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September 13, 2017

DVD Review: Rake: Series 3 - The Original Australian Version


Cover Rake Series 3.jpg As we pick up the progress of Australian lawyer Cleaver Green, played with admirable panache by the wonderful Richard Roxburgh in Rake: Series 3, released on DVD by Acorn Media on September 12 2017, it's hard not to feel like you've been sucked into a hurricane. With Green as the calm within the storm, it's no surprise everything around him is just as out of control as it was in the previous two seasons of this beautifully scatological television show.

For those who've not seen the previous two seasons (both of which are also available through Acorn Media) it might take a bit to sort out the various ongoing plots and the assortment of characters who make up Greene's circle of friends, work associates, and enemies. However, if you just sit back and enjoy the ride you'll soon figure out what's going on. It might get a bit bumpy at times, but that's half the fun.

What's wonderful about this series is how it can transition from absurdist comedy to moments of pathos with perfect ease. Of course some of this is due to the quality of the show's writers and directors, but a great deal of the credit has to be given to entire cast. As the central character most of the onus for carrying the series is on Roxburgh. However, not only is he up to the challenge, he seems to revel in playing his character. This is as perfect an example of a tour de force performance as you'll ever see on television.

Of course he doesn't work in a vacuum - and those surrounding him are equally brilliant in their abilities to bring their roles to life and how they relate, and react, to Green. However, unless you've watched any other Australian television, you won't recognize either their names or faces. (With the exception of a hysterical cameo by Roxburgh's buddy Cate Blanchett in episode three) Rest assured, you've not seen such a fine ensemble cast outside of the glory days of shows like Murphy Brown and the work of Norman Lear.

However, be also warned, you'll also have never seen or heard this amount of drug use, nudity, sex, or swearing on television over here outside of deep cable. This is definitely not a show for young children. That being said, there is nothing gratuitous about anything depicted in the show. Remember this is a show about a man fighting his demons and trying to find the calm place in the storm he's made of his life.

There aren't many television shows which can have you pissing yourself with laughter one moment and close to real tears in the next. Moving from the incredibly absurd, Green's ex-wife's attempt at getting married ending in a hostage situation, to the very real sympathy and compassion Green has for his clients and those he cares for, the show covers a ton of ground with a gritty reality and light touch that make it a wonder to behold.

The special features included in this set is limited to a five minute gag reel (consisting mainly of watching everybody else trying to keep a straight face when Roxburgh blows his lines) but that's not what you're going to watch this series for. Rake: Series 3 continues down the path of excellence established by the first two seasons of this great television show. With scripts that continue to be both topical and intelligent, and brilliant acting from all involved, this is a show that shouldn't be missed by anyone.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Rake; Series 3 - The Original Australian Version)

January 2, 2017

DVD Review: Jericho of Scotland Yard


Cover Jericho of Scotland Yard.jpgFrom its title you'd expect Acorn Media's new DVD, Jericho of Scotland Yard to be your typical police procedural. However, while the action in the series' four feature length episodes does revolve around police solving cases, the show is so much more.

While the series originally aired on television in 2005 there is nothing dated about it 11 years later. Set in London of the 1950s the show creates a dark and mysterious world through which the lead actors move through. Inspector Michael Jericho (Robert Lindsay) is the new darling of the media for his exploits in capturing notorious criminals. We're introduced to him via a news reel informing us he's been awarded a commendation for bravery.

The opening of the first episode also introduces us to his long suffering Sergeant, DS Clive Harvey (David Troughton) and his new, very green constable, DC John Caldicott (Ciaran McMenamin). While the latter comes on the job idolizing his new boss, Harvey has worked with Jericho long enough to know his boss's demons and his flaws.

While each case the three officers deal with is a distinct investigation and interesting in their own right, just as intriguing is the continuing story of Jericho's life. The London he moves through is a dark and mysterious place. He lives in a three story walk up above a local store in Soho - a seedy part of town in the 1950s - and seems more comfortable with the jazz musicians and prostitutes who ply their trade in his neighbourhood than with any other class.
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The creators of the show made the decision to mix location and studio shooting together for the exterior shots of London. This has allowed them to create a Soho of shifting colours and moving shadows which not only reflects Jericho's moods, but creates a noir ambiance that suits the sleazy underworld he and his team have to trawl through in their investigations.

With the majority of location exteriors being shot either in overcast conditions, if not raining, or at night, this is a city where the sun is rarely seen. This moving through darkness is further stressed in the final episode set in the famous fog of 1952 which resulted in so many deaths and almost completely closed the city.

The writers have also done a wonderful job in creating stories which reflect the turbulent times London was beginning to experience in the 1950s. Everything from post war immigration from Jamaica and the rise of British neo-Nazis to soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to homosexuality are dealt with intelligently. Even more importantly the subjects are dealt with appropriately for the time period.

Of course one of the great pleasures of watching a show like this is seeing all the different people who make guest appearances as villains and victims. Some of them are fairly instantly recognizable, but a few might drive you crazy as you try to figure out where you've seen them before. It helps to remember this one was shot more then a decade ago and they all look a lot younger than we're used to seeing them.

Jericho of Scotland Yard is a well written and intelligent police procedural with some wonderful added twists to take it out of the realm of your typical cop show. Highly enjoyable, and very entertaining, this two disc set containing all four episodes of the series will make a nice change from the average murder mystery.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Jericho of Scotland Yard)

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)

September 29, 2015

Blu-ray Review: George Gently: Series 7


Police procedural television shows come and go in an endless blur of troubled cops and grisly crimes. However, amidst the dross a few gems shine through for the quality of their scripts and exemplary acting. Watching the Blu-ray of George Gently: Series 7 from Acorn Media, you quickly understand why this show has been consistently a cut above the rest of the field.

