Tag Archives: Mystery

Four Staples Enter New Cycles

Tis the killing season again. And by that I mean the return of four mystery series who continue to prove it is almost impossible to depopulate small English villages (or even cities or small islands) no matter how many people you kill off.

Back for their latest runs are:
Endeavour (series 7)
Vera (series 10)
Grantchester (series 5)
Death in Paradise (series 9)

What they all have in common this year, despite being spread across different decades (70s, 2020, 60s, and 2020 respectively), is that they are all shaking up their formulae to bring a fresh energy and potentially purpose into their series.

Endeavour is moving in earnest to close the gap to Morse.  Continuing to build on the previous round, they literally have him building the home we got to know Morse in, while also finally turning the corner on his personality. Endeavour is starting to show that Morse cockiness and total lack of self-awareness when it comes to women…which they’ve played with, but we are finally meeting the woman that broke Morse permanently. DS Strange has taken a step forward toward the character we know from his future, as well. Neither leap is completely clean…it feels like we missed some steps…but the shift is a necessary one if not a fluid one. This is also a much shorter season than previous, with a single arc pulling together three episodes. The cost of the show and the age of the bridging actors is making that a necessity…and with only a few years to go before Morse would abutt the stories, you can see the acceleration in their plan.

Vera remains at four episodes, but our dear Brenda Blethyn is getting crankier and more brittle this year. Not that she was ever a total teddy bear, but there is an edge and weariness starting to creep into Vera and I’m feeling like they’re headed toward wrapping her up or handing off the show in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the mysteries continue to be nicely complex and full of human foible and foolishness.

Grantchester has moved fully into its new phase with its new priest. A number of the original struggles remain, but with Tom Brittney owning the whole season for the first time, they have a different foundation. And while he has his own personal demons and challenges, there is something a bit less soapy about it all. That aspect has been load-balanced onto the rest of the cast in some interesting ways. By the end of the series, we’ve entered into yet another new phase for the characters and the show. Grantchester is one of those rare series that has managed to weather a complete shift in the driving core of the show while hardly changing at all. It really is a remarkable thing to examine as a writer. As a viewer it simply keeps it all familiar and yet still fresh.

And, finally, Death in Paradise is the odd outlier here in format. Primarily a cozy with a lot of comedy, it still has plenty of murder and mayhem on St. Marie. And while evolution has been part of its bones from the beginning, with a series of detectives and police staffing, it has approached the rhythm of this series differently than previously. More importantly it’s starting to shift the focus onto the St. Marie police force from the English interlopers…at least in part. Of the shows discussed here, Death in Paradise is by far the lightest fare, but it is definitely trying to stretch its muscles into some new areas and breadth of action.

Vera Endeavour Grantchester Death in Paradise

The Pale Horse

[3 stars]

Sarah Phelps (The ABC Murders) is becoming the preeminent adapter of Agatha Christie. Her skills are best when she sticks close to the original material, as she did for Ordeal By Innocence. But when we she veers from that material, like The ABC Murders, the work is less worthy. It should be noted that she also works outside Christie’s ouvre, with intriguingly built adaptations like Dublin Murders. In other words, the writer/creator has chops.

The Pale Horse is one of those lesser known, rarely (if ever?) produced stand-alone Christies. Previous incarnations of it dragged it inappropriately into the Marple or Poirot worlds, as I recall. It is, as a book, still in the cozy category, with a pair of intrepid lovers discovering and solving a string of murders. Phelps reconceives the tale as something closer to Turning of the Screw crossed with Crime and Punishment, bringing it squarely into the psychological horror arena and putting the lovers at odds with one another. It has a highly stylized presentation, with a lot of creep factor; think Midsommar (the horror film, not the series).

Led by, and generally through the eyes of, Rufus Sewell (Judy), the story begins as a dark mystery of loss and fear and spins out from there. As a horror story it is effective, if not entirely satisfying by the end. Kaya Scodelario (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gets to stretch her muscles into a role that is more adult than teenager for the first time. Her stressed 60s housewife is both darkly funny and depressing. Sean Pertwee (Gotham), on the other hand, gets somewhat abused as Inspector Lejeune. And Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) has some fun in the mix, getting to wear a pair of the ugliest dentures ever seen on TV. But, generally, all of the cast do well filling out the world, victims, and those pulling the strings.

