Tag Archives: Mystery

Umbrella Academy

[4 stars]

What a wonderfully weird and dark world. There are enough twists and turns amid the obvious and predictable to keep the inaugural 10 episodes of this series gripping. The production rides the line of comic book and real life beautifully, crossing back and forth between the natural and the absurd.

The ensemble is varied and impressive, much like the Academy was meant to be. And they all commit and deliver at every step, with their (eventually revealed) back-stories supporting their choices nicely. The core group is primarily lesser known talent with Tom Hopper (I Feel Pretty), David Castañeda, Emmy Raver-Lampman, and Robert Sheehan (Mortal Engines) each having some great stories to tell. And then there’s Ellen Page (Flatliners) in a truly challenging role, who does well, but she is the least credible for me. Page delivers, but a lot will depend on the anticipated second season as to whether I fully buy into her choices. However, if there is anyone who really gets to dominate this series it is Aidan Gallagher as Number 5, who graduates from Nickelodeon to adult fare. Coming across believably as a 50-something year old man in a 15 year old’s body isn’t easy at the best of times, but Gallagher has an amazing energy and ability to pull it off.

The world of Umbrella Academy is much larger than its homebase. Kate Walsh (13 Reasons Why), Mary J. Blige (Sherlock Gnomes), Cameron Britton (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), Adam Godley (A Young Doctor’s Notebook), Colm Feore (Anon), John Magaro (Overlord), and stalwart Sheila McCarthy fill out the story and world with a mountain of award-winning talent, giving the show many levels and perspectives to latch onto.

Umbrella is first and foremost a comic adventure. Expect extremes and complexities. Expect the unexpected and the genuinely obvious. But mostly expect to be entertained and to have a rollicking good adventure that will have you trying to put the pieces together till the end. This sits in temperament somewhere between the Marvel and DC universes, delivering humor but also the gravitas and the dark. Think of it as a twisted, dark X-Men sequence by way of St. Trinian’s. It even echos a lot of the sensibility of Utopia (which is also being remade for US television). I had a great time with the result and, if you like these kinds of stories, you will too.

[And then there was this clever bit of launch event on Netflix’s part: https://deadline.com/2019/02/umbrella-academy-reigns-over-nyc-fans-wedding-with-times-square-parade-1202562593/]

Agatha and the Truth of Murder

[3.5 stars]

If you like Christie, this is a must-see story. If you’re a mystery fan, it depends on your tolerance for a solidly standard BBC mystery with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. The movie stands on its own nicely, regardless of your familiarity with Christie and her works, but there is more to get out of it the more you know.

Many stories and speculations have been made about the 11 days that Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926.  Even the facts are still debated and discussed because no definitive answer has ever been documented (one theory, another theory). Of the fictions posited, several, including a Doctor Who episode, presume she went off to solve a real-life murder, because it would be the most amusing assumption.

This latest look at that real-life mystery is really rather fun. Tom Dalton’s script is clever and nicely reflective of Christie’s work while remaining both a good mystery and very self-aware. Christie, played nicely by Ruth Bradley (Humans), gets to learn about the real world and and her public before our eyes. It is a delightful performance that is both strong and vulnerable, and even a bit naive about the world.

Joined by Pippa Haywood (The Bodyguard), the two dive into a cold case with, of course, many suspects and an obscure motive. A perfect Christie set up with a solid supporting cast. Of note are two character actors, Tim McInnerny (The Hippopotamus) and Ralph Ineson (The Hurricane Heist). Each delivers a number of unexpected moments and levels to what could have been dull roles. Some credit to that success is the script, but the actors had to sell it, and they do.

The story does take some liberties with the truth, but nothing that is overly concerning. And director Terry Loane shows he has learned a lot during his second-unit years, keeping the tale moving along crisply, and packing a lot into the 90ish minutes of the run. This may not be as slickly appointed as many of the recent remakes of Christie’s work, but it is very well done and entertaining.

Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (series 1.0)

[4 stars]

Bletchley, through a series of clever and deliberate transitions, manages to cross the Atlantic successfully without losing its original sensibility. The ability to evolve a show so dramatically is something I really enjoy watching when it is done well, as it was here. In fact, there are several shows that have tackled that problem recently and successfully. Interestingly, most of them are from the UK (e.g., Father Brown) which is far less precious about their properties and far more focused, typically, on quality of story.