First of all there're the actors. Martin Shaw, Chief Inspector George Gently, and Lee Ingleby, Detective Sergeant/Inspector John Bacchus, have worked together through six previous seasons and their relationship on screen is a joy to behold. The rapport between the two is such they are able to bring extra layers of nuance to both their characterizations and interactions. Anyone who has watched the series over the years has seen a gradual evolution in their partnership as the years have passed.
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With the new character of PC (Police Constable)/Sergeant Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis entering the mix the dynamic between the two leads changes. While she had appeared in the previous series, Coles takes on a bigger role in these episodes and forces Bacchus to undergo some more attitude adjustments and growth. Especially when it comes to the way he, and police in general, treat women.

The four feature length episodes in this series are set in the transition from 1969 to 1970. English society, like the rest of the world, is going through major upheavals, and sleepy Northern Durham is no exception. As is usual for the Gently series each of the investigations is played out against a backdrop which reflects these changes. However, there's little or no preaching. Instead we are merely presented with the reality of the times and witness how the three main characters react to the situations.

From the way complaints of rape are treated by the police at the time (Gently Among The Women) to industrial pollution (Breathe in the Air) the show brings into focus the growing awareness that attitudes need to be changed in the way both are treated, Again we see how the elder Gently is far more open to change than his younger colleague. However, Bacchus isn't without a brain or his own sense of personal justice, he just takes a little longer to overcome his ingrained conditioning.

The third and fourth episodes, Gently Among Friends and Son of a Gun deal with issues unique to England. In the former the suspicious death of a local businessman is played out against the beginning of the reconstruction of Newcastle and a garbage strike which crippled the city in 1969. The latter shines a spotlight on the very unique British phenomena of skin heads.
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Nowadays we identify skin heads with neo-nazi movements. However, in 1970, a lack of jobs in major cities gave rise to a huge population of disaffected youth who started comparing themselves to slaves. Instead of being anti-black, they turned to the music of Jamaican immigrants, ska and rocksteady, which spoke of the fight to escape oppression, for inspiration and solace. Of course, it's very easy for a skilled leader to manipulate lost people with a few promises of easy escape and wealth.

In a fore taste of the race riots which would rock England in the late 1970s, we see how Gently and his team have to deal with a group of skinheads who go on a violent rampage of robbing banks under the guidance of one particularly violent individual. Further complicating matters is Gently's discovery of a personal connection to the robberies.

As is usual for this show each episode is a wonderfully crafted piece of television. Not only do they take full advantage of their 90 minute length to fully develop plots, they also add in details about the lead characters' personal lives which allows us to identify with them as people closely. Even better is how these individual problems aren't solved in a episode, or even over the course of the series. Sometimes life isn't neat and tidy and one of this series's strengths has been its ability to depict this without concessions.

George Gently: Series 7 continues the tradition of excellence we've come to expect from this exceptional police procedural. An incredible recurring cast, wonderful guest turns by great actors and fascinating scripts are still the show's hallmarks. This series is still the standard against which all other police procedurals should be judged.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: George Gently Series 7 - A Change is in the air)

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)

April 2, 2015

TV Preview: PBS's Masterpiece - Wolf Hall


While you might think you've seen just about as much as you could want of Henry VIII and his court on television or the movies in the last few years with The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl, don't let that put you off watching Wolf Hall. Starting April 5 2015 at 10pm EST and running for six consecutive Sundays on PBS Masterpiece (check local listings for times and stations in your region) this mini series brings both the era and the people to life in a way you've never seen on the screen before.

Seen from the point of view of the man usually painted as the villain of the era, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) the series focuses on Henry's (Damian Lewis) efforts to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She had failed to produce a male heir after twenty years and he wanted to replace her with Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). We also see how this led to England's split with the Pope and the beginning of his dissatisfaction with Boleyn.

Over the course of the series we watch Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, rise from being aid to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) Henry's Lord Chancellor to becoming one of Henry's chief advisors himself. Along the way he survives Wolsey's fall from grace, (he failed to convince the Pope to annul the king's first marriage so he could wed Boleyn) the death of his wife and daughters and the enmity of Thomas Moore (Anton Lesser. However, it's the Cardinal's downfall which brings him into contact with Henry and Boleyn and his rise in station and influence. For in trying to assist Wolsey in regaining the king's favour, he impresses them with his loyalty to his master, his intelligence and his abilities to get things done.
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Based on the Booker Prize Winning books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the series is a beautifully rendered, and historically accurate recounting of one of the most turbulent times in English social/political history. While other productions have been more concerned with the soap opera aspects of the era, here the focus is squarely on the political machinations of the court and the players jockeying for the king's favour.

However, don't be dismayed or put off by what might sound like a dry political drama. The creators have done a masterful job of writing and producing a show which will keep you riveted and glued to your seat. They don't spoon feed you anything, and you have to pay attention, but, in spite of the plot twists and turns and various characters to keep straight, if you let yourself fall into the rhythm of the show you'll find yourself swept up in the story.

Some people might take umbrage with the depiction of Thomas Moore in this production. He's always perviously been shown as "the good guy" who was persecuted by the King and Cromwell. Here he's seen as someone who has no problems torturing individuals he suspects of heresy or ordering them to be burned at the stake for the same crimes. In fact there's very little that's saintly about this particular version of the future St.Thomas Moore.

Of course this type of program is only ever as good as the actors playing the roles. Here, even minor roles are played by actors of quality. Of course where it really counts, the leads, the acting is superlative. You might not have heard of Rylance, he's primarily a stage actor in Great Britain, but his performance as Cromwell is one of the most complex and nuanced pieces of work I've seen in years. Look at his eyes during his conversations with other characters. Watch him watching, you can almost see the wheels turn as he figures out how to best manipulate everybody from the King to the lowliest servant.
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As Henry VIII, Lewis is equally remarkable. In fact he probably has the harder role as he has to overcome all of our preconceived notions of the king. Henry was neither stupid nor the callous philanderer he's often been depicted as. Like all royalty of the time he is firm in the belief of his right to rule, but he's also quick to recognize when someone can be of use to him. Lewis does a fine job of showing us both the arrogance and the humanity of the character. We see the petulant child who has tantrums when he doesn't get what he wants, but we also see the wit and intelligence of a man who could inspire genuine devotion among his followers.

