howard Hawks. Of course there are so many great ingredients besides, all combining to make it the recognised classic it is today, like May Robson as Hepburn's giddy aunt, Charles Ruggles as a less-than-intrepid big game-hunter and Ward Bond as the bemused local sheriff trying to bring order to the continuing chaos that happens around Grant's mild-mannered palaeontologist David Huxley and Hepburn's kooky, party girl, Susan Vance. That's not to mention two leopards, one bad, one good, a mischievous pooch and a brontosaurus skeleton.

The viewer is raced through a succession of hilarious comedic situations right from the start when we first meet Grant as the timid, bespectacled professor, keenly anticipating his wedding nuptials the next day to his so-serious fiancée and the arrival of the last bone, the oft-mentioned intercostal clavicle, required in the reconstruction of the museum's prize brontosaurus exhibit. His last task, also on his busy wedding day, is to schmooze a $1,000,000 donation from an elderly, wealthy widow's legal advisor over a friendly game of golf which is where he accidentally runs into Hurricane Kate's dizzy character.

From the golf course, to the car park, to a high society dinner where Susan tears his tail-coat and then loses the back of her dress, to her apartment where we meet the docile pet leopard shipped over for her to deliver to her aunt, to said aunt's country house and her bone-loving pet dog, where we get probably the film's most celebrated moment when an end-of-his-tether Grant jumps up in the air wearing a woman's bathrobe crying "I just went gay all of a sudden!", I'm almost breathless just writing this down.

Anyway, when a second, rogue leopard is introduced to proceedings, via a local circus, things spiral even more out of control as one by one the leads all end up in jail giving Hepburn the chance to deliver a hilarious turn as a hard-boiled gangster's moll, before the climactic final scene where the two by-now lovers seal the deal over a collapsing dinosaur skeleton.

Peopled besides by a supporting cast of loveable eccentrics, with Grant and Hepburn in rip-roaring form throughout and directed at breakneck speed by Hawks, "Bringing Up Baby" is about as good as film comedy gets.

If this doesn't tickle your intercostal clavicle, then you're probably deader than the brontosaurus in Grant's museum.
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Man of Steel (2013)
Stain-full Steel
7 June 2019
The most recent Superman reboot until the next one comes along, as it surely will, especially now that Henry Cavill has quit the title part. I'm old enough to remember the Christopher Reeve portrayal of old Supes and it was far more entertaining than this. Yet again, the viewer has to sit through another destruction of Krypton prologue with a big name actor in the part of Poppa Jor-El, who with his wife Lara send their newly born boy Kal-El to Earth where our yellow sun will give him "super" powers, also another big-name couple playing Ma and Pa Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) during young Clark's boyhood, before the meat of the story appears, or rather reappears in the form of General Zod, a fellow Kryptonian exiled to the Phantom Zone for an attempted coup and murder of Jor-El. However the problem of pitting two super-humans against one other as the film's finale does make for a really boring match-off as they knock each other into the middle of next week, destroying buildings and cars by the score before an admittedly surprise code-breaking conclusion came literally as the end.

The whole "with great power comes great responsibility" schtick was really done to death as we're asked to believe that our hero would just let old Pa Kent sacrifice himself for the sake of keeping Clark's identity secret, as if life preservation wasn't our hero's chief modus operandi, at least the way I read the original comics.

The SFX were just CGI overkill, not helped by Hans Zimmer's ear-bashing soundtrack. For me Cavill gave me nothing new in the titular role, despite his Mr Universe physique, likewise Amy Adams as a decidedly unsexy Lois Lane and Laurence Fishbourne in his P.C. turn as Perry White. Michael Shannon merely blustered as Zod, although I did think that Russell Crowe passably represented Jor-El although how he ended up getting more screen time after his demise really stretched artistic licence.

With no Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang or Lex Luther either, it did seem as if characterisation lost out out in favour of the old crash-bang-wallop of interminable fight sequences, indeed you knew you were in trouble early on the moment peace-loving scientist Jor-El makes like a ninja when he encounters Zod early on in the movie. There was zero humour either, no real pacing and very little engagement in the story-telling.

