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December 28, 2016

Blu-ray Review: Close to the Enemy


CloseToTheEnemy_DVD.jpg In the days following the end of WWII both the Americans and the British scrambled to obtain help from their former enemies in Germany for what they saw as an upcoming conflict with a new foe, the Soviet Union. In some cases this meant ignoring individuals' war records, up to and including involvement in war crimes. The new mini-series, Close To The Enemy, being released on Blu-ray and DVD by Acorn Media, on December 27 2016 is a beautiful and sad examination of those difficult times.

Captain Callum Ferguson (Jim Sturgess) has been given the assignment of ensuring a German jet engineer helps the British not only develop their own jet engine, but break the sound barrier before either the Americans or the Russians. He is given carte blanche from the army and the intelligence services as to how he accomplishes this task.

Aside from any patriotic reasons for doing his job, Ferguson is driven by the need to make sure England is prepared for war with the Soviet Union. He had first hand experience of how Britain had been woefully unprepared for WWll and is determined to prevent the mistakes of the past from being repeated.

He and his charge are set up in a once grand hotel which had come through the bombing of London almost intact. Intelligence services of all branches have been making use of the hotel as a way station for their clients since the end of the war. With Ferguson having to reside in the hotel until his job is done, it quickly becomes the main setting for the story. In this way we are introduced to the various characters who will impact upon his job and his life.

The three who have the largest effect upon him are his brother Victor (Freddie Highmore), a disillusioned ex-Foreign Office employee named Harold Lindsay-Jones (Alfred Molina), and a close friend's new American bride Rachel Lombard (Charlotte Riley).

Young Victor Ferguson did not make it through the war with his mental faculties intact. He's severely traumatized and has great difficulty in dealing with the day to day realities of post war life. However, he's also extremely intelligent and cares deeply for his brother. This leads him to find out information crucial to Callum's work, information that many would have probably liked left undiscovered.
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Lindsay-Jones has a secret. His secret concerns the activities of the Foreign Office in the days just before the war and how there were those at the highest level, who while not actively working for the Germans, were at least not working against them. It had tortured him for the entirety of the war and in Callum he sees a chance for redemption.

Finally, Mrs. Lombard, is Callum's chance for a life beyond war and politics. She represents an escape from all that he sees as evil and dirty in the world and his job. Unfortunately she's also married to one of his oldest friends. It's almost as if nothing can come without some kind of moral or ethical cost - even love.

This is a beautifully acted, written, and directed mini-series. Set against the backdrop of an England trying to rebuild from one war and preparing itself for what it thinks will be the next one, we are thrust into a world where nothing is at seems. There are no longer any certainties about what is good and evil which makes everything complicated.

Individuals who should be charged with war crimes are being sheltered by Western intelligence services for the information they can provide about the Soviets, while those trying to bring them to justice are being treated as nuisances at best and dangerous enemies at worst. The lead characters try to navigate through these muddied and dangerous waters as best they can, but it's inevitable they will run aground.

The Blu-ray version of Close to the Enemy comes with bonus features including a 30 minute documentary about the making of the series and interviews with various cast members about their experiences on set. The video and audio are of the usual high quality one would expect from this format, and the show sounds and looks great played through a home entertainment system with 5.1 sound.

Close to the Enemy is another example of the potential for an extended mini-series to produce great drama. Not only are the characters developed to their fullest, but the plot unfolds before us slowly and elegantly. This is a wonderful and intelligent piece of work that shouldn't be missed.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Close to the Enemy)

June 29, 2016

DVD Review: Vera Set 1-5 Collection & Vera Set 6


Vera Sets 1to5 sm.jpgNow available on DVD Vera: Sets 1 -5 Collection and Vera: Set 6 from Acorn Media are something of an oddity in the police procedural canon. While we're all used to the eccentric and rumpled detective, the idea that a woman can be just as disheveled but brilliant is not a concept most are used to seeing on television.

Well, meet Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) of the Northumberland and City Police based in and around Newcastle on Tyne in Northern England. She lives alone in a run down farmhouse and drives an old fashioned Land Rover. Both used to belong to her late, and mostly unlamented father. In the series's first episode, and when we first meet Stanhope, she's dealing with the disposal of her dearly departed's ashes.

Not your typical grieving daughter, she enlists the aid of her aide, Detective Sergeant (DS ) Joe Ashworth David Leon, for the job. This is our first indication Stanhope might not be either your typical police officer or have had what would call a normal upbringing. However untypical she may or may not be, we soon find out Stanhope is a brilliant police officer capable of combining an uncanny ability to reason with natural instincts in order to find solutions to the murder cases that show up on her desk.

It's a good thing she's good at her job, because her interpersonal skills aren't what you'd call great. Abrasive and quick tempered she bullies and inspires her staff in about equal measure to get the job done. While not all those who work with her respond well to that form of motivation, she does manage to earn the respect and loyalty of those who work with her the longest and closest. The main reason being is they see no matter how much she demands of them, she demands even more of herself, and they end up not wanting to disappoint her.
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Of course those joining her team have to go through a period of adjustment as we see in season 5 when her longtime sergeant Ashworth is promoted and replaced by DS Aiden Healy (Kenny Doughty) and Detective Constable (DC) Bethany Whelan (Cush Jumbo - most recently seen as Luca in the final season of The Good Wife) join the team. While the latter was with the team for one episode earlier, (in Season 4) watching them become acclimatized to the atmosphere created by DCI Stanhope is almost as much of an event as watching murders being solved.

Stanhope isn't just some cranky and mean spirited task master. Nobody would work for her if that was the case. However, it takes an actor of the exceptional talents of Blethyn to bring this multidimensional character to life. Blethyn is one of those gifted with the ability to convey incredible depth of feeling with nothing more than a single glance or a look. Watching her as she copes not only with her personal issues, but the lives of the people touched by horrendous crimes, one can't help but see her character's emotional depth.

The compassion she shows for those who life spits upon is about equal to the scorn she can heap upon those whose selfishness causes others misery. Blethyn not only shows us both aspects of her character, but how it makes perfect sense for a police officer of her experience to feel this way. While the plots and shows are wonderfully done, with excellent supporting characters in every episode, watching Blethyn's tour de force performance as DCI Stanhope is enough to keep anyone captivated through all six seasons.

Vera is one of those rare detective shows where what happens almost doesn't matter as much as how the story unfolds. The acting is so superlative you can sit back and watch the same episode over and over again and not be bored. While neither the box set, Vera Set 1-5 Collection or the Vera Set 6 have much in the way of special features - text interviews and photo gallery in the former - the shows themselves are special enough to make these worth owning.
(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Vera Set 1-5 Collection & Vera Set 6)

November 17, 2015

DVD Review: Restless


Cover DVD Restless.jpgOriginality in spy dramas is becoming rather hard to find in both television and film. How many ways can you tell the same story anyhow? However, the new DVD of the BBC two part mini-series Restless from Acorn Media, shows how you can put a new twist on familiar themes.

Set in both wartime Europe and North America of the 1940s and 1970s Britain, the show tells the story of a mother and daughter's attempt to uncover the truth of what happened to the former during the war. However, before that can begin, Sally Gilmartin (Charlotte Rampling) has to convince her daughter Ruth (Michelle Dockery) of three things: Sally was a British spy in WWll, her real name is Eva Delectorskaya and somebody is out to kill her.

In order to cure her disbelief Delectorskaya allows her daughter to read the file she has compiled which tells the story of how she became a British spy in the first place. The Delectorskaya family were Russian immigrants living in Paris before the war. Young Eva's (Hayley Atwell) brother was working for British intelligence until he was beaten to death by French fascists. After his death Eva was approached by Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) with the offer of British passports for both her and her father if she agrees to come to England and become a spy.

While this information, and further descriptions of her life in WWll, convince Ruth her mother is not the woman she thought she was, it doesn't begin to explain why she thinks anyone is hunting her in the present. That portion of the story is slowly but surely revealed over the course of the two part mini series. It turns out there was a traitor in Delectorskaya's department, who was responsible for the deaths of many of her team, and almost succeeded in having her killed during the war.

While there's no way of revealing much more of the storyline without being a spoiler, the action in the 1970s revolves around mother and daughter searching for her former boss, Romer - played by Michael Gambon in the present. Delectorskaya claims he's the only one she can trust and he should be able to answer the question as to who is after her.

What makes this series work so well is the combination of exemplary scripts and fine acting we've come to expect from these types of productions. As the young versions of Romer and Delectorskaya Sewell and Atwell are wonderful. Underneath Sewell's calm and suave exterior one can sense a well of hidden tensions and stresses. Even when he's supposedly relaxed, his motto of "trust no one, not even me" makes him constantly alert. You can imagine him sleeping with one eye and ear open.

Atwell is particularly impressive. We see her progress from grieving sister to an eager and excited young spy going about her training and her work. However, we gradually see her realize how dirty the job can be as she has to use herself as bait to seduce a top level American civil servant (Before 1941 the British were doing everything possible to convince the Americans to enter the war). However, the scales only really begin to fall from her eyes when she begins to believe there's a traitor on her team.
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Atwell does a wonderful job of showing her character's gradual hardening. We can see it mainly in her eyes, as the excitement at doing her job is gradually replaced by first a guarded watchfulness and then fear. As one by one the rest of her team are killed she must find a way to hide herself away in order to stay alive, her moves become more and more calculated. Everything she does is designed to make sure she won't be found.

In the present Rampling does a magnificent job of showing how this watchfulness has turned into full scale paranoia. She's jumping at shadows, seeing threats in everything. Yet there's a core of steel to her still, and if someone's out to get her she's determined to not go down without a fight.

For those used to seeing Dockery as her genteel character in Downton Abbey Ruth Gilmartin will either be a welcome change or a shock. Here's she's a single mom, and PHD student whose thesis is on the history of German anarchism in post war Germany. The father of her child has connections with the German urban terrorist Badder Meinhoff group and she's every inch the intellectual, free spirited, liberated woman of the early 1970s.

She does a wonderful job of showing someone coping with the fact her mother isn't who she said she was and then steeling herself to helping her track down Romer. Along the way she learns, that no matter how strong she thinks she might be, it's nothing compared to her mother. Learning your mother has killed people, and is obviously capable of doing it again if necessary, isn't easy.

Restless is not your typical spy thriller. Yes there's action and intrigue, but as with other really good British shows of this type there's just as much paperwork and cerebral activity as anything else. However, that doesn't reduce the amount of tension the show is able to successfully build or slow down the pace of the action. Without a doubt this is one of the best shows of its type released in recent years.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Restless)

October 27, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 3


Just in time for Halloween everybody's favourite Australian costume piece has a new series out on Blu-ray: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 3. Released by Acorn Media on October 27 2015 we're transported back to Australia of the roaring twenties and the escapades of female detective Miss Phryne Fisher, Essie Davis.
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While the third season is shorter than the previous two, only eight episodes, there's just as much action and entertainment crammed within the two discs of this set as there has been in the previous releases. First of all the entire the ensemble of Miss Fisher's friends and family are back again making their own unique contributions to the stories. With each of them being as familiar as people we know personally it's a delight to welcome them all back into our living rooms and watch their relationships continue to devleop.

While Davis' character dominates the screen, it's hard to imagine Miss Fisher without her erstwhile companion Dorothy "Dot" Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) or working hand in glove with Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) while solving her murder mysteries. Of course where the Inspector and Dot go, the former's chief assistant, and the latter's fiancee, Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) is never far behind.

Rounding out the ensemble are the rest of Miss Fisher's employees; Bert (Travis McMahon) Ces (Anthony Sharpe) and her butler Mr. Butler(Richard Bligh); her best friend, now pathologist, Dr. Mac (Tammy Macintosh) and last, but by no means least, her formidable Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes).

While the murder investigations they undertake are the major focus of the each episode, as well as the newly introduced mystery surrounding Miss Fisher's ne'er do well father, Baron Henry Fisher (Pip Miller), personal issues between characters are even more prominent than ever. Will Dot and Constable Collins be able to resolve the thorny issues of the Protestant/Catholic divide and her wanting more from life than simply being a housewife to ever make it down the aisle? Will Inspector Robinson and Miss Fisher's relationship finally move past the platonic stage into the romance that's been simmering beneath the surface since Season 1?

What has always made this series special is its ability to switch between the frivolous and serious without missing a beat. Not only do we enjoy the fun and frolic of the roaring twenties as seen through the eyes of Miss Fisher, we also experience moments of real emotion. The most poignant moment in this series features a star turn from Margolyes in the fifth episode,"Death and Hysteria". After opening her house up a visiting psychiatrist and his "hysterical" women patients Aunt Prudence not only has to deal with a mysterious death, but her own repressed grief over the death of a beloved son.
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Margolyes does a magnificent job of depicting this very proper woman dealing with trying to stomp down on her sorrow by ignoring it. Of course this only makes things worse for her. Of all people, it's Miss Fisher's rough and tough employee Bert who brings her around. There's something incredibly touching about watching how the aristocratic Prudence responds to the blunt words of communist Bert. While sympathy hasn't reached her, she takes his bluntness to heart and finally allows herself to grieve.

While the scripts are cleaver and witty, the acting exemplary and the attention to detail in recreating the time period extraordinary, its moments like the one described above which elevate this series to a higher plane. The characters are more than just types; they are multidimensional and complicated. Like Miss Fisher herself, whose extravagant lifestyle hides a complicated and sad past, there's more to each character than meets the eye.

The Blu-ray package features a bevy of behind the scenes interviews and other special features (Be sure not to miss Mr. Butler's "Drink of the Week" or the promotional spots featuring characters from the show) and a gallery of still photos from the show. If you have a Blu-ray player, pay the few extra dollars for this set, because the improved quality of the visuals alone will make it worth your while. This is one show where you'll want to be able to see the fine details in the set dressing and the costumes as they are stunning.

However, when it comes down to it, the show is so good they could be performing on a bare stage with the cast in their street clothes and it would still be great. It's not the pretty clothes or period settings which keep us glued to the television set. It's the scripts and the ability of the actors to bring their characters to life that makes this some of the best television you'll ever see.

While there may not be a fourth series of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (and after how they end Series 3 maybe there shouldn't be) that should not diminish anyone's pleasure with these episodes. A lady always knows how to make an exit. While Miss Fisher may not be the last word in decorum, she's still enough of a lady to know when to take her final bow.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series Three)

October 16, 2015

DVD Review: Chasing Shadows


Chasing Shadows, being released on DVD by Acorn Media October 20 2015, is not your average police procedural. In fact its not really your average television show period. Normally a show's lead character might have a few problems, but usually he or she might be physically attractive or have some other sort of obvious redeeming quality which helps an audience like them.

That's not the case with Detective Sergeant (DS) Sean Stone, Reece Shearsmith. Not only is he socially inept and have the horrible habit of always speaking the truth, he also has the communication skills of a person used to living inside their own head. While he may not have asperger's syndrome, he has an incredibly difficult time communicating with anyone around him.
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When we first meet Stone his superiors are trying to fete him for catching a serial killer at a press conference. Unfortunately Stone has other ideas and proceeds to say he and the whole Criminal Investigation Division (CID) failed as they would have been able to save the final victim if they'd investigated properly. According to him a proper investigation would have liaised with the Missing Persons Bureau in order to identify those people most at risk for being targeted by serial killers.

Naturally this goes down a treat with the brass and Stone quickly finds himself being permanently seconded to Missing Persons. Here he is assigned a new partner, Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston) a civilian, who works for Missing Persons. According to Stone, the key to finding those who are being targeted by killers is to identify patterns; patterns that show a common thread between potential victims.

While there's no denying Stone knows what he's doing his difficulties with communication drives both Hattersley and the police officer, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Carl Pryor, (Noel Clarke) assigned to supervise his work, to distraction. However over the course of the two, two-part episodes, this disc contains, both Pryor and Hattersley come to appreciate Stone's brilliance even if his single mindedness drives them both a bit crazy.

What makes this show fascinating is how the writers have been able to integrate the way the three begin to learn to work together as they solve two complex cases involving missing persons. While Stone continues to exasperate both Pryor and Hattersley, we watch as all three of them begin to learn how to work together. While this means the latter two have to start granting Stone some leeway, we also see him making an effort to communicate.

