Classic Movie Review: Suspicion (1941)


Title: Suspicion
Release Date: November 14, 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

After watching several screwball comedies, it was alarming how similar this psychological thriller begins.  Was Hitchcock making a statement on screwball comedies, or is it just a coincidence? Shortly after their first meeting, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) pursues Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) across a meadow, and then grabs her hair and starts to readjust it.  This is a huge red flag for Johnnie’s bad character, and yet how many screwball comedies begin with a “goofy” character breaking personal boundaries?

Lina, convinced she’ll become a spinster, is drawn in by Johnnie’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude.  After they elope and return from a honeymoon, Johnnie reveals that he is broke, has no job, and spends much of his time gambling.  Lina catches Johnnie in several lies as he continues to gamble, and even embezzle, behind her back.  When he proposes setting up a speculative land business with his friend Beaky (a wonderful performance by Nigel Bruce), Lina suspects that Johnnie is planning a con. And when Beaky dies, Lina begins to fear that Johnnie is a murderer and she will be his next victim.

The conclusion is cleverly ambiguous: is Johnnie really attempting to work through his compulsions and Lina’s imagination is running away with her suspicions? Or, is Johnnie lying and successfully conning Lina once again?  My understanding is that the Hays Code considerably changed the source novel significantly to be acceptable for filming, but I think Hitchcock worked well within those restraints to make a compelling drama.  Plus, Fontaine puts in a fantastic performance, and Cary Grant, who I’ve always liked, is very creepy and unsettling.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2007
Summary/Review:

In 2007, expectations were high for the final volume in the Harry Potter series.  I believe it’s safe to say that J.K. Rowling stuck the landing.  I remember I was traveling home from Los Angeles the day the book was released and since the book was not available at the bookstore near my gate, I actually walked to another terminal to get a copy.  And then I read most of it on my redeye flight to Boston.

It felt like a huge change to have Harry, Hermione, and Ron skipping their final year at Hogwarts to search for horcruxes.  The familiar structure of Harry Potter novels was disrupted. Instead we get a novel with two distinct sections.  The first is kind of a mystery as the trio search for clues to find and destroy  horcruxes.  The second is a war story as the forces of good face Voldemort and his Death Eater for a climactic battle.

What’s impressive is that so many of the themes, places, and characters established in the previous six stories are worked into the story.  Griphook and Mr. Ollivander, for example, are people Harry met in his first encounter with the Wizarding World and they each play a vital role in this novel.  These throwbacks are natural though and all click into place in a satisfying narrative.

While still a large book, The Deathly Hallows feels more narratively straight-forward and moves faster than its predecessors.  Obviously a lot of work was set up for this book by its predecessors, especially The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, that did a lot of the scene-setting and explanation, whereas The Deathly Hallows is more about piecing that knowledge together. There are some parts that didn’t work for me.  Harry meeting Dumbledore in a heaven-like Kings Cross rather than dying felt like a cop-out to me at first, although I’ve softened on that over time.  The epilogue is something I see a lot criticism about, and I agree that it is unsatisfying, probably because it is unnecessary.

The Deathly Hallows was the only book that came out after I started this blog so you can also read my initial impressions from 2007.

 

Rating:

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2005
Summary/Review:

Rereading The Half-Blood Prince made me realize that more than I any book in the series, I had plum forgotten what had happened in this book.  I remembered that Harry gets an old textbook that helps him succeed in class that turns out to have once been Snape’s.  I remembered Dumbledore spends much more time with Harry and they traveled together to hunt horcruxes (in fact they only travel once, although the due look at many memories in the pensieve).  And I remembered that Dumbledore dies, killed by Snape on the astronomy tower.

I had totally forgotten about Horace Slughorn and his importance not just in this novel, but to Voldemort and horcruxes.  I’d forgotten that Ron dates Lavender Brown.

