LES MISERABLES (1952) is a fair adaptation, but much inferior to the 1935 Fredric March adaptation: Michael Rennie does a good turn as Valjean (particularly his feral body language in the early scenes), but Robert Newton isn’t terribly convincing as the relentless Javert; Edmund Gwenn plays the Bishop who turns Valjean to the side of the angels and Debra Paget plays Cosette. “Never try to exchange troubles, my son—you wouldn’t like other men’s.”
FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1947) is a good noir thriller in which DeForest Kelley tries to convince his cop brother Paul Kelly that his weird dream of committing a murder might be more than a dream—which the cops scoffs at until they stop by a house that looks exactly like the one in the dream … Familiar material, but well done; based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. “I have an honest man’s mind—in a murderer’s body.”
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945) is, of course, the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s tale of a mysterious avenger luring an all-star cast (Roland Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Mischa Auer, Louis Hayward, Dame Judith Anderson and Barry Fitzgerald) who then get eliminated one by one. Despite the cast, I found this rather lacking in interest, though I’m not sure why. “You’re not a very good detective, are you?”
Terry Gilliam’s THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009) strikes me as having a lot in common with Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen, with title wonder-worker Christopher Plummer having to cope with both the world’s skepticism and the devil’s (Tom Waits) scheme to take the soul of Plummer’s daughter. This is surprisingly mundane for Gilliam—a lot of the story could be about any financially struggling carnie show, and the imagery isn’t as striking as many of his movies; I think it would have worked better if Gilliam played more with Plummer’s insight that the world is sustained by people telling stories. With Verne Troyer as (duuuh) a dwarf and Heath Ledger in his last role as a new member of the troupe (Johnny Depp and Jude Law fill in for him in a couple of scenes). “If you want to join us/you know the choice is your/It’s always fully legal/when you bust in someone’s doors!”
WHAT’S UP TIGER LILY? (1966) was Woody Allen’s first directorial effort, wherein he re-edited the dialog in a Japanese spy film (“AIP picked me because danger is my bread, death is my butter.”) to turn it into an espionage struggle over the ultimate egg salad recipe. What surprises me is how much of the rewritten dialog is relatively straight—I’d have expected something really absurd, whereas this reaches the level of an average Get Smart episode a lot of the time (I’ve seen the same gimmick done much more creatively).
“Die, Saracen heretic!”
SERVANT OF THE UNDERWOLD: Obsidian and Blood Vol. 1 is the first in a fantasy series by Aliette de Bodard set in 15th century Mexico where a priest of the Aztec death god is tasked with investigating the kidnapping and murder of a sexy priestess, possibly by his own brother. Further complications include an overly helpful scion of the imperial house, a jealous in-law and a plan by Tlaloc to overthrow Huitzilopochtli as patron of the Empire. Very well done; de Bodard admits in the end notes that part of setting this in Azteca was sheer contrariness (given the standard portrayal as bloodlust-crazed savages).
THE DREAM QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH was the endcap of H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunsanian phase (i.e., imitating the great British fantasist Lord Dunsday) in which New Englander Randolph Carter crosses the dreamworld in hopes of finding the beautiful town the Old Gods have stolen from out of his dreams only to confront toad things, ghouls, sinister merchants, night-gaunts, shantaks and finally Nyarlathotep in the course of his quest. Doubly interesting if you read it after his earlier stories, since HPL references many of them in this volume (Pickman’s Model, Celephais and The Silver Key among them); a fine job.
THE INVISIBLE ORDER BOOK ONE: Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley is a young adult fantasy that’s perfectly readable and quite unremarkable as a young girl in Victorian London finds herself embroiled in a war between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts and the BPRD esque Invisible Order. Nothing that hasn’t been done better (Marie Brennan’s Midnight Never Comes covered faerie under London, for instance)—and I don’t think a Victorian girl would use “faerie” rather than “fairy” (in fact, Emily seems implausibly familiar with country legends for someone who grew up in the London slums).
VACCINE: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver by Arthur Allen, takes us from the early days of “variolation” against smallpox through the fight against polio, yellow fever, measles and hepatitis B. Allen also covers the anti-vaccination side which he concedes is not totally without merit (the book chronicles the many disastrous failures and unknowns involved in vaccination, such as whether it could make adults more vulnerable to some diseases) but also shows the same quack ideas and conspiracy theories recurring over and over again (one popular claim in recent years is that vaccination’s effect on the child mind can explain not only autism but street gangs and Columbine). Allen concludes that for all its benefits, vaccination faces challenges in the years ahead as it copes not only with political opposition and lawsuits but the low revenue it generates, the complicated testing process and the fact that it’s very success means fewer people perceive the benefits (I was astonished to learn how bad whooping cough could be). Good job.
ESSENTIAL MARVEL HORROR, Vol I was the first in a series collecting Marvel supernatural characters who don’t have enough issues for a solo book—in this case the appropriately twinned Son of Satan and his succubus sister Satana.. The two series diverge in that Satan-son Daimon Hellstrom hates and opposes his father while Satan is Daddy’s loyal servant—which is what makes her a much weaker character, unfortunately: She lacks the angst Marvel’s Werewolf by Night or Morbius the Living Vampire have about killing people, but unlike the equally ruthless Dracula she has no ambition of her own; the end result is that she’s a rather pallid and aimless character, which can’t be said of her more strong-minded brother (who also had the advantage of Marvel’s Steve Gerber scripting his strip for a lot of the Bronze Age run).
FLASH GORDON was a late seventies cartoon based on the classic Alex Raymond comic-strip as Flash and his friends land on Mongo and begin to weld its disparate peoples into a revolutionary force against the tyrant ruler Ming the Merciless. The art is stiff, but this carries over a lot of Raymond’s charm to the screen.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Season Five has a bad rep for introducing Lesley Ann Warren and Sam Elliott in hopes of giving a more youthful feel to the show—and in general, for recycling old ideas as aging shows often do—but in fact, I think it’s a good season. The shows spend a great deal of time showing how the IMF operates (“The Killer”), how agents suspected of turning get cleared (“My Friend, My Enemy”), glimpses of their personal lives and a good riff on the stock plot of one of the cast falling for the guest-star of the week when Barney seduces a black mobster’s aide in “Cat’s Paw.” While Elliott shows none of the charm he had when he got older, Warren turns in a couple of good performances—”Takeover,” where she plays a stone-cold revolutionary is outstanding.
The fifth season of the current Dr. Who run is also excellent: Matt Smith makes a great Doctor, companion Amy Pond is wonderfully charming and they threw in a twist in the penultimate episode “The Pandorica Opens” that I really didn’t expect. I’m looking forward to season six.
Watching that prompted me to Netflix DOCTOR WHO: The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the first part of the series I ever saw. I’m pleasantly surprised to find it holds up well as the Doctor and his companions (Ian, Susan and Barbara) finally return to London only to discover it’s a couple of centuries after the present, the city is in ruins and the Daleks are engaged in some mysterious mining project in the country … Barbara is surprisingly formidable for that day and age, not only participating in a raid on Dalek HQ, but bluffing them about an imminent counter-attack (“Simultaneous with the Boston Tea Party, Hannibal’s forces will attack over the Alps.”). I look forward to watching more of these.