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'Camilla Dickinson' is a lovely, luminous film

Camilla Dickinson

Based on "Camilla," the young adult novel by Madeline L'Engle, "Camilla Dickinson" may be intended for the teen crowd but I'm not sure it isn't entirely too quiet an affair to appeal to that demographic. This may explain why the script, co-written by L'Engle who died in 2007, has gone unfilmed until recently; it just doesn't fit in with the crash and flash approach of today's Cineplex offerings. It should, however, play well with anyone who appreciates intelligent writing that deals with human problems in an non-melodramatic fashion and subtle, nuanced performances and direction. Indeed the approach is so understated that the location (Manhattan) isn't even stated outright until very late in the film and the time period (post World War II) is only inferred through details of costuming and props. The title character (beautifully played by Adelaide Clemens) is the only child of an upper class family whose marriage is unraveling. Dad (Cary Elwes) is a bit of a cold fish emotionally and mom (Samantha Mathis) is having an extra-marital dalliance and drinking too much. Camilla, who wants to become an astronomer (in 1948, mind you) is best friends with the lower class Luisa (Colby Minifie) whose parents are constantly quarreling alcoholics.

Camilla becomes romantically attracted to Luisa's older brother Frank (Gregg Sulkin) who has a reputation as a bad boy who loves 'em and leaves 'em. But Frank is intrigued by a young woman who actually talks about things. The two engage in discussions about philosophy and he introduces Camilla to his secret passion, classical music (appropriately enough with "The Planets"). He also introduces her to the couple (Camryn Manheim and Robert Picardo) that runs the music store where he spends considerable time and who seem to have the perfect marriage. That prompts Camilla to attempt bringing her parents to the same state with limited success. Like the book it is based on "Camilla Dickinson" is about growing up, making the hard decisions, dealing with the difficult things in life and then dealing again when things change. It is a lovely, luminous film, elegantly directed and superlatively acted. Don't pass it by.

2012 / Random Media / 117m / $19.97 [NR]

Elementary, the third season

Three years ago in a surprising bit of synchronicity, both CBS and the BBC decided to launch series based on the premise that Sherlock Holmes was living – and detecting of course – in the present day. The Beeb's version is the better Holmes and Watson for my money but the U.S. version has proven popular enough and it has its positive elements, mostly the participation of Lucy Lui as Joan Watson. Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a recovering addict and at the beginning of "Elementary" this doctor Watson had been hired by Sherlock's brother Mycroft to watch over him. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle's medico this one proved to be as adept at detecting as Sherlock and this season sees her opening her own business after her mentor has abruptly decamped for London at the end of the previous season. It also sees her become romantically involved in a story arc that has a surprising twist. Holmes is back in Manhattan of course, with a new trainee in tow (the subject of a second story arc) and he can't resist poking his nose into the cases assigned by police captain Gregson (Aiden Quinn), much to Watson's initial annoyance. Predictably she falls back into the collaboration as the episodes progress.

In addition to Lui and terrific support from Quinn and Jon Michael Hill as the policemen who utilize Holmes' and Watson's consulting services on problematic cases "Elementary" has marvelous scripts with sharp dialogue writing and challenging mysteries. And while the characters make use of modern technology things never tip over into the science fiction realms of shows such as "CSI;" more emphasis is placed on the consulting detectives using their brains. That alone is pretty refreshing. My problem with the series is that so much change has been wrought on the character of Sherlock Holmes that he's scarcely identifiable as Doyle's sleuth. Additionally, I've never been able to warm to Jonny Lee Miller, who essays the role. It may be in part due to the way the character has been written. He displays little chemistry with Lui, but that may be a deliberate choice given Sherlock's arrogance and the emotional wall he erects between himself and others – to be fair there is little chemistry between Miller and any of the other cast members. Three season in and I can't shake the feeling that I'd like this show better if the characters were presented as other than Holmes and Watson.

2014-15 / CBS DVD, Paramount / 1017m (6 discs) / $55.99

Lambert and Stamp

Odds are that you've never heard of either Kit Lambert or Christ Stamp or the 1960s rock group The High Numbers. Lambert and Stamp were wannabe filmmakers who were employed as assistant directors in the British movie industry. This was turning out to be a dead end position with no chance for promotion so they somehow concluded that they should take on a promising rock band and manage it. They would film its rise to success (that it would be successful they had no doubt) and the resulting inevitable documentary would land them future jobs as directors. The band they stumbled across was The High Numbers, which was soon redubbed The Who – and them you certainly have heard of. Lambert, who had a grounding in classical music (his father was concert composer and conductor Constant Lambert) determined that the group founded and led by Roger Daltry had a promising composer in Pete Townshend and mentored him. After a string of hits (but no Number One singles) this led to the concept album "Tommy," which more or less told a story and was therefore dubbed a rock opera – the first to boast that designation.