As the axis around which all action revolves in the series, Foy's Boleyn is more than a match for her male counterparts. Not only does her performance capture the ruthlessnesses the character would need to obtain her goal of becoming queen and that she is every bit as politically adroit as the men around her, we also are allowed to see the human being behind the mask of royalty. Using her family connections, niece to one of the most powerful men at Henry's court the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), and her physical charms she creates her own power base which gives her the power to help bring about the fall of both Wolsey and Moore. Unfortunately it's the latter which helps to create the circumstances required to bring about her own downfall.

It's not often one has the opportunity to see a historical drama not only accurate down to the minutest detail, including table etiquette and manners, but brilliantly written and featuring performances by some of the best actors of this generation. Wolf Hall, airing on PBS's Masterpiece for six weeks starting Sunday April 5 2015 (check local listings for exact times) is not only all of the above, its also intelligent and entertaining. History has never looked or sounded this good on television.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as TV Preview: PBS's Masterpiece 'Wolf Hall' - Henry VIII as You've Never Seen Him)

August 2, 2014

DVD Review: Secret State


Intrigue, adventure and mystery - it sounds like the promotional line for a new adventure story or action film. However, your average Hollywood big budget extravaganza has nothing on a well told story of back room political manoeuvring for covert action, intrigue and the well placed knife in the back. If you think monsters from space or mysterious creatures from the depths of sea are frightening, they're nothing compared to the political operative who can smile to your face while contemplating your downfall. While American television has recently seen its share of political scheming, very few can compare to the British when it comes to depicting the machinations behind the scenes in government.

Of course it helps they have a few more centuries of experience to draw upon, an Officials Secrets Act which would drive conspiracy theorists on this side of the Atlantic crazy and a Old Boys network based on class which still believes in the right of titled to rule. Stir that pot of ingredients in just the right manner and you come up with something terrifying in its believability. The recently released DVD package of Secret State from Acorn Media combines the above elements with an amazing script and an impeccable cast to create almost two and half hours of spell binding television.

Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) is sent out to give his government's response to an explosion at a petrochemical plant which not only resulted in worker fatalities, but destroyed the surrounding neighbourhood. His job is to assess the damage and reassure the population his government will provide appropriate compensation. With the Prime Minister meeting with the American company who owns the plant in Huston to negotiate compensation, Dawkins is the one taking the heat from press and citizens alike. When reporter Ellis Kane (Gina McKee) lets him know the company who owns the plant had known about the problem which caused the explosion he is livid. He phones the Prime Minister on board his plane returning from America for reassurances about compensation, but during the conversation their call is cut off and then the plane vanishes.
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When the wreckage of the plane is found Dawkins is declared interim Prime Minister until a new party leader can be selected. This is where the first rounds of what will be an ongoing political battle are fought. Both the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ros Yeland (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and Treasury Minister Felix Durrell (Rupert Graves) want the top job. However, party whip (the guy who makes sure all party members toe the line) John Hodder (Charles Dance) thinks their best bet for re-election is Dawkins.

The infighting leading up to the choosing of Dawkins as new leader is fun, but it's nothing compared to what happens after he's chosen leader and leads the party to an unexpected re-election. For while there's no denying Dawkins' appeal to the voters, he has one flaw that alienates the movers and shakers in industry, financial circles, the military and the intelligence community - he speaks his mind. Even worse, he usually tells the truth to people who don't want to hear it. Things start to really become interesting when he not only pushes to find out the truth of what happened to the Prime Minister's plane, but tries to pressure the American Petrochemical company into paying compensation to the victims of the explosion.

When Dawkins attempts to do an end run around the financial and military establishment by reaching a deal with India for financing and firing the head of military intelligence for provoking a war with Iran the moves against him go into overdrive. He is now considered a threat to the established order and in a move spearheaded by Durrell and Yeland his own party seeks to have removed from office. His life is complicated even further when the military leaks confidential information about a mission he was involved with while a peace keeper in the Bosnian conflict to the reporter Kane where half his squad was killed.

This attempt to discredit him personally is a relatively minor incident as we watch the full weight of the spy industry in Great Britain be brought to bear on him. The threads of plot and intrigue twist and turn in ways that might leave you gasping for breath. However, what will really take your breath away is how believable the show manages to make all of them seem. These aren't the rantings of some conspiracy theorist, they are stark realities about how the world works and how a few powerful people can bring down governments and orchestrate events to suit their needs.
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What's wonderful about this show is no matter how convoluted the story might sound most viewers should have no trouble keeping up with its sudden twists and turns. While there's nothing simplistic about the script, nor does it condescend to its audience by leading them around by the nose, it doesn't make make things unnecessarily complicated. It takes sufficient time to not only introduce the various plots, but also the characters involved in each strand. Once we are familiar with which characters are associated with each strand of action we can quickly identify what's going on and why. By keeping everything tightly compartmentalized until the end when everything converges we have no trouble keeping track of the net which is slowly closing around Dawkins.

What helps keeps us riveted to the screen is the cast led by Byrne. As the ex army officer who almost unwillingly steps into the job of Prime Minister, he gives one of the best performances I've seen from him. The supporting cast of Drance, Le Touzell, Graves and everybody else involved, are equally convincing. While the reptilian gaze of Drance's,character as he plots his every move to Le Touzell's and Grave's elegant way of smiling to someone's face while plotting just where to put the knife in their back are frightening, all of the performances are also realistic and believable. What's truly terrifying about most of what you watch is how matter of fact everybody is while going about the business of putting their own interests above those of the people they supposedly represent.