Listen I know that a lot of success in comic and film adaptations in recent years has come from re-imagining the character's origin story but this one seemed boring and shed very little new light on old red and blue. By the finish, my eyes and ears were black and blue from the unwelcome sensory assault I encountered here.
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Room for improvement
4 June 2019
A rather gentle wartime comedy set in Washington where a housing shortage sees citizens encouraged to make room to share their accommodations and a male shortage sees eight women to one man all over town. When he finds his booked hotel reservation unavailable, retired millionaire Charles Coburn's Mr Dingle character decides to make a little mischief by queue-jumping the sublet of an apartment occupied by Jean Arthur's accounts clerkess Connie Milligan and then a little more by subletting his own sublet to Joel McCrae's soon-to-go-overseas soldier, Joe Carter, without asking Connie's permission. With old Dingle pulling the strings, the already engaged Connie and free and easy Carter are gently drawn together, at the same time disentangling her from her 22 month betrothal to her older, stuffed-shirt fiancé whom she still addresses as "Mr". Although it has its screwball moments, particularly the extended opening scenes where well-organised Connie lays out a rigorous morning timetable for old Dingle to follow, later complicated when he is joined in the cramped apartment by McCrae, the three's comings and goings are neatly choreographed into a series of slapsticky near-misses until the younger couple finally encounter each other. Perhaps I prefer my vintage comedies to be just a little bit more madcap than this but for me the film lacked big laugh-out-loud scenes and I wasn't even sure I liked Coburn's interfering old curmudgeon-come-matchmaker character and all that "Damn the torpedoes" stuff. That said, McCrae and Arthur are good, especially in their scenes together, as the film drifts merrily but a little blandly towards its unsurprisingly upbeat but sentimental and somewhat overdone ending. For me, the movie, while mildly entertaining, lacked the spark and sparkle a Hawks or Capra would have lent to this sort of material and won't stay long in my memory I'm sure.
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Monty gets another raw deal
2 June 2019
Top notch thriller drama featuring Montgomery Clift in the lead role as the young man for whom the American Dream turns to American Tragedy. Not that he doesn't contribute to his own downfall. When he's plucked from family poverty by his distant uncle to work in the latter's factory, basically packing boxes, the largely female-populated workplace helps him to overcome his basic shyness around people. It's not too long before he's found a kindred spirit in workmate Shelley Winters' Alice Tripp character and they drift into a relationship until that is his uncle then introduces him to the super-rich Vickers family and all their entourage.

There he's swept up into a lightning romance of heightened passion with the beautiful young queen of the society set, Miss Angela Vickers, played by Elizabeth Taylor in one of her first more adult roles. Then, just as Clift's George Eastman character seems to be fitting into this new world to the extent that he wins Angela's father consent to become engaged, Alice drops the bombshell on him, that she's now pregnant. Talked out of an abortion by a sympathetic doctor, she demands that George marry her to legitimise the baby and just maybe, she hopes, kickstart their fading relationship.

However, George is now clearly Infatuated with Angela and enticed by the prospect of an easy life at the top, he now sees the clinging Alice as the one, or more truly one and a half obstacles to his future prospects. A dark plan occurs to him but from there it all goes wrong for the three principals in different ways as the film moves towards its tragic conclusion.

Director George Stevens controls the narrative masterfully and garners great performances from all the main cast, particularly Clift and Winters. Deliberately filmed in black and white as befits the bleakness of the subject matter, Stevens composes many of his scenes masterfully, using extreme close-ups, always edging the story forward one dread step at a time. Amongst many memorable scenes there's one where the news of Alice's death is heard in broken fashion from a radio on the ground as the beautiful young people, George and Angela amongst them, gad about in a speedboat around the bay, Taylor's terrific dead faint reflected on a massive mirror and the final walk of Eastman, comparable in its understated effect to Cagney's contrasting cry-baby exit in "Angels With Dirty Faces" years before.

In fact the only section of the film that really jarred with me a bit was the extended courtroom scene where Raymond Burr's prosecuting D.A. goes over the top to get his man.

That apart this movie was gripping all the way through, stays in the memory afterwards and rightly in my opinion saw Stevens win the best director Oscar that year.
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Carefree (1938)
Shall we trance?
1 June 2019
Aptly named later Astaire and Rogers vehicle, directed as per by Mark Sandrich and featuring a clutch of songs by Irving Berlin. Fred plays a psychiatrist whose best pal Ralph Bellamy hires to straighten out the thinking of his reluctant fiancée, played by Ginger who just won't commit to marrying him. Also as per, Astaire and Rogers get off on the wrong foot, no pun intended but before long they've faced the music and danced themselves into each other's arms, even if you feel that Fred has more than slightly exceeded his brief to his chum. Played more as a comedy than a musical, there are only four dance numbers in the film with Ginger getting most of the funny moments especially when put into a hypnotic trance by Fred. She's very good at it too, leaving Astaire and Bellamy to play straight men to her, but of course the main focus for fans is on those keenly anticipated dance routines by the duo and they don't disappoint. Fred's customary solo turn sees him hit more good golf shots in five minutes than I have in my whole life, and to music, while the dream sequence to the song "Colour Blind", features some innovative for the time slow-motion camerawork which only accentuates the sheer poetry of their choreography. At the end of the number we also get to see that rarity, a screen kiss between the two stars. Apparently this sequence was planned to be filmed in Technicolour, as befits the song lyric but budget restraints sadly prevented it. The final dance between them is to the best song here "Change Partners" and is a wonder of grace and lifts although the nagging doubt is that the great Irving Berlin didn't serve the movie as well as he might with a slightly sub-standard set of songs, including an oddity called "The Yam" so silly that Fred refused to sing it giving Ginger a rare outing as a solo vocalist and lead dancer. "Carefree" suffers by comparison to its wonderful predecessors perhaps only due to the dip in musical quality but as a bright and breezy comedy with magical interludes it works just fine for me.
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Turnabout (1940)
About turn
31 May 2019
Long before the Disney family body-swap feature "Freaky Friday" in the 70's, there was this little-known wartime Hollywood movie on the same subject, which I suppose would make it "Freaky Thursday". The odd thing here, well one of the many odd things, is that the switching couple change voices too, meaning there's an awful lot of lip-syncing with John Hubbard and Carole Landis speaking the other's lines once they've traded places.

