Tag Archives: Mystery

Get Out

Wow. Just, wow.

Probably the best horror film I’ve seen in ages. It has only one open question (resolved about 2/3 through) and one surprise; it derives its horror from how real it all feels. It is honest and rarely keeps you waiting when you’ve gotten ahead of it. That allows you to feel the tension of Daniel Kaluuya’s (Sicario) character to the fullest. He never comes off as dumb. He unpuzzles the plot as fast as the audience and acts. Part of what makes it so scary is the feeling that he really can’t avoid the inevitable. It is a powerful and compelling performance.

Helping that along are some equally solid performances by Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) and Allison Williams (Girls). The rest of the family is a bit less believable with Catherine Keener (Begin Again) being marginal, but intriguing, and Caleb Landry Jones (Stonewall) just feeling out of control. I think that was writer and first-time director Jordan Peele’s intent, but I wish he had reined it in more to keep it just a bit less obvious.

However, as the horror of the situation unfolds, we are swept along. It is uncomfortable and frustrating, embarrassing and angering. And, yes, pretty terrifying, but not in a monster-going-to-eat-your-face way, but more in a this-feels-almost-like-it-could-happen way. It makes Peele a great choice for the upcoming series adaptation of Lovecraft Country, which also has to walk that line. (Also a book I highly recommend.)

But Get Out goes beyond just the typical horror movie/teen angst level. There is a sociological aspect to this movie. It will be taught in years to come in universities and high schools by those brave enough to do so. The resonance of the tale, both as personal nightmare and social commentary is loud and disturbingly clear.

If this had released even 8 years ago (maybe less), it would have felt like propaganda or blaxploitation. In today’s times of stress and fear it comes across more as object lesson and metaphor. What is white privilege? What is it to abandon your own culture or have it co-opted? We get a complete spectrum of the latter with LilRel Howery (Carmichael Show) at one extreme end, Kaluuya as a middle ground, and Lakeith Stanfield (War Machine) at the far extreme end, with two painful touch-points by Marcus Henderson (Pete’s Dragon) and Betty Gabriel (Good Girls Revolt) as the family help. It isn’t, of course, that straight forward, but from an academic standpoint it is ripe for debate and examination. Add to it the realities of the plot itself, once revealed, and it is even more powerful.

This film had a huge reception in theaters, earning $250M worldwide. And while $$s aren’t always the best way to judge a film, in this case it is a great measure of the chord it struck. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is well done, well conceived. Like Hell or High Water, it is a movie of its time, though with frankly much more meat to the bone. If you somehow missed Get Out, make time for it. It is a great ride that also happens to comes with a message. If nothing else, it is guaranteed to start a conversation.

Get Out

Cardinal

Apparently, the new Norwegian substitute is Northern Canada. In this case, north of Toronto. Like Bellevue, Cardinal is a serial murder procedural in the thinly populated, icy north of Canada. Billy Campbell (Helix) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) deliver nicely conflicted detectives in the introductory series (based on Forty Words for Sorrow) to what could be a good run of stories to come.

It is a dark tale, and a tad graphic, but all in service to understanding the characters. A good part of that darkness, and its effectiveness, is down to Brendan Fletcher (The Revenant), who has a ridiculously long cv for his career. Along with Allie MacDonald (Stories We Tell), the two are a twisted pair who we can’t help but want to watch, even if we don’t root for them.

Originally aired on CBC, it appears to be difficult to find, so the best I can say is watch for it when it airs elsewhere (and it will).

Cardinal Poster

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

Prime Suspect (1973)

Dame Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty) cemented Jane Tennison as one of the bedrocks of British mystery, and one of the strongest and most complicated women to make it to screen. You cannot think of Jane Tennison without thinking of Helen Mirren in that role. The show had a much vaunted 7 series run (1991-2006) that still enjoys reairs today.

But how did Tennison become the ballsy, broken, insightful DS we bade farewell to 11 years ago? Since 2006 several other unforgettable detectives have been given the prequel treatment. Endeavour and Young Montalbano come immediately to mind as especially successful forays into that territory.  These shows provide(d) both a continuation of series when the original show either had no where to go or when the original actor was no longer available, and an opportunity to understand the characters in a new way. We love their quirks (good and bad), but rarely know how they came about. For instance, Morse’s love of Opera, Montalbano’s love of seafood, and, of course, their love lives and tendency to drink.

Tennison was definitely ripe for this treatment. However, while the casting physically wasn’t bad, with Stefani Martini (Emerald City) in the lead role, the writing by series creator, Lynda La Plante, and Glen Laker just wasn’t as complex and solid as their competition. Had this series come out five years ago, I think I would have been much more impressed. But what the other two examples manage, and which this missed, was the steady building up of the character we know. Every episode of Endeavour, for instance, adds one of his traits or clearly leads to it.