The two cases they investigate, Only Connect and Off Radar, while both involving missing persons, are quite different. In the first a teenage girl has been missing for only a couple of days, but Stone believes she's in danger. Three other teenagers the same age have previously gone missing and turned up dead. When it turns out the others were all found at abandoned buildings owned by the same bankrupt construction company, all had been members of an Internet Chat Room dedicated to suicide and the first three deaths had all been staged to make it look like they had hung themselves; he's sure the latest has been targeted by the same killer.

Off Radar involves a lawyer who disappeared almost a year ago. What piques Stone's interest is the lawyer doesn't fit into any of the accepted categories for a missing person. When they begin to retrace where he was last seen they discover he disappeared exactly where two other people had been killed by a convicted serial killer. This leads them to assume their missing person was murdered by the same man.

In each case Stone, Hattersley and Pryor have to do the kind of meticulous work we hardly ever see in police shows. While there is a dose of action in each episode, much of the case work involves sifting through records, documents and paying attention to the minutest discrepancies in people's habits that might give a clue as to what happened to them. It turns out that breaks in patterns are just as important as the patterns themselves.
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What makes this show work, aside from the great scripts, is the quality of the acting. As Stone Shearsmith gives an amazing performance of a brilliant man with no social skills. Unlike depictions of Sherlock Holmes, another detective who has troubles with personal relations, there's nothing romantic or heroic about Stone. Shearsmith's depiction is so ordinary, so underplayed, we can't help seeing Stone as an object of pity, not as someone to emulate.

While he aggravates Hattersley no end, Kingston does a great job of showing how her character begins to understand how to communicate with Stone and of realizing there's something broken inside of him. Her patience, empathy and willingness to challenge him help open a few cracks in his armour eventually. It takes almost all four parts of the two episodes, but you can see them start to develop a working relationship.

As Pryor, Clarke works sort of as the meeting point for the other two characters. While he and Hattersley build a relationship initially based on their mutual frustration with Stone, he also knows he has to figure out a way to work with his DS. What it comes down to for Pryor is that Stone gets results, which is what matters. He may want to throttle him occasionally, but he knows he can trust Stone to almost always be correct.

Chasing Shadows isn't going to be for everyone. If you like action and shootouts this won't be for you. However if you want wonderfully acted and brilliantly scripted television, you'll love it. The only problem is there's only the four chapters. We can only hope they make more.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Chasing Shadows - A Very Different Cop Show)

July 14, 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1


Ah, the bucolic splendour of rural New Zealand: the rolling hills, the plant and animal life the sparkling waters and the dead bodies. While the surroundings do make for a picturesque backdrop, it's the latter item which is of primary importance in The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1, now available in both Blu-ray and DVD from Acorn Media. On the surface it may sound like it bears a passing resemblance to the British series Midsomer Murders, but once you begin watching you'll realize there're significant differences between the two shows.

Like most police procedural shows "Brokenwood's" action primarily centres around a supervising detective, Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd (Neil Rea and his subordinate Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland). Each of the four episodes contained on the two discs of the Blu-ray set are close to 90 minutes each, which gives us plenty of time to get to know our two leads and for their professional relationship to develop.
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For Shepherd is initially an outsider. Brought in to check into possible police misconduct, a suspiciously botched and mishandled murder inquiry by the current Senior Sergeant in the first episode, Blood and Water, Sims is resentful of the fact he's not only taken over a murder inquiry but seems to be investigating her boss. It doesn't help that Shepherd has a couple of odd idiosyncrasies. The strangest being he talks to murder victims' corpses at the crime scene. After that his habit of playing old country music cassettes in his vintage 1970s car is merely annoying in comparison.

Over the course of the four episodes we see the working relationship between the two gradually develop and strengthen. For once he solves the initial case, Shepherd has himself reassigned to Brokenwood permanently when health forces the previous Sergeant to retire. Sims not only becomes used to his strange habits, but learns to respect and appreciate his skills as a investigator. Shephard has to gradually learn how to work well with others after years of playing the lone wolf. However, he's quick to admit his interpersonal skills aren't the greatest, as he often refers back to his three, or is it four, failed marriages (he never seems quite sure about the last fact).

The next three episodes see Shepherd settling into life in a rural community and solving some unusual murders. New Zealand's wine making community may not be as renowned as Australia's, but Brokenwood has sufficient vineyards, including Shepherd's new home, and winemakers to have their own awards. So it's a small surprise that the second episode, Sour Grapes finds a wine judge floating in a vat of wine; people have been dying in wine since Shakespeare's time after all.

While none of the episodes sound too original, there's also a golf murder, Playing the Lie and a hunting murder Hunting the Stag, what makes them so good is the characterization and the slow pace in which each episode develops. The wonderfully written and acted characters grow with each episode. There are also story lines which carry over from one episode to another, primarily from Shepherd's previous career. A couple of really good continuing support characters provide both comic relief and help to move the stories along. One is a junior detective, Constable Breen, (Nic Sampson) in the Brookenwood force. The other is Jared Morehu (Pana Hema Taylor) who operates on the borders of the law but becomes Shepherd's advisor on all things Brookenwood in the first episode and then his caretaker and vineyard worker.
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Of course they can't go through the season without a nod to New Zealand's favourite son, Peter Jackson. In the fourth episode one character's nick name is Frodo. When he comes into the station to be questioned Constable Breen asks if they should invite him through for second breakfast, only to be put off by the fact Shepherd doesn't know what the heck he's talking about.

The show's soundtrack reflects Shepherd's love of country music. However, this is great stuff performed primarily by New Zealand singer and songwriter Tami Neilson who will knock your socks off. Her voice is such she can handle everything from rocking country blues to slow numbers equally well. Not only do the songs work beautifully to fill in the transitions between scenes in the show, they add an extra dimension of depth and character to the settings incidental music isn't usually able to create.

While the special features on the Blu-ray are limited to five minute interviews with the two leads and the head writer, the show itself is the real special feature. Each episode is a well crafted and finally spun story. Like its rural surroundings "Brookenwood's" pace might be slower than other mystery shows, but it seduces you with its quiet nature and before you notice you'll be caught up in an episode and find yourself wanting more.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1)

April 26, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Foyle's War: Set 8


While the end of WWII meant no more war for the people of Great Britain, it was also a time of incredible upheaval for the country. The bombing the country had experienced had ruined its infrastructure and manufacturing base making everything from basic necessities like bread to luxury items like whisky scarce leading to unrest at home. They also had to deal with the slow dissolution of their empire around the world and the emergence of a new enemy in Communist Russia. It's against this backdrop the three episodes of the Blu-ray Foyle's War: Set 8 from Acorn Media play out.

In these the last three episodes of the series former police Inspector Christopher Foyle, played by Michael Kitchen, is still working for the British Domestic Intelligence Service, better known as MI5. Their remit is everything from chasing down suspected Russian spies to dealing with black marketers profiting from the shortages. There's also the reality of Britain as a whole coming to grips with the fact they are no longer a major player on the world stage and their role as empire builder has been supplanted by the United States.

Each of the feature length episodes included in this set bring to life the problems facing Great Britain as Foyle goes about his job. In the first episode, High Castle, an American oil company with a shady past representing British interests in Iran have been receiving threats from unknown sources. Foyle is asked to investigate the matter and stumbles onto something with links back to the war, concentration camps and the illegal selling of oil to the Nazis. The American firm is a family owned business headed up by its patriarch, played by Frasier's John Mahoney.
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Foyle only discovers out about the family when a war criminal is found dead in his cell in Nuremberg Germany. However, when he tries to further the investigation into the family's potential wrong doings during WWII he runs into fierce objections from Britain's foreign office. In the new post war realities, nobody wants to look too closely into anyone's past, especially when they are useful.

In both the second and third episodes, Trespass and Elise respectively, Britain's past, present and future collide in somewhat chilling fashion. In the former we watch as the country, and Foyle, not only deal with the fallout from the collapse of the old Empire, but the spectre of British Fascism raising its ugly head again. As is usual whenever there is want, people look for scapegoats. In the aftermath of WWII in England the easiest targets were refugees from Nazi Germany, mainly Jews. A local politician, recently released from an internment camp where he had spent the war for his fascist sympathies, tries to revive his career by whipping up hatred against them, for "stealing our jobs and being the cause of misfortune."

At the same time England is trying to deal with the "Palestine question". The British had occupied what is now Israel since the end of WWI and had been trying to find a way to extract themselves from the situation since the 1930s. Both Jewish and Arab terror groups were planting bombs and killing British civilians and soldiers in Jerusalem. Notably the Jewish terrorist organization, The Stern gang, had blown up the King David Hotel. London was to be host a high level conference about Palestine with both Arab and Jewish representatives and tensions are high within both the Foreign Office and the Intelligence community. When a noted Jewish businessman who is also a Zionist is found dead in his house, Foyle is asked to investigate.

In Elise the past comes back to haunt Foyle's direct superior at MI5, Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) after someone tries to kill her. It turns out the assassin was the brother of one Pierce's "girls" from her days in the British Special Operations Executive (SEO) during the war. The "girls" were french speaking British subjects dropped into occupied France to help co-ordinate British and French efforts against German troops. Near the end of the war the girls were being arrested almost as soon as they landed in France leading everyone to suspect there was a traitor.

After Pierce is shot Foyle starts investigating all the loose threads and finds out more about the security service's history than he really wants. Not only its sordid past but its rather nasty present as well. While he's never found the realities of his new profession much to his liking, these three cases tip him over the edge. As usual Kitchen's performance as Foyle is a masterpiece of understatement. However, this makes everything he does all the more powerful. Even his subtlest reactions are stronger than the emoting most actors splash across our screens.
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As he has been since the series' opening episode Foyle is still accompanied by his faithful right hand woman Samantha Stewart, now Wainwright. (Honeysuckle Weeks) She hasn't let her marriage to a newly elected Labour Party Member of Parliament, Adam Wainwright (Daniel Weyman) slow her down and is as headstrong and impetuous as ever. However it's through her and her husband's work as an MP, we experience the social problems England was experiencing during this.

As ever with Foyle's War the scripts and acting are exemplary. With each episode being an hour and half in length there is time for plots and sub-plots to be developed carefully and intelligently. While there are points made about social inequalities within Britain at the time, there is none of the knee-jerk reactions you'd expect. Instead everything is placed in its appropriate context so we can see how and why things happened. Of course the quality of the show isn't hurt by the consistent high level of the acting from all involved. From every episodes' special guest to the recurring characters each actor is the perfect compliment for the script and the story.

As with all Blu-rays this set comes loaded with Special Features. There's one which examines the history behind each of the episodes, another gives you a day in the life of shooting and another showing you how they recreated London of the late 1940s in 21st century Liverpool. Finally there's also an interview with John Mahoney about his role and his personal acting experiences. They all make for fascinating addendums to the episodes in this set.

Foyle's War: Set 8 unfortunately marks the end of what was a magnificent piece of television. Not only was it a well thought out and intelligent police procedural, it was also a wonderful history of both war time and post war England. If you've been a fan of the series all along you won't be disappointed by this ending. For those new to the show, I'd recommend starting from the beginning. However, you can still watch these without having seen any of the previous episodes and not feel like you're missing too much information. The only regret anyone will have is there won't be any more after this.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Foyle's War: Set 8 - The Final Episodes)

March 25, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Midsomer Murders Set 25


Most long running television shows tend to end up becoming pale imitations of what made them popular in the first place. Scripts stop being as interesting and characters start to become predictable and boring as they descend into catch phrases and cliche. However, there are exceptions, and viewers need look no further than the Blu-ray package Midsomer Murders Set 25 from Acorn Media to find one of the best current examples.

Set in the fictional English county of Midsomer, the show has not only successfully weathered a changes in its lead character and supporting cast since it first aired in 1997, but has continued to be entertaining and intelligent after all this time. As a police procedural one would think they'd have a hard time coming up with new plots, but this set includes the show's 100th hour and a half long episode, and they don't seem to be running out of new ideas anytime soon.

One major change this time round is Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) has a new side kick, Detective Sargent (DS) Charlie Nelson, played by Gwilym Lee. The second change is Barnaby's wife Sarah (Fiona Dolman) is very pregnant. This allows the show to interject periodic breaks into the murder investigations, with scenes of the Barnaby's domestic life as comic relief. What's nice is while they are almost all expectant baby related, they don't tend to fall into the typical "sit-com" stuff we normally see on television.
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The three disc Blu-ray set contains five feature length episodes, three special feature mini documentaries and a couple of still photo galleries. The special features tend to overlap, excerpts from an interview with Lee and from the piece about the 100th episode both end up in the "behind the scenes" featurette. While they're all enjoyable, they do tend to become a bit redundant after a while - watch the first two and pass on the last and you won't really miss much.

However, it's not the special features you should be buying this for anyway. It's the continuing amazing high quality of the shows. The acting, the scripts and the direction are all of the high standards we've come to expect from watching Midsomer Murders in the past. As Nelson, Lee fits in to the ensemble easily. From his stumbling new beginning moments as he gets to know his new boss and what's expected of him in the opening episode, The Christmas Haunting, to his feeling comfortable enough to take his own initiative in the second episode, Let Us Prey (Yes that's the correct spelling, so you might be able to guess the episode has something to do with a church).

What's great about this series, is while you're pretty much guaranteed a couple of pretty gruesome deaths during the course of each episode, the show is something a family can sit down and watch together without any worries. Those deaths that take place on screen are not overtly graphic - although one in Let Us Prey is a bit grisly - and the scene of the crime shots don't dwell more than necessary on the gorier aspects of an incident. Still, there's enough action to keep younger audience members interested and plenty of intelligent dialogue and twisty plots for the more adult minds.

Than, there's the show's sense of humour. Perhaps I've a slightly twisted bent to my humour, but comments like "Cause of death a large sharp object pushed through him tearing some essential organs" by the pathologist when observing a corpse which has been impaled by a cast iron lighting fixture are funny. Alright, it doesn't sound particularly rib tickling out of context, but the combination of the line's dry delivery and the subtle reactions of both Barnaby and Nelson made it priceless.

This set, as mentioned, includes the show's 100th episode. There have been plenty of these landmark type episodes in other series, and unfortunately a lot of them fall flat. The usual problem is other shows go for the cheap sentimentality by bringing back old characters or other cliched plot devices. In The Killings of Copenhagen, the creators of Midsomer Murders have done something much smarter. Instead of deviating from their usual structure, they've simply added some special elements.
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First and foremost is the inclusion of a foreign location, Denmark, and two police officers from that country's police force. When a British subject is found dead in a Copenhagen hotel room and Danish police ascertain the murder had its origins in Midsomer County, they contact Barnaby and Nelson to investigate the English angle. When a second body, the brother of the first corpse, also shows up in Denmark, the British detectives travel to Copenhagen. The dynamic between the two Danish detectives, both female, and the Brits adds a new and fun dimension to the interplay between Nelson and Barnaby.

The second is of course the impending birth of baby Barnaby. With Sarah expecting to deliver at any moment, travelling off to Denmark has left DCI Barnaby a little on edge. While this is sort of your typical television husband being more nervous than the wife about an impending birth, there aren't many husbands who will have the foresight to give their wives the name of the best police pursuit driver under their command if she needs a quick ride to the hospital.

Midsomer Murders is one of those delightful shows which, while not necessarily improving with age, shows none of the signs of degradation one usually associates with long running programs. "Set 25" not only integrates a new character into the mix with pleasing results, it proves the show's creators are still committed to producing a police procedural of the highest quality, while maintaing the human element which makes it so popular.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review Midsomer Murders Set 25 - Celebrating A Hundredth Episode)

July 19, 2014

DVD Review: Case Histories, Series 2


Some detective stories are primarily character driven while others are driven by their plots. While both ways of approaching a story can be interesting and provide satisfactory viewing for an audience, the best shows not only find a balance between the two, but somehow manage to integrate them. The term pathetic fallacy is a literary device wherein the author uses natural events to reflect what's happening in the plot of their story. In detective stories the best marriages of plot and character are those where the former holds a mirror up to the latter, reflecting some aspect of his life back at him. It might not be exactly the same as a thunder storm indicating a world out of joint, but it does help to create the kind of emotional and psychological depth required to make a show all the more realistic and intriguing.