For the first half hour of its short running time, there's very little indication of the role-switching to come other than establishing Hubbard as a well-off, go-ahead "Mad Man" advertising executive, with a penchant for keep-fit and a devotion to his massive pet dog while Landis is his lazy, empty-headed wife who likes nothing better than going out spending money on fripperies with her two chums, the similarly-minded (or should that be simply-minded) wives of hubby's business partners.

The turnabout of the title then comes into play as we're suddenly made aware of a creepy bust they keep in their bedroom which comes to life one night and duly grants their joint wish to change places with each other. From there, we're treated, if that's the right word, for the rest of the film, to the duo taking on the other's appearance and voice without either being properly aware of it and chaotically trying to get through a normal day in the life of their partner in their altered state.

It really is a strange little film, particularly seeing Hubbard camp it up in Landis's frocks and Landis butching it up, wearing trousers under a long dress. As if to acknowledge the shortcomings of the plot, there's also horseplay with a pet bear cub and the afore-mentioned dog while everyone in support, including well-known faces like Donald Meek, Adolphe Menjou and Mary Astor seems to have been directed to overact at will. Perhaps the weirdest thing of all is the last line of the film which takes the title a tad too far.

While Hubbard and Landis try hard, this madcap, all-over-the place would-be screwball comedy would tax Grant and Hepburn and I found it just too far out-there (no pun intended) to turn my frown about I'm sorry to say.
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Desert island Doris
30 May 2019
Shown on BBC TV as a tribute to the late Miss Day, it's easy to see from this why the singer / actress was so popular for so long. Recycling the old Cary Grant / Irene Dunne vintage Hollywood classic "My Favourite Wife", helpfully referenced by Day's character as the wife who returns from the dead five years after going missing only to find her husband has that very day remarried. What follows is a madcap adjoining hotel room farce as James Garner flits between his two wives next door, the one desperate to consummate their wedding night, the other screaming at him to reveal her existence to her apparent successor.

From there, via a car chase where Garner fantasises about Day's now revealed five years on a tropical island with a hunky Adam, played by Chuck Connors, to her Eve, the film comes to its inevitable upbeat conclusion with everyone ending up happy ever after.

Helped by the hit title song which sets it off nicely, it actually takes about ten minutes for Doris's character to appear or should that be reappear but once she does there's no doubt who the star is. For me, if now seeming a little old and square in her part and resorting a little too often to her tried and tested mannerisms, although she's not helped either by a rather outdated wardrobe, still, when she flutters her eyebrows and casts that smile, you know she's not going to lose her man. Her best scene is when you almost see her improvise as she impersonates a Swedish au-pair in an accent which anticipates the Muppets' chef by almost twenty years.

James Garner is an able successor to Grant and Hudson as the befuddled widower / husband, Polly Bergen, while inevitably over-shadowed by the star, thankfully doesn't portray her character as a bad woman and Thelma Ritter as usual shines in support, this time as Garner's disbelieving mother.

A big box-office hit on first release, the film is easy-to-watch entertainment and a nice encapsulation of the talents of Miss Day.

R.I.P. Doris.
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Dodsworth (1936)
Dodsworth a look
29 May 2019
On the face of it a dry and dusty old Hollywood melodrama examining the fraught relationship between a newly retired, affluent middle-aged American couple and while for much of the feature there are rather static scenes of rich people shouting at each other in big over-furnished rooms, there is, for the times anyway, a surprise ending which to some extent repays all the very mannered and fusty goings-on leading up to it.

Walter Huston is the big industry boss Dodsworth walking away from his job to see more of his frustrated wife played by Ruth Chatterton, a woman tired of her stay-at-home society madam role, itching to travel and as it turns out consort with any number of eligible posh gentlemen who cross her path. With each of her paramours she gives a little bit more of herself every time so that by the third affair with Austrian friend-of-the-family Kurt, she determines to divorce her extremely patient and understanding husband and let her fleet-footed new partner dance her up the aisle. What she hasn't reckoned on however is Kurt's subservience to his old battle-axe of a mother or that Dodsworth himself would hook up with an attractive younger female, played by Mary Astor, herself an independent woman of means whom he re-encounters at a hotel while on the rebound from his errant wife.

Watching the film, it's difficult to credit Mrs Dodsworth's behaviour but clearly she's a woman in a hurry, rebelling against her own advancing years and her staid marriage to her dull husband and even while I appreciate the adherence to the recently established Production Code in exacting punishment on her for her infidelities, it was still surprising to see her so flagrantly breach her vows and seem to get off lightly as Dodsworth rushes to her her side after lover number three fizzles out...