Through the first four episodes of this rebuilt Bletchley, we see a new collection of women with similar backgrounds as the original two series, but battling society in new ways (well, in some new ways). The full series consists of another four episodes, but I’ll get to that.

Julie Graham (Shetland) and Rachael Stirling (Their Finest) from the original series provide the anchor and backbone of the tale. The introduction of Crystal Balint, Chanelle Peloso, and Jennifer Spence (Travelers)manages to resurrect the magic of the first series and fill out the gang despite all the new faces.

The real power of this series isn’t the mysteries, which are clever, but rather the energy and intelligence of the women as they find the murderers, and they do it while fighting society’s dismissive view of them. It is a show that is perfectly suited to the times and shines a light into the dark corners of current society.

Now back to those last four episodes of the series. Frustratingly, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get to see the other half of the season as that appears locked onto BritBox, in the ever growing and complicated landscape of streaming services. Honestly, they’re all just shooting themselves in the foot…I’m not going to get a dozen different subscriptions, especially as most services only have one or two shows I even care about. But if you have BritBox or an opportunity to see the newly conceived series, you won’t be disappointed. If I ever get to see the rest myself, I’ll update this post to cover the full series.

The ABC Murders

[3 stars]

I have to give writer Sarah Phelps credit. After successfully tackling several of Agatha Christie’s other works (Ordeal by Innocence, Witness for the Prosecution, And Then There Were None) taking on Poirot took guts. It was a fool’s errand, but guts nonetheless.

The problem is that unlike Marple or Christie’s stand-alones, we know all of Poirot’s life; Christie made sure of that. So remaking the story of such a beloved character is dicey at best.

John Malkovich (Bird Box) tries to tackle Poirot with energy, but he is no David Suchet, nor does he have the accent or the mannerisms to pull off the little Belgian. At least Branagh’s recent attempt was much more palatable in Murder on the Orient Express. Malkovich’s credibility wasn’t helped by resetting the story later in Poirot’s life, and veering off the known path. The push and pull between he and Rupert Grint (Moonwalkers) just feels all wrong, not unbelievable, just wrong for the character.

Eamon Farren (Winchester), as the main focus for the deeds, delivers a delightfully creepy and broken man. Along with Andrew Buchan (Broadchurch), Shirley Henderson (T2: Trainspotting), Anya Chalotra (Wanderlust), and Freya Mavor (Skins) the world is filled out with interesting characters and clues. All of this helps sell an otherwise foolhardy adaptation.

If this weren’t Poirot, it would have been an interesting and fun story. Phelps can write and understands the sense of Christie while being able to update them enough for today’s sensibilities. But, in this case, with the weight of expectations about Poirot around its neck, it simply keeps clunking. If you can keep the spectre of what you know about Poirot out of your mind, this is definitely worth your time. If you’re hoping for a new Christie adaptation that can launch a revival, go elsewhere for now, you’ll simply be disappointed.

Father Brown (series 7)

[3 stars]

Father Brown has been around for a while now. They are sweetly entertaining cozy mysteries, much like Miss Marple but lacking some of the complications and not really worth calling out as something special. This newest series remains in the cozy territory, but our slightly secular Father B has suddenly become rather humanist and, somehow, even more religious at the same time. Every episode, save one, has him suggesting absolution via confession…not quite in the booth so much as the witness stand. Still it is a marked shift.

So too are the plots. Nearly every episode is a morality play tethered very much to the present, even though it is anchored in the past. The show has always shined a light on hypocrisy, but these plots go even further and are period only in their trappings. And it is clear the series was set up like stations of the cross; one episode per message. Only the finale cleaves fully to past series traditions in plot and, because of that, feels a little out of place with the remaining 9 episodes. It isn’t a bad finale…in fact, it is a rather satisfying one…but it is of a very different tenor, which makes the series arc a little unbalanced.