Chris Mullen's novel A Very British Coup was first adapted for television in 1988. In the special features included on the DVD Mullen explains why he and the producer's decided to create a new adaptation now. He's updated the story line to reflect the changing world political climate and the new pressures being brought to bear on politicians. However, as the story makes clear, as far as he's concerned some things about the British political system have never changed.

Whether you're a conspiracy theorist or not, Secret State is a compelling argument that there is always more going on behind the scenes in politics than any of us will ever know. Beautifully acted, elegantly written and seamlessly directed it is probably the best tale of political intrigue you'll ever watch. One warning, allow yourself time to sit down and watch all four episodes at once, you're not going to want to wait to find out how it ends.

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

June 24, 2014

Television Preview: Vicious Starring Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Derek Jacobi


Mainstream television and film's depiction of homosexuals has always been tentative at best. While openly gay characters have been showing up more frequently on both screens in recent years, too often the characters in question have been used as comic relief or the sensitive friend, instead of being fully developed people in their own right. The idea these people might be either sexually active or involved in long term relationships is something nobody seems to want to admit. This is especially true for gay male characters. While there are some shows which make a big deal out of having sexually active lesbians, they seem to be more about fulfilling heterosexual male fantasies than actually being about the lives of gay women.

The few times attempts have been made to honestly depict the lives of gay men the backlash against the shows in question has been swift and cruel. (A television adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, depicting life in San Francisco in the 1970s aired in the 1990s and resulted in some of the Public Broadcasting Systems (PBS) stations airing it receiving bomb threats and other forms of intimidation) To think the atmosphere might have changed since then is to be incredibly naive. Just look at the opposition to same sex marriage in the US and the laws being passed in other countries making homosexuality illegal.

So it takes a certain amount of courage on the part of PBS to decide to pick up the British made situation comedyVicious whose main characters are a gay couple who have been in long term relationship for nearly fifty years. Airing for six consecutive Sunday nights at 10:30pm EST starting June 29 until August 3 2014 the show not only features two gay characters, but stars two openly gay actors in the title roles, Sir Ian McKellen (Freddy) and Sir Derek Jacobi (Stuart). Freddy is a moderately successful actor who occasionally still receives small roles on television shows, but they are both pretty much retired. However, the show deals mainly with their rather tempestuous personal life and the friends who become caught up in the cross fire.
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The two men seem to be in a constant state of open verbal warfare with almost every word they direct towards each other being an insult. While some of the exchanges verge on cruel, McKellen has the memorable line "I'm never quite sure when I've gone to far, but I'm always happy when I do", they are obviously born out of habit and long familiarity. However, it's not just each other they treat with apparent disdain, as their long time friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) comes in for her share of insults from both men during her frequent visits to their flat. While the insults are initially shocking, we quickly become as inured to them as the characters as we realize how little impact they have.

The first episode introduces a new diversion into their lives in the form of a new neighbour. Ash (Iwan Rheon) gives whole new meaning to the term "straight man". For not only is he straight, he's also a new audience for the boys and their friend, and they can't help putting on a show for him. At first non-plussed by walking into an apparent free-fire zone, Ash soon figures out what anybody with eyes can see. That beneath the caustic comments flying between Freddy and Stuart lies genuine love and affection. He also proves he's not the oblivious young man they've taken him for. Unsure of his sexual orientation ("You just can't tell these days") Freddy tries with an increasing lack of subtlety to get Ash reveal his nature. As the episode ends he pauses before leaving their apartment and, with a big smile on his face, tells them he's straight.

As Freddy and Stuart, McKellen and Jacobi are magnificent. They manage to walk the fine line between caricature and character beautifully. While part of the fun is listening to these two classically trained actors deliver lines like "bollocks that was a bitch" in their beautifully modulated voices, it's also a delight to watch them having so much fun creating the relationship between the two men. For over the course of the six episodes they gradually reveal the depth of feeling which exists between the two men. They might snipe at each other constantly, but let anybody else treat one of them with anything less than respect, and each will quickly rise to the other's defence.
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As their sex-starved and lonely friend Violet, de la Tour manages to take a character who in most people's hands would have been flat and one dimensional and turn her into a funny and real person. While she flirts shamelessly with Ash, loading her conversations with enough sexual innuendo to make a teamster blush, she also manages to show us the loneliness lying beneath her rather carnivorous exterior. The boys tease her mercilessly about her countless disastrous relationships, but she's part of their extended family and trusted and loved accordingly. You have the feeling they wouldn't put up with each other's behaviour if there wasn't a genuine bond between the three of them.

Initially viewers might be confused as to why the young man Ash continues to hang out with these people who seemingly have so little in common with him. However, Rheon does a very credible job of showing how his character sees Freddy and Stuart as a mixture of surrogate parents (his father is serving a ten year sentence for armed robbery) and friends he can come to for advice. He looks at them and sees the genuine affection they feel for each other beneath the bitchy comments and can't help but admire and envy them their closeness. The episode where he brings a girl friend over to dinner with the boys is priceless. Not only is it hilarious, we watch as Ash's relationship dissolves over the course of dinner, it also throws in stark relief the difference between a real partnership based on trust and love, and one based on nothing more than wanting to be in love.

While Vicious is a brilliant show filled with great acting and genuinely funny dialogue, I'm sure there are bound to be plenty of people who will find it offensive. Both those who object to positive depictions of homosexuality and the politically correct who don't have a sense of humour will find something to object to. However, they should all just grow up and learn how to be more accepting. The latter might decry how unrealistic the show is in its depiction of gay couples, but I've known plenty of couples, both straight and gay, who act just like the two main characters. For those of you not so full of yourself and able to see past this type of crap, this show will delight you. Vicious airs on PBS Sunday evenings at 10:30 pm EST from June 29 to August 3 2014 - check your local listings for times and stations.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as TV Review: Vicious Starring Sir Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi)

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)

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)

April 5, 2014

Blu-ray Review: George Gently, Series 6


There are occasionally those really good television shows which manage to not only capture the spirit of the times they're set in, but also create within their world a microscopic environment reflecting the world around them. In classical theatre, Shakespeare for example, when the natural world reflected the action on the stage it was referred to as pathetic fallacy. You know, things like when the horses start eating each other on the night Macbeth kills the rightful king of Scotland. Talk about the world being in a turmoil.