Director Wyler, at an early stage in his long career, already displays his capability in dealing with such heavyweight material as this Sinclair Lewis adaptation and in particular his framing and creation of depth in scenes. The acting too, while often betraying a post-talkies theatricality, settles down as the film progresses. Nevertheless it is is for long periods rather dull and it is rather difficult to feel any kind of empathy never mind sympathy for the idle rich on parade here.
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These Three (1936)
Out of the mouths of babes...
22 May 2019
It's years and years since I first read Lilian Hellman's original play although I've more recently seen the 1961 remake of this movie, interestingly also directed by William Wyler 25 years on and while I understand that "These Three" was forced by the dictates of The Production Code to change the alleged relationship on which the plot tilts from lesbian to heterosexual and airlift in a happy ending for at least two of the main characters, this was nonetheless a compelling, well directed and acted drama. Whilst the story would probably have played better and more daringly if the lesbianism of Miriam Hopkins' character had stayed in the script, the bigger theme is the damage idle or malicious gossip can do to innocent lives and that is tellingly rendered here. That said, I believe it's still possible to detect even in this amended adaptation, by Hellman herself, the excised suppressed passion of Hopkins for Oberon.

In a plot strikingly similar to that of Arthur Miller's later, epochal "The Crucible", a vindictive young girl spins an outrageous lie to get back at adults she believes are against her and follows it all the way through court to engineer her victims' ultimate ruin. Said devil-girl is brilliantly played by child actress Bonita Granville who heartlessly bullies her schoolmate, with again an excellent performance by a child in her role, this time by Marcia Mae Jones, into corroborating her falsehoods.

The adult actors acquit themselves well too, although Merle Oberon does perhaps come across a little too saintly and Joel McCrae a little too lightweight, but Hopkins, who gets the meatier part of these three, portrays well the inner anguish and ultimate determination to expose her accuser as well as the performances of the two older female actresses who play Hopkins selfish, parasitic aunt and the principled, scandalised but ultimately duped grandmother of Granville, played by Catherine Doucet and Alma Kruger respectively.

The film is grippingly helmed by Wyler in his first major directorial feature of what would turn out to be a long career, coaxing convincing performances from his actors as the subject matter grows deeper and darker, although that bright ending does jar somewhat. He benefits too from the imaginative camera-work by the celebrated Gregg Toland whose intelligent framing shots and depictions of depth add further weight to the serious subject matter depicted. In particular, one dissolve shot through a rain-spattered window after the two women's ruin is complete seems to anticipate "Citizen Kane" four years later.

This is an interesting film not only as an example of the moralising effects of the recent Hays Code on Hollywood movie production of the time but also how the studio system was able to adapt to such interference and still produce thought-provoking drama for contemporary movie-goers.
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Green Book (2018)
Driving Mr Shirley
20 May 2019
For my sins I had never heard of black musician Don Shirley before this film dramatisation of his purposeful 1962 tour of the southern states of America with his two accompanying white musicians. To drive him around the land of Jim Crow, Shirley hires a tough, barely literate but mob-connected Italian bouncer Tony Lip, late of New York's Copacabana Club, who is temporarily out of work when the famous night club closes for repairs and so is looking for work in the run-up to Christmas.

What follows is a combination road-trip, buddy-buddy, civil rights revisionist feature which if it too often falls into cliche and sentimentalism, nonetheless delivers an upbeat, feel-good movie, as these two polar opposites, one impeccably spoken and dressed, the other guttural and slobbish unsurprisingly rub off on each other changing their perceptions of their own places in society and basically confirming the old truism that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

To be fair, I was almost counting off the stock situations Shirley would blithely walk into on the road, such as an encounter where he seems bemused at the sight of poor black sharecroppers working in the field, the inevitable injurious run-ins with racist Southern citizens in a bar, redneck Southern cops keen to put him down for being "uppity" with them and even the in-bred bigoted attitudes at the very night-spot he's been hired to play. Luckily Big Tony is on hand every time to rescue him with a mixture of brawn and bluff so that by the end, the ice-cool Shirley's reserve and distance duly breaks down and the hot-headed Bronx-bruiser has come to admire the bravery and musicianship of his passenger.

Sure some of the situations seemed contrived, like the cultured Shirley letting his hair down with an R 'n' B group at a road-side bar or the Capra-corn-type Christmas scene at the end but there were compensatory scenes elsewhere like when Tony mis-remembers the title of one of his new boss's celebrated. albums or when the erudite Shirley helps Tony to write his letters home.