In the second instalment of the mystery stories inspired by the writer Kate Atkinson, Case Histories, Series 2, now available on DVD from Acorn Media we see just how effectively this technique can be utilized to make gripping television. Jackson Brodie (Jason Isaacs) is a former cop turned private investigator. Driven off the Edinburgh police force for turning in crooked colleagues he now makes his living doing everything from finding lost dogs to tracking down missing persons and solving murders. As the lead character in the series we not only follow him as he works his cases we also delve into his emotional and mental state.

He might start out with every intention of being professionally detached when investigating a case but inevitably he not only becomes emotionally involved but is reminded of his own troubled past. He can tell himself all he wants that he won't take a personal interest, but in each of the three episodes in "Series 2" (Started Early, Took My Dog, Nobody's Darling and Jackson and the Women) it doesn't take much for him to cross over the line and open his heart.
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While the first two cases begin innocuously enough, a daughter seeking out her birth mother and a young woman wanting him to check up on her fiancee to make sure he's not having an affair, in each instance his natural empathy leads him to places he doesn't necessarily want to travel. In Started Early, Took My Dog he finds himself once again immersed in uncovering the dirty laundry of the Edinburgh police as the search for the birth mother leads him back to an old case involving a murdered prostitute, the officers involved with the original investigation and the mystery of what happened to the child who was found in the apartment with the dead woman. How this case from the past relates to both his client and the death of another prostitute in the present forces Brodie into making a decision based on what he deems best for the parties involved rather than what the law and his own financial considerations demand.

In Nobody's Darling Brodie's life is complicated by his daughter's return from Australia where she had been living with his ex-wife. With her living with him temporarily we watch as he tries to negotiate both raising a girl entering adolescence and once again finding himself involved in a case which turns out to be far more complicated then he first thought. What starts out as a simple checking up on a possibly unfaithful partner, turns into an investigation of a suspicious death. Along the way Brodie also finds himself becoming the suspect in a murder inquiry when a bookie who hired him to investigate why money was going missing from his shop turns up dead. It doesn't help Brodie any that he won 60,000 pounds from the same bookie the day he was killed by placing a 1500 pound bet on a 40-1 long shot hardly anybody else had backed.

The title of the final episode of the series, Brodie and the Women, refers not only to the case he take on, but to the complicated relationships he has with the women in his own life. While a young man asks him to re-open the investigation into the death of his mother, she was originally thought to have been the victim of a serial killer, he also has to deal with the fact his assistant, Deborah (Zawe Ashton) has finally had enough of not being paid and quit, trying to reconnect romantically with his one friend on the police force Detective Inspector (DI) Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbignton) and his ex-girlfriend, Julia (Natasha Little) turning up very pregnant.
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Playing a character with as many complexities as Brodie requires an actor of singular quality. A person who can not only show subtle shifts of emotion merely with his eyes and face, but who can also wear his heart for all the world to see without descending into melodrama. As Brodie Isaacs not only allows us to witness the character's inner turmoil play out behind his eyes, he also shows us there is more than one dimension to this man. Too many actors will fixate on one aspect of their character and ride it like a wave, but Isaacs understands there is more to a person than simply their past or one emotion. Empathy does not mean just be able to feel people's pain, it also means having the ability to share joy and other positive emotions. When Brodie is happy, his whole face lights up as if he's illuminated from the inside out.

However, while Isaacs performance is enough to make the series worth watching, its more than just a one man show. The scripts work to bring out the many facets of his character through his interactions with both the people in his life and the way he reacts to the situations in his life. From the over protective father learning how to let his child grow up, the man frightened of committing to a relationship, to the person with a sense of justice based on the needs of the individual rather than what others might demand of him, the scripts allow us to see all sides of Brodie while also telling three great stories.

The special features part ot the DVD set include some fascinating interviews with the cast and crew. Of most interest is the one with Isaacs, for not only does he star in the show he is also one its producers. He's able to to give viewers a perspective on the show from both sides of the camera we don't normally hear. He covers everything from the choice of music in the film to how they developed new scripts not based on books by the author while attempting to stay true to the characters and themes she developed.

It's not often you'll find any television show, let alone something as genre specific as a mystery show, where plot and character are as seamlessly integrated as they are in Case Histories, Series 2. Not only are the mysteries Brodie attempts to solve intriguing to watch, they are a reflection of the inner turmoils he's constantly dealing with. Whether it's a case of him deliberately seeking out this type of work as some sort of redemption or whether the universe is just messing with him doesn't really matter. The result is some of the most well acted and beautifully scripted television you'll see this year.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Case Histories Series 2)

June 22, 2014

DVD Review: Jack Taylor, Set 2


The troubled Private Investigator (P.I.) or police detective with a dark secret has started showing up in so many television shows and movies the role has come close to being a cliche. Troubled marriages, drinking and drug problems, intimacy issues and the old favourite post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by the job seem to abound on both the big and small screens. It's to the point where they play as big a part in the stories as the actual crimes being solved these days. It's as if after years of ignoring the fact cops and P.I.s are humans, scriptwriters and producers are making up for lost time by giving them as many foibles as possible. Unfortunately this means it has now become somewhat difficult to take all these variations on the same theme seriously. They've too obviously become just another plot device.

In fact it takes a very special performance to make this type of character and the show he's featured in believable. Jack Taylor, Set 2, being released by Acorn Media on Tuesday June 24 2014 not only contains just such a performance, the three feature length episodes contained in the set create the perfect context for the character in question. Jack Taylor (Iain Glen) is an alcoholic former Garde (police officer) in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. Thrown off the force for drinking and punching a politician, he's now struggling to keep his head above water taking on cases privately.

In "Set 1" we discovered he came by most of his problems because of a dysfunctional home life. His mother was a survivor of Ireland's infamous Magdalene Laundries, work houses for "fallen" young women run by the Catholic Church, and had been badly twisted emotionally by her experiences. This affected not only her own behaviour, but the way she treated her son and husband. In the first episode of "Set 2", The Dramatist, Taylor and his mom are trying to reconcile. She is recovering from a stroke she he's been on the wagon for six months. There's a beautiful scene with the two of them sitting by the water's edge, him eating yogourt for his stomach and her laughing at the idea of him trying to eat healthily.
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However, this one bit of brightness in his life is soon eclipsed by a case he's drawn into involving the apparent overdose/suicide of a young theatre student at the local university. Aside from his friend Garde Kate Noone (Nora-Jane Noone) the local police believe the death was an accident or at worse suicide. The one disconcerting element is a quote from a play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, by Irish playwright John Synge found on the girl's body and the fact she was dressed in a costume and make up. One of the professors at the university isn't convinced it was a suicide and hires Taylor to look into the matter. Along with his assistant Cody Farraher (Killian Scott) Taylor starts to investigate the young girl's life at university and the people she associated with. When a second young woman turns up dead with in a similar fashion - overdosed, dressed in costume and a quote from the same play carved into her back - the police realize the first girl was murdered as well.

While there's nothing straightforward about the case, the almost ritualistic aspects of the girls' murders bears all the indications of a serial killer at large, it takes a bitter twist at the end and dregs up some of Taylor's sordid past. However, while this case might be personally haunting for our PI, the second one in the series rips open the scab on a society wide problem in Ireland, child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The Priest starts with Taylor being asked to investigate when the body of a decapitated priest is found kneeling in front of the alter in a church. He discovers that not only had the dead man abused alter boys, he had also raped a nun. Through investigation he also discovers the horrible truth about child abuse, the crime doesn't usually end when the abuse stops and the victims are scarred for life.

This is quite a disturbing episode and probably shouldn't be watched by those recovering from abuse as it could trigger some nasty responses. However, like the entire series the episode is also handled with intelligence and compassion. It might be difficult to watch, but it makes clear the horrible nature of the crime committed against the children who suffered at the hands of those who were supposedly responsible for keeping them safe. It also shows how when the problem is ignored and the victims not treated, the repercussions can last for generations.
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The final feature in the set, Shot Down, has Taylor on the run from his guilt over something which happened in the previous episode. He's pretty much living rough and taking work where he finds it while travelling across the west of Ireland. Which is how he stumbles onto a young girl running through a forest covered in blood. It turns out she had found the body of her murdered mother and has blocked out most of her memories of the event. Taylor suspects she's also a witness to the events of her mother's death and worries her life might be in danger. He convinces her extended family of Irish travellers (gypsies) that he should hang around and try to figure out what the girl witnessed.

In dealing with helping the girl remember what happened to her Taylor is also forced to confront his what's happened to him recently. The relationship which develops between him and the child helps him overcome his guilt about those events and allows him to achieve a kind of redemption. While it's hard to describe the essence of what Taylor goes through without giving away key details of the stories being told, the arc his character travels over the course of the three episodes describes an emotional and spiritual roller coaster which has to be seen to be believed.

It takes a special kind of actor to bring this life and Glen, with his craggy face and whisky steeped voice, is phenomenal in the role of Taylor. He's not afraid to show us all aspects of the man he plays, his weaknesses and his strengths. While we are able to sympathize with some of the things Taylor goes through, Glen also manages to show us how he has a drunk's penchant for self pity and denial. However, there has to be a reason people like Garde Noonan and his assistant Farraher don't give up on him, and Taylor also manages to show us the heart of the good man who beats beneath the crumpled, slightly degraded exterior.

Jack Taylor, Set 2 might be shy on special features, an interview with one of the directors about the show and some photo galleries, but its compelling and well acted television. The stories are drawn from the gritty realities of Irish life, not from the romantic notions of green hills and folk songs. They might be hard to watch at times yet there is no denying the power of the stories and the strength of the cast. While all the actors involved do a wonderful job in their roles, the reality is they are merely satellites in orbit around Glen's stellar work in the lead role. There aren't many opportunities to see a tour de force performance these days, but Glen as Taylor will have you leaning into the screen watching his every move and listening to his every word.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Jack Taylor, Set Two)

June 4, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish, Set 2


While some countries are known for exporting raw materials and others for manufactured goods, Australia is rapidly becoming known for the fine crop of actors it produces. With amazing numbers of quality performers at their disposal, it probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise they also produce an incredible quantity of great television. Even television studios in the US have started taking noticeby paying them the ultimate compliment of making their own version of one Australia's funniest shows, Rake.

While some of the actors in the various Australian shows are unknown to most North American audiences, Jack Irish Set 2 stars an actor who has been popping up on North American movie screens for quite some time now, Guy Pearce, in the title role. Released by Acorn Media, this second Jack Irish release comes in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with each disc containing the feature length episode Dead Point.

For those who missed "Set One", Irish is a former barrister who quit practicing the law after his wife was murdered by one of his clients. He now works as a mix of private investigator/fixer who finds peace of mind working in a carpentry shop as an apprentice. While still haunted by images of his wife's murder, he's doing his best to get on with his life and has begun an on again off again relationship with a journalist, Linda Hillier. (Marta Dusseldorp) As Dead Point begins they are in the process of trying to restart their relationship and wondering about making a commitment to each other. However, no matter how much he wants it to, the past just won't leave Irish alone.
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His former father-in-law, Justice Logan, (Barry Humphries) is being blackmailed in an effort to ensure he doesn't release a report on the connections between drug trafficking and the Melbourne shipping yards. Initially Logan had asked Irish to find the person blackmailing him, but when that guy turns up dead, Irish then has to try and track down the incriminating evidence. The trail leads Irish down some very twisted paths into the seamier side of Melbourne society and private clubs catering to the very rich.

At the same time Irish is also trying to solve who tried to rip off his horse racing associates, Henry Strang (Roy Billing) and Cam Delray (Aaron Pederson). Strang and Delray play fast and loose with the racing laws and are a far different breed of people than Justice Logan. Strang is an old school crook, lives and works to a code based on respect, while Delray is his muscle. So when a woman who works for them is robbed and badly beaten, they enlist Irish's aid in tracking down the men who assaulted her and stole money she had been carrying for them.

Strang and Delray not only act as a sort of comic relief, they also serve as a contrast to the sordid nature of the other case Irish is working on. For while they might be crooks, they make no bones about who they are and make for a refreshing change to the filth Irish finds himself swimming in trying to track down Justice Logan's blackmailers. Billing and Pederson manage to strike just the right tone in their portrayals of Strang and Delray respectively to make us both like and enjoy watching them onscreen. You can see why Irish, the former lawyer, appreciates their company in spite of their profession. Not only do they pay well, he knows he can trust them completely and they can be counted on to be there if he needs help. Two commodities that have been in short supply in his life recently.
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As Irish Pearce does some of the best acting of his career. Perhaps it's because he's finally been given a role which allows him to show off his depth and range as a performer. Irish is a multifaceted and complex character dealing with a multitude of issues. Pearce does a great job of managing to bring out all aspects of his personality, allowing us to see both the darkness he's carrying with him from the past and the hope he has for the future. Pearce has gained a certain amount of gravitas as he's aged, and this imbues his performance with an emotional depth that was missing from his work when he was younger. Watching him in this series is to see an actor who is completely comfortable in his own skin delivering an apparently effortless performance that's a joy to watch.

The great thing about these feature length episodes is how it gives the creators of a series plenty of time to develop a show's characters and plot lines. In Dead Point they've done a fine job of balancing and weaving together Irish's personal life and the two separate cases he's working on. None of them are given short shrift, and each make a significant contribution to our understanding of Irish and the world he lives in. It might be dark and seedy in places, but its not without light. The show's plots mirror the contrasts in his life and through solving the crimes he's asked to investigate he also seems to be resolving his personal issues.

The Blu-ray disc of Jack Irish, Set 2 is up to the format's usual high audio and visual standards, so looks and sounds great through a home theatre system. Both the DVD and the Blu-ray contain the same special features, a series of behind the scene clips of various scenes from the show. If you're interested in that sort of thing, watching how scenes are set up and filmed, than you will probably enjoy them, but they don't really give you any information about the making of the show. However you shouldn't let this deter you from buying this disc, as the quality of the show far outweighs anything special features have to offer.

In recent years the world has begun to discover just how much talent resides in the island country of Australia. Their actors have been gracing stages and screens around throughout the rest of the world for the last couple of decades. Now, more and more of them are returning home to take part in movies and television shows being produced in their own country. With great acting, amazing scripts and production quality second to none, some of the best television is being made Down Under. Jack Irish, Set 2 is the latest example of how good television can be when people put their minds to it.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish, Set 2)

May 28, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2


At the end of WW l a great deal of the world seemed to decide the time was right for a very large party. The decade that followed, which has since come to be known as the "Roaring 20s", was not just a time of wild abandon and decadence, although there was plenty of that, it was a period of increased liberties both socially and artistically. Having seen the ruling classes push them into a conflict which caused so much death and carnage, the younger generation rebelled against the standards which their parents had lived by. Life was far too precious to be wasted on worrying what others might think of you.

This era is brought to life in all its flamboyant colour in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2 from Acorn Media. Another of the great series being produced by Australian television, the show follows the exploits of one of the new breed of women the 1920s threw up, Miss Phyrne Fisher (Essie Davis) Lady Detective. Independently wealthy, all the male heirs to the family fortune were killed during the war and she inherited, she devotes her life almost equally to enjoying herself and solving mysteries. If along the way she also happens to open people's minds to the fact a woman is every bit as capable as a man, well that's just a bonus.

While each episode in the series is nominally about solving a murder, they also manage to address social issues particular to Australia at the time. Whether a veteran suffering from what was then know as shell shock, what we'd call post traumatic stress disorder, post war anti-German sentiment, temperance, or the rights of women, they are each dealt with in a serious and compassionate manner. What's even better is how the show's creators have managed not to impose an early 21st century morality on the issues, but are able to make the character's perspectives and observations realistic to the time and place.
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However, what really distinguishes this show from other detective/mystery shows, are the characters and the continued development of their interrelationships. Not only are the characters well written, each of them continue to evolve as the series progresses. As main the foil for Miss Fisher Inspector Jack Robinson Nathan Page of the Melbourne police not only has to deal with her involvement in the various crimes they wind up investigating together, he also has to come to grips with their developing personal relationship.