Now there's not many television shows these days I would even think of mentioning in the same breath as the works of Shakespeare. However, reflecting on the newly released George Gently, Series 6 from Acorn Media, and the way the internal turmoil of the lead characters reflects the ongoing societal turmoil of England in the late 1960s it's hard not to make the comparison. For those of you who haven't yet watched "Series 5", I'd recommend you stop reading now as I'll be referring back to events in its final episode from here on in.

Both Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) George Gently (Martin Shaw) and his second in command, Sargent John Bacchus, (Lee Ingleby) had been wounded during a shootout in Durham Cathedral. "Series 5" had ended leaving the two men lying in their respective puddles of blood, with us uncertain as to their fates. The question of their condition is answered very quickly in the first of the four episodes contained on the two discs making up this set, Gently Between The Lines.
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The great thing about this show is with each episode being an hour and a half in length, it not only allows the detectives to solve the case they are working on but it allows the script to develop sub-plots associated with the lives of the police officers. In Gently Between The Lines we are given a perfect example of how they meld the two worlds together. The episode starts with DCI Gently travelling to visit Sargent Bacchus in the convalescent hospital he has spent six months recovering from the bullet wounds he suffered in the last episode of "Series 5". However, this is not just a social call as Bacchus has handed in his letter of resignation and Gently has come to find out why he's decided to quit. When Bacchus insists he's not coming back to the police, Gently reminds him he has to give four weeks notice, and he wants Bacchus to serve them out on duty with him.

This is probably not the best frame of mind for Bacchus to be in when he and Gently have to investigate the mysterious death of a squatter in police custody. In 1969 city councils across England were razzing the old worker's housing left over from pre WWll days and replacing them with apartment blocks. However, not everybody who lived in the old neighbourhoods liked the idea, and in Newcastle, where the death took place, the police were having to forcibly remove people from their homes. This naturally led to anger on the part of the local populations, resentment towards the police and demonstrations protesting the plans. One such demonstration degenerated into a riot in which a police officer was severely injured and numerous people were arrested, including the man who died in custody.

Seeing how the public has turned against the police only feeds Bacchus' resolve to leave the force. Except there's more to it then that, and Gently keep pushing him until he gets him to admit what's really bothering him. In the late 1960s there was no understanding of post traumatic stress disorder, so all Bacchus is able to articulate is his wonder about how many more times he'll be lucky enough to walk away from a dangerous situation in one piece. When Gently goes into an abandoned building to rescue a young boy Bacchus freezes, unable to put himself into a potentially dangerous situation.

However, it's not only Bacchus who has a rough time adjusting. In Gently's case it's not the trauma of injury he's having to come to terms with, it's the way the world around him is changing and his own sense of what's right and wrong. While we see some indication of this in the first episode where he pushes the investigation into the mysterious death far harder than his superiors like, it really comes to the fore in both the third, Gently With Honour, and fourth, Gently Going Under, episodes. In the former their investigation into a murder in a gay bathhouse leads them onto a trail which ends with them uncovering drug testing performed on soldiers by the British army. However, it's not just the drug testing which rocks the ex soldier Gently, it's the fact the army has covered up abuse at the facility where the experiments were carried out led to the death they had been investigating and a soldier was being made into a scapegoat.
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In the final episode of the series Gently comes face to face with changing realities in both his world and the world around him. He and Bacchus are called in to investigate the death of a coal miner whose body has been discovered underground. With the mine in question on the verge of being shut down due to it being almost tapped out emotions are high and there are any number of possible suspects. While the case takes a number of complicated twists and turns revolving around various people's motives, Gently also finds himself having to deal with pressures from his superiors. His refusal to only go through the motions when it comes to what his superiors consider delicate matters has finally reached a head and they want to promote him away from dealing with criminal cases.

Gently own personal code of conduct has brought into conflict with the police establishment in the past. It was his insistence on investigating police corruption in London which had him transferred up to Northern England in the first place as he was rocking too many boats. In the final episode of this series he tells his superior officer point blank if they want to get rid of him they'll have to shove him out as he's not going to take the promotion and make it easy for them.

George Gently, Series 6 is not just an exemplary police show, its also an example of the potential there is for character development in television. Not only do the two main characters work to solve the various murders they're confronted with, we see how they have to develop and adopt to the world around them and their own personal changing circumstances. While the Blu-ray edition doesn't have many special features, there are a couple of interesting behind the scenes interviews with both Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby in where they discuss their characters and the time period the show was shot in. This edition also conforms with the high technical standards we've all come to expect from Blu-rays as the sound and video quality are superb. However, this is one show that doesn't need any technical enhancements to make it great. This is by far still one of the best police procedurals being aired today.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: George Gently, Series 6)

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)

November 20, 2013

Television Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana


Once upon a time there was pop music. You either liked what you heard or you didn't, and you didn't particularly care about anything else. There were other types of music other people listened to, but that wasn't pop music. There was country and western music which was played by people who dressed funny and whose audience seemed to made up of senior citizens and people with short hair. It was like it was from another world. However as you grew older you discovered something, the rock and roll you listened to had been born out of the strange marriage of country music and blues music.

As you listened to more and more music, the more you realized it was all interrelated. From punk to disco it all could be traced back to the same beginnings. Sure it had split off onto wildly divergent paths, but they all traced their roots back to the same sources; the folk music of the British Isles and African music brought over with slaves. Even with Spain and France having significant impact on certain areas of North America, the African/British influence has remained the dominant force in popular music. You might hear traces of one of the other two, but they are usually laid over the same core everything else is.