I very much enjoyed the acting of the two leads and the authentic settings depicted of early 60's America and even if this story based on true events (at least according to the film's introductory titles) was a little too sugar-coated, I must admit I enjoyed the ride with these two larger than life characters.
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Trouble In Store
19 May 2019
Well, what a racy little feature this is. Made just before the introduction of the Hays Code, it purports to lift the lid on the goings on behind the doors of a modern-day major department store in New York. So we get to see at close quarters the complacency of its board of directors, especially its chairman who's more concerned with attending high society engagements and holidaying on his boat to be concerned with the well-being or morale of the staff and has allowed the ruthless and heartless store-manager Kurt Anderson, played by Warren Williams, to run the shop along strict factory lines. Anderson's behaviour is outrageous whether ruining the business and therefore livelihood of a supplier who misses a delivery deadline, sacking a thirty-year kindly store veteran for not being dynamic enough and who then proceeds to commit suicide directly as a result, setting a go-ahead, pretty young secretary to honey-trap an elderly board member who is resistant to his working practices and worst of all use his vaunted position to twice bed a pretty young girl Madeline Walters, played by Loretta Young, who is desperate for a job in the shop, the second time when, now an employee of his, he's so plied her with drink that she's clearly helplessly drunk and in fact brings up the suggestion of rape.

There are sub-plots too, particularly the romance between Young and her ambitious boy-friend Martin West played by Wallace Ford, the latter of whom Anderson attempts to take under his wing as a protege when the young man starts to demonstrate a similar profit-besotted outlook to his own. Confirmed bachelor Anderson sees red however when he learns that Martin and Madeline have arranged a lightning marriage which motivates him to force himself on the poor girl a second time at the office party.

While the story here is painted in broad strokes and Anderson with his pencil moustache and steely gaze can seem a mere devilish laugh away from being an over-the-top pantomime villain, there's just enough ambivalence to stop the film flying away into lurid caricature. Anderson gets results you see and in Depression-era America that's what seems to count with the shop's board who vote near unanimously to keep him on, even when they know full well his working practices. Even the small-fry supplier who Anderson callously ruins now has a new, hardened "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" outlook now he's been forced to take the king's shilling and work for the shop. Martin, with only some reservations, hero-worships his can-do boss only to find his confidence misplaced when Anderson purposely ruins his young bride.

Especially with the #MeToo movement of today, the treatment of women in the film is deplorable, not only in the way that Young's character is targeted by Anderson but also the casual way he employs his willing, starry-eyed young P.A. to pander to the whims of the one, aged board member who questions his methodology.

Nevertheless this few-holds-barred expose of naked capitalism, as well as the divide between the haves, the have-nots and those that want to have, makes for both an interesting social document and entertaining movie.
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Heartbreak hotel
17 May 2019
Here's the film that gave Marilyn Monroe her first headline feature, as well as the acting debut of future Oscar winner Anne Bancroft and Hollywood directing debut of Roy (Ward) Baker. Throw in Richard Widmark as co-lead and Elisha Cook Jr in support, concoct an uncomplicated if slightly far-fetched plot, set it almost entirely in near-claustrophobic hotel rooms and you have a recipe for a tense, entertaining little movie, all over and done with in 75 minutes.

Monroe was apparently keen to demonstrate that she could act in an extended serious role and she largely convinces in this. She's certainly dressed down for the part and is a long way from the glamorous blonde her movie persona would later assume. She plays the part of a spilt-personality, damaged young woman, still affected by the death years ago of her pilot boy-friend, given a break for a job as a hotel child-minder by her uncle, lift operator Cook Jr. Quite an easy gig you would think, but she gets easily distracted, firstly by the nice clothes and jewellery of the wife who with her husband, hires her to look after their infant daughter while they enjoy a party downstairs and then by the handsome man in the rear window opposite her, played by Widmark, coincidentally also a pilot.

Oh and about him, he's portrayed as a bit of a heel, a heartless user of women, who's flown in at the behest of his current singer girlfriend played by Bancroft only to be told by her that the party's over between them. He's keen to keep her on his string however and plans to hang around his hotel room until the end of her evening set to make a last plea to her, but can't resist the allure of Monroe who he firstly spies at her window and then seeks out in the room she's baby-sitting for no doubt a flying visit. However, when the little girl irritatingly won't settle for the night and disturbs the two them as they're getting to know each other, this sets in motion a chain of events which escalates when firstly Cook and then the girl's mother check in on the room later.

Although you never really sense any danger throughout, with otherwise taut direction and solid playing, it still convinces as a superior low-budget thriller. Monroe you can see lacks a little confidence initially but ultimately grows into her kooky and slightly crazy role, Widmark is quite as good as usual and Bancroft impresses in a confident starting role. Hard to imagine that with all of this going for it, it's such a little-known film but it's certainly worth looking out for.
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Trapeze (1956)
Three ring circus
11 May 2019
Before "The Greatest Showman", there was "Trapeze", okay, and "The Greatest Show On Earth" but this three-hander, starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida more than wipes the sawdust with its better-known rivals.

Sure it too employs every big top cliche going and for good measure throws in a scarcely credible love triangle covering every angle among the three principals, i.e. Burt's character clearly loves Tony's character in a tough-love fatherly way, which is reciprocated adoringly by the new young protege, until Gina comes between the two men, not only threatening to break their bond of masculine friendship but also their professional relationship, just when they're on the verge of completing an almost legendary triple somersault trick which could see them recruited by a big-name circus for better big-top fame and fortune.