In the first series we saw the beginnings of their relationship, and now the writers have taken it a couple of steps further. First of all we meet people out of Robinson's past, his ex-wife and ex-father-in law, who also happens to be his direct superior in the police force. When a couple of cases, including a superb one dealing with the issue of a Melbourne based Madeline Laundry (basically a world wide series of workhouses run by the Catholic Church for "fallen" young women) bring Robinson and Fisher into contact with these people from his former life it creates a different level of tension in their relationship then had previously existed. There relationship is further complicated when Robinson is forced to confront the depth of his feelings for Fisher because of an incident which occurs during the investigation of one crime in particular.

What's wonderful about all of this is how the writers have both characters handle the changing circumstances. Neither of them change their behaviour or their approach to life, but they develop an increased respect for the other's feelings. Watching this progression over the course of the thirteen episodes of Series 2 is an example of the show's quality. It's truly remarkable to see how these changes are incorporated effortlessly into each murder investigation without ever taking away from the action or plot at hand.

Of course both Robinson's and Fisher's able right hands are still around. Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Dorothy (Dot) Williams. (Ashleigh Cummings) Like their bosses both their relationship and their characters undergo a substantial development over the course of the second series. While they are both far more conventional than either of the people they work for, we watch as they both grow as people based on the experiences they've gained.
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It may sound like the actual murders of the title "Murder Mysteries" might be secondary to the drama among the show's lead characters. However, while there may be some truth to that in a couple of the episodes, the writers have managed to create the perfect balance between the sub-plots involving the characters and the actual solving of the various crimes. Even in those episodes where the plots seem a little weaker, the actors' abilities and the force of their character's personalities makes each one a pleasure to watch. Davis and Page in particular give wonderfully multi-layered performances. I think you could watch them recite the phone book with pleasure. You'll definitely find yourself wanting to see more of them in the future.

The three disc Blu-ray edition of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2 also includes special features which will delight fans of the show. Of special interest are interviews with most of the cast during which they talk about their characters and what it's like to shoot the show. At one point Davis confesses to being terrified of some of the jewellery she wears as her character as they are genuine pieces worth a small fortune. (Those are real emeralds she's wearing, not fakes made for the show) Being a Blu-ray of course means both the audio and video are wonderful and the show looks and sounds great through a home theatre system.

Everyone knows Australia and New Zealand are capable of making great films (Lord of the Rings, Picnic At Hanging Rock) but we're just beginning to find out the same goes for their television productions. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a great example of how they manage to create shows which are not only technically on par with anyone else, but can also match up artistically with what the rest of the world has to offer. In fact, judging by Miss Fisher and other shows I've seen, they usually outshine most of what we see on our televisions on a regular basis.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2)

January 24, 2014

DVD Review: Midsomer Murders, Series 6


There's nothing like the beautiful English country side. Rolling hills, farmland and tracts of lovingly preserved forest. How idyllic to live amongst these pastoral pleasures in some quaint village filled with cottages and other old world charm. No sir, there's nothing like the pleasures of the English country life; disembowelment, dismemberment, and all sorts of other fun associated with murder and mayhem. For behind the exterior of village greens and manor houses lurk the same passions, hatreds and greed which lead people into committing slaughter everywhere.

Probably no other television series in recent memory has managed to cash in on this premise with more success than the British TV mystery series Midsomer Murders. Since it first took to the airways in 1997 it has been captivating audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Now, thanks to the people at Acorn Media its possible for fans of the series to bring home some of the earlier seasons on DVD exactly as they were shown on British television originally. Midsomer Murders, Series 6 is one of only a few of these new packages, and the five feature length episodes contained on its three discs are perfect examples of why the show continues to be popular to this day.

First off, it's hard not to be impressed by the bucolic settings of each episode. The producers have not only been given access to what seems like every stately manor home in and around England, they also have been given the run of almost every picturesque village in the Mid-lands. However, they're also not shy about making sure we see not everyone is living the ideal country life of horse back riding and gardening. No, we see there can just as much, if not worse, squalid poverty in the country as in the city. The contrast being the well off country dwellers and those who are feeling the bite of the new economy is used to great effect in the fourth episode of this series, "A Tale Of Two Hamlets".
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Another reason for the series's continued popularity is how well each episode is written. With each of them clocking in at slightly over 90 minutes, the show's writers have plenty of time to both develop the plot and the characters in each episode. While each show might start off with a murder, there's no telling in which direction the writers are going to take you after that. The show develops in the same rolling, twisting fashion as the roads winding through the scenery. There're sudden curves, hidden stops and even the occasional switchback to be dealt with. With plenty of time to tell their stories the writers can play out sub-plots and scenarios which act as red herrings and throw up many a false trail.

Then of course there's the characters in the series. From the regulars, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) and his side kick Detective Sergeant (DS) Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), Barnaby's long suffering wife and daughter, Joyce (Jane Wymark and Cully (Laura Howard and pathologist Dr. Bullard Barry Jackson to all the special guest stars who populate the various episodes. In fact part of the fun of watching the show is playing "where the hell have I seen that actor before" every time a familiar face pops up on the screen.

This set is no exception as the fun with actors begins in the first episode, "A Talent For Life", as the amazing ageless Honor Blackman shows up as Isobel Hewitt, a senior citizen refusing to surrender meekly to the aging process murdered by someone close to her. Could it be one of her family members wishing to sell off her estate in order to regain some of the money they've lost over the years from her escapades? However, things aren't quite as straightforward as they seem as a second body is discovered, the local doctor, near hers. With his reputation as a "ladies man" could it have been a jealous husband seeking revenge on him, and Hewitt was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or was she the target and he was the innocent victim?
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Which is when of course our detectives take over and the real fun of this show begins. It's always wonderful to watch Nettles as the seemingly unflappable and stolid country police inspector play into people's prejudices about "country bumpkin cops". With his headstrong DS running interference, keeping the locals on their toes, Barnaby gradually pulls back the veneer of genteel respectability to reveal all the little secrets they've so carefully hidden. They might not be entirely germane to the investigation, but it's still fun to watch everyone squirm and realize he's not the stupid plod they thought he was.

Episode three of Series 6, "Painted in Blood", has Nettles in fine form, playing up the country cop role, when he and DS Troy are told to stand aside in favour of two officers from the national crime squad when his wife discovers the body of a fellow student in her water colour class lying dead in the village green. It's a wonderful example of how Barnaby plays on people's expectations and uses them against them. He's not even above using his DS for these purposes. For when the members of the national crime squad flatter Troy by including him in their investigation, in order to use him for their own purposes, Barnaby plays along while waiting patiently for his DS to realize he's being used. This not allows him to carry on the investigation without any interference, when Troy comes to his senses it also allows him access to information the others have uncovered.

There aren't many television shows produced on either side of the Atlantic Ocean which have played as long as Midsomer Murders. Even though it has undergone an almost complete cast change from the time "Series 6" aired, the show retains the same appeal it had back in 2003 when these were filmed. However, while many of the same elements are retained, the country setting, the secrets hidden behind genteel exteriors and the remarkable collection of actors who appear in each episode, the combination of Nettles and Casey as Barnaby and Troy and the chemistry the two actors enjoy on screen is something that can't be replicated. The opportunity to watch these earlier episodes again on DVD is something not to be missed. There are many police shows, but it's safe to say there are none quite like Midsomer Murders. While these packages don't have the special features some sets come with, don't let that detract you from purchasing them if you're a fan of the series. The episodes are special enough on their own merits.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Midsomer Murders Series 6)

October 14, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season


I'm not a really big fan of television. In fact I don't even have cable. I have a home entertainment system and watch Bly-rays and DVDs. From what I've seen of what's offered regularly on television, I've no desire to pay the close to $80.00 a month cabal companies in Canada charge for what they call entertainment. The problem I've run into over and over again is any shows I've liked either are cancelled after a year or two, or, even worse, after a couple of seasons the quality deteriorates to the point where they become unwatchable.

However, there's always the exception to every rule. Over the summer I bought a Blu-ray player with wireless capabilities and a free month's subscription to Netflix. Through it I discovered the Fox Network's show Bones. I was blown away not only by the inventiveness of the scripts, but the characters and the careful way the people involved with the show developed the relationship between not only the lead roles, but how the interactions between everybody on the show progressed over the course of the seven seasons Netflix had available. The only question I had was would they be able to sustain this?

Well, after watching the Blu-ray version of Bones: The Complete Eighth Season I can honestly say they not only have been able to sustain what they started, they have actually continued to make it better. Not only do both the ongoing story lines continue to be interesting, but the individual cases dealt with in each episode are just as fascinating, and bizarre, as they ever were. Even more impressive is how they never seem to take the easy way out when dealing with serious issues. Instead of opting for cheap sentimentality to manipulate a reaction, they manage to create situations and scenarios which elicit genuine emotional responses in the audience.
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For those who don't know, the show details the work of a group of forensic scientists who work with the FBI. Led by Dr, Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel), a brilliant forensic anthropologist, the team examines decomposed remains of murder victims in order to discover who they were, and who was responsible for their death. Working with their FBI liaison, Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) the team from the Jeffersonian Institute: Angela Montenegro, (Michaela Conlin) Dr. Jack Hodgins (T.J.Thyne) and Dr. Camille Saroyan, (Tamara Taylor) have gained a reputation for being able to solve the un-solvable. Along with FBI psychologist, Dr Lance Sweets (John Francis Daley) they are the nucleus the show revolves around.

Over the first seven seasons the relationships between these characters has been carefully and skillfully developed, especially the one between Brennan and Booth. While on the surface they are complete opposites, she's rationale and super intelligent while he works on instincts and is very emotional, they compliment each other perfectly. Over the course of the show their relationship has developed from being a great working partnership to being a great partnership period to the point where they now have a child and live together. While the seventh season ended in a crises, with Bones being framed for a murder by a super hacker, the eighth season opens with them solving the crime and then settling back into the regular routine at work with their relationship stronger than ever.

As a way of keeping the series fresh, the creators have come up with a series of rotating continuing characters who make periodic appearances. The most frequent of these are the six interns studying with Bones. Each of these characters bring something different to the show by giving the main characters somebody else to interact with. The character of Sweets even becomes romantically involved with one of them, Daisy Wick (Carla Gallo), in spite of how everybody else finds her incredibly annoying. To be honest I find her character incredibly annoying, and much prefer it when one of the other interns make an appearance. Whether it's supremely depressed Colin Fisher (Joel David Moore), descent Wendell Bray (Michael Grant Terry), the fussy but brilliant Dr. Clarke Edison (Eugene Byrd), serious and intense Arastoo Vaziri (Pej Vahdat) or the Southerner Finn Abernathy (Luke Lkeintank) each are interesting characters who change the dynamic of the show whenever they show up.

One of the highlights of season eight is the episode featuring all five male interns working together. After Bones watches a basketball game she becomes fascinated with the idea of teamwork and brings them in to see if they can work together. We watch as the five men gradually work out how they can best pool their combined knowledge and intelligence to solve a mystery involving a homeless man whose body was found in a parking garage. Not only was the way they were able to overcome their desire to overshadow their fellows depicted with intelligence and humour, but the subject matter of the episode was dealt with admirably. The show ended up dealing with 9/11 and the plane which hit the Pentagon and how the homeless man was involved. Instead of making it a patriotic statement or something equally manipulative, it was a very personal story about this one man and his experiences. It was remarkable for its ability in bringing home both the horror of the event, and how what the homeless man had endured tied in with it.
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While each episode is most often an entity on to itself, with the cast usually dealing with a new set of remains and its accompanying mystery each time out, the various continuing story lines running through this season, and the history of the show, gives the series a substance you don't often find on television. While the subplots of the various ongoing relationships are ongoing (for those of you who haven't watched the season yet there's a surprising new one) and beautifully handled, a new one is added to the mix and one from season seven continues. The new one has Sweets moving in with Bones and Booth temporarily making for interesting scenes of all of them on the home front together. Not only is the situation handled in the show's usual able manner, it also gives us an opportunity to see different sides of both Booth and Sweets. Their friendship, which has sort of been like that of an older brother and younger brother up until now, becomes more one of mutual respect over the course of the season and Sweets staying with them.

The storyline continuing on from the previous season involves everybody's favourite serial killer and computer genius Christopher Pelant (Andrew Leeds). After forcing Bones on the run by framing her for murder he escapes justice when he to erase his identity and turn himself into an Egyptian national. Even though he's whisked off to Egypt in the first episode of the season, you just know we haven't heard the last of him. His obsession with proving he's smarter than the folk at The Jeffersonian, especially Bones, ensures he'll be back. He pops in for a visit in Episode 12, and then is back again to close out the season and wreck his usual havoc on everybody's lives, especially Bones and Booth.

The five disc Blu-ray package of Bones: The Complete Eighth Season comes complete with the usual accoutrement of special features, Even here the producers show their originality. For once the gag reel is more than just the cast hamming it up for the camera, and we see some genuine mistakes and the actors falling out of character. However, the bit I liked best was when the actors answered a series of questions about their characters, the show and other related matter fans had submitted. Each of the questions was taken seriously and answered with humour and intelligence.

While the Blu-ray is high definition all the way with both great sound and video, be prepared to have to update the firmware for your player as some of the menu features require you to have the latest versions. I'm not sure how much I like all these features, or see the need; there's one which allows you to select continuous play so you can remove the disc at any time and it will automatically restart where you left off. However, if you elect to use the single episode option, no matter what disc you insert into the player the menu always reads disc one, episode one and you have to scroll through to find where you left off. Still, that's only a minor inconvenience when it comes to watching a show of this quality.

There has been a disturbing trend over the past little while of depicting intelligent people as freaks and objects of ridicule in popular culture. While the characters in Bones have their eccentricities, they have always been depicted as complete human beings, not much different than the rest of us save for the level of their intelligence and their rather unique skill sets. The series has done a wonderful job of not only bring these people to life, but in allowing their characters to develop and grow. Watching Bones: The Complete Eighth Season one sees the process continue in front of your eyes. What's even better is they grow without ever changing their core characters.

It sometimes seems if a show remains on the air too long the quality will start to fall off. Well as Bones enters its ninth season, it not only hasn't depreciated, it has actually improved. There aren't many shows you can say that of. Through its combination of great scripts, wonderful characters and good acting Bones continues to amaze and astound. If there were more shows like this on television I might actually consider getting cable.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season)

October 3, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish


Not very long ago it was quite rare to see an actor who worked in movies appearing in television shows. In the early days of television part of the reason was geography as most shows were shot in New York City, where the networks were based, while movies were of course shot in Los Angeles where the studios were located. However, the real reason was most movie actors would have considered it beneath them to do television, which was seen as something of a second class citizen. Now of course all of that has changed. With the proliferation of cabal channels which specialize in mini series offering actors challenging roles, and the promise of continuing work, we've seen more and more crossover between the medias. In fact there is no longer really any distinction between movie and television actors. You're just as likely to see someone showing up on the small screen as on the big screen.

Well not as well known as some of his compatriots, Australian actor Guy Pearce has become a fixture in American movies over the last decade. However, he recently returned home to play the role of Jack Irish, successful barrister turned private detective, for Australian television. While filmed and originally aired in Australia, the show is now available to North American audiences through the release of the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack Jack Irish by Acorn Media.

Over the course of two feature length episodes we follow the lead character as he looks into the mysterious deaths of first a former client and then the son of a friend of his late father. While the two cases aren't related to each other, the two shows are chronological. For unlike other television detectives Irish has a life outside his investigations. While his detective work is obviously what propels the action, the rest of his life is just as important to the story and as interesting to watch as his work. For not only do the lines between the two occasionally blur as one bleeds over into the other, his personal story is the reason he's where he is today.
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When the first episode opens, Bad Debts, Irish is a still a successful barrister with a thriving career as a defence lawyer and a beautiful wife. It all collapses when his wife is killed by a client who feels Irish didn't do his job properly. Needless to say his world comes crashing down upon him. We learn he tried to continue on as a defence lawyer after his wife's murder but he wasn't the man he once was in many ways. In an effort to deal with his pain he turned to alcohol. While it might have numbed his senses, it also reduced his faculties.