As the music industry has sought to target specific markets they've begun pop music was divided up into an ever increasing number of sub-genres. Even though I've been a music critic for eight years now, I still couldn't tell you the difference between half of them. Even more confusing is the way so many people seem to apply different names to what is essentially the same music. One of the more confusing ones that's popped up in recent years has been something called Americana. My initial impression of this genre was it was a catch all category for anything which didn't fit anywhere else as it seemed to include everything from Woody Guthrie style folk/country music to Credence Clearwater Revival rock and roll. Well according to a new television special, Nashville 2.0: The Rise of American, airing on PBS Friday November 22 2013 from 9:00 - 10:00 pm DST (check local listings for air times in your area) as part of its PBS Arts Fall Festival 2013, I wasn't too far off.
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While I found the focus of the hour long show a little too Nashville-centric when it came to discussing the history of what it called Americana, and overly concentrated on its country roots, it doesn't stop the points it makes about the music any less valid. As was pointed out by one of the talking heads - it was hard to keep track of who said what with so many voices chipping in over the course of the show - America is still a young country comparatively speaking and is only now beginning to develop its own sound. This sound, coming out of the melting pot of cultures which have met in America, explains why Americana is such a mixed bag of musical types and genres.

The examples of bands considered by the show to qualify for the genre ranged from a Latin tinged country rock outfit from Miami to the new darlings of pop music Mumford and Sons from England. However, most of the bands on the show seemed to be ones with obvious country or Nashville influences. Combined with the show's crediting of Emmylou Harris, via her association with Graham Parsons, as being one of the primary influences on the current Americana scene, gave the impression that country music is the major factor in the development of this music. Aside from the inclusion of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Alabama Shakes, they seem to have forgotten any African American influence there could have been on American music. In fact Carolina Chocolate Drops lead vocalist Rhiannon Giddens sort of sidled up to the point with her comment about it being nice to play gigs where the Alabama Shakes are sharing the bill, as they add a little bit of colour to the proceedings.

Now none of this is meant to disparage any of the people mentioned in the show. I've always loved Emmylou Harris, but I think its a bit of a stretch to credit her with being as great an influence as the show suggests. To do a show about this type of music and never once mention four guys from Southern Ontario and their drummer from Arkansas, The Band, is like talking about Opera and not mentioning a guy named Mozart. Parsons and Harris may have tried to bring country music to the pop music crowd in the early 1970s, but The Band remain one of the first outfits who created a melange representing almost every musical culture imported into North America.

While they call the show, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana the real emphasis is on the first part of the title - Nashville. Here the show excelled showing us how country music and Nashville have diversified so it now represents more of America than just a small segment of the population. It was also interesting to see what young bands like The Avett Brothers and Civil War to name only a few, have done with the country form to create a sound of their own. What was especially nice to see was the care these bands were taking with vocal harmonies, arrangements and the crafting of songs in general. It's a refreshing change from listening to the image conscience, celebrity seeking, so called musicians the air waves are usually littered with these days.

The show isn't hurt either be the people chosen to be front and centre as guides for the hour. Roseanne Cash, Buddy Miller, Billy Bragg, and Jim Lauderdale are not only knowledgable and intelligent, they each have an honest to god love and appreciation for the music which you can't help but get caught up in. Talking heads in shows like these can be boring or dry, but these four aren't shy of showing their excitement about an act or letting their emotions slide through. When Cash talks about how country radio stations refused to play her late father's latter recordings she doesn't attempt to hide her scorn for them and her pride in her father for being true to himself.
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It was Lauderdale, though, who had one of the best moments in the show right at the opening when he introduces the word Americana for the first time. He gives a little sly smile, almost as if tipping the audience a wink, and you can almost see the quotes round the word as he says it. He's not trying to undermine its significance but he's letting us know he doesn't take this business of genres too seriously. When he and Miller get together, either working with a younger band for the satellite radio show they host, talking about the music or performing you sense their deep love for what they do.

Hearing and seeing the music through the eyes and ears of these two and the others, and feeling the love they all feel, is what makes this show special. You can't help but be caught up their enthusiasm and excitement over the bands. All of them have been around the music industry for a long time, and with the exception of Bragg, most of that time had been spent in Nashville. What has made them all so excited is the genuine change in country music with the resurgence of people being interested in creating music and not just songs.

While I'm not in agreement with all that's expressed on this show, and I think there were some glaring omissions, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana does a good job of explaining the genre's seeming lack of boundaries. It also provides viewers a chance to meet some of the new bands who are performing new versions of country music. It may not be a complete picture of Americana music, but its some of the better music being played today. It's real people, making real music and singing about things they believe in. I don't care what you call it, but that's generally a recipe for great music.

(Photo credits: Deborah Feingold)

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana

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 19, 2013

Television Review: The Hollow Crown (William Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1&2 and Henry V


Probably the hardest theatre to bring to the screen are the works of William Shakespeare. Due to the material's intrinsic theatrically it's almost impossible to escape the fact they were designed to be seen on stage. However this has not prevented many people from attempting to adapt his work to the screen with varying degrees of success. So I was intrigued to learn about a new British mini series called The Hollow Crown being broadcast on the PBS program Great Performances. Comprised of four of Shakespeare's history plays, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V the series is an example for film makers to come on how to adapt Shakespeare for the stage.

Being telecast on four successive Friday nights, September 20, 27, October 4 and 11 2013 at 9:00 pm EST (check local listings for broadcast times and dates in your area) each of the four manages the nearly impossible task of bringing the plays to life as films while still remaining true to the spirit of their original theatricality. Of the four, Henry V, is probably the most well known while both Richard II and Henry IV Part 2 are considered two of Shakespeare's more difficult plays. In fact, the former is so rarely performed even on stage I've only ever heard of it being produced once during my lifetime.
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Of course the key to success in any performance of Shakespeare is the cast, and the directors of this series seemed to have suffered from an embarrassment of riches when it came to the actors at their disposal. When even the supporting and minor roles are played by actors recognizable to most of the viewing audience, people who under other circumstances find themselves in lead roles, you know the cast is talented. The standard for all others to try and match is set right from the start by Ben Whishaw as Richard II. His performance as the doomed king is incredible to watch. What does with his voice, the emotional range, the changes in pitch conveying anything from anger to fear within the same phrase, and his control has to be heard and seen to be believed.