So reading this again was full of personal discoveries.  The interesting aspect of this book is that after the oppressive nature of Hogwarts under Umbridge, it feels like a world that’s a bit more relaxed and cozy.  Harry and his friends have time to engage in typical teenage drama.  It’s all a feint, of course, and it heightens the feeling of horror when Dumbledore is murdered.

I remember the first time I read this, I was angry that Dumbledore was so foolish to recognize Snape as a threat.  As the weeks passed, I thought more on it, and wondered what if letting Snape kill him was all part of Dumbledore’s plan.  This proved to be correct, so at least my mind was good at some things, if not always at memory.

Here’s the “review” I wrote in 2005:

It’s predecessor kind of plodded along at points, but this book is more crisply written and has a good share of adventure and intrigue. I found the ending disappointing, not because a Dumbledore dies (I guessed correctly who would die), but because his death is futile and comes as a result of uncharacteristic stupidity. There are a lot of loose ends at the end of the book and it’s going to be a big challenge for Rowling to tie them up all satisfactorily in the final book (without the book being 2000 pages long).

On second thought, Dumbledore’s death makes more sense as a sacrifice to save both Malfoy and Snape, and possibly even arranged with Snape as a plot to fool Voldemort. I still find it hard to believe that Harry Potter can (convincingly) find all the Horcruxes and kill Voldemort in book 7 without Dumbledore and without the book being an endless tome.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2003
Summary/Review:

The fifth book in the Harry Potter series is by far the longest novel, and one that may have benefited from judicious editing and abridging.  I think this book has the most pages before Harry and his friends even arrive for their first day at Hogwarts!  Having said that, I have to admit that actually enjoy the novel’s many tangents and subplots. I like reading Hagrid’s long tale of visiting the giants.  And at the conclusion of the novel when Dumbledore finally explains what he’s been trying to do for 15 years, it’s a major information dump, but these are details I’m eager to suck up.

This novel may also capture Harry at his lowest ebb.  Harry is angry and angsty for much of the novel, apropos to teenage behavior.  But Harry has reason to be angry, having witnessed the murder of Cedric, suffered the insults of a Wizarding World that calls him a liar, and seemingly been abandoned by his mentor, Dumbledore.

The formation of Dumbledore’s Army is really a great moment in the development of many characters who have been supporting characters for much of the series but begin to come into their own.  This novel also introduces one of my favorite characters, Luna Lovegood, which is amazing since she’s such a significant person in the series.  But hey, I met some of my closest friends my senior year of college.  I also like that Luna, Ginny, and Neville join Harry, Hermione, and Ron when they go to Ministry of Magic, again really expanding the story beyond just the core 3. The inclusion of Snape’s memory of being bullied by Harry’s father James and his friends is also a signficant addition to the backstory and how Harry understands his place in the Wizarding World.

The book does feature the major heartbreak of the death of Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, a character I feel we never got to know well enough.  I’m also curious why the Ministry of Magic keeps a giant arch that causes people who passes through it to die, because that was just a weird plot element, and something that really confused me about Sirius’ death when I first read this book.

So, yeah, this is a long book that doesn’t exactly flow narratively.  But I enjoy wallowing in a few whirlpools along the way.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2000
Summary/Review:

Just before midnight on a July night in 2000, I was walking through Harvard Square and saw lines of children and their parents extending from three different bookstores.  The release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was my first exposure to the Harry Potter phenomenon as a childless person in his mid-20s.  I heard the name “Harry Potter” before but for some reason I’d gotten it into my head that was the author of the Goosebumps series (I know now that’s R.L. Stine!). By the end of the next year I would binge read all four of the Harry Potter novels to date and be invested in finding out what comes next.

This fourth novel represents a big jump in page count from the previous book in the series, but also a broadening of Harry Potter’s world and a darkening in tone for the narrative.  As opposed to the more self-contained earlier books, The Goblet of Fire ends with the return of Voldemort to corporal form and begins the ongoing story of the Second Wizarding War that will continue until the end of the series.

