Thursday, March 31, 2011

Two Untraditional Reads

Not untraditional in material, but untraditional in how I read them

I've been kind of a fan of Doherty for years; he mixes historical mystery with touches of gothic horror in a way that tingles my literary palate. This time he's starting a new series set during the Crusades and depicting the birth of the Knights Templar.

Now, it's kinda interesting but also misleading; the word "Templar" actually never appears in the text of The Templar and only in the author's notes is it made clear that this is about the birth of the Templars. It's mostly about a motley group of French aristocrats who set off on a pilgrimage for various reasons (and it casts a jaundiced eye on the Pope who gets it all started, and sometimes seems to be drawing a parallel with the anti-Islamic sentiment that's growing today), and of their adventures in various parts of Europe.

There's also kind of a mystery.  Seriously, it's packaged as a mystery, but really it's a historical novel with a few mystery elements.  Very little time is spent on the mystery plot, and it's hurriedly resolved at the end as almost an afterthought.  Disappointing for Doherty, who's usually much better than this.  I can't help but wonder if this was a rush job to cash in on the currently-stylish Templar trend.

I read this on my Kindle, and I can loan it to friends with Kindles, so if anyone wants to borrow it, drop me a message.

Next up was Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces, which I didn't actually read, per se; I listened to it.  It was a free download from Librivox, and so far the best audiobook I've listened to from them. 

"Hamilton Cleek" is a dashing cat burglar with tons of panache, but in the course of the book's prologue, he falls madly in love with a beautiful, virtuous woman, and decides to reform in order to win her love.  He's a master of disguise, since through some quirk of genetics he's been granted rubbery features that can be twisted around in different ways.  He's also possessed of a criminal's phrenological profile (seriously, they make a point of that) but decides to make a name for himself as a private detective anyway.  And ends up solving the most BIZARRE cases I've encountered in non-supernatural literature.

Make no mistake: this is hokum.  But it's full-blooded, delirious hokum, having a ball with itself.  It's basically a series of short stories strung together loosely into a novel, and characterizations are thin.  Cleek is quite manly but also possessed of several aesthetic qualities, including a passion for flowers and gardens.  He takes in a street tough named "Dollops" in as a servant/assistant, whose doglike fawning on Cleek sometimes borders on the nauseating.  And at the last second, Cleek is revealed as the long-lost prince of a central European kingdom, Mauravania, which comes to figure in later books.  (Yes, it started a series.) 

It was written in 1910, just when things were starting to heat up, full of post-Victorian jingoism and suspicion of the Jerries.  It's got all that late-Gilded Age glitter, of race meetings and gentlemen of leisure going abroad for months, and criminal gangs straight out of a Louis Feuillade serial. In other words, it's a lot of fun.

The Librivox version is well read by a lady named Ruth Golding who was obviously relishing the job.  (On her site, she says, "Oh my, I did enjoy reading this!" I could tell, Ruth!)  Her sense of fun comes through and I highly recommend this for your long drives or walks home from school or work.

So there's one book not very recommended unless you're into the Crusades, and another I recommend highly.  Go to Librivox and go wild.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Three More from Hitch

OK, I've been bad. Work's been kicking my ass. Having new responsibilities is great but after a while I find myself whimpering about how I don't want to stay late yet another day...I wanna go hooooome....

But, in the meantime, I caught three more old Hitchcock films at the AFI.

The first was his earliest film that still exists in a complete form, 1927's THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG.

Based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes (who I didn't realize until recently was Hilaire Belloc's sister), it's the story of a Jack the Ripper-style killer, The Avenger, who has London in the grip of terror. A man knocks on the door of a house advertising rooms for rent and takes one, but the landlady and her family begin to suspect that he's got a hideous secret...

The tough part of it is that I've heard "The Lodger" adapted for radio, and this version is radically different from the versions I've heard. One, with Peter Lorre in the title role, had him revealed at the end as the murderer; another ended ambiguously, with the lodger taking off and disappearing with nobody ever being sure if he was the killer or not. But Hitch's version has the lodger being a good guy, a poor tormented soul whose sister was the first victim of the killer and is trying to track him down.  What gets me is that the real identity of the killer, and his motives, are never revealed; we're told in a throwaway remark at the end that he was caught. The REAL story is about the suspicion that surrounds the poor guy.

OK, so I wasn't satisfied with the story totally, and I wanted to kick Ivor Novello's ass (he was so frail and neurasthenic in the starring role, I couldn't believe the heroine was falling for him), but it's overflowing with visual style.

There are lots of neat little visual riffs, like the above truck that represents the scanning eyes of the press.  Or the flashing sign reading "TO-NIGHT GOLDEN CURLS," which references the killer's fondness for blonds. At times it's reminiscent of the experimental shorts by Man Ray and others.

Is it worth watching?  Yeah, but it's more about style than story, a time when Hitch's vision was just beginning to gel.  (There's a fabulous essay on it over at Cinema de Merde; check it out.)

Next up was YOUNG AND INNOCENT from 1937, originally released as THE GIRL WAS YOUNG.