Evocatively and colourfully set in Paris, director Carol Reed does a good job managing the silly to-ing and fro-ing plot and especially the filming of the highwire stunts. Of course it helps that Lancaster worked as a circus acrobat in his youth but with clever editing and camera-positioning, you almost believe Curtis and Lollobrigida were trapezists too.

Lancaster dominates the screen as the central character Mike Ribble, around whom the whole film revolves and unsurprisingly he carries off this responsibility with no little aplomb or panache. Curtis is fit and handsome as the adoring but still ambitious protege and while Lollobrigida is typecast as the feisty Latino heartbreaker, she does at least convince the viewer of her ability to bewitch any man she meets.

So roll up roll up and hurry hurry to watch this wonderfully daft and over-the-big-top feature, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.
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Frozen Waste
7 May 2019
I remember as a boy of about twelve or thirteen reading Alistair McLean's "Ice Station Zebra" as my first "grown-up" novel and finding it an exciting book. I really must re-read it because based on my viewing of this movie adaptation, perhaps my young mind was just carried away at the time of reading given how slow and boring this film was. It really does move slower than a submarine attempting a three point turn and in truth is quite inferior to another Cold War thriller of around the same time also set largely aboard a sub, "The Bedford Incident".

The film is so laden down with clunky dialogue it's a wonder the sub ever left port and whilst I appreciate that most of the talk on board would of necessity be technical and perfunctory, that doesn't necessarily make it interesting to the viewer. Naturally for a McLean story, there's a traitor amongst us but even the final extended confrontation scene between those pesky Russians and the righteous Americans couldn't lift this one out of the depths.

The actors try hard, Rock Hudson well conveys authority and experience as the captain and Patrick McGoohan, on loan from filming his superb TV series "The Prisoner" is in typically spiky, acerbic form as the accompanying British agent but Ernest Borgnine's Russian agent is but a crude caricature.

The underwater film sequences are eye-catching and the claustrophobic life on-board was well captured but the final scene played out at the North Pole was too obviously set-bound to get anywhere near suggesting realism. I did enjoy Michel Legrand's sweeping orchestral music but on the whole the direction by John Sturges, who certainly knew how to make an action film or two, couldn't make this particular vehicle float leaving me to conclude that this was one sub that should have stayed in dock.
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Line of Duty: Episode #5.6 (2019)
Season 5, Episode 6
Down the line
6 May 2019
And so another gripping series of "Line Of Duty" ends, like its predecessors apparently captivating the nation avid to learn the fate of Adrian Dunbar's AC12 commanding officer, Ted Hastings and whether he himself was actually the "bent" top cop "H" his unit has been pursuing for years. With its by now almost traditional double-length season finale, again the bulk of the programme featuring an intense interview principally between Ted and the chief investigating officer determined to find him guilty, although more than one of the other attendees at said interview also had a significant part to play in the denouement as things turned out.

The run-up in the previous episodes to the big finish was probably better than the conclusion with Stephen Graham excelling in the principal role of the undercover cop John Corbett who embeds himself so deeply into H's criminal organisation that he crosses the line with his conduct so much that he is suspected of having gone rogue. The series duly delivered on a shocking "didn't see that coming" moment but it just seemed to me after that to run out of steam and ideas to get to the finishing line even down to repeating almost exactly the ending to the Dot Cotton / The Caddy saga from three series back.

I also found the suspension of disbelief required and level of coincidence deployed to be just a bit too much to swallow this time, such as the preponderance of police top dogs bearing the surname initial "H", to the revealed connection between Ted and Corbett. It also helped to have a long memory of the preceding series as back-references to them abounded, although I think this helped bolster credibility given the ongoing nature of the investigation going back almost to day one.

There were compensations in the acting however. Besides Graham's terrific turn, Adrian Dunbar acquitted himself well as the cornered commander, beset by personal issues both financial and marital and I was especially impressed by the performance of Anna Maxwell Martin in the icy-cool, Grand Inquisitor role.

Even as the end credits rolled, it was unsurprisingly announced, especially given the tease inserts placed just before the end seeming to centre on a new young recruit to the police force, that there would be another series to come, but that will have to wait for another day.

For now, I and millions of other viewers will have to wait a while to see just who the mysterious kingpin is. Even if not one of the best of the series to date, it was still a mostly compelling contemporary drama which almost makes it worth paying the licence fee for.
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The Great Lie (1941)
Baby love
3 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Even by Bette Davis's standards, this must rank as one of her most over-the-top martyrdoms in movies. Not only does she forgive her long-standing fiancé, part-time pilot George Brent, his drunken one-night stand with glamour-puss Mary Astor, but she then takes him back after he tries to marry her rival (failing only on a technicality) and indeed even when she learns he has impregnated the bold Mary too.

But there's yet more, after Brent disappears somewhere along the Amazon on official government business, without him knowing he's a dad-to-be, moneybags Bette makes a pact with Astor to encourage her to go ahead with the birth and then give the child over to her to bring up as her own allowing Astor to continue with her career as a world-class concert pianist, even whisking her away to a secret hideaway and calling in a local doctor so that the baby is born in the utmost privacy. No, don't ask me why Astir is a globe-trotting musician, although it does give an excuse for the soundtrack to reverberate with the piano music of Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Rubinstein.