The heart of the novel is the Triwizard Tournament which brings in students from two other wizarding schools.  My biggest frustration with this book is that the rules clearly state there are three champions and they must be at least 17 years old, and yet when Harry is selected, all the adults claim to be powerless against not allowing Harry to participate.  I mean, there’s a lot of child endangerment in the Wizarding World, but I still feel there should’ve been a more convincing way for Harry to be drawn into the tournament. Nevertheless, I do enjoy the tournament tasks and Harry’s clever ways of approaching them and how Harry and Cedric work together despite being opponents.

The book also introduces Rita Skeeter, who I think is the first of a series of horrible adults in the Wizarding World who are not also Death Eaters.  And Hermione exposes the enslavement of house elves, which is another interesting challenge to the goodness the reader assumes about people in the Wizarding World, although I wish her campaign got more traction with the characters in the book.  Finally, there’s the debut of Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody who is one of the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers yet and a mentor to Harry, which is ironic since its revealed he’s Death Eater in disguise.  That’s probably one of the best twists Rowling ever writes!  Nevertheless, the clues I missed on my first reading are all there.

As the middle book of 7, The Goblet of Fire serves its purpose as the hinge of the entire series. More importantly it continues to be an engaging and thoughtful read.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2000 [Originally published, 1999]
Summary/Review:

The third volume in the Harry Potter series may be my favorite of them all.  It’s hard to compare since the later books are so different from the earlier books that they’re almost a different genre.  The Prisoner of Azkeban is the last of the shorter, self-contained novels and the most well-plotted of the three.

In retrospect, it’s really impressive how well Rowling sells Sirius Black as a villain, knowing that he will become Harry’s mentor and father-figure.  I also like how this book establishes the background of the Marauders which sets the stage for the return of Voldemort and the Second Wizarding War in book 4.  But mostly it’s a ripping yarn, a mystery that somehow ties together a werewolf, a magical map, time travel, and Dementors, Rowling’s creepiest creatures of all.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the  Chamber of Secrets
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: Listening Library, 1999 [Originally published, 1998]
Summary/Review:

The second novel in the series is a delightful stand alone story that shows Harry facing challenges as an outsider in the Wizarding World at the school he loves, as well as introducing metaphors of racial prejudice regarding non-magical people.  This book introduces several elements important to the whole series including: Dobby the house elf, Parselmouth, polyjuice potion, Aragog the spider, and the first horcrux (albeit not named as such in this book). Most significantly, we learn about Lord Voldemort’s past, with Rowling cleverly introducing the young Tom Riddle by way of the diary. Professor Binns, the ghost history professor, also plays a key role in this book, and I, for one, am disappointed he never appeared in the movies. While I’d remembered that Gildroy Lockhart is a fraud, I’d forgotten that he was also villainous in how he stole people’s memories.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Jamaica Inn (1939)


 

Title: Jamaica Inn 
Release Date: May 15, 1939
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Mayflower Productions
Summary/Review:

This Alfred Hitchcock period drama wasn’t originally on my (growing) list of classic films I need to watch, but I decided to watch it on a whim.  This was Hitchcock’s last film produced in England before he went to work in Hollywood.  It’s also the first of three Hitchcock movies based on the writings of Daphne du Maurier (the others are Rebecca and The Birds).  But most importantly this is the major film debut of Maureen O’Hara, whom I’ve crushed since I was a callow youth.

Set in Cornwall in 1819, the titular Jamaica Inn is the headquarters of a crew of wreckers, who lure ships to wreck on the rocky shores, kill the crew, and plunder all the valuables.  The gang is lead by Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), who is also the innkeeper and husband of Patience (Marie Ney).  Mary Yellen arrives from Ireland after the death of her mother to live with her Aunt Patience, but her stagecoach driver fears the seedy atmosphere of Jamaica Inn and drops of her off at the estate of local squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton).