When we meet him again, a few years later, gone is the smart suit and carefully coiffed appearance. Instead we see a unshaven, poorly dressed guy acting as a debt collector. While he does give out receipts to those he collects from, it does seem like he's now operating in slightly less of a legal capacity then he once did. The fact he's also working for a rather shady individual helping to drive up the odds on horses during races in order to increase their winningsonly strengthens the impression he's drifted quite a bit from his former life. However, this doesn't mean he's not without a conscience or lacking in the compassion that made him a defence lawyer in the first place.

For when a ex client, whose defence he mishandled badly due to drinking, is found murdered after leaving Irish a number of frantic voice mails, he decides to look into the circumstances surrounding his death. The police claim the man had pulled a gun on a couple of officers and they shot him in self defence. However, the guy had been expecting Irish to show up to meet him at the location where he was found dead and the circumstances don't add up. Driven by feelings of guilt for maybe failing the man twice - Irish's botched work as his defence attorney had resulted in the man going to jail for ten years on a charge of vehicular manslaughter - he begins to look into the man's life to see what he can find out.

With the help of an investigative reporter, who soon also becomes his lover, he begins to peel back the layers of mystery surrounding the man's death. The trail leads him and his woman partner back ten years to the crime the man was originally charged with and into the heart of what turns out to be a political scandal. As the body count mounts among those who could potentially give evidence in the case, Irish finds himself not only on the receiving end of death threats but finally on the run from crooked cops and corrupt politicians.

Both this episode and the second one, Black Tide, are as good as any of the crime dramas I've seen produced on either British or North American television, and far better than most. While the hard drinking private investigator with a tragic past is close to being a cliche, there's far more to Irish than what appears on the surface. When the series opens he still appears to be only going through the motions of living. The wounds caused by his wife's murder have hardened into scar tissue which he wears like armour against emotions and having to care too much. Looking into the murder of his former client begins the process of breaking down the barriers he's erected between himself and most of the world while his new relationship continues the process. We actually see a softness appear on Irish's face which wasn't there at the beginning of the show the more he opens up to the new woman in his life.
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Even in the second episode, when his partner has moved to another city to take a job with television and is rumoured to be having an affair with an on air personality, he doesn't retreat back into his shell. It's like he's remembered what's it's like to be alive again, and even the jealousy and hurt he feels over the problems with his relationship aren't enough to push him back into his life as a zombie. While it's the script which lays all this out for us, without an actor of the quality of Pearce in the title role it might not have been as effective. He does a wonderful job of showing his character's gradual progression as he deals with two very dangerous criminal investigations and ghosts from his past.

In the first episode it's his wife's murder he has to come to terms with, but in the second he has to reach back even further and deal with his memories of his father, a famous athlete, who died when Irish was a child. Pearce has always brought a certain amount of intensity to his roles, but here he allows himself to relax into his character. While the intensity comes through when required, he allows his character moments of repose where what's happening affects him instead of it the other way around. While I've always appreciated Pearce's work in the past, his performance as Jack Irish is probably the most complete characterization I've ever seen from him.

Perhaps it's because, as he says in the special feature about the show included on both the Blu-ray and DVD, the show is being shot in his native Australia and he doesn't have to worry about his accent and is generally more relaxed. You can see in the behind the scenes shots how in spite of the hard work being put in by everybody involved, there's quite a relaxed attitude on set. This same feature also gives you an idea of both the technical knowhow and the talent of the people working in Australian television today, This is the third feature length production I've seen produced from Australian television and they have all been equally impressive in terms of both technical and artistic achievements.

If you make the mistake I did of not realizing this a combo disc and end up watching one episode on DVD and the other on Blu-ray you'll quickly notice the sizeable differences in the technology. Both the audio and the visual quality of the Blu-ray are vastly superior to the DVD and this pulls you deeper into the proceedings. The HD sound and images of the former not only make the action more vivid, they somehow bring a level of emotional depth to the proceedings DVD is not able to match. Blu-ray's ability to capture even the smallest of changes in expression on an actor's face makes it feel like we are seeing deeper into their characterizations then we've ever been able to before.

Jack Irish is not only a great example of the mystery genre, it's also a wonderfully executed character study. Thanks to a great performance from the show's lead, Guy Pearce (The Australian actors in the supporting roles would be unknown to North Americans, but they are every bit as good as anybody you'd see on British television) and an excellent script, both feature length episodes included in the package are that rare combination of exciting action and in depth exploration of a character you rarely see on either the big or small screen. It's no wonder Pearce flew home, half-way around the world to make these shows. Opportunities like these don't come around very often.

Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish)

September 12, 2013

DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8

It wasn't until I sat down to write this review I found out the man whose books the main characters in this DVD were based on, Reginald Hill, had died in January of 2012. I had the good fortune to interview him a couple years prior to his death and naturally we talked about his two most famous characters, Detective Superintendent (Det. Supt.) Andy Dalziel and Detective Inspector (D.I) Peter Pascoe. He talked of them with affection and it seemed to me they had taken on a life of their own outside his books. While the television adaptions of his characters were made during his lifetime, seeing them on the TV screen going about their business after the death of their creator makes it even more certain they will live on.

Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8 first aired in 2004 on British television and is now coming to DVD thanks to BBC Home Entertainment. The four feature length episodes included in this series weren't based on any of the books Hill wrote for his characters. However, the characters he created were so strong, and made such an indelible impression on their followers, the creators of the TV series obviously felt as long as they did a good job with bringing the characters to life they would succeed.

When you consider the fact Hill had had no intention of making either character an ongoing feature in his books, and Dalziel had only been created to act as a foil for Pascoe in the original book, it's quite remarkable the life these two characters have taken on. The challenge facing anybody bringing them to the screen is the fact they are competing with every reader's vision of them. Key to success in this is a combination of casting and what you do with the characters. You can find the perfect actors for each role and still fail by giving them inappropriate material to work with.
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Thankfully in this case the casting and the writing work together wonderfully. Warren Clarke as Dalziel is not only physically appropriate for his character, in size, shape and appearance, he also has the ability to give us glimpses of what goes on emotionally under the craggy exterior. On the surface Dalziel is all old school bluster. The type of cop who looks like he's willing to turn a blind eye to a suspect getting a few bruises during interrogation if it ensures he finds the guilty party in the end. However, what we come to realize through watching the four episodes is the bluster and bullying - which also applies to the way he treats his underlings as well as his suspects - are only because he feels personally responsible if he isn't able to solve a crime.

We see a perfect example of this in the episode entitled "The Price Of Fame" on disc one. For while the duo are tracking down the killer of a young woman who works at a holiday resort who had ambitions of becoming a "star", Dalziel is also trying to figure out who kidnapped a teenage girl. He had been taken off the case because he'd been too rough on a witness. However he'd promised the girl's mother he'd find her, and his failure to do so is eating away at him. We watch as events in the murder case trigger fresh perspectives on the kidnapping and lead him to figuring out who actually committed the first crime.

In all four episodes the writers give Clarke ample opportunity to give us a complete portrait of this complex character. On the surface he might appear to be all bluster but underneath lurks an intelligent and compassionate mind. To the casual observer it might appear odd that this rather oafish and old school copper would inspire loyalty and respect in his younger and more sophisticated junior officer, but the more we learn about Dalziel, the more we understand why Pascoe appreciates working with him so much.
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As Pascoe Colin Buchanan is faced with the difficult job of sharing screen time with a character who could easily overshadow him. Thankfully both the writers and the actor recognize the best way to deal with this situation is to make Pascoe the rock upon which the wave of Dalziel breaks. Pascoe doesn't just meekly stand there and let his boss role all over him, but he isn't stupid enough to try and out bluster him. No his weapons are sly wit and cool intelligence, and he uses both to slow Dalziel down and to challenge his more outrageous suggestions.

However, like his boss, there's more to Pascoe than meets the eye. Although he's not given as many opportunities in these four episodes to show his character's depth, as Dalziel plays a larger role, Buchanan does let us see some cracks appear in the calm facade periodically. What's interesting is most of them are related to his boss. Whether as expressions of concern for his well being or frustration with his behaviour, Dalziel is able to create cracks in his junior's equanimity far more often than the job. Which isn't to suggest Buchanan plays him like some cold fish who doesn't show any disgust or anger over the crimes they have to deal with. However, he's able to show how Pascoe brings a level of detachment to the job which prevents it from becoming personal.

The four episodes on this disc are all well written and interesting murder investigations. However, those responsible for the series know people are watching the shows as much as for the way they bring the two main characters to life on the screen as they are for the actual investigations. In response they have created four investigations which allow the actors playing the lead characters to do just that through the course of carrying out their duties. It's this balancing act of story and characterization which made Hill's books more than just the usual run of the mill police procedurals. While the shows might not be based on actual stories Hill wrote, they definitely capture what made his books so popular.

While the two DVD set doesn't come with any special features, like behind the scenes looks at the making of the show, it shouldn't detract from anybody's pleasure at watching them. These wonderfully acted and well scripted shows are special enough in their own right. Anybody who liked the characters on the pages of the books, will take great pleasure in watching them on the small screen at home.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 8)

July 5, 2013

DVD Review: Falcon


The troubled cop with a mysterious past and a serious drinking/drug problem has become so commonplace in television shows and movies the character is now verging on cliche. It takes a script of incredible quality and an exceptionally talented actor to make both the role and the program work. Audiences are no longer going to be satisfied with being shocked by the sight of a cop snorting cocaine, there has to be something more to the character than just his or her addictions or troubles.

For those looking for that little bit extra, they need look no further than Falcon, a new release from Acorn Media. Each of the two DVDs in this set contains a full length, 90 minute, movie set in Seville Spain following Detective Jefe Javier Falcon (Marton Csokas) as he delves into two very delicate murder investigations. While Csokas' character definitely has his problems, he buys mysterious packets of white powder in back alleys and ingests them by mixing their contents into glasses of water and drinking them down, the show doesn't make a big deal out of his drug use. Normally a show will make it furtive and ugly, but here it's all sort of matter of fact. He buys his drugs, goes home, mixes it up and drinks it down.

We don't have any idea when he started doing it, or even any indication as to why. We do know he's had one failed marriage, but he's an obviously well respected and appreciated police officer who seems to get on well with both his co-workers and his superiors. Even his relationship with his sister is perfectly normal and healthy. Then, while investigating the death of a wealthy restaurant owner in The Blind Man of Seville, he comes across a picture of his father among the dead man's possessions.
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It turns out Falcon's father is a famous painter whose works hang in one of the national galleries of Spain. Falcon lives in his father's old house which also contains his father's old studio and paintings never displayed. In his will he had asked Falcon to burn all of the paintings not in galleries. There was no explanation as to why, but Falcon still hasn't carried out his father's wishes even though he's been dead for some time now. However, when the murderer kills the man who used to be his father's agent, Falcon realizes he's going to have start exploring family history to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Complicating matters is the fact Falcon has started an affair with the widow of the first murder victim. Conseulo Jimenez (Hayley Atwell) was the man's second and much younger wife and while a suspect at first she cleared when it became obvious the murders were rooted deeply in the past. Not only is she able to provide Falcon with comfort, but with clues as to what the mystery might be about. When a prostitute her husband frequented turns up dead posed in the same position as the model in Falcon's father's most famous series of paintings there can be no doubt the murders have something to do with Falcon's own family.

When the secret behind the murders is finally revealed it's far more shocking than anything either we or Falcon could have expected. However, not only does it explain the nature of the murders and why the murdere did what he did, the secret also offers some explanation for Falcon's behaviour. His addictions, his inability to form close relationships and his seeming indifference to other people's feelings are all rooted in the events which culminated in the murders.

The second feature, The Silent and the Damned, takes place three months later. Falcon has been off work since the conclusion of the previous case and still might not be fully recovered. This doesn't stop him from throwing himself enthusiastically into the investigation of what looks to be the suicide of a prominent businessman. However, there are those who don't want him looking into it too closely, and pressure is brought on the commissioner of police to have replaced with someone easier to manipulate. His second in command, Jose Luis Ramirez (Charlie Creed-Miles) is put in charge of the investigation, while Falcon is told to look into the death of a vagrant found under a bridge.

Ramirez is considered malleable as his youngest daughter is ill and he can't afford to lose his job as he needs every cent he can make for her treatment. However, this doesn't stop him from realizing something is being covered up, especially when Falcon discovers a connection between the body of the supposed vagrant and the man who committed suicide. As the two men carefully dig deeper into the mess, with Falcon doing his best to shield his junior's involvement in order to protect his career, they discover layers upon layers of corruption designed to cover up the perversions of important members of the business community and government.

The two features included in Falcon are much more than your typical television murder mystery or police procedural. While they contain all the elements common to detective shows as the cops do their best to solve murders, they are also character studies of the finest quality. In particular the character of Falcon is far more complex and interesting than almost any other police detective you'll see on television. As the troubled detective Csokas gives a magnificent and subtle performance. Somehow he's able to convey the emotional turmoil broiling beneath the controlled surface Falcon presents to his co-workers and others only occasionally allowing anything resembling an emotional reaction to show through. Even when something pushes up through the cracks, be it anger or anguish, he suppresses it as quickly as it surfaced.
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With so much time spent alone with Falcon, or while he's working, we only realize how different he is from others when he is taken out of his usual context. Watching him visit with Ramirez at home and seeing the contrast between Falcon's isolation and Ramirez's bustling family life is out first indication of how much he has cut himself off from the world. However, it's only when he visits with Jimenez at home with her two boys, we see how frightened he is of feeling anything at all. He can't even allow himself to stay and enjoy the glimpse of normalcy sitting down to a family dinner would offer and flees instead of joining them.

He literally staggers as he walks away from her house he's so overwhelmed by the fear of letting down his barriers, the fear of letting anyone in and the fear of someone actually getting to know him. He wears his guilt and self-loathing like a shroud. Consumed by his own demons, he can't for the life of him see anyway out or any hope for salvation. Walking the winding, ancient, streets of Seville at night, Falcon seems to be trying to find his way out of a maze which has no beginning or end. Solving murders seems to be almost a form of atonement for whatever it is he thinks he might have done.

The wonderful thing about modern technology is now even at home we can appreciate the production values of movies in ways we were never able to before. In the case of Falcon having a wide screen television allows the viewer to appreciate the amazing cinematography which turns Seville into more than just the backdrop for the shows. Almost a character in itself the city sometimes appears to have a life of her own separate from those who walk her avenues. Streets dating back to when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire, barely wide enough for a donkey cart, and the crumbling facades of buildings whose mortar has been baked by the centuries of sun contrast with modern freeways and apartment blocks.

The 16:9 widescreen presentation of the DVD only makes the visual impact of the two features all the more stunning. Those with home theatres will find this plus the 5.1 surround sound make it easy to forget either of these productions were made for television. Included in the package are three short bonus features. While the first is your basic, behind the scenes type thing, the second and third which look at the characters of Falcon and Seville respectively are definitely worth watching. The nine minute trip through the streets of Seville will make you wish you could find your way over there and wander them yourself, but also helps put Falcon's world into perspective.

The two features contained in the DVD set Falcon are far more sophisticated and accomplished than most police procedurals made for television. At 90 minutes each, The Blind Man of Seville and The Silent and the Damned are able to not only allow their respective stories to unfold at a far slower pace than usual for television detective stories, but give us the opportunity to become for more intimate with the lead characters. In fact, the quality of acting, the artistry of the camera work and the intelligence of the script make both features superior to most of what you'll see in the cinema let alone television.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Falcon

June 23, 2013

DVD Review: Jack Taylor


The ex-cop, private investigator with a drinking problem shows up so many times in television shows, movies and books the characterization has become almost a cliche. It's unfortunate because the traumas and horrors encountered by detectives who deal with violent crimes could be enough to leave them sufficiently emotionally crippled and psychologically scarred there's a good possibility they would turn to alcohol or drugs to deaden their feelings. Like anyone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder they will never be able to forget what they have witnessed and if extremely unlucky, will be cursed with having to relive experiences we can't even begin to imagine on a regular basis. Trying to deaden the pain or reduce the vividness of the memories would be a natural reaction.