Perhaps part of the delivery gap of this series is down to young director Leonora Lonsdale. This is only her second full-length delivery. While the result, absent context, is fun, she allowed Phelps script to lead her too far astray from the source material. Depending on your relationship with Christie, your opinion and enjoyment of the story will vary. It is definitely not a light tale of murder on the green, but it is a complicated and layered tale of loss and greed, with just a suggestion of the supernatural.

Wisting

[3.5 stars]

You may be thinking: yet another Scandinavian mystery series? But there are reasons to take a look at Wisting. While the feel and flow of the mysteries may seem familiar, the series has an intriguing structure.

First, there are two main mysteries in two five-episode chunks. But there are several smaller mysteries as well, not all of which connect (but some of which that do) over the ten episodes. That alone helps provide a more interesting journey through the season; we see cause an effect of various decisions within the season rather than from season to season.

Second, to help gain a broader audience, the first five episodes include an American element. Carrie-Ann Moss (Jessica Jones) is a core part of the first mystery as a semi-rogue FBI agent on the heels of an old murder.

There are some challenges with the series. Part of that stems from the difference in culture (and that Wisting’s family is messed up on top of that). The other part stems from different power structures and laws in Norway. If you’re a procedural fan, the stories here will hurt your head at times as you try to figure out why some things are such a big deal and who is really exposed by aspects.

That said, as a whole it is a solid start that adapts several of Jørn Lier Horst’s books into a fairly satisfying series, and whets the appetite for the next.

Wisting

Knives Out

[4.5 stars]

Director and writer Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) began life as a humble indie director of such wonderfully dark and unique pieces like Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Looper. His foray into the force, while not yet completely over, wasn’t his most comfortable habitat. With Knives Out he has returned to his more natural setting.

Knives Out is subtly clever, amid some outright funny moments and twists. It is unapologetically modeled on TV mysteries like Murder She Wrote, Columbo, or Midsommer Murders (to name a very few) from its teaser opening to its act breaks. In many ways, it is an American remake of Gosford Park, but it isn’t entirely satiric. It is, in fact, in equal measure, an homage while recognizing the forced nature of the genre.

But, of course, this kind of story only works with a solid cast and a unique detective.

Enter Daniel Craig (Spectre ) as the “famous” detective. He is quick-witted and observant, but often gathering his understanding by simply stirring the pot. Lakeith Lee Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) and Noah Segan are his on-loan police officers who fascilitate, but aren’t necessarily competent or professional. Segan, in particular, has some fun moments in this capactiy.

And then there are the suspects of Christopher Plummer’s (Boundaries) unusual death. As you might expect, they are primarily his family. The motley crew are all unique characters brought to life by Chris Evans (Gifted, Endgame), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Michael Shannon (The Current War), Don Johnson (Book Club), and Toni Collette (Velvet Buzzsaw), with Katherine Langford (Love, Simon) and Jaeden Lieberher (It) in the two younger roles. Many get to play against type, particularly Evans. But all are having a lot of fun.

And then, of course, you need the innocent under attack that our intrepid detective must exonerate lest justice go astray. For that role we have Ana de Armas (Blade Runner 2049) who delivers a great and layered performance with both depth and comedy.

There are also some nice bit parts from Riki Lindhome (Garfunkle and Oats) , K Callan, and Marlene Forte (My Last Day Without You), to name only a few.

And, believe it or not, I’ve only provided info here you get in the first five minutes of the film. And, of course, it isn’t as straight-forward as it may sound or it wouldn’t be a Rian Johnson script.

Suffice to say, Knives Out is clever and entertaining, with excellent pacing and a love of what it is doing. From its opening moments to its closing shot, it pulls you along without respite. Make time for this over the holidays, it is definitely worth your time. And it isn’t a remake, a sequel, a reboot, origin story, or spin-off…how’s that for a treat these days?

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

[3 stars]

Girl power should beat out just about anything these days at the box office…in theory at least. Unfortunately, though it is entertaining, this third go-round for the Angels, sheapharded by Elizabeth Banks (Brightburn), is unevn and unfocused. The fault is really very much with Banks’s script and her control of the vision. I’ll circle back on this, but I want to be sure to give her cast their due first.

Her current angels were all pretty solid: Kristen Stewart (Lizzie) and Naomi Scott (Aladdin) were paired with relative newcomer (though she held her own well), Ella Balinska. Stewart is the bright spot here, spewing humor and action in equal measure confidently. We never entirely get to know her, but that is by design. She still becomes the glue for the trio and keeps the energy and pace up throughout the story.