Mary gets caught up in events when she rescues a member of the gang, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), who the other members attempt to hang on suspicion of embezzling.  Jem ends up being an undercover law officer trying to find the mastermind behind the wreckers and teams up with Humphrey to investigate.  But all is not as it seems.

O’Hara is great in her role and shows a lot of agency for a female character in that era.  And yet, the film also depicts a society that’s absolutely terrifying for a woman as Mary’s life is in the hands of cutthroats and gentry alike, with implications of even worse things that the Hays Code wouldn’t allow to be shown.  There’s a moody atmosphere to the setting and some interesting camera angles looking through holes in a ceiling and a cave that add to sense of things closing in around the characters.

Laughton is suitably smug as the aristocratic gambler. Behind the camera, he was a pain in Hitchcock’s butt, taking control of directing the film.  He was also responsible for bringing O’Hara into the movie and they’d appear together again in The Hunchback of Notre Dame later that year. On the whole, the rest of the acting in the film is not too strong.  Marie Ney in particular appears to be reading her lines for the first time from a cue card.  The last third of the film veers toward melodramatic.  Still it was a suitably entertaining jaunt into the Cornish past.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis


Author: Connie Willis
Title: Doomsday Book
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2000 (Originally published in 1993)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I first read Doomsday Book 16 years ago and it immediately became one of my favorite books and lead me to several other Willis’ novels. This novel begins in Oxford in 2054 where history students use time travel technology to observe the past.  Willis has written several loosely-connected novels and short stories using this same premise.

In this novel, undergraduate Kivrin Engle desires to study the Middle Ages, even though the time travel net has never been used to travel that far back in the past.  The leader of the Medieval Studies department is eager to make a splash by permitting Kivrin to go the the 14th century, and even bypasses some of the standard safety protocols. Kivrin’s advisor and mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is frustrated by Medieval’s carelessness and deeply worried about what dangers Kivrin may face in the time of cuthroats and Black Death.

The stage is set for Something to Go Wrong, with the twist being that an outbreak of deadly influenza strikes Oxford, with the city placed under quarantine.  The engineer who ran the time travel net for Kivrin’s drop into the past is one of the first to fall ill, thus making it impossible to retrieve Kivrin.  Mr. Dunworthy ends up helping his friend Dr. Mary Ahrens care for the sick, and also watching Mary’s visiting nephew Colin, with whom he forms a paternal relationship.

Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Kivrin has also been stricken with influenza. In a state of delirium, she is brought to the home of a village near Oxford to the home of a minor noble family, and nursed back to health. Some of the best scenes illustrating “the past is a different country” involve Kivrin initially having trouble communicating with her hosts, despite her studies and a translator implanted in her head.  Kivrin also has a recorder imbedded in her hand, cleverly allowing her to look like she’s praying when recording her thoughts, and many passages of the novel are in the form of her journal entries.

Once Kivrin recovers from her illness, she forms a bond with the children of the household, the playful 5-year-old Agnes, and the more serious Rosemund, who at the age of 12 is already promised in marriage to a much older man.  Kivrin essentially becames a caretaker for the children, aiding the overtaxed Lady Eliwys, while being an object of scorn and suscpicion for Eliwys’ mother-in-law Lady Imeyne. It is rare to have a female protagonist in time travel stories, often for the practical reason that for most of history the life of women was severely restricted and dangerous.  But through Kivrin’s point of view, the reader gets an (admitedly fictional) look into the overlooked women’s domestic sphere of the Middle Ages.

Another key character in the medieval storyline is Father Roche.  The poor and uneducated priest is mocked by Lady Imeyne, but nevertheless is devout to God and the community.  Kivrin forms a strong relationship with Father Roche as well, and despite her own lack of faith, recognizes Roche as a good person. Father Roche by turn, sees Kivrin as an angel, and while literally not true, it’s easy to see why her sudden appearance and seemingly magical skills would be interpreted as such from his worldview.