Well, you can guess what happens next, as Brent miraculously turns up alive and walks back into both woman's lives triggering an almighty tug-of-love to be resolved in the final reel.

You firstly feel you have to credit the players just for keeping their faces straight while acting out this preposterous storyline and then salute them for keeping you watching until the end. Davis is in her element, again making with the grand gesture beholden to Brent and under the direction of Edmund Goulding. Chain-smoking and trouser-wearing, she laps up part, especially when she gets to slap the hussy Astor when the latter is having a serious bout of pre-natal depression. Astor won an Oscar for playing the avaricious other woman and Brent is his usual urbane self even if you can't quite imagine him stringing along two such different women.

Anyway, for all its preposterousness, Davis and Astor's two-hander, with the wonderful Hattie MacDaniels chipping in with another of her typecast subservient mammy roles, make it worth watching.
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The Bay (2019– )
Killing on the dock of the bay
29 April 2019
A single-parent cop with difficult kids gets embroiled in investigating a small-town child-murder. Paired with a new partner of the opposite sex, it's not long before sub-plots involving their offspring and naturally the immediate family of the victim rear their heads over six episodes before all is resolved one way or another, but not before a pageant of suspects is presented before the one what done it is surprisingly revealed. Sound familiar? Possibly the broad church of clues provided above will help.

Certainly it started dramatically if unbelievably as lead cop, local girl, Morven Christie loses her head at a girlie night out and gets intimate down a back-alley with the guy who soon enough becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of his own step-children that very night, which then sees one of the children turn up dead. After arresting her one-night stand for murder, she then erases the CCTV of their tryst while still trying to exercise impartiality in the investigation, but her troubles are only beginning as she not only is forced to take on a green, if willing young male as her new partner but under her nose her daughter is falling into the clutches of a local drug supplier and her son into an on-line dare craze which soon escalates out of control.

There was a lot of unbelievable coincidence and cliche to swallow and I'm not sure the drama depicted was quite good enough to make it all seem even slightly credible. At least I didn't guess the perpetrator but the reveal was hardly climactic, far less cataclysmic and not really worth the wait. Some of the casting choices I found unconvincing, like the young cop Med who Christie initially sidelines and who can't put a foot right before he unsurprisingly comes onto a blinder later in proceedings or the young black cop profiler who barely looks out of school, never mind police training college.

Some of the acting was okay, like Jonas Armstrong as the errant fisherman with a port in every storm and Daniel Ryan as Christie's boss but these were the only two to really stand out from the cast. It all ended on another, this time sentimental closing scene with two sets of families reconciled to themselves but this trip around Morecambe Bay in the end didn't really take me anywhere.
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Logan's Run (1977–1978)
Logan's Re-run
28 April 2019
A show I recall enjoying in my teen years, it was nice to track down the feature length pilot episode. I hadn't then but have since seen the parent film and obviously to make a multi-episode series, numerous changes have to be made to allow the show to develop. That was the case here as two on the run on the big screen became three on the run on the small screen with the addition of android Rem as Logan and Jessica start out their no doubt extended search for a place called Sanctuary, pursued all the while by Logan's former friend, fellow Sandman, Francis.

I have to confess a youthful crush way back then for Heather Menzies which it was pleasant to recollect with this viewing but better yet was the story itself which seemed to condense two strands into one, the first being Logan and Jessica's escape from the City Of Domes and the second their strange encounter with a bunch of androids determined to pamper them to death in a neat inversion on the hoary old lunatics taking over the asylum plot-line, along the way bumping into their soon-to-be new ally Rem.

Viewed critically today, from over 40 years since its first broadcast, I can now see the budget restraints manifested in the locations, costumes, machinery and special effects deployed and sure the acting isn't of the highest standard either but overall I still enjoyed the storyline for this extended introductory episode and will try to catch the rest of the series to see if it matches up to my younger self's fond remembrance of it.
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Sixpence none the richer
28 April 2019
I sought out this bright and breezy film musical after reading the comedic novel from which it was adapted, HG Wells' "Kipps". Tommy Steele plays "Arfur" Kipps, dropping his 'aitches and cor-blimeying all over the place as the young gentleman's outfitter whose life is changed after he inherits a fortune from a rich grandfather. A mild morality tale on being careful for what you didn't wish for, the film charts Kipps's rise, fall and gentle rise again as we see him taken out of his station by the lure of upper class living as he falls for the very posh Miss Walshingham and her hob-nobbing set, in the process leaving behind his childhood sweetheart Anne, played by Julia Foster to whom he'd long ago plighted his troth with half a sixpence. Even after he comes to his senses romantically, financially he has another fall to endure before he finally learns the value of what's around him and that all that glitters isn't gold.