Reducing this type of disorder to a cliche, or making light of it in any way, diminishes the suffering these people undergo. There's nothing romantic or funny about drinking to forget or the lives of quiet desperation lived by those attempting to hide from their pasts. So the way in which the lead character in the three DVD set Jack Taylor, Set 1, being released by Acorn Media Tuesday June 25 2013, is depicted not only adds to the realism of the show, but helps make it all the more powerful.

Set in County Galway on the west coast of Ireland, Jack Taylor, Set 1 tells the story of ex Garda (policeman) turned private eye Jack Taylor, played by Iain Glen. Each of the three discs are a separate 90 minute episode and investigation. This not only allows plenty of time for the plot to unfold, but also gives ample opportunity for us to get to know Taylor. The opening instalment, The Guards, begins with Taylor still a police officer. Even then we see his drinking is a problem as he's sipping from a mickey while sitting in his car with his partner waiting to catch speeders. We also see he has a definite self-destructive bent, as he sets off after a speeding car and doesn't break it off even when his partner points out the car they're chasing contains a minister in the Irish government. He not only continues the chase, but forces the car to stop and when the minister gets out of the car to protest, Taylor punches him in the face.
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Needless to say the next shot we see of Taylor he's no longer a member of the Garda. In a quick voice over he informs us he's become a private investigator and how private investigators aren't common in this part of the world. In fact the impression we receive is the idea of someone doing this kind of work is not looked on kindly by the Garda and part of the reason he might be doing the job is because it will piss people off. While he's obviously still bitter about being tossed from his old job, especially as we find out the politician he punched is currently under investigation for corruption, part of him still clings to his old identity as a member of the force.

This is brought home by his walking around in an overcoat which is official Garda issue uniform and the fact an artist friend of his painted a portrait of him titled "Once A Garda". The implication being while he might not be a member of the force any more, he can't shake himself free of the his old life. We even see him try to cross a police line, as if from force of habit, when he walks by a crime scene on the waterfront.

He still has friends on the force and is able to make use of them to find out information when he needs to. So when a woman hires him to investigate the whereabouts of her missing teenage daughter he makes use of those connections to find out details of the mysterious suicides of four young women, each of whom have been found washed up on shore in the same place, the crime scene he tried to get a closer look at down at the waterfront.

Over the course of his investigation we discover some important details of Taylor's personal life. His childhood had been unpleasant, to say the least, as his mother's oppressive view of christianity had driven his father away when he was young and she continues to make no secret of her disdain for him and her son. Taylor is not only an alcoholic, he's also a binge drinker. He can drink himself into blind stupors which result in him not being able to remember what he'd done or where he'd been. His way of dealing with any extreme emotion is to start drinking and not stop until he's passed out and not feeling anything.

Yet, over the course of the three episodes; The Pikemen, where he comes up against a group of vigilantes going around killing people for crimes they believe have gone unpunished, and Magdalen Martyrs, where he investigates cases of abuse which took place at the infamous Magdalen laundries - Catholic homes for so-called wayward girls, we also learn he has a highly developed sense of justice. He's not one of these people who sees the world as black and white, with good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other. However, nothing sets his back up more, or makes him more determined to find out what really happened, when people in positions of power assume they are able to act with impunity.

Whether its a corrupt businessman using his influence and wealth to ensure people turn a blind eye to his activities, The Guards, a father emotionally blackmailing his son, The Pikeman, or the Catholic church trying to cover up abuses carried out by clergy, Magdalen Martyrs, doesn't matter to him. They all have to be called to account no matter what the cost. Unfortunately it usually turns out Taylor is the one who pays most of the cost. His relentless quest for truth doesn't come without casualties, and unfortunately even when he's not directly responsible for what happens he can't help shouldering the guilt.
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Glenn's portrayal of Taylor is a finely crafted depiction of a man whose desire to right the wrongs of the world is constantly in competition with his penchant for self-destructive behaviour. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, the pain caused by what Taylor has witnessed over the years is almost palpable it's so intense. The more we watch Glenn's performance the deeper we are drawn into Taylor's world until we start to see things through his eyes. It makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing at times, but it also ensures the show attains the kind of quality and verisimilitude you don't often experience in television police procedurals.

There's nothing romantic about waking up not knowing what you've done and where you've been. However, some people know no other way of dealing with the emotional pain they carry with them. As a cop, and now as a private investigator, Jack Taylor has witnessed the worst humans inflict upon each other. The helplessness he feels at his inability to prevent them translate into both rage and grief which he can only partially assuage by bringing those responsible to justice. Catching the crooks doesn't undo the murders they've committed or the abuse they inflicted and the only way he has of coping is by doing his best to deaden his own emotions.

Jack Taylor, Set 1 is an unflinching look at one man's valiant effort to combat his own demons and to set right as many of the world's wrongs as he possibly can. Taylor is not your typical private eye and this is not your usual police drama. However, it is one of the best and most intriguing crime shows you're liable to see in a long time.

(Article originally at Blogcritics.org as Jack Taylor, Set 1

June 13, 2013

Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming


As more and more people are turning their computers into the centre piece of their home entertainment systems there has been a corresponding increase in the number of companies supplying either content or hardware. The Blu-ray player I just purchased not only plays discs, but wirelessly connects to the internet allowing direct access to Netflix through televisions. For the nominal fee of $7.99 (CDN) per month I can watch a wider variety of television programs and movies than I would ever be offered by my local cable company for a fraction of the price. True, not everything on the market is available nor are the majority of the programs current, but having to deal with commercials and being able to watch the shows whenever I want compensates for any deficiencies in content.

However, what if you're interests lie beyond what Netflix has to offer? What if you've grown spoiled watching the higher quality programming that only ever seems to show up on PBS or is only available on DVD or Blu-ray?. Well, Acorn Media, the supplier of great DVD sets featuring the best of British, Canadian, Australian and American programming, has started their own network, "Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming"

Currently Acorn TV runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering 18 separate series a week with a new series being rotated in every week. Each series runs for thirty days giving you plenty of time to watch however many episodes it may involve. For example until June 30 2013 you can watch the complete Doc Martin Special Collection which includes all five seasons of the television show and the movies featuring characters from the show. As this set lists for $124.99 (US) that's quite the deal.

Like most of these services Acorn offers everybody a free thirty day trial, but the $2.99 monthly/$29.99(US) yearly price for the service is quite a bargain. Of course if you want to watch the service on something other than your computer monitor it will cost you a little bit more if you don't already have one of four streaming players the service is currently offered on. The best deal is a combined offer featuring your first year of Acorn TV and the Roku streaming player for $79.99(US). Roku doesn't only offer Acorn TV, it will give you access to a multitude of streaming channels ranging from sports to music. Of course you'll have to pay for each additional channel, but compared to what cable companies charge and the ability to watch what you want when you want it, this is still a much better deal than any provider of regular TV can offer.

As of now you can also watch Acorn TV on your iPhone or iPad, as long as they're equipped with the Safari browser; Apple TV; ( but you also need either an iPhone or an iPad to make the connection) the Barnes & Noble Nook device with an Acorn TV application downloadable from the Barnes & Noble web site or a Google TV Box equipped with Google's Chrome Browser.

Now the technical details are out the way, we can turn to the quality of the programming on offer. First of all you should know while the current format seems rather limited, there are plans in the works to not only increase the amount of content available by five - making 90 different series available at once - they also plan on dropping the thirty day time limit for each program. However, it's not mentioned anywhere if they plan on continuing to add additional shows on a regular basis. Of course, if you have any experience with the quality of programming offered by Acorn Media, you know chances are you'll want to watch the majority of what's on offer. In addition, since many of their packages are complete series, one program can be the equivalent of ten DVDs worth of episodes with each being a minimum of an hour in length. Even my basic math skills tell me that adds up to a heck of a lot of viewing hours.

With quantity covered, what about quality? Judging by what's on offer for the current thirty day period not only will there be something for just about everybody, you can be guaranteed no matter what you watch will be feature some of today's finest actors. This month alone features programming ranging from classics seen on past episodes of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre to items from the current and yet to be released Acorn catalogue. For example you can watch PBS's 1993 adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, all 17 episodes of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries Collection with individual segments featuring actors like Colin Firth, the newest instalment of perennial favourite Midsummer Murders: Set 22 and the not yet released on DVD, Falcon, staring Martin Csokas.

Currently the only drawback I can see with Acorn TV is its limited availability. However, its still a relatively new service and they say they are looking into ways of increasing access. If you already have one of the streaming devices mentioned above and you like British television than adding the Acorn TV channel to your system is a no brainer. The cost makes it probably the best bargain going right now. If you need any more incentive, they are also offering free shipping to anywhere in the continental United States if you decide you want to own a DVD copy of the show you've been watching once you've signed up. Three dollars a month is not very much to pay for checking out between 18 and 22 different television programs.

If you enjoy the best television has to offer in drama, comedy, documentaries and history than you can't help but appreciate Acorn TV. It's the specialty channel to end all specialty channels and you don't have to pay a cable company for installation or for a bunch of stations you'll never watch in order to enjoy it. Even watching it on my 17 inch laptop's monitor and listening to the audio through headphones has made it obvious this service isn't like anything else out there. Netflix and the others may offer a few British television shows, but none of them come close to being able to match Acorn TV for variety and quality.

(Article first published at Blogcritics as Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming)

May 31, 2013

Blu-ray Review: George Gently: Series 5


1968 was the year unrest crested in both North America and Europe. Riots and demonstrations dotted the landscape of the United States with the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy adding fuel to the fire. In Paris France a student led rebellion saw running battles between demonstrators and police continue for weeks on end. Even communist Eastern Europe wasn't immune as the Prague Spring saw the people of Czechoslovakia temporarily throw off their dictatorial rule only to see their revolution crushed by Russian tanks. While most of the protests were taking place in major metropolitan areas, the repercussions of change was felt everywhere.

In Great Britain things never quite reached the boiling point they did in other countries. However it doesn't mean there weren't changes. For those whose jobs brought them into contact with all levels of society the changes were there to be seen if one looked. The time period and situation is brought to life in the new Blu-Ray release from Acorn Media, George Gently: Series 5. Chief Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw) and his sergeant John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) not only have crimes to solve but the problems arising from the changes the world around them is going through.

The first three episodes of the four on this two disc set each depict the ways in which English society was either changing or being shook up. Whether something obvious like the issue of race which comes boiling to a head in Gently Northern Soul or the more subtle issue of class as expressed in Gently With Class, each 90 minute episode not only has our detectives doing their best to solve the crime which has occurred but manages to capture the tenor of the times without sentiment or preaching. As we see most of what's going on through the eyes of the two lead characters, their opinions and attitudes are what help shape our impressions of the times.
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In GentlyNorthern Soul when a young black woman turns up dead beside a road near a graveyard, an area where prostitutes often take their clients, Bacchus makes the assumption the girl was "on the game". However, when the officers learn she was dating a young white man, the son of a known racist, and was pregnant as well, their investigation changes. Bacchus is sent undercover to attend a weekly dance party where DJ's play American soul music and attract a mixed race crowd.

In 1968 England's black population was primarily first or second generation immigrants from Jamaica. They had either come over to serve in the British army in WW II or right after the war looking for a better life. While the sitting government was trying to pass equal rights legislation in order to protect people of colour from racial discrimination, the far right, led by a Conservative Party politician named Enoch Powell, were pushing to have all "coloured" immigrants sent back to where they came from. Throughout the course of the investigation into the young woman's death the issue of race continues to raise its head and both officers gain a better understanding of the abuse immigrants are dealing with.

England's class system had withstood civil war, world wars and a stock market crash. The one thing it couldn't stand against was public opinion. By the end of the 1960s fewer and fewer people were willing to accept hereditary titles and land as reasons for anyone to expect special treatment. When a young woman's body is found abandoned in the passenger seat of a wrecked car registered in the name of a local lord suspicion falls on the man's son. Bacchus had tried to arrest the son previously for drunken driving but strings had been pulled behind the scenes and he'd been let off. Deeply resentful of the way the family had used privilege to prevent their son from being charged Bacchus is determined to get a result this time, even if it means stretching the rules.

We can understand his feelings more once we meet the family, especially the young man's mother. A horrible snob who acts like she and her son deserve to be treated differently from others she tries to pull strings to ensure no blame falls on anybody in her family. However, in spite of her trying to suppress the investigation by appealing to Gently's superior officer, neither he nor Bacchus refuse to be cowed and continue on until they discover who was in the driver's seat of the car.
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As in previous seasons of this series the cases the two officers tackle are only part of what the show is about. For with each episode we scratch a little deeper under the skin of each of our characters. While Bacchus always comes across as brash and more than a little cocky over the course of the four episodes in this set we begin to see beneath his exterior shell more and more. Ingleby does a fantastic job of showing us first the cracks showing up in his character's facade and then the vulnerability and strength laying beneath the skin. For not only does Bacchus begin to allow himself to have emotional reactions to what he experiences on the job, he also finds the fortitude to stand up for what he believes in and the strength of character to not let personal ambition blind him to what's right.

While Gently's wife was murdered way back in the opening episode of the series, he's always seemed to keep his grief compartmentalized. However, it doesn't mean he misses her any less then the day he buried her. For some reason a case of a missing child, episode three The Lost Child, seems to trigger his dormant grief and brings the ache to the surface again. Shaw somehow manages to retain his character's stolid exterior while at the same time giving us clues to the extent of Gently's loneliness. It's little things like the way his eye seems to glance at the picture of his late wife on his desk a little more often and linger a little longer and how he has to almost shake himself to escape the pull of his memories and come back to the present that make his performance so believable.

The bonus features included with the Blu-ray version of the series is limited to one short, three minute, behind the scenes featurette. However, the real bonus comes in watching the series on Blu-ray. It was actually an accident I received a Blu-ray version of this set, but through a series of events stranger than fiction I had to replace my old DVD player with a new Blu-ray machine a couple of days after it arrived. The difference in picture and sound quality between watching a DVD and a Blu-ray was astonishing. Instead of the usual battle between soundtrack and dialogue resulting in having to turn the volume up and down in order to hear the actors talking and to avoid being pummelled by incidental music, everything was perfectly balanced. You could not only hear every word the actors were saying, you could hear individual sounds like a match being struck or an actor's feet scraping along the gravel in a driveway. I have to admit I had my doubts about the difference in quality when it came to Blu-ray versus DVD. However, now I've seen something created in high definition specifically for the new technology I'm convinced of its superiority.

Over the course of its life the George Gently series has not only continued to impress, it has continued to improve. The scripts have become increasingly complex as the characters deal with both the cases they are trying to solve and a society undergoing constant changes. We've also seen the lead characters continue to grow and their relationship change as they have developed. However, most of the enjoyment in watching this series is due to the superlative work of both lead actors and the producers' willingness to surround them with a strong supporting cast of special guests and regulars. George Gently: Series 5 proves once again this is one of the best ongoing police procedurals on television today. Thankfully series six is already being aired in Great Britain so we can look forward to seeing more of Chief Inspector George Gently and Sergeant John Bacchus in the future.

Originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: George Gently: Series 5

April 3, 2013

DVD Review: Dirk Gently


Fantasy and science fiction can come in all shapes and sizes. From outer space to inner space they cut a wider swathe through literary creation than almost any other genre. You can usually count on reading some of the most imaginative stories and meeting outlandish and odd characters in science fiction and fantasy novels. However, even by those standards the work of British author Douglas Adams was decidedly eccentric.

Most famous for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sequence, Adams' quirky sense of humour and delightful understanding of the absurd made his books a pleasure to read. They also offered a kind of satirical running commentary on life in Great Britain during the 1980s. While the "Guide" captured the most attention, being made into first a television series and then a movie, it was two books, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, set on earth which best showed off Adams' ability to stretch the fabric of reality in a truly original manner.