The cast remains the same, with Mark Williams (Early Man) running the presbytery with assistance from Sorcha Cusack (River), and  Emer Kenny (Pramface) and Nancy Carroll (Prime Suspect (1973)) hanging about. In the constabulary, John Burton gets a bit of an upgrade this series in focus. Only Jack Deam has devolved in development, becoming even more a pompous ass than he was, despite a few special moments. His character causes more than a little teeth-grinding thanks to his lack of growth and awareness. But even with that miss, the the show runners have imparted an interesting breath of fresh air into the show in this series, without mucking up what made it work in the first place.

The Ipcress File

[3 stars]

Sometimes it is nice to dig out a classic you’ve missed. I recently did that with Iprcress. It is very much out of date at this point, but with some amusing moments and a rather young Michael Caine (Sherlock Gnomes). Ipcress released the year before Caine’s breakout in Alfie (1966), which really launched him on the international stage.

The plot of this flick isn’t very surprising, though it is all carried off with a quiet English humor and a staid set of reactions. It feels like a weak version of The Manchurian Candidate, which released a few years earlier. However the wry humor is an unexpected aspect to it all. It isn’t Kingsman funny, but it is somewhere between that and Bond.

One of the things that caught me off guard was how much the opening is reflected in the series opening sequence of Dexter. Even the music is similar. As it turns out, I’m not even close to the first to realize that. Really, it is jarring how close it is.

As a film, it is diverting and is executed well, though more of an interesting curio than brilliant movie. Still, entertaining.  It is also packed with a slew of talent that is no longer with us. Caine is one of the few survivors in that cast, along with director Sidney J. Furie. That Caine is still putting out quality work is what makes him one of the most working and recognizable actors of our time, and Furie continues to dabble across all genre over his equally wide ranging career.

Mrs. Wilson

[3 stars]

This is one of those true stories that is stranger than fiction. In the beginning of this three part drama, Ruth Wilson (The Little Stranger) loses her husband of many years, Iain Glen (Cleverman). Quickly, she discovers that he wasn’t the man she thought in work, in life, or in love. Watching her struggle with the revelations is quite a shift from her usual more overtly tough characters.

The story is mostly about her wresting the truth from those who did know and then struggling with the knowing. Primarily, that is from Fiona Shaw (Colette) and Anupam Kher (The Big Sick), who still make her work for her answers, such as they are. Keeley Hawes (The Bodyguard) and Patrick Kennedy (London Has Fallen) add some other interesting aspects to the life being revealed.

Richard Laxton helms the triptych nicely, slowly peeling layers from the mystery and the characters. It is a fascinating story, if not an entirely satisfying conclusion. But the ending isn’t the fault of the actors or story, but rather of life, if the final credits are to be believed. Ultimately, it is a reminder to consider what makes your life right and good more than it is about collusion and deception. If it were placed in a more current time, I’m not sure we’d have gotten the same story, but it somehow feels right in its period.

For the performances and the slow ride of the story, it is worthy of the time spent. At this point I’m even curious to try and dive into the real history to learn more. And you may have noticed that the lead and the main character share a name…you may have wondered, and the answer is yes.

Blake Mysteries: Ghost Story

[3 stars]

Ballarat is back, but not with the Blake you’ve beloved (sorry…that was a stretch for the final “B”). Jumping ahead a few years from what had felt like a series farewell, we find a changing of the guard. There This two episode movie relaunch allows a lot of familiar faces to finally get to dominate the story rather than play second fiddle. Most obvious among these are Nadine Gardner as the abandoned/widowed(?) wife of the missing Doctor Blake, and Belinda McClory as the delightfully curmudgeonly medical examiner Alice Harvey.

Honestly, as much as I’d enjoyed the series, I’d not been writing it up as it was fun, but not noteworthy. This shift, whatever the cause, is worth calling out as it was handled smoothly and well. The result keeps the sensibility of the previous five series, but heads off in a solid new direction with new leads, while taking advantage of a new cultural era to help smooth it all over.

The future of this series is probably assured now, regardless of real-life events, though what direction it will go was left purposefully open-ended. Who knows, we may end up with an Australian update of Hart to Hart set in the 60s when all is done. Having now given these characters their due, I can’t see dialing them back in any satisfying way.