As the man who deposes him Rory Kinnear as Bolingbrook, Duke of Lancaster and the future Henry IV, does his best to match Whishaw, but in reality doesn't have as much to work with. His character is ruled by circumstances and he finds himself caught up in the sweep of events. He does a fine job of depicting a man who all of a sudden finds himself out of his depth and struggling to find his feet. You really have the feeling it was never his intent to usurp Richard, but things just spiral out of his control until it's too late.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare gives hints about what will happen during Henry IV's reign. Various characters say things like the land will be steeped in blood or those who helped you to the throne won't be satisfied with what they receive in return. While you might think these are simply the reactions of soar losers trying to unnerve the new king, you'd be wise to heed their words.

Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 are in equal parts about the latter years of Henry IV's reign and the coming of age of his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddlestion). In Part 1 young Hal is a wastrel and the bane of his father's existence. He spends the majority of his time avoiding any and all responsibility and in the company of the thief, braggart and drunk Sir.John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale). The king (Jeremy Irons) is so disappointed in his son, when he hears of the exploits of the son of the Duke of Northumberland - also named Hal but usually referred to as Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) he actually asks God why he gave him the wrong Hal as son.
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However, we discover the reasons for Prince Hal's desolate lifestyle, he's running from the crown. Not because he doesn't care, but because he can see what wearing the crown has done to his father. How the cares and woes of kingship have sickened him and sucked all the joy from his life. Before this happens to Hal he's determined to have some fun, even if its with, and at the expense of, the likes of Falstaff and his nest of crooks and drunkards. Yet when Northumberland and his son Hotspur rise up in revolt, the Prince is quick to return to his father's fold in order to put down the rebellion.

For those who only know Hiddlestion from playing the part of Loki in the movies Thor and The Avengers, you will be in for a big surprise. Not only does he rise to the mark set by Wishaw in terms of his performance, he comes close to surpassing it. He is a central character in both parts of Henry IV and almost singlehandedly has to carry Henry V on his shoulders. He does a magnificent job of portraying the young man desperately looking to cram a lifetime's worth of living into the few years he has before he must assume the burden of the crown, and the ensuing transition from irresponsible wastrel to dedicated King.

In recent years Jeremy Irons has indulged himself with characters like the one he plays in The Borgias, coasting by on his voice and mannerisms, but as Henry IV he reminds you why he is one of the best actors of his generation. You can almost see the weight of his personal history sitting heavier and heavier upon his shoulders - "heavy is the head that bears the crown". Irons does a great job of showing this while still managing to give us hints as to his character's former greatness. The final scenes of Henry IV Part 2 between Irons and Hiddlestion, where the two characters finally come to terms with each other as the prince tells his father of his hatred for the crown having seen what wearing it has done to the king, are simply spellbinding. I could sit and watch those scenes over and over again they are so beautifully acted.

In comparison to the three previous plays Henry V is relatively straightforward, and someways simplistic. In those days England still ruled parts of France. The French, knowing his reputation as the Prince, see Hal's ascension to the throne as the ideal time to try and win back their lands. Rising to the challenge Henry raises an army and departs for France and although severely outnumbered manages to defeat them at Agincourt.
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Hiddlestion's performance again is exemplary as he lets us see the nervousness he feels at the enormity of the gamble he's taking in heading off to war as a newly crowned king that lies beneath his determination to defeat France. England's claim to the disputed territories in France was tenuous at best, and there was no reason save pride for seeking to hold onto them. However, with his country only recently recovered from the divisive rebellions which marked his father's reign Henry V must have felt he needed to prove he was a strong king in order to quell the potential of further unrest.

Throughout the four parts of The Hollow Crown the directors and cinematographers have taken full advantage of their medium to bring the plays to life. They use the camera's ability to capture both wide vistas and intimate close ups to help tell the story and create atmospheres appropriate to a scene. When Richard II returns from his wars in Ireland to be informed the entire country has risen in revolt against him, he is greeted on a desolate stretch of beach by a few aides. Seeing the king against the wide open vista with hardly anyone around him stresses how alone he is in the world. Conversely, in Henry V, when Henry gives his "Once more into the breech good friends" speech, normally staged as some great rallying cry to the troops, he is seen huddled with a few soldiers under the walls of the French castle they are besieging. You can actually feel him willing his men to overcome their fears and find what's necessary to throw themselves back into battle.

Adapting any play to the screen is always a difficult task, and the works of Shakespeare are especially difficult. Too often people either fail to take advantage of the potential the camera has for telling the tale or neglect to find a cast who can properly handle the demands of the text. In the mini series The Hollow Crown not only have they achieved the required balance between performance and media for one play, they have done so over the course of four plays. With top notch performances from every cast member, whether they have two lines or hundreds, and wonderful production values, I have no hesitation in saying these are the best filmed versions of Shakespeare I've ever seen.

(The Hollow Crown will be shown on your local PBS station on consecutive Fridays starting with Richard II on September 20 2013, Henry IV Part 1 September 27 2013, Henry IV Part 2 October 4 2013 and Henry V October 11 2013 starting at 9:00 pm EST - check your local listings for times and dates in your area)

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Television Review: The Hollow Crown)

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.
Warren Clarke & Colin Buchanan - Dalziel & Pascoe .jpg
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)

August 27, 2013

DVD Review: Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition


I remember reading someone describing San Francisco as being a country separate from the rest of the United States. However, not only is it different from the rest of the country, its even quite different from the rest of the State of California. How else could you explain the city home to The Grateful Dead, Grace Slick and City Lights Book Store being part of a system which elected both Ronald Regan and Arnold Shwarzenegger as Governor? To the rest of the country the city has always represented freedom or licentiousness personified depending on your perspective. It was here flower power and drugs bloomed the strongest in the 1960s and the sexual revolution flourished most during the early years of the 1970s.