The Who had been on the verge of breaking up before "Tommy" but the opera made them all very wealthy – the band essentially became a corporation that listed the British film studio Shepperton among its holdings. Ironically the very musical project that should have been Lambert and Stamp's entrée into filmmaking was also the one that led to the band and their managers parting ways (which might have been for the best given the brilliant film that Ken Russell made of the opera). The several sides of the breakup are told by the surviving parties (along with the rise to fame) and I won't detail them here. It might be best to subscribe to a neutral ground and observe that in the relationship of Lambert and Townshend the latter had outgrown his mentor – though it's equally true that Lambert's addiction to heroin and other drugs lessened his useful contributions. Not that drug use wasn't affecting some of the band members – Keith Moon in particular, who even passed out and was replaced by a member of the audience in one concert. "Lambert and Stamp" overstays its welcome, not unlike most documentaries; several interviews ought to have been shortened to eliminate extensive searching for the right phrase or word by the interviewee. Fans of the group however might wish it were twice as long.

2014 / Sony Pictures Classics / 117m / $34.99 BR [R]

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things

Encountering something such as "Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things," I can't help but ponder how it is that Edward Wood, Jr., got the reputation for being the worst filmmaker in cinema history. In this festival of incompetence two outlaws on the run from a murder in Baltimore determine the best way to hide is to rent a house in the suburbs and for Paul to don drag and pose as Stanley's Aunt Martha. To this retread of "The Unholy Three" writer/director Thomas Casey has subtracted the midget and the gorilla and added a sub-plot of Paul having a homoerotic attraction to Stanley. In fits of jealous rage he takes a kitchen knife to any young woman Stanley messes around with. Said messing around never goes very far because Stanley apparently has a few issues of his own; anytime any of the hippie chicks in the movie tries undoing his jeans he freaks out. Everything considered a gorilla would have been more entertaining. Don't ask why; the script lurches from one lunatic detail to another and the dialogue is jaw-droppingly asinine. "Do you think she's dead?" asks Stanley of the woman who lies gutted on the couch; later he deposits the infant on a doorstep, rings the bell and as he drives off offers, "I hope the baby'll be alright."

The best that can be said for Casey's film is that he got enough coverage on a fly-by-night shooting schedule that it cuts together reasonably well. Every so often he stumbles onto an artsy camera angle or a striking lighting effect – no doubt by accident since the bulk of the film is not visually impressive. It is, however, a deal better than his nutball script. "Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things" remains Casey's only directing assignment in a very brief career in independent Florida filmmmaking during which he also scripted "Flesh Feast" (Veronica Lake's last film), served as editor on the notoriously awful "Monster a-Go-Go" and was lighting consultant on "Scream, Baby, Scream" (scripted by Larry Cohen under a pseudonym). Nothing has been heard of him since 1971. Most everyone involved here has not been much heard of since. Scott Lawrence, who plays Stanley, has managed a healthy acting and directing career, albeit under another name – I'll be diplomatic and not mention it here. He can hardly be blamed for his performance as a character whose personality seems to alter with every camera angle. I'll cut the other performers – most of whom made no other movies – the same slack. Even the most brilliant actor couldn't shine with a script this bad.

1971 / Vinegar Syndrome / 95m / $17.98 [NR]

The Wife Killer(aka Eglima sto Kavouri, Death Kiss, The Rape Killer)

Not only has this Greek thriller gone by several different titles but director Kostas Karagiannis is also known under several cognomens, including Dacosta Carayan. The film itself is also trying its best to pass as one of the Italian giallo films that were enjoying popularity at the time. Back then it wasn't all that unusual for a European genre film to arrive in the states under several different titles – usually to try to fool people into seeing again a film they'd already viewed. Sometimes it was simply because the production hadn't performed well under the initial title. (For some reason I'm put in mind of the witness protection program.) The plot is a tad convoluted even for a thriller that depends on surprise revelations but I'll attempt a synopsis. Captain Jim married for money and has grown tired of his somewhat older wife but ditching her and not her money is problematic. As luck would have it there's a serial killer-rapist in the area and as luck would also have it Captain Jim knows the guy. He was once employed on a passenger ship the erstwhile skipper was in charge of though he now runs a funeral parlor. (That his murders boost his business is an idea that goes unexplored.) And so the psycho is hired to bump off the wealthy spouse leaving her boy toy free to marry his mistress.

An elaborate scheme is hatched and it becomes even more complicated when the killer takes precautions against being double-crossed (and maybe even killed) by his former commanding officer. I'm not going to reveal anything more because the twisty-turny plot is about the only thing "The Wife Killer" has going for it unless you're a fan of 1970s décor (remember Harvest Green? – it gets a healthy workout here). The acting is difficult to judge because the print offered is mostly the English language dub – a few sections of that version are lost so the original Greek version is presented with subtitles. The direction is uninspired in sharp contrast to the Italian films that inspired this one; they may be short on logic but – particularly in the works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento – they are bursting with visual style. The workmanlike approach here may explain Karagiannis' healthy career directing for television. In common with the giallos the emphasis is on abuse of women. All but one of the sex scenes is a rape that ends in murder and begins with an excessive amount of slapping the victim. I don't know whether this says more about the people who made the film or the audience it was intended for or merely changing times and attitudes but I found it objectionable.

1976 / Mondo Macabro / 87m / $24.95 [NR]