Unsurprisingly, the men are in this tale to serve the women’s stories. This makes them all just a bit superficial, though each with moments. Sam Claflin (Their Finest) and Patrick Stewart (The Kid Who Would Be King) are the larger roles. Claflin is a bit broad in his delivery, while Stewart is a bit low in energy to carry his part. Neither is awful, but both could have been directed better.

In smaller, but fun, roles Luis Gerardo Méndez (Murder Mystery), Noah Centineo (To Al the Boys I Loved Before), Jonathan Tucker (Veronika Decides to Die) and Chris Pang (Crazy Rich Asians) really shine for their humor. Each also adds some unspoken depth to their bit parts.

So, back to Banks and her script and directorial choices. The script itself is frustrating in its flow. There are far too many failures and odd decisions for our heroes. The overall intention could have been worked out better and with a few more positives, particularly as Scott’s character is being pulled ever-deeper into the Agency. But that was the minor problem.

The larger issue was one of style. This movie couldn’t settle on whether it was an action movie with humor, a comedy with action, or a broad satire of the series. The first movie and it’s sequel found the  line they wanted to walk and tightroped it much more elegantly. Banks is all over the place and constantly mis-stepping by doing things like cracking jokes about someone who just died rather than allowing the moment to add a darker edge and reality to the fantasy.

It’s clear from the opening that the intention of the movie is to empower women. Charlie’s Angels is tailor made for that intent, but it needed a much stronger hand and a sharper script to succeed. That doesn’t mean this isn’t fun or funny, or even clever and exciting at times, but it whiplashes between intents leaving you unsure of what you’re watching and how best to engage with the story. That keeps you at an unfortunate distance without a chance to fully engage with the women and their triumphs and losses on screen.

The Good Liar

[3 stars]

In all the decades of their careers, it is unimaginable to realize that Helen Mirren (Anna) and Ian McKellen (Lear, All is True) have never appeared together in a film. It is long past time, but I wish it had been with a better vehicle.

The problem with The Good Liar isn’t its acting, its directing, or its production values. The problem is that you know way too much going in. As Hitchcockian as this story is (and that is already too much to know), it struggles to surprise in part because of the caliber of the cast. A cast that, I will happily say, included Russell Tovey  (Years and Years), who is starting to get some dues.

Bill Condon (The Greatest Showman) managed the story well from the director’s chair. I wish, however, that writer Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) had had the guts to rework the story more completely from its source. He should have accepted the reality of today’s audience and how the film would have been marketed and realized we needed the story from more than just McKellen’s perspective. The mysteries and classic vibe could have remained, but the cat-and-mouse game would have been ever so much more delicious if we were included more all around.

You should still see this film. It is classically put together and impeccably performed. Just know it is also exactly what you expect, and don’t expect it to be more.

Motherless Brooklyn

[3.5 stars]

Are you craving a classic noir with a patina of modern times to it? Then you’re in luck, this is very much a noir, tempered with contemporary sensibilities and commentary. For his sophomore directorial outing and writing debut, Edward Norton (Collateral Beauty) tackled a monster. It may have taken 20 years to drag Johathan Lethem’s book to screen, but it found its time, especially in theme.

To make the result more impressive, Norton also stars in the film as a physically and emotionally complicated, aspiring detective on a mission. The film is also told almost entirely through his perspective, making his directorial accomplishments even more impressive…there is almost no scene he isn’t in.

But Norton also loaded the cast with talent. Top among those is Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color). She is wicked smart, but also the damsel in distress with which his life gets entangled.

Several smaller roles bring the story and world to life as well.  Michael Kenneth Williams (Assassin’s Creed) brings entertainment in character and music. Willem Dafoe (Vox Lux) and  Cherry Jones (The Beaver) create poles around which information and plot flows. And, of course, Bruce Willis (Glass) gets it all moving along with a hardboiled kick.

Only Bobby Cannavale (I, Tonya, Ant-Man) and Alec Baldwin (BlacKkKlansman) felt wrong to me. Cannavale was just too obvious…possibly the fault of script and directing more than the actor, but it diminished his work. And Baldwin was probably the only complete miscast in the film. He does fine, but his very presence (and probably on purpose) evokes his SNL persona of the last few years. When they began production, Norton probably had no sense of how popular that satire would become, but it worked against him here. While appropriate for the tale and the point, it pulled me out of the film multiple times.

Overall, this is both a period detective movie and a modern commentary. It makes the plot somewhat predictble and obvious, but not in a destructive way, just a familiar one. And the more you know of New York City history and politics (I’m talking about you, Robert Moses), the more you can pull from the story which is only a thinly veiled retelling of the past…way closer to reality than you might expect. I’m not entirely sure why it was all veiled given how close it is to the truth, but there you go.