While outsiders might have had their own ideas of what went on in the city by Pacific Ocean, it took an insider to tell the story of the people and the places where it all happened.Armistead Maupin wrote with honesty and objectivity about an era now coloured by the spectre of AIDS and managed to capture both the innocence and sadness of the times. His books were love stories, comedies and historical records of a time of excitement and exploration which will probably never come again. In 1993 the first of these books was made into a television mini-series. Now, twenty years later, the series is being honoured with the release of a newly packaged and remastered special edition, Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition, by Acorn Media.

As you may have figured out the story takes place in the mid 70s when the sexual revolution was peaking with gay rights. Literally fresh off the bus from Cleveland Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) is both shocked and thrilled by what she sees around her. While she's nowhere near ready for the club scene and the rotating partners that goes with it, she loves the freedom and opportunities the city has to offer. Her entrance into life in San Francisco is eased along when she responds to an add for an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane. With landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) playing den mother to its collection of tenants, Barbary Lane and its inhabitants quickly becomes the focal point of the story.
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Via Mary Jane we meet the very liberated Mona Ramsey, (Chloe Webb) her gay sometime room mate Michael "Mouse" Toliver (Marcus D'Amico) and the happily straight Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross). It's through Mona, Mary Jane lands her first job in the city, secretary to the head of the advertising firm her neighbour works for, Edgar Halcyon. (Donald Moffat)

With Barbary Lane as the nexus for the story we travel all over the city and the surrounding areas, meeting people from all social backgrounds. We watch the central characters' struggles with life and love as they look for just the right person to share their lives with. What makes the show so special is the wonderful depth to each character. From country club going Halcyon to seemingly carefree bachelor Hawkins, there is more to each of them than we first realize. While books are known for the way in which they allow characters to develop, it's rare to see the same thing in a television series. Normally a show like this would be more caught up in what the people do than in who they are. Thankfully, that's not the case here.

The script carefully takes us through each characters' experiences and uses them to give us a more complete picture of who they are. Even better is how each of the actors allows themselves to be guided by the script. As a result watching the people on screen is like getting to know people in real life. The more time we spend with them, the more we come to understand and appreciate them, just like we would with anyone else new in our lives. It's in this way we gradually see the nice man hiding behind the swinger in Brian Hawkins as he shows unexpected compassion and empathy towards the various women he encounters in bars and bed.

We also learn how vulnerable and insecure both Mouse and Mona really are. Webb does a wonderful job of showing the cracks in her character's veneer of coolness and the sense of loss she seems to be carrying with her. D'Amico does a great job of portraying the looking for love in all the wrong places Mouse. Unlike many of the gay men he meets, he's not interested in one night stands, but is looking for his one true love. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to be having much luck as his partners keep turning out to be inappropriate or far less interested in commitment than he is.
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Of course at the centre of everything are Dukakis and Linney. While Singleton's brittle innocence is a bit trying at times, Linney does a remarkable job of showing her character's gradual willingness to be more open and accepting. She gradually learns to set aside her Cleveland morality and learn the value of loyalty and friendship, no matter how odd those friends might be. As for Dukakis, she looks like she was born to play Anna Madrigal. On the surface outrageous and eccentric - she gifts each new tenant with a carefully rolled joint made with the pot she grows in her garden - she has a secret buried beneath her poetry quoting exterior and a sentimental streak as a wide as any of the youngsters in her charge.

Watching her gradually developing relationship with Halcyon is a thing of beauty. Both Dukakis and Moffat do a wonderful job of showing how love isn't only for young people. While he gradually reveals the man who has hidden behind propriety and suits all his life, she lets us see the tender heart beating beneath Madrigal's eccentricity. These two old pros steal the show away from the youngsters without even trying, and their scenes together are some of the best in the series.

With the show having been originally aired in 1993 even digital remastering isn't able to compensate for any of the original deficiencies in sound and audio. Still, all things considered, the quality is more than adequate for watching on a home theatre system if you remember to set your system for stereo transmission instead of surround sound. While the special features on the disc are limited to video of rehearsal and a couple of behind the scenes shots, the booklet included in the DVD package provides a great deal of information about the series and the book its based on.

Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition is a wonderful reminder of just how great character driven television can be when performed and scripted well. Its also a beautiful trip back in time. While the show makes no secret of how many people during the 1970s were more concerned with self-gratification than anything else, we also see how there was also a level of innocence sadly lacking today. It was a time of exploration and self-discovery as well and never has this strange dichotomy been captured on film quite as well as is done here. This is one of those rare times when the adaptation does a book proud. It not only captures the action of the original but the spirit as well.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition)

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

May 7, 2013

DVD Review: Cloudstreet


What do Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and the late Heath Ledger have in common? Their all part of the seemingly endless supply of talented actors who were born and started their careers in Australia. For such a small and seemingly isolated part of the world they have a remarkably thriving film and television industry. It hasn't hurt to have their neighbour New Zealand being home to some of the biggest film productions of the past decade. But Australia was doing well enough on its own prior to Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Still, all we in North America usually see are Australia's exports at work in productions over here. The opportunities to see any of the movies or television series made for local consumption are slim. Thankfully Acorn Media has expanded beyond packaging programming only from Great Britain. Recent years have seen some of the better programming from Canadian television show up in their catalogues, and now we're beginning to see shows from Australia. Cloudstreet, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by best selling Australian author Tim Winton was released in the fall of 2012 on DVD in a three disc package. The first two discs contained all six episodes of the original television series while the third is special features.
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The story follows the fortunes of two families, the Pickles and the Lambs, over the course of more then a decade. Both families have been plagued by bad luck and poor decisions which at the beginning of the series find them in desperate straights. Things start to look a little better for the Pickles when husband Sam