There are a couple of other twists in the plot, that I won’t spoil here, although I will not that the source of the 21st century influenza outbreak is a genius plot device.  By and large, things don’t turn out well for most of the characters in both storylines.  And since Willis is excellent at developing the characters and their relationships, Doomsday Book is a heartbreaking novel.  Nevertheless, it is also uplifting, because it emphasizes love in the relationships (Kivrin and Father Roche, Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, and others) among people who are neither related nor romantically involved, which is surprisingly uncommon in fiction.

Doomsday Book is not a flawless novel and others have pointed out its anachronisms and the many coincidences in the plot that are just too neat and tidy.  I think what’s good about the book outweighs these problems for the most part. One distracting problem with this book is that Willis envisioned a future with the technology for time travel and implanting translators and recorders in the body, but she did not anticipate mobile telephones (even though they already existed at the time this novel was published).  Instead, people in the future Oxford story use video phones, a device that is found in a lot of futuristic fiction of the 20th century (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Until the End of the World for prominent examples).  This would just be a small quirk, but so much of the novel relies on characters needing to find a phone and not being able to reach others by phone that it becomes laughable at times.

Overall, this is a terrific book in the time travel genre and one with a lot of humanity and heart. And a future without mobile phones really doesn’t sound all that bad.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

TV Review: Broadchurch (2017)


Title: Broadchurch
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

I recently watched the third and final series of the the British program Broadchurch.  I watched the first two series a few years ago back before I started writing reviews of tv series so I’ll sum up my thoughts on them first.  Series 1 focuses on the murder of an 11-year boy in a small, coastal town of England and the effect that the murder and mystery has on that town. It’s visually striking, well-acted, and takes the time to explore the feelings of grief, anger, and suspicion among the characters.  The second series focuses on the trial of the murderer intercut with the investigation of an unrelated cold case.  This series veered into being too silly and contrived and paled in comparison to the first series.

I really enjoy the work of the actors Olivia Colman and David Tennant as the detectives Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy.  They play ordinary, rumpled people with complicated lives, not at all the typical glamorous television detective.  I love the interplay between them and how amidst the bickering they develop mutual respect and friendship.  The rest of the cast are made up of talented British actors, and a large number of them have been involved in Doctor Who (as has the creator and writer of Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall, who is now the showrunner for Doctor Who).

The third series takes place a few years after series 2, with the focus set on the rape of a middle-aged woman named Trish (Julie Hesmondhalgh).  The explores her personal trauma as well as effect the crime has on Trish’s family, friends, and the townspeople in general.  The first episode is a very stark portrait of Trish being taken into the rape crisis response system.  Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker) – the mother of the murdered Danny from the first two series – returns, now working as a Sexual Assault Response Association counselor assigned to work with Trish.

While Beth works to channel her grief into helping crime victims, her estranged husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) can’t let go of Danny’s murder and becomes increasingly unstable. Meanwhile, the men in Trish’s life, even those she’s tangentially associated with her all seem to have secrets and lies, and histories of bad behavior.  Ellie and Alec soon have a long list of suspects as they find toxic masculinity and rape culture at every corner of this small town.  The whole series is best summed up by Alec when he says “What’s bothering me about this case is that it’s making me ashamed to be a man.” Even when the actual rapist is identified, you’re left feeling concerned that there are so many scuzzy men walking free in this town.

Series 3 is a definite improvement over Series 2, although it falls a bit short of Series 1.  It’s good in how it takes the time to respectfully and realistically depict a rape case.  The show feels even more bleak this series, not that you’d consider a show about a murdered child to have much humor, but it did have more light moments than this series.  On the downside I think the mystery part got a little too contrived with a half-dozen suspects all having done something nasty and creepy related to Trish.  It’s weird too that everyone seems to know one another and get together for soccer games or flashlight marches, but don’t seem to know one another at other times. Overall though, this is a well-acted – if harrowing – procedural drama.