The film does take its pacing queues from the past, but it manages to keep the tension high and the mystery intriguing which makes the 2.5 hours move along as you stumble with Norton through the dark and glorious sets that recreate the NYC of old. If you like old movies and want to see something different from the majority fare currently in theaters, this is a solid choice.

Tickled

[3 stars]

David Farrier and Dylan Reeve take us on a strange and funny journey of investigative journalism. It all starts innocently enough for Farrier, but then things go strange. Then stranger. Then downright bizarre. That I found this movie because of its trailer on Hail Satan? should give you a sense of the tone.

If you like odd tales of humanity with a bit of a mystery twist and a real sense of dark humor, you should make time for this true story. Honestly, it’s just best to dive into it without knowing a thing because, well, it’s just that odd.

Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries

[3 stars]

This expansion of the Miss Fisher mysteries by Acorn TV isn’t awful, but it isn’t the Miss Fisher we knew and loved. It is simply a fun set of mysteries and characters.

The core issue is the title character. Geraldine Hakewill is fine, but she doesn’t have even a small portion of the energy and charisma that Essie Davis brought to the original character. And though surrounded by a fun group of well-executed characters, she just doesn’t dominate the stories the way she needs to for this role.

Basically, much like The ABC Murders, Acorn is trying to capitalize on a property without being able to deliver the same quality. It is a shame as the story and characters are entertaining…they’re just not what you want or hope for even though it is substantially the same production crew from the original.

Geraldine Hakewill in Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries (2019)

Another Life

[3 stars]

Imagine Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Nightflyers all melded into one. In many ways, this is what Nighflyers wanted to be, but missed on so many levels. But Another Life is much more space opera than it is science fiction. Science is, at best, a convenient idea to be used or changed as needed (yes, even worse than Star Trek because it feels more like science fiction). Knowing that going in, despite the trappings of the show, will keep you from getting agitated later (assuming you care about such things).

Katee Sackhoff  (2036: Origin Unknown) delivers a complex and strong female leader. Admittedly, the script has her doing some stupid things at times, but her emotional core is solid. The rest of the shipboard cast, with two exceptions, do well too. Samuel Anderson (Doctor Who, DCI Banks) navigates a difficult road to sentience…your mileage may vary on the results, but it is still a complicated performance. Likewise Blu Hunt, A.J. Rivera, Alex Ozerov (Cardinal), and JayR Tinaco created shipboard life that is at once interesting and, in some ways, ridiculous. But that is more a problem of the Space Opera approach than it is the actors.

Unfortunately, there were also some weaker, or at least uneven performances as well. Top among those were Jake Abel (Love & Mercy) and Jessica Camacho (The Flash). Neither had a subtle bone in their body and, in the case of Abel especially, no presence whatsoever. Back on Earth, Selma Blair (Anger Management), who I normally enjoy, was just as imprecise and unreal in her pivotal role, which was a shame.

The other main Earth-locked cast was fairly solid. Justin Chatwin (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and the young Lina Renna make a great anchor for Sackhoff’s character.

Creator Aaron Martin has a diverse writing background on shows from Degrassi: The Next Generation, to Being Erica, and SyFy romp Killjoys. He isn’t afraid to push limits or relationships and it shows. This series takes a very matter-of-fact approach to the broad spectrum of sexuality that only Sense8 has really challenged in the genre so far. This isn’t the driver for the action, but it certainly adds some nice aspects to the characters and story.

The story also attempts, rather ham-handedly to be honest, to raise the challenge of understanding an alien mind. How much human psychology can you assign to actions and questions an alien raises? How closely will AI evolve to be like or dislike its creators?

I can’t say I ever was sure of the title: Another Life. It has interesting resonance throughout the story, changing as it goes. By the end of this first series I was still unsure of the intention, but had flipped through various options. Perhaps that was the point, but it never felt reflected in the characters.

This show is also a great example of being better streaming than it would have been on broadcast. The story is relentless, ending episodes on intriguing points or cliffhangers and starting off, often, with new situations. In other words, it pulls you along nicely for a binge. If, however, it had been released on a 1-a-week schedule, it would never have hooked in a audience because of that rhythm.

For some interesting distraction, this is a fun series. I’m hoping that it not only gets a second round, but that they learn from this first and take the scripts up a notch. It wouldn’t take much to take it to a higher level and really build out a franchise.