Probably hoping to cash in on the success of another hit Cockney-based musical of the time, "Mary Poppins", "Half A Sixpence" isn't quite up to that standard. Tommy Steele's ever-present smiling face and broad London accent may irritate as many as charm and the score itself isn't as chock-full of hits as "Poppins" either but you can clearly see where the big budget went in the crowd scenes and settings and the whole is directed in grand old Hollywood style by the veteran George Sidney. While some voguish tricks are employed such as stop-start photography and a little animation, in the main this is just a good old fashioned family entertainment musical, where a tuneful song, usually accompanied by an enthusiastic chorus of dancers isn't far around the corner.

To be fair, the Kipps and wife of the book do speak just like in the movie and even if Steele's toothsome grin and attendant bonhomie occasionally enervates, there's no denying his energy as he throws himself wholeheartedly into the all-singing, all-dancing part. Foster too does well in her cliched role as the little woman indoors and they're surrounded by a bright ensemble cast who put over the story and accompanying songs with verve.

Of the songs, two really stand out, the wistful title tune and the all-action show-stopper "Flash Bang Wallop!" but the rest are perfectly serviceable to the story. The humour too is a little dated and predictable, usually focusing on Kipps's lack of social graces but I rather enjoyed this throwback musical made at the time of the swinging sixties musical revolution.
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The Hucksters (1947)
Advertising sub-standard
18 April 2019
By all accounts "The Hucksters" is a watered down adaptation of a contemporary novel which scabrously attacked the mores of the radio advertising industry in post-war United States. Watching the movie, I think you can see this dilution with its bittersweet but still happy ending as would-be advertising executive Clark Gable firstly gets the enviable choice to make between Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner and secondly has to rediscover his backbone and moral compass rather than be absorbed into being one of the many fearful, toadying, underlings who cater to the whims of the vulgar, despotic big-bucks company boss Sydney Greenstreet whose account means $10 million to his new employer, represented by his cringing, excitable new boss played by Adolphe Menjou.

For me therefore the movie fell between two stools, Gable's who-will-he-choose love triangle dilemma and the satire on American business practices with neither plot-strand convincing individually or combining successfully. For the first, it seems highly unlikely that a young beauty like Gardner would fall so hard for the undeniably still charismatic but equally undoubtedly ageing leading man or that he would also be simultaneously charming a pretty, classy, English war widow mother of two like Kerr or that she would fall for his charms after his somewhat sordid attempt to seduce her at a cheap hotel.

More could certainly have been made of the examination of the literally soap opera-type machinations of the advertising world where the characters seem much more believable, like Greenstreet's loathsome bigwig, Menjou's fawning doormat and even Keenan Wynn's relentlessly unfunny gagman, but even the effect of Gable's dressing down of Greenstreet's bullying monster is softened unnecessarily by the need for him to get the right gal and for the movie to end with him and Kerr in a romantic clinch.

All of this is something of a shame as Gable shows he is still capable of commanding the screen as his greatness is on the wane, Kerr and Gardner charm in different ways and Greenstreet in particular stands out for his vivid portrayal of a loathsome character with no redeeming features. However the muddled story line and somewhat staid, over-sentimental direction here only serve to dull the impact of what could have been an altogether sharper and indeed caustic dissection of the whole Madison Avenue crowd.
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Doctor Who: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (2018)
Season 11, Episode 10
The good-ish Doctor
12 April 2019
So I've just watched the last episode of the groundbreaking, for obvious reasons, new series of Dr Who, under show-runner Chris Chibnall and featuring of course, amid great brouhaha, Jodie Whittaker as the first ever female doctor

Of the ten episodes, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed around half of them. The best of them were the episode which saw Team Doctor encounter Rosa Parks, the one with the backdrop of the India / Pakistan Partition in 1947, a clever vilification of a futuristic Amazonian online retailer, one which even more unambiguously satirised a loud-mouthed, speak first, think later bullying American megalomaniac whose ambitions got shall we say trumped in the end and an intriguing story with elements of Scandinavian noir and the apparent revival of a character killed off in the first episode. Of the rest, I found the first and last episodes, which provided the only real story arc in the series somewhat dense and heavy going, plus it was hard to remember some of the set down details nine episodes on. It was also noticeable that none of the Doc's previous enemies got a look-in, which meant no Daleks, Cybermen, Davros, Weeping Statues or the Master / Missy, so that each episode had to more or less stand on its own. I actually quite enjoyed this approach for a change.

As for the new cast, I did think that there was one character too many. Bradley Walsh I surprisingly liked in his sort of younger Bernard Cribbens role but I rather thought the two young black actors cancelled themselves out somewhat. When was the last time there were three companions anyway?

Whittaker was fine as the new wielder of the sonic screwdriver although I expected slightly more references to the enforced sex-change and felt that some obvious opportunities for humour were missed. I don't like her tomboyish fashion sense however.

All told then, a good series, one which consolidated the big changes well and set things up for a hopefully stronger second series, maybe one with a recurring nemesis for our gal from Galifrey to encounter. That, plus a slight trimming of the supporting cast and the return of one of the big baddies would suit me just fine.
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