Escape Room

[3 stars]

Silly, satisfying popcorn fun, as you’d expect.

Much like Cube and Saw before it, this collection of crazily conceived challenges for the characters offers a lot of dark entertainment, and some nice attempts at making it all believable. As a first feature script for Schut and Melnik, there is a real attempt to create just-believable-enough scenarios and people to drive the well-worn genre and provide some unexpected moments, if not exactly surprises. Adam Robitel’s direction, as only his second feature, likewise shows some nice talent with pacing and finding emotional threads to keep it all going.

The result isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining. Nik Dodani (Atypical), in particular, gets ripped off as a character, never really becoming someone we care about. But Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil) and
Taylor Russell (Before I Fall) actually get to build quite a bit of backstory and sense of life. Logan Miller (Love, Simon) and Tyler Labine (Voltron: Legendary Defender), aren’t quite as lucky and Jay Ellis (The Game) is really just a parody. These uneven efforts work in this genre, but does make the film a bit less than it might of become.

So, if you’re a fan of these kinds of inventive evil mayhem that may or may not ever really make sense, make an appointment for the Escape Room. If you are hoping for something a bit richer and more complete, like It or some of the other more recent reinventions of horror/suspense, this is going to come up a bit short…primarily for the ending, but also because of the uneven character development.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

[5 stars]

For anyone who thought Netflix was just an aggregator or simple studio, think again. They just created a whole new set of goal posts for the competition and for mass entertainment.

OK, I’ll admit, my rating is high here, in part, because of the technology and novelty of the piece, but Avatar got that kind of reaction as well, and let’s face it, that script and story were appallingly bad.  But Bandersnatch has a good script, is very clever and fun…and I can’t wait to watch it again. My first time through, even with multiple loop-backs, I hit a 90min version, which is likely close to the happy path, even though that wasn’t my intention.

Fionn Whitehead (queers.) drives the movie with a bit more excess energy than is probably needed, but it is certainly consistent. As his father, BBC serial standard Craig Parkinson (Line of Duty) gets to ride a roller-coaster of a part, much depending on your selections moment to moment. Similarly, Alice Lowe (Sherlock) gets to have some fun as Whitehead’s therapist. But those two stabilizing beams in the story aside, a real special mention has to go to Will Poulter (The Little Stranger), who completely transformed himself for his role; he wears the accent and British intellectual toff rather well.

Of course this twisted piece of mental suspense came from the mind of the Charlie Brooker, creator and writer of the Black Mirror series. Brooker always puts technology at the center of his stories, though what makes them work is how the characters respond to that tech. Making tech part of the experience now is just a natural evolution of his approach. Director David Slade (HannibalAmerican Gods) took Brooker’s vision, and its many branches, to create a series of paths and endings that all feel right for the story at hand and Black Mirror generally. I found three endings on my first watch, looping back each time to try something else. Each was satisfying, though there is clearly an intended ending that is very much in Brooker’s vein.

You can’t even think about Bandersnatch without thinking about how it was made and delivered. And, of course, the technology is bloody amazing. Sure it watches sort of like a high-end video game. But it plays like a movie and the transitions are visually seamless. Angel Devoid tried to do this years ago, but hardware quirks and other weaknesses left it working only marginally well. Bandersnatch is the payout on the promise of branching movies, and manages to do it at scale. That achievement is pretty astounding when you think of the number of concurrent watchers, each making their own choices, and no one seeing a break in the action. There are some drawbacks to how it all works. For instance, you have to watch it on a supported device and you are forced to break the wall between you and screen by being involved. However, neither overwhelms the piece and the latter works into your watching experience interesting ways given the plot.

But, tech aside, it is an engaging and interesting story. The mystery is thick and the stakes are high from near the very beginning. There are some obvious aspects to it all, especially if you’re a Black Mirror fan, but not so many or much that it ruins the fun. The story is  highly rewatchable as well. I know there are huge chunks of info I’ve yet to unearth and I absolutely intend to go back and find them all. Once you see the movie, you’ll understand the delicious irony in that as well. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this kind of entertainment, but an occasional, well-done piece would always be welcome.

Make time for Bandersnatch…it is history in the making, no matter how the eventual reception of it goes.