Tag Archives: Mystery

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.

Anna

[3 stars]

Imagine Lucy crossed with Mission Impossible with a bit of Red Sparrow and you’ve got a sense of what Anna is like. It is a fun romp with some great fights and good twists…all with a darkly Russian demeanor and French sensibility. In other words, a Luc Besson  film.  This isn’t a classic, but it is certainly good summer entertainment.

Sasha Luss (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) in the title role is suitably inscrutable, if not entirely accessible. And she moves well, helping us believe she could be a trained professional, even if her brawn isn’t obvious.

Around her, Helen Mirren (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Luke Evans (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and Cillian Murphy (Free Fire) provide the intrigue and complications needed to propel the story nicely.

This is nothing more than fun entertainment that is loaded with dark humor, great fight choreography, and twisty plotting tropes that become their own brand of humor. Go for the popcorn and stay for the ride. It may not be the best the summer has to offer, but it is much more satisfying and fun than most of the middling sequels that have been on offer so far.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

[3.5 stars]

After so many failed adaptations of games and anime of late, this movie manages to acquit itself well. First and foremost it is because of the script. Tick writers/producers Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit treated the main story with honesty and focused on creating a believable emotional journey. Director (and co-writer) Rob Letterman’s (Goosebumps) handling of the property was adept as well, at least with the main characters and storyline. The side characters and stories are less credible, but not so much as to ruin the movie.

Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool 2) and Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) build on the core foundation as an unlikely pair of detectives and offered some real promise for the movie. I say promise because as much as the movie surprises in its quality and maturity, it falls back on short-cuts in the resolution, making it much more of a kids film than one that could have been something much more enduring. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, it most certainly is, it just isn’t what it could have been.

There are a number of smaller roles as well… but they are all fairly flat; without depth. Among them, Bill Nighy (The Bookshop), Kathryn Newton (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and Suki Waterhouse (Assassination Nation) get to contribute the most. Waterhouse, in particular does a lot with very little.

Ultimately, this is a nice distraction, but not the Deadpool for kids vibe that trailers promised, nor the unique vision that might have made it a classic. You can still have a fun 90+ minutes with it…especially if you’ve spent a lot of time with Pokémon. The fact that I haven’t and yet still enjoyed the story is only another indication of the quality of the tale.

Serenity

[3 stars]

It is impossible to really talk about this film without ruining the experience. So suffice to say it isn’t what you think it is, but neither does it really manage to achieve its goals. Writer/director Steven Knight (The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Locke) definitely likes to explore odd niches and create tension. And though he is trying to be too clever in this movie, he smartly focused on character, rather than the deeper mystery, to sell the story.

You know something is off very early on in the story; a sense of David Lynch definitely in play. But the story is played straight and with a persistent reality that is tinged with a sense of distortion for the viewer. Without that distortion, that hint of something other, I would have turned off the movie in the first 10 minutes, to be honest. But there was something there, mostly in the form of Jeremy Strong (Molly’s Game), that kept me curious enough to go forward.

Matthew McConaughey (The Dark Tower), Anne Hathaway (Ocean’s 8), and Jason Clarke (First Man) make an interesting triangle, though none of them is particularly sympathetic or believable. In part, that is the story and the style. Even Diane Lane (Paris Can Wait) and Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel), for all their sincerity, never really rise above or stand out. How Knight got McConaughey and Hathaway on board, let alone convinced McConaughey into all the gratuitous sex and nudity, I’m not sure, but it is certainly a credit to his powers of persuasion.

Generally, this is more of a curio of a movie than a great bit of noir or suspense, or whatever it is. Much like Locke, it is a concept wrapped in a script and delivered nicely by the cast. It isn’t great, but neither is it bad. You just have to be in the mood for an odd ride, and willing to approach it with an open mind.

Destroyer

[3 stars]

Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) delivers a devastatingly broken-but-not-down detective, evoking more Charlize Theron than the characters we’ve come to expect from her. She is ugly, both mentally and physically; an anti-hero extraordinaire. Intense and gripping, but with the smallest bit of sympathy to keep us on her side.

Kidman navigates the world, past and present, with the help of a great supporting cast. Toby Kebbell (The Female Brain), Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya, Avengers), and Bradley Whitford (The Darkest Minds) chief among them. And then there was the otherwise unrecognizable Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). If it weren’t for the credits, I wouldn’t even have spotted her, and it wasn’t for lack of screen time.