The title character, Private Investigator Dirk Gently, has a firm belief that all events are somehow interconnected. No matter how tangential something appears to be in relationship to the case he's working on, in the end it will prove as deeply significant as if it were the murder weapon. While this allows him to justify rather dubious billing practices, like charging someone for the replacement of his refrigerator while investigating the disappearance of their cat, he also turns out to have a remarkable success rate as well. Even though Adams died in 2001 Gently lives on thanks to the BBC series Dirk Gently now available on DVD from Acorn Media
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The two disc set contains four episodes, each approximately an hour long, with the only draw back being there are only four episodes. For the creators of the television adaptation have done an excellent job in recreating the absurdist atmosphere of the books and taking viewers into the heart of Dirk Gently's universe. After basing the first episode on events in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency they made the wise decision of creating three new cases for Gently to investigate instead of trying to stretch the second book, plus the unfinished third novel The Salmon of Doubt, over three episodes.

Key to the success of the series is the casting of Stephen Mangan in the title role. Not only does he carry off the more extreme elements of his character without overacting, he also manages to make him more than a one dimensional mad scientist. Like many hyper intelligent people, Gently lacks even the most basic of social skills and has difficulty in understanding why certain behaviour might be considered in a) rather bad taste and b) illegal. Most people upon taking an interest in somebody else wouldn't stalk them or break into their house to obtain samples of their handwriting in order to know how to best manipulate a situation to make her interested in him.

This less than endearing habit is complemented by his raving egomania and the deep seated belief that he's always right. His conviction of the latter is so strong that even when he is wrong he manages to find a way to prove he was right. The bending and folding of logic and reason out of all shape are a site to behold when he maps out why his wrongness is actually proof of his being right. Eventually those he's arguing with, usually his stolid business partner Richard MacDuff, played by Darren Boyd, become so frustrated with him they surrender to the inevitable and admit he was right and they were wrong.

In another actor's hands we would have become sick of watching this type of character probably before the end of the first episode. However Mangan is somehow able to inject just the right amount of humanity into his characterization to make him likeable. We see how most of the time he doesn't understand how what he's doing is both wrong and potentially hurtful. There's a strange sort of innocence about him which makes him seem more like a child whose not yet learned the social skills required for smooth sailing among his peers in the adult world than someone who is being deliberately hurtful or mean.

While most of those Gently comes in contact with end up either recoiling in disgust, trying to kill him or arresting him, his partner MacDuff is one of the few who seems to be able to abide his company on a permanent basis. While Boyd plays him as a conventional, not so bright but nice guy, we also see he has genuine affection for Gently. He's one of the few to recognize Gentry's emotional vulnerability and understand how his anti-social traits are actually defence mechanisms.
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Like a concerned parent he monitors Gently's behaviour and tries to smooth over all the ruffled feathers he leaves in his wake. This doesn't prevent him from occasionally feeling like ripping Gentry's head off or treating him like a spoiled child. In fact the give and take between the two characters as they attempt to solve the cases crossing their desks over the course of the discs provide the majority of the humour in the series. For in spite of what appears to be his rather callous attitude towards the human race, the cases he takes on are serious and sometimes dangerous.

While the local police think killing Gently would fall into the category of justifiable homicide, that's only because, much to their dismay, he manages to solve crimes which stump them. They might be okay with his success rate if he wasn't so obvious with both his disdain for their methods and the pleasure he takes in proving them wrong. You see, Gently is perfectly serious in his use of the theory of interconnectedness for solving crimes. His ability to see patterns where none apparently exist are helped by his belief in everything being possible. Even when it means in order for events to have played out the way in he envisions them time travel was involved.

For, while we sometimes forget due to becoming caught up in the fun of watching Gently in action, these episodes are a mixture of science fiction and mystery stories. So no matter how outlandish a theory Gently might come up with in answer to a particular investigation, the chances are he's right and everyone else is wrong. Part of the pleasure of watching each episode is watching Gently going madly off in all directions, yet still being able to discover the truth. Even better, he's able to make even the most fantastic conclusions sound perfectly logical and we have no trouble accepting time travel as a fact of life in the world he lives in.

Those looking for any special features with this set will be disappointed as there aren't any. While it's not in surround sound, only stereo, the show is in wide screen and looks and sounds fine played through a surround sound system and on a wide screen television. What's most important though is how well the series manages to capture the spirit of the books its based on. While the scripts reflect both the absurdities and fantastical elements of Adam's stories what really brings the world to life is the acting job of the two actors in the lead roles.

Not only do the two characters compliment each other in the series, but the men playing them do a magnificent job of finding ways to balance the other actor's performance. Separately they might not have too much success, but together Gently and MacDuff seem to be a recipe for success. You might not want them looking for your lost cat, but if there's a strange murder to solve or your husband is acting particularly odd, they're the team for you. Not only will they find out what's going on, but you'll have a lot of fun watching them figure it all out.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Dirk Gently on Blogcritics.)


March 22, 2013

DVD Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries Series 1


The end of WWl brought about a mini social and cultural revolution. The old order had proven itself corrupt by embroiling the countries of the world in a war which decimated an entire generation. Even before the war had ended one monarchy had been deposed, Russia, and German's Kaiser lost power with the war's end. However, the biggest revolt was among those who survived the war and were determined to live their lives to the fullest. The Roaring Twenties earned their name from the way those living through them roared through life in an attempt to experience as much of everything as possible.

It was among women the biggest revolt took place as they dared do things undreamed of before the war. In a society where it had been considered indecent for a woman to be seen smoking in public, the idea of one having a career, taking lovers and generally acting like a man would have been especially scandalous. However, in the 1920s women enjoyed freedoms as never before. While some might have disapproved of their behaviour, it didn't stop many of them from having lives of their own. It's one of these independent women of the 1920s who is the lead character of a new mystery series on DVD from Acorn Media, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Series 1.

Phryne (pronounced Frynee) Fisher (played by Essie Davis) is the creation of Australian novelist Kerry Greenwood. Each of the thirteen episodes on the four discs in this set are an adaptation of one of Greenwood's novels. Set against the backdrop of the roaring twenties each features the seemingly fearless and indefatigable socialite and heiress Fisher solving a different murder. However, unlike heroines of a similar background who have appeared in other writer's books, Miss Fisher is a completely modern woman. She has a healthy libido with no hesitations about taking any man who catches her eye to bed and a taste for alcohol, cocaine and hash brownies.

We meet her as she's just moved back to Sydney Australia. As the series evolves we learn she had served as a nurse during the war and then settled in Paris when her ambulance group was disbanded. While she had been brought up relatively poor as a child, as a result of extensive casualties within her family during the war she winds up inheriting enough money to enjoy a life of leisure. Her reasons for returning home are tied into events which had taken place during her childhood, events that will come back to haunt her as the series progresses.

Her younger sister had disappeared when they were both children and while somebody was arrested in connection to the crime, it was never proven he was the killer nor was her body ever recovered. He had been charged with attempting to kidnap another young girl who managed to escape before he could do anything to her. The man responsible is about to be released from jail and Miss Fisher has returned to Sydney in part to convince those in charge not to let him out and perhaps find out more about her sister's fate.

Her investigating career begins by accident when she is been invited to lunch at an old friend's house only to discover upon arrival the husband of the house has died under mysterious circumstances. In the process of uncovering the culprit she has time for a fling with an expatriate Russian dancer, expose an illegal abortion ring and a drug kingpin. Flushed with her success she decided to go into business as a private detective.

The first episode also introduces us to the other regular characters in the series. She takes on one of the maids from the household of the murder victim as a lady's companion. Dorothy "Dot" Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) is a rather naive and sheltered young woman who has had a very strict Catholic upbringing. While she's uncertain how some of her new employer's behaviour will go over with her priest, she's also slightly in awe of her and her freedom. Over the course of the series we watch as Dot loses some of her naivety and discovers her own strengths and courage.

The other two main characters are members of Sydney's finest. Inspector Jack Robinson ( Nathan Page) and Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt). Initially Robinson treats Miss Fisher with the condescension one might expect from an experienced police officer confronted with what he considers a socialite out looking for thrills. However, he soon grows to both respect and admire her, both for her skills as a detective and as a person. It still doesn't prevent him from becoming frustrated and annoyed by her, but he does treat her like an equal and learns to trust her.

What makes this series special is the acting and the interrelationships between the characters. Davies and Page as the two leads have a wonderful chemistry reminiscent of some of great screen couples of the past. While Miss Fisher has a rotating series of lovers, her relationship with Inspector Robinson gradually evolves over the course of this first season into something more than just colleagues and friends. However, both of them are hesitant about making any sort of commitment to anybody because of events in the past. His first marriage has just ended in divorce and Fisher, as we learn in one episode, has experienced an abusive relationship. It's obvious they have reached a point where they might have to make a decision about the direction their relationship takes, but what that will be is still in up in the air.

While each episode is a self-contained mystery, as the series progresses the mystery surrounding Fisher's younger sister begins to play a larger role in her life. Although she had ensured the man she believes responsible for her sister's death is locked up for life, Fisher is still haunted by the fact her body was never found and he was never proven to be the one responsible. So when he sends her a letter from jail offering to give her information about her sister in exchange for Fisher helping to have his sentence shortened, she is torn. However, just when she decides to put it behind her, events happen that forces her to deal with the case. The last three episodes of the series see her and Inspector Robinson working together to solve the decades old crime.

Included in the four DVD set are some quite extensive special features as well a the thirteen episodes. There's a look at the work involved in recreating 1920s Sydney, from set, costume and props design to a history of the cars and trains used in the show. As well as interviews with the four lead actors talking about their characters and their experiences working on the show there is also a very entertaining interview with Greenwood, the books' author.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a well scripted and directed set of murder mysteries, but what makes it a joy to watch are the performances of the lead actors, especially Davis. (If you've seen The Girl With Pearl Earring you'll be hard pressed to recognize her as the same actor who played Colin Firth's wife in the movie) She is beguiling and pleasure to watch on screen. Not only does she play the flighty socialite to perfection, but she has the remarkable ability to allow us to see beneath her devil may care exterior to show the vulnerable and sensitive person beneath. It's not often we are treated with seeing such a strong multi-dimensional female character in the lead role of a television series played by an actor more than equal to the task.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries Series 1 on Blogcritics.)


February 26, 2013

DVD Review: Maigret, Complete Collection


There are some actors who have the ability to make everything they do seem effortless. Somehow they manage to make their characters seem like a natural extension of themselves. Whether on screen or on stage they bring a grace and elegance to everything they do that is marvel to behold. As a result their performances are of a quality most actors only dream of achieving. While any role he's ever played would serve as an example, watching Michael Gambon as Inspector Jules Maigret in the four DVD set Maigret, Complete Collection from Acorn Media, is a wonderful opportunity to see this in action.

Inspector Jules Maigret was the creation of the Belgian born author Georges Simenon. Setting him loose upon the streets Paris France, Simenon used Maigret to serve as our guide to the dark side of life in the City of Lights. The strip clubs and seedy hotels of Montmartre, the Left Bank, the very proper bourgeoisie and even the world of French politics are all backdrops for the cases Maigret tackles. His occasional sojourns into the countryside outside of Paris reveal that Simenon understood greed, jealousy, fear and mistrust can grow as easily amongst farmland as it does cobblestones and concrete.

While Simenon wrote his Maigret books in the years between WW l and WW ll, this television adaptation seems to be set in post WW ll France. With Budapest Hungary standing in for Paris (Former communist countries haven't had time to replace their old architecture with modern buildings and its easier to find locations which look like mid 20th century Europe there than anywhere else) we are immersed in a world of somewhat battered elegance. Old and new clash with the middle classes and above doing their best to hold off changes being foisted upon them by those who want what they consider their fair share. It's a world drug addicts, prostitutes and strippers move through as easily as bankers, business men and aristocrats with the latter doing their best to ignore the former's existence.
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Maigret, while leading a stolid middle class life with his devoted wife, is equally comfortable moving through the corridors of power as he is strip clubs and seedy bars. In fact one has the feeling he is sometimes more comfortable in the company of those he's supposed to be investigating than those he reports to. At the very least he is definitely far more sympathetic to honest criminals and prostitutes than he is to hypocritical members of the middle class and his political masters who are more concerned with appearances than truth.

A wonderful example of this is seen in the first episode of the series in which Maigret is in the middle of a long term investigation involving a series of jewel store robberies that have been plaguing Paris for years. He is convinced he knows who is behind the crimes, but he has been unable to collect the proof he needs to put the man behind bars. You'd think he'd have a slightly antagonistic relationship with his suspect, yet the two men treat each other with the utmost respect and courtesy. When his long time opponent is found shot to death in his apartment, Maigret treats the case like its an investigation into the murder of a friend.

The cases are a diverse mix of circumstances and locations, and while the majority of them revolve around murder, there is also some political intrigue and corruption included which make for a nice change of pace. What's refreshing about the series is no matter what the crime, the writers have ensured we realize how much of a police investigation is drudge work. Clues are discovered from careful examinations of files, researching a person's history and going door to door to try and talk with potential witnesses. Maigret and his team of three detectives work long hours on a case sifting through evidence and piecing together the facts. This doesn't mean there's no action. Far from it in fact as the boring stuff takes place off camera and we only see them acting on the information they've uncovered.

Still, there's very little of the type of action North American audiences are used to in their police shows. The joy in this show is watching Maigret's interaction with the various characters he interviews and comes in contact with over the course of his investigation. Watching Gambon come to a slow boil and struggling not to let it show when Maigret is dealing with a particularly odious political boss or allowing his incredulousness at someone's obvious fabrication to show through the arching of one eyebrow is more fun than any car chase or gun battle you'll ever see.
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One of the other treats of this series are some of the other actors who show up in various episodes. Most memorably is the episode where Maigret is investigating the death of a young night club stripper. Not only is the stripper played by Minnie Driver but the same episode features a young morphine addict played by the wonderful Michael Sheen and the stripper's boss is played by Brenda Blethyn. The series originally aired in 1992 and 1993 so it was before any of the three had achieved the level of notoriety they enjoy today, but one can see in each of their performances why they have gone on to be so successful.

However this is still Gambon's show and no matter who is playing opposite him he remains the centre of our attention. The amazing thing about his performance is he doesn't even have to be doing anything to command our attention. Yet, even when he's sitting behind his desk he's undoubtedly Maigret. From the way he tamps down his pipe to the how he lifts an eyebrow in quizzical interrogation when hearing something mildly perplexing, he is his character. He's not the type of actor who has to resort to gestures or raising his voice to display emotions. Even on those occasions when he is demonstrative, raising his voice in anger or banging a table in frustration it's never too much or appears to be anything other than the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. Gambon as Maigret is one of those tour de force performances which come around far too infrequently and are a privilege to watch.

While Maigret, Complete Collection does not have any of the bonus features most of us have come to expect from DVD sets, it does come with an 8 page booklet which contains a biography of author Georges Simenon, a history of the books the series is based on and information about other film and television adaptations of the Maigret books. However the twelve episodes contained on the four DVDs in this box set already contain one of the best bonuses you could ask for. The performance of Michael Gambon as Inspector Jules Maigret. Be prepared to be amazed and astounded by some of the finest acting for television you'll ever see.

( Article first published as DVD Review: Maigret, Complete Collection on Blogcritics)



February 15, 2013

DVD Review: Bonekickers


There's something British television does really well that we don't seem to do over here in North America. They create a show with a finite number of episodes that not only has the cast involved in different adventures in each instalment but has a through line tying the series together. As a result you have a series with a definite beginning, middle and end instead of shows which continue on long past the time when the writers have stopped finding anything original for the cast to do. There's the added bonus of the show's creators not being forced to write with one eye on the ratings and the other on advertising revenue in order to ensure its continued existence.

A wonderful example of this in action is the series Bonekickers available on DVD from Acorn Media. Told over six one hour episodes we follow a team of four archeologists as they investigate a variety of secrets from the ancient world when faint traces of the past bubble to the surface. History is never buried too far beneath the surface and shows up in surprising places. Out team is based in one of the oldest cities in England, Bath, so it's not too surprising for a builder to uncover rare artefacts in some unused park land slated for a housing development.