Compounding my frustration with the series, I just couldn’t see Tennison in Martini. Even by the end of the 6 episode arc, there is only the barest hint of the Tennison we followed for over a decade. Whether that issue should be laid at the feet of Martini (lack of research?) or director Caffrey, I can’t be sure, but the fault doesn’t matter so much as the effect. What I got was a good mystery, but not so much a peek into the driving formation of Tennison herself. Or, not as much as I’d have hoped over 6 episodes.

I am willing to give them another bite at the apple on this one. The story of this particular series was interesting. The cast solid, especially with Alun Armstrong (The Hollow Crown), Jessica Gunning (Pride), and slew of other recognizable faces. It isn’t bad and there is definitely potential and room for growth. I would hope they would look around and realize that these kinds of shows require something just a bit different than the typical Brit mystery. They have a legacy to support and an audience to re-engage.

I have to say that with all these prequel and existing series running, I now have a dream to have a cross-over that starts with Endeavour, goes to Prime Suspect, then into George Gently, and finally ends, years later, as a cold case for Vera. For fun, you could involve Montalbano somewhere in the Gently cycle as I think they’d overlap by the next Gently series. As long as each kept their own sensibility, it could be a fabulous romp. If you really want to go crazy you could bring in a few of the longer running, cozy mystery series as well, but I think that would shatter the illusion of a single world.

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The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)

Sometimes you just miss a great movie when it comes out and have to play catch-up. In 2009, Juan José Campanella (Underdogs) broke out of his TV mold for a brief moment to deliver this quietly intense mystery/suspense romance that swept up awards worldwide. It is a highly complex story, playing with layers of fiction and reality across two time periods in a group of people’s lives. But it all comes together seamlessly and beautifully allowing each aspect of the story room to breath.

The tale is driven primarily by four players: Ricardo Darín (XXY), Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago (Underdogs), and Guillermo Francella. One of the truely brilliant aspects of the film is watching the characters between the two time frames. They mature as well as visibly change in wonderfully subtle ways. The make-up is pretty amazing, but it is the actors and director that sell the shift. 

If you missed this, like I had, make time for it. It is really a solid film and story. If you are familiar with Argentine or Italian police procedurals, it will help (there are some significant differences with the US), but it isn’t required. This is primarily about the characters who are swept up in a decades-spanning case that haunts each of their lives in different ways.

The Secret in Their Eyes

Sherlock (series 4)

Sherlock has had the benefit, and occasional curse, to be run by the same team from the get-go. Moffat (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and Gatiss (Worried About the Boy) brought their intellects and adoration of Doyle’s collection together to create a classic. Yes, I’m ignoring the mistake that was The Abominable Bride. As lynch-pin as Bride is to the tale, it is the weakest and most annoying of the series episodes as it was simply done to write them out of a very tight place they’d left themselves in at the end of series 3 and was too cute and transparent for me.

The final 3 episodes of Sherlock were the typical whirlwind at the top, but as they move on there is space to breathe. You can feel it all coming to an end like a heart slowing down. That isn’t meant negatively…. one of my biggest frustrations with the show is the unrelenting break-neck pace it often sets; we never get to enjoy anything because to savor anything means to miss the next bit of information or action. These final episodes, however, are built upon the foundation of the characters that Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) and Martin Freeman (Captain America: Civil War) created and nurtured.

Mind you, the recurring cast of Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves (Last Tango in Halifax), Amanda Abbington (Mr Selfridge), Louise Brealey (Ripper Street) and, again, Mark Gatiss complete the world and provide the necessary sounding boards. One of the interesting changes this season was the guest stars in each episode. Marcia Warren (Vicious) and Lindsay Duncan (About Time) in the first, Toby Jones (Witness for the Prosecution) in the second, and Sian Brook primarily in the third. And, of course, Andrew Scott (Victor Frankenstein) gets his farewell (again) as well. While the previous series shows each had stories and arcs, they didn’t really have nemeses on an episodic basis. This rhythm was new.

And yet, it all comes back to the beginning, in a wonderful and twisted way. This final run of three managed to echo everything that came before and take it somewhere new and unexpected. The result is a wonderful piece of entertainment and construction and a near perfect ending. There could be more, but it isn’t needed and, honestly, it would feel forced after the self-supporting, closed loop that Gatiss and Moffat delivered.

A bit of a post-script.

Finales are fascinating things. They tell you a lot about a show’s creator (assuming they are still involved at the end) and about the show itself. Series themselves can serve many purposes. Most are there to fill 30-60 min a week as a distraction and a reason to sell you things. It is what TV entertainment is all about: to keep you watching so that the advertisers can get a few moments with you. With the advent of pay TV and VOD, that has shifted a little. Now we pay for content more directly as well, and we expect, well, not much more that we did before, it appears, if you look at what is being produced. But I digress; this was to be about finales.

Series finales are amongst the hardest scripts to write. They have to, when done well, wrap up potentially years of action, story, and character growth, giving meaning to it all and leaving us feeling a sense of completion. More and more (good) writers have learned how to arc their seasons so there are, if not stopping-points, at least pause-points that provide completion and suggest a way forward; also a good hedge against cancellation.

Series finales have to do all that and have it all make sense of our investment in them; after, at times, watching for years, we want to feel there was a good reason for having done so. This becomes even harder for a show when they’ve lasted long enough to go through multiple cast, runners, writers, and directors, where the shape of the show itself may have morphed well beyond the original vision. Not many have done it well in the past. This is where VOD and paid channel content (HBO, Netflix, Amazon, Starz, etc.) have changed the landscape. They are often creating something closer to stage plays than TV fluff; 6-13 episode runs of limited scope (rather than open-ended). From a pure craft point of view, I am finding it a welcome change with fewer loose ends and orphaned stories when a show doesn’t return.

Sherlock

The Holiday episodes

Typically, this time of year shows tend to do stand-alone specials about Christmas, harping or concentrating on the holiday in a way that is highly exclusionary to anyone who doesn’t celebrate in the same way. The effect can be to push away large sections of their viewing public.

This year, however, most shows I was following found ways to make the holiday ancillary or as pivot point for their series. Below is a sampling.

Last Tango in Halifax
A nice 2-parter and shift for the characters. I can’t imagine this isn’t setting up a longer, new series, but it is as entertaining and painful as it usually is. Centered around the holidays, it takes that pause in the year to throw together the characters, decisions, and revelations.

Doctor Who
Reviewed more deeply separately, but definitely a pivotal episode with little to hang on the holiday. A nice shift that was years in the making for the show since Moffat took over and made the first few Christmas specials odd Christmas fables rather than Doctor Who.

Sense8
A definite continuation and setup. Also more deeply discussed in a separate post. A bit more focused on the holiday and its meaning, but mainly as catalyst rather than as hammer. If there is an overall message there it is that family is what you make it, not what you’re born into. A good and worthy sentiment… just wish it had been delivered with better craft on par with the first series.

Only Father Brown in The Star of Jacob and the Grantchester Christmas Special really did a traditional tale. Given their main characters that seemed rather appropriate. But Grantchester also takes the opportunity to shift its show into a new mode in addition to focusing on the aspects and analogies you’d think would be there. Father Brown is a tad more traditional, in series and in delivery, on this one. In this case, though, it was also the first episode of its 5th series, providing a respite and celebration before going on to evolve its cast from there.

The Girl on the Train

This is not an easy or fun film to watch, but it is one of those you see for the performance alone. Emily Blunt (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) delivers one of the saddest and ugliest characters in a long time. Her portrayal of Rachel is painful to watch, and at no time does she apologize or forgive her actions. That takes guts when you’re building a career.

The story itself, adapted from Walker’s novel by Erin Wilson (Chloe), was a huge challenge to present believably. It is a tale of perception and weakness, love and obsession, power and failure. And it definitely leans to the dark side of life. The plot construction was quite good, but definitely dense and slow to build. Tate Taylor’s (The Help) direction and sense of tension, however, lift it from under its own dark weight. We are drawn into the tale, pulling at the threads, like Rachel, to find the truth, or what we think is truth.

The other two parts of the female trinity supporting this tale are Haley Bennet (The Magnificent Seven) and Rebecca Ferguson (Florence Foster Jenkins). Each brings multiple facets, though neither really gets to draw a complete character, but that is the intended nature of the story. We are only ever going to get to know so much and no more.

There is a male triumvirate as well in this movie. Justin Theroux (The Leftovers), Luke Evans (High-Rise), and Edgar Ramírez (Joy) provide catalysts, impetus, and different faces of male interaction with their respective female counterparts.

Three other notable performances were from Laura Prepon (The Kitchen), Lisa Kudrow (Neighbors 2), and Allison Janney (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children), who fill in some important cracks and questions. This final grouping also structurally completes the 3 groups of three in the plot, which is an interesting bit of construction if you care about such things.

You’re not going to walk away from this story feeling good, so give up all hope on that. Any joy or positive aspects in this movie are implied rather than realized. But you will be impressed with Blunt and the shifting of the tale.

The Girl on the Train

Some quick shots from across the pond

The Passenger (Le passager)

Fascinatingly structured and with a good premise. It has weak police procedural and some overly simplified plot elements, but there is enough to keep you intrigued. The ending… well, not so satisfying and clearly with an intent to move into a second series. It is reminiscent of The Bridge’s first season, but without the tight plotting and intent to keep it as believable as possible.