I missed the first few minutes, thanks to being behind schedule, but this is a ripping good yarn (based on A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey) of a man falsely suspected of murder and trying to clear his name, and sucking a well-intentioned gal into his wake. And there's tons of lovely British scenery as they tool around all over the place in her jalopy. The acting from the two leads, Nova Pilbeam and Derrick de Marney, is quite solid, and one can see this as the blueprint for his future comedy/romance/thrillers that featured an innocent man accused of a horrible crime.  The killer's identity is telegraphed far in advance, so the real challenge for the viewer is figuring out where he is and what he's doing. An actress is found dead on the beach, and a man she'd had business dealings with is seen running from her body; he's innocent, of course, and manages to give the cops the slip while recruiting the help of a policeman's daughter.  I will alert the sensitive that there is a scene of musicians in blackface; didn't bother me, but some might object.  But after all, these were different times.

The third was a silent cut of BLACKMAIL, with life music by the Alloy Orchestra. I've already talked about this movie, but I will say that Alloy's accompaniment was exceptional.  It was good scoring in that it was inobtrusive; it complemented the action well and was also very melodic and enjoyable.

AFI starts up the second part of their Hitch retrospective on April 23rd; we'll see what comes up next.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Molotov's latest: "Morgue Story"

 "Morgue Story" is the latest atrocity from DC's own Molotov Theatre Group; it's gruesome, tasteless, gory, vulgar, intelligent, sensitive, tragic, and overflowing with irony and its awareness of the omnipresence of death.  It's like scratching the surface of a John Waters plot and Schopenhauer underneath.

It's the story of Ana Argento, a comic-book artist who chronicles the unlife of a zombie named Oswald, who's looking for a connection in unlikely places.  There's also Dr. Daniel Torres, a coroner consumed by his religion, by his nagging mother, and by his inability to genuinely connect with real people.  And there's Tom, the life insurance salesman with a tendency toward catalepsy, who keeps waking up in morgues or in ambulances and whose resurrections have ended careers and lives.

Interwoven are the Barman, a former medical student traumatized by one of Tom's resurrections; Dr. Samuel, a therapist who could probably stand some of his own treatment, and his wife, Martina, an ill-fated harridan who's probably a few steps shy of being in the "castrating bitch" category.

What happens?  It's like a bedroom farce, only with arterial spray.  There's savage humor galore, most memorably during an attempted rape scene; Dr. Torres is trying to force his attentions on Ana, but is taken aback when she suddenly wants to know about his favorite music and TV shows.  But there's also times when the brutal Dr. Torres lets us see his confused, lost side.  Alex Zavistovich has probably never been compared to John Waters' muse Divine before, but he shares the Baltimore drag queen's ability to simultaneously evoke pity and terror.

And, of course, it's dripping with bitter irony, of which the cataleptic life insurance salesman is only the tip of the iceberg.  People also have a way of dying before they sign the papers!  And death is all over the place, not only in the setting (chiefly in a morgue) but in the characters themselves and their professions.  In one way or another, the three central characters all make a living off death, and it permeates their beings and influences their actions and choices.

Genevieve James strikes all the right notes (and all the right blows) as Ana, who embraces her weirdness, likes it in others, but is simultaneously tougher and more vulnerable than she realizes.  Luke Cisiewicz brings a fatalistic jollity to Tom that works marvelously.  Dave Gamble is a great mix of stolidity and sarcasm as Dr. Samuel, and Heather Whitpan made the most of her small role without being ridiculous and tiresome.  Kevin Finkelstein is slackeriffic as the embittered barman.

But it's also a great way of seeing how far Molotov has come.  Everything's really coming together and gelling well; they're really hitting their stride and functioning more smoothly as an ensemble.  "Morgue Story" also symbolizes a coup for them; this is the English-language debut of the play, initially performed in Brazil by a Grand Guignol company there, and made into a movie, directed by the playwright, Paulo Biscaia Filho.

I have to admit; I was late to the show and missed the first few minutes, but had no problem catching on.  (I was late getting there, thanks to a nosebleed that struck just as I was getting ready to head out, and then by the lack of parking in the area; I eventually had to say, the hell with it, and park illegally just to resolve the nervous breakdown I was close to having...)  The door said "No Late Seating," but for once a dose of Not Getting Over One's Self struck and I thought, "Hey, it's me, they count on me being here, they won't care," and bless their black little hearts, they didn't care in the least.  And after I was called to join the cast and crew in a toast; I'm no slouch in the boozing department but I have to confess that an Irish Car Bomb was just a teeny bit much for me.  Next time I'm taking the Metro down, good and early, and going back for those first few minutes.

"Morgue Story" plays Wednesdays through Sundays until April 8, at 1409 Playbill Cafe (1409 14th St NW, Washington, DC); for more info and tickets, go to Molotov's page.  See it, folks, you'll be glad you did.  But don't wear your best clothes.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Phantom Ball: Hellblinki Takes a Turn

You met up with your friends, had an early dinner, and rushed off to get good spots at the club. You've met others there as well, all happy and excited. You exchange gossip and news, get your drinks, and then the lights dim and the band takes the stage...

I personally discovered Hellblinki recently during a show at the Red Palace...they were the opening act for This Way to the Egress, but in my own humble opinion they were the highlight of the evening. I got to exchange a few words with band members after the show, which was a real thrill. Check 'em out, you won't be sorry.