Three of the team; the leader Professor Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham) Professor Gregory "Dolly" Parton (Hugh Bonneville) and Ben Ergha (Adrian Lester) have worked and known each other for years. The fourth member of the team, Vivian Davis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has been hired on as an intern to help out and gain experience. Right from the start Davis, and the audience come to understand, the people she's working with march to the beat of a very different drummer than most of the world. To say they each have their own eccentricities is putting it mildly.
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One of the wonderful things about this series is how with each episode we find out more and more about the characters. The writers do a very careful and intelligent job of not only developing each of them and the interrelationships among the team, but also revealing bits and pieces of their history as it becomes relevant. We learn fairly early on Magwilde's mother was a famous archaeology professor as well. However something awful happened to her and she attempted suicide and now lives the life of a catatonic in a nursing home. Over the course of the series we gradually learn what happened to Magwilde's mother and the impact it has had on her.

As archaeologists are a type of detective it makes sense for this show to be part mystery, part fantasy and all adventure. The writers also manage to find ways in each episode to show how history is all around us literally by having the finds show up everywhere from the seashore to parkland. They also makes sure we understand how the past and present interconnect. Whether it's somebody looking to history to further their own goals by twisting it to suit their needs or how our lives were shaped by events which happened thousands of years ago, they manage to make us understand we ignore the past at our peril. What's even better is they do this through the action and plots of each episode. You never have the feeling they are lecturing you, instead the shows offer examples of how important it can be to know history and understand it.

Aside from history we also learn a lot about the techniques and methods used in archaeology. A mixture of painstaking detail work and high tech science go into helping our team uncover the secrets stored in a fragment of wood or a piece of cloth. From the site of a mysterious battle field which saw the slaughter of Knights Templer to the remains of what seems to be a slave ship in a tidal estuary they are able to take what looks like scraps and recreate events that happened hundreds if not a thousand years ago. No secret, no matter how well hidden, is safe and no mystery will stay unsolved for long when our team puts their minds to it.

Unfortunately there turns out to be any number of powerful people who either would like certain secrets left buried or want mysteries solved for their own nefarious purposes. While it does require some suspension of disbelief on the audience's part, somehow each find Magwilde and her team work on, ends up having a bearing on the mystery surrounding what happened to Magwilde's mother. Her mother was being used by a very powerful group of people in an effort to find one of England's most potent artefacts, Excalibur, the supposed legendary sword of King Arthur.
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Almost against her will Magwilde finds herself being drawn into the hunt for the sword as well. As more and more evidence accumulates pointing to its possible whereabouts she also begins to receive mysterious messages and packages encouraging her and offering help. As each episode passes, and they uncover yet another link from the past to the sword, the mystery within the mystery grows. Who are these people offering help? What did her mother discover that ruined her reputation and cause her to attempt suicide? Will Magwilde go down the same path of self destruction, or will she be able to find the solution and come out the other side?

What makes this series work is a combination of good writing and acting. The way the scripts have been worked everything that happens seems completely plausible. From the journey our archeologists go on in their quest to discover the sword's whereabouts to how they come across the various clues over the series which helps them solve the ultimate mystery. While it might seem like a string of coincidences that five seemingly unrelated archeological digs should have something in common, the writers have come up with very plausible reasons how each of them connect to the sword.

Complimenting this is the fact each of the actors have created wonderfully believable characters. From Bonneville's wise fool Dr. Parton, Graham's driven Magwilde, Lester's loyal and stolid Ergha to Mbatha-Raw's slightly wide-eyed but never naive Davis, each of them could have easily been types instead of real people. Thankfully both the script and the actors worked together to make them multidimensional people with both flaws and strengths. Over the six episodes we find out just as much about the characters through the actor's performances as we do through the script as they show us as many sides of their character as possible.

Bonekickers comes in a three DVD set with each disc containing not only two episodes, but extensive special features on each episode. In fact there's over 100 minutes of special features which look at script creation, special effects and where the ideas for the stories came from. This has to be some of the more in depth and extensive special features for a television series I've seen in a while and for those interested in what goes into the show's making it will be fascinating watching.

However, the real reason to watch or own this series is not the special features. It's because the thing is so damn good. Not only is it well acted and well scripted, its exciting, intelligent and funny. There some fairly graphic violence occasionally so you might want to screen it before letting young children watch, but it would also be well worth their while to see this because it makes history so fascinating. In this world so obsessed with the future paying so little attention to the past, it's a joy to watch something which recognizes the significance of history. A lesson worth remembering.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Bonekickers on Blogcritics.)



February 7, 2013

DVD Review: Above Suspicion, Set 2


What separates the really good police procedural television shows from the rest of the pack? Now a days everyone has a stable of really good script writers working for them and no show would dream of ever just having a straight ahead who done it anymore. However that doesn't mean most of them aren't still following a familiar formulae. A crime is committed and police try and solve the mystery and catch the bad guys. Since they're all doing roughly the same thing with equally well written and directed stores, it usually comes down to the actors to make a show stand out from the rest of the crowd.

At least that's the case with Above Suspicion, Set 2 now on DVD from Acorn Media. As in the show's first season the cast is headed up by Ciaran Hinds as Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) James Langton and Kelly Reilly as Detective Inspector (DI) Anna Travis. Two superior actors individually, taken together on screen they feed off each other talent and energy in a display that makes for brilliant viewing.

The daughter of a late colleague of Langton, Travis was a fresh Detective Constable when she first came to work with him. She was been instrumental in helping him solve two high profile and grisly murders. While he might have initially had a kind of paternalistic protective attitude towards her because of who her father had been, their relationship has gradually changed over the course of the last series into something with the potential for being less platonic. Right from the start of the three episode series on this DVD, Deadly Intent, we can't help notice the amount of tension that continues to exist between the two characters.
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Travis has been assigned to assist in the investigation of a very high profile murder. An ex police officer has been found dead in a drug dealer's apartment. While the priority is solving the murder, Langton and his team also have to figure out what the ex-cop was doing there. When they start checking into his background, what he'd been up since he left the police, they find a rather complicated picture. Not only did the man have a fiancee, but he had also recently married another woman. He had been employed as the second woman's driver for only a month before they were married. On it's own this is suspicious. Added to the facts his wife isn't exactly upset by the news her husband is dead and she's a lot better off than he was, the police begin to wonder what's the secret behind their relationship.

In the meantime the forensics team has turned up some very disturbing evidence at the crime scene. They find traces of the drug fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine. According to a cop from the drug squad fentanyl is a death sentence on the street because its so strong. When mixed with cocaine or heroin to increase the former drugs' potency its been the cause of many an accidental overdose. As Langton's team gathers more evidence they discover there were three other people on the scene when the shooting happened. Was this a deal gone bad? Was the fentanyl part of the deal? Were the streets of London, England all of a sudden going to be flooded with this dangerous drug?

The deeper they get into the investigation the more threads they have to follow. With pressure coming from on high for a speedy resolution Langton and his whole team become tenser. Unfortunately this is the type of atmosphere which leads to mistakes being made and clues missed. Recently promoted to DI, Reilly's Travis is much more confident in her abilities then she was when we first met her. Unfortunately this causes her to become a little cocky and headstrong and make mistakes. On top of that, instead of discussing her ideas with her direct superior, Detective Chief Inspector Mike Lewis (Shaun Dingwall), as she's supposed to, she repeatedly goes over his head and goes straight to Langton.

The result is the man who is supposed to co-ordinating the case isn't being given information he needs to conduct the investigation properly. In an interesting transformation from the previous episodes the character of Travis is not quite as likeable as she once was. Reilly does an excellent job of portraying somebody who has gotten just a little too full of herself. She's also appears to be far less innocent in she's not adverse to using her attractiveness to get what she needs from male officers. We see this in the way she deals with the man in forensics who is handling the case and her team's contact in the drug squad.
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This of course leads to increased tension between Travis and Langton. When he discovers she tells the drug squad about the fentanyl before she had let Lewis know about it he has to take her down a peg or two. Unfortunately he also let's his own feelings show by making a snide comment along the lines of "Is there no one on this investigation who doesn't want to go out with you?" when the guy from the drug squad asks her out for a drink. While he's being sarcastic when he makes the comment, from the way both Hinds' and Reilly's characters react after he says it, we know there's a hell of a lot more going on than either character shows.

It comes to the surface late one night when the two are alone in the office. Langton has obviously been drinking, not drunk but loose, and he shows Travis a picture of his late wife. After telling her how devastated he was after his wife died he then starts to tell Travis how he feels. While we're fairly certain she feels much the same way, she retreats behind a smile and almost runs from his office. While it looks like she's trying to let him down gently, much like she's been turning down the other men who have asked her during the show, we also have the impression she's keeping something back. As if she's afraid to admit what she's feeling even to herself.

Both Reilly and Hinds give wonderful multilayered performances throughout the show. On the surface they both come across as hardened detectives intent on doing their job. Both can be cutting and callous, but there's the impression this is a shell they have built up to protect themselves from what they have to deal with in their job. For on the occasions their characters let their guards down we see an incredible amount of vulnerability. In some ways they have both been damaged, by the job and life, and have learnt how to hide their pain from the world. You have the feeling that in each other they may just have found the one person who would understand what they're going through. Unfortunately the opportunity for them to find this out may never present itself.

Above Suspicion, Set 2 contains the three episodes of the series Deadly Intents. Also included on the disc are interviews with the cast and crew who discuss both how their characters have progressed since the first series and the show itself. There is also an interview with Lynda La Plante the author of the books the series is based upon and the screenwriter for the show. To be honest, while I'm a fan of her work, I'm not a big fan of La Plante personally. As I've seen interviews with her before I passed on this one. However, if this interview is anything like others it would be worth watching if you haven't heard her talk about her work before. She is intelligent and capable of offering good insights into her work without spoiling the story.

There are plenty of police procedurals on television that are probably equally well written and directed as Deadly Intent. However it's not often you have the opportunity to see actors of the calibre of Ciaran Hinds and Kelly Reilly performing in them. Even better is the fact they aren't performing in a void and the supporting cast more than holds their own. Still Hinds and Reilly are the stars of the show for good reason. They turn what would have otherwise been a good police procedural into something special.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Above Suspicion, Set 2 on Blogcritics)



October 4, 2012

DVD Review: Vexed, Series 1


How often have you heard two people working together closely referred to as being just like a married couple? It doesn't seem to matter whether they're two men, two women or two people of the opposite sex either. It usually refers to a type of working relationship where the couple have become so comfortable working with each other they can complete each other's sentences or casual bickering hides a depth of feelings between them. These types of relationships often develop in jobs where the two have developed a great deal of trust in each other over the years. It's not surprising to find this type of relationship between police officers who have been partnered for an extended period of time.

Of course this type of camaraderie doesn't develop overnight, and in some instances might not ever develop. Even the most ideal partnerships had to have had their start somewhere and gone through a certain amount of growing pains. Trust isn't earned overnight after all and not everyone who you're partnered with is automatically going to be compatible. In fact, as in any sort of relationship, there's always the chance a partnership between two cops isn't going work out. Vexed, Series 1, released on DVD by Acorn Media, is a British police procedural featuring two officers in the initial stages of a partnership. Detective Inspector (DI) Kate Bishop (Lucy Punch) has just moved to London with her husband in the hopes of advancing both their careers. She's a dedicated, hard working and ambitious officer with hopes of climbing the career ladder. So being partnered with an experienced officer, Detective Inspector Jack Armstrong (Toby Stephens) should fit her plans perfectly.
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Unfortunately she soon discovers DI Armstrong is quite content to coast through life enjoying himself as much as possible. Which means doing his best to make certain police work interferes with more important matters, like being fitted for a suit, as little as possible. While DI Bishop is quite prepared to put in whatever extra hours are required to solve a case, Armstrong works strictly to the clock. He could be in the middle of a murder investigation, but when quitting time comes he's off the case and happily ensconced in his favourite cafe before the clock finishes striking the hour. In fact he's managed to work things so well he almost never has to set foot in the police station and does everything from interviewing witnesses to receiving pathology reports while enjoying a good meal and a glass of wine.

To the highly ambitious, by the book and do everything according to the rules Bishop this type of behaviour doesn't sit very well. Normally in this kind of show it becomes a case of opposites attracting and the two officers, at the least, develop a good working relationship based on mutual respect. They might be different but they sure do work well together. However that's not the case here. Investigating what appears to be the work of a murderer who preys on lonely women, Bishop discovers Armstrong is not only lazy, he's also callous, judgemental and quick to jump to conclusions. However, that doesn't stop her from taking his advice and renting the flat of one of the murder victims. This leads to a very funny scene of her being led around the apartment by an estate agent with the victim's body still laid out on the floor. Armstrong's best contribution involves advice on the placement of the couch and TV so they can be used to cover up the blood stain on the carpet.

However, when you don't have anyone else to talk to, as is the case for the newly arrived to London Bishop, if you spend the entire day in close contact with a person you develop a kind of intimacy almost in spite of yourself. Which is how she ends up confiding in Armstrong her worries about her husband's infidelity. When they discover the murderer has cracked the computer system of a shopping rewards program - earn points and win prizes - by using the shopping habits revealed by people's receipts to pick out targets, they both use the system to find out information for personal reasons. Armstrong wants to find out information about a girl he's interested in picking up while Bishop is hunting for proof her husband is fooling around.

Somehow or other the two still manage to find a way to solve the murders, even though their first two suspects are completely innocent. However, they end up making more than a bit of a mess of their personal lives leaving them both single. While this doesn't necessarily improve their working relationship, they try to make the best of it as neither has anyone else in their lives. The more we get to know both characters, the more we realize they each could stand to learn a little from the other. If Armstrong were ever to start thinking of anything more than just his own personal self-gratification and take a lesson from Bishop in dedication he has the potential to be a decent cop and a good person. On the other hand if Bishop were to take a leaf from Armstrong's book and be a little more relaxed she might not have quite the number of problems she does on the home front.

The three episodes in Series 1 see the two officers solve a series of murders, protect an investment banker convicted of bilking clients for millions against the threat of assassination and deal with the kidnapping of the member of an all girl pop music trio. Somehow they manage to solve each case almost in spite of themselves, and at the same time begin to grudgingly respect each other. At times it seems like the crimes they solve are almost incidental to the action. However, just when you're about to wash your hands of the two of them, they remind you that you have to have some policing skills to have obtained the rank of Detective Inspector. When Armstrong can be stirred from his navel gazing and Bishop can bring her head down out of the clouds they end up working quite well together.

Both Punch and Stephens are gifted comic actors. On top of that they both know how to straddle the line between keeping a character likeable in spite of their flaws instead of allowing them to slip into being insufferable. They are helped by scripts that never descend to the level of having them deliver one liner jokes. Instead the comedy develops out of the interplay between the two characters and their behaviour in given circumstances, Even better is the fact the writers have gone out of their way to give the characters enough material to work with that neither of them are completely one dimensional. So occasionally we see a spark of genuine emotion from Armstrong instead of his usual glibness and cracks in Bishop's veneer of professionalism.
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Even better, is that when it comes right down to it, they are still police officers, and when they have to they take their jobs seriously. While the show is primarily a comedy, it doesn't cheapen itself by taking the subjects of murder or kidnapping lightly by treating them as jokes. We're meant to laugh at the foibles of the two main characters not the victims or the crimes. Even when Armstrong makes demeaning comments about those in the episodes with them, we aren't invited to laugh along with him. Rather we are invited to laugh at him for being so insensitive and rude.

The course of some relationships run smoother than others. In the case of the working relationship between DI Bishop and DI Armstrong in the British police comedy Vexed there are definitely a number of bumps in the road over the course of the three episodes in Series 1. However in spite of the inevitable humour resulting from their clashes, and the occasional bungles they make of their jobs because of them, the seriousness of their work is never in doubt. Not only is this show a lot of fun, but it will also surprise you with its grown up attitude to police work. While there's not much in the way of special features included with the set, a photo galley and the show's trailer, you won't miss them. Watching a police procedural comedy that knows how to take crime seriously is enough of an attraction that you don't need any extra incentives to watch this show.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Vexed, Series 1 on Blogcritics.)