Humans (series 2)

At the end of series 1, chaos was about to descend on humanity. Fortunately, that dire expectation gets a little more paced and time is provided to avoid disaster, though danger runs high on all sides of the sentience line. This second season is all about possibilities and potential. The character lines are deepened and the surviving original cast all do great. Some new players are introduced in a much more expansive story than the first installments. Sonya Cassidy (The Paradise) is particularly fascinating through this arc, and Carrie-Anne Moss (Jessica Jones) adds some good notes, though not quite as believably. It is no surprise that they leave you wanting more at the end, but that ending could comfortably be a finale or simply setting up the next set of installments.

Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

A truly great adaptation of one of the Agatha Christie stand-alone novels with notables Toby Jones (The Girl) and Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City 2). Even if you have read it, they have altered it enough (in fact they’ve strengthened it in many ways) so you will enjoy this presentation.

Naked Attraction

Want to find something that you would never see on public broadcast in the US? This is it. The concept is having guests pick a date with 1 of 6 people by looking only at their slowly revealed naked bodies. The idea appears absurd and salacious. But, in fact, it is a clever way to combat body image issues in men and women, all while having a little fun. The conversation is blunt and unvarnished about what people think of the various body parts, their ideas on sex, and there is some science thrown in as well for context. It isn’t brilliant television, but it does honestly make you think about yourself and what attracts you to someone differently than you probably have in the past.

 

The Coroner

Not quite a cozy, but neither is it overly gritty, it is more Midsommer Murders than Prime Suspect. Still, the characters are entertaining and the mysteries, at times, nicely twisty.

Doctor Blake Mysteries (series 4)

This fourth installment is a season of change for Blake and the show. Having brought us to a comfortable place at the end of last series, this one kicks off intent on keeping you off-balance. The episodic mysteries remain fairly steady and the pacing somewhat sedate; but this show was always as much about the characters as it was the discoveries, and each series has an arc to its 8 episodes. This series is no exception on that mark.

Deep Water

An interesting mystery that stretches is tendrils back to the early 80s and exposes a side of Australia you don’t often see. One of the unexpected aspects was the prominent role for Craig McLachlan (Doctor Blake) playing a very different kind of character.

Paranoid

A poor bit of procedural, but a fascinating character study and intricate murder mystery plot. It is also stacked with some great performances and recognizable faces. You’ll have to squint through some of the choices and dialogue, but for fans of British mysteries, it is a reasonable diversion and fun ride.

Class (follow-up)

For its inaugural season, Class really came through. The series is chock-full of surprises, big decisions, and intense relationships. Up through to the end it will do the unexpected… and where they go from that, I have no idea, but I’m more than willing to give them another shot to find out. This is still aimed at a young adult audience, and the writing is, at times, short-cutted (leaps in logic, wrap ups of situations) but it still manages to keep you believing and engaged thanks to the strong cast and direction.

The OA

Stranger Things ushered in a new wave of material on Netflix. Riskier, odd, but well-written and produced material that would never get a chance on broadcast television because it could never find an audience in that medium. The OA is right alongside that effort, equally interesting, though aimed at a very different section of the viewing public.

Creators Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling are known for their highly unique approach to story and film. Their most recent collaboration, I Origins, delved into the concept of identity and a few other unexpected ideas. They also like to play with how a story is told, literally, and how it is presented. In this case, OA episodes are even of varying lengths based on the need of the that particular section.

Everything matters in Batmanglij and Marling’s tales. They pace the tales to give the audience time to absorb and, maybe, understand or even get ahead of the plot, when that is to their aims. Their worlds and tales carefully unfold, exposing first just the odd edges and then the truly strange aspects of their ideas. The OA is no exception. By doing so, they bring you along and drop you in utterly unexpected country, but with enough knowledge to navigate it.

Batmanglij directed the entire series and pulled together a great ensemble of unlikely characters. Alice Krige (Solomon Kane) and Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) as Marling’s parents, and Jason Isaacs (Awake) each deliver nuanced performances in key roles. The rest of the main cast has a few notables: Emory Cohen (Brooklyn), Phyllis Smith (Inside Out), and Patrick Gibson (What Richard Did), as well as newcomers Brandon Perea and Ian Alexander make up a solid core for Marling’s tale. Marling herself, in the title character, controls the story with a confidence and charisma that maintains your interest even through the most steadily paced moments.

Identifying the truth or reality in this story is part of the fun. There are a lot of clues, but each has multiple interpretations. But truth is less the point than the fun of considering the possibilities. It all comes to an ending that is at once mundane and wondrous… and likely divisive, but that is also nothing new for this creative duo.