Better known for her television work, director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) is no stranger to female driven tales. In this case, however, she tries just a little too hard to maintain the atmosphere. The music is heavy-handed and the pacing just a tad strained at moments. But she does manage to create a dark, dark tale… a daylight noir in the harsh LA sun that drives forward relentlessly as flashbacks fill in the history. Oft-time writing collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (R.I.P.D.) gave Kusuma a well constructed script to work with, but it is Kidman’s and Kusuma’s molding and delivery of that tale that makes it work.

Make time for this one when you’re in a mood for a bit of violence and mystery. The performances make it worth it alone, but the story is, itself, a good ride.

New and Continuing Foreign Series

Baptiste
At the core of The Missing was the calming and obsessive Detective Baptiste, played by Tchéky Karyo. He was never the focus, but was the uniting factor of the series, and in many ways one of the more interesting characters. Well, now he has his own series. With the story solely on him, it is a bit lower energy but just as dark. Tom Hollander (A Private War) adds an interesting counterpoint, and a very complex character to the mix. And Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) provides a suitably evil opponent for both. There are some strong women in this series, and some damaged ones [Jessica Raine (An Adventure in Space and Time), Anastasia Hille (Tulip Fever), Barbara Sarafian, Talisa Garcia] but it is driven by the male characters.

There is a nice mix of mystery and suspense, though Karyo’s Baptiste seems to get to move with near impunity through the legal system of more than one country. But the show also continues the threads of his home life and past, which expands on what we know in interesting ways. Whether this show can be sustained over more than this limited story, I’m not sure. Karyo isn’t young and the character himself is winding down in his abilities as part of the plot. And the end of this clever and twisty six-parter was a bit rushed and, in some ways, forced. To their credit, it is satisfying and allows it to feel complete without closing the door to further stories.

Shakespeare and Hathaway (series 2)
The first series of this silly series was amusing…even more so if you know the plays of the Bard…but the mysteries were never brilliant. This second round is still fun, but the writing is much more hit and miss. In fact, the first half is painful at times, but they finally find their footing about episode 5. The main issue is more around police procedural and willfully stupid choices by characters. But this isn’t necessarily a show you want to over-analyze anyway. If you liked the first series, the second will happily distract you. If they can get more consistent writing, it has a chance for a long and amusing life.

Trapped (series 2)
The second series of Trapped takes on immigration and hate crimes on top of the delicate politics of country and family that the first series tackled. It picks up some time later from the first go-round, with some significant changes and some continuing tropes and battles. The mystery gets off to an immediate start and spins out from there intriguingly playing in the overlap between the far right and environmentalism. While the first series traps its characters literally, this series a more psychological reading of that title. Many first series characters recur and their storylines and tensions continue. The story itself unfolds very slowly, constantly going in new directions until the full tale is revealed and resolved.

Endeavour (series 6)
The latest 4 installments of Endeavour are coming back around to establishing the quirks and mannerisms of Shaun Evans’ (The Scandalous Lady W) titular detective. The last couple sequences laid some groundwork, but it was all inferred rather than direct. One of the things that made the first two series so great was watching Morse being born. This sequence really sets the stage for the relationship with Sean Rigby’s DS Strange and James Bradshaw’s  Dr. DeBryn, as well as tackling some challenges with Roger Allam’s (The Hippopotamus) DI Thursday and Anton Lesser’s CSI Bright.

There are still a few years to go before the series hits the wall it cannot pass (overlap with the original series and the elevation of Morse to DCI in the 80s). With the next series, they launch into the 70s… but they could continue there for years at a paltry four episodes a go, which either means great news for lovers of the show or danger of spinning wheels and driving it into a hopeless rut. Given how carefully Russell Lewis has tended to Colin Dexter’s characters and has conspired to give us this early slice of Morse, I’m hopeful he can sustain the effort.

Shetland (series 5)
Shetland continues its travels with its characters and its dark mysteries across harsh landscapes. And, if its been a while since your last visit it may take a bit to get your footing with the characters and their relationships. Douglas Henshall’s (Collision) dark but seethingly emotional detective remains at the center of the mismatched family on the tiny and battered island. Mark Bonnar (Line of Duty), Steven Robertson (Luther),  and Alison O’Donnell remain core to the story with him and to each other. In many ways, this is one of their best crafted seasons; it has a complex mystery with many switchbacks and character growth in parallel over the six episodes. Not that previous series weren’t equally complex, but this one felt the most evenly put together. Interestingly, series 5 is also journeying along similar ground as Baptiste and Trapped, taking on human trafficking as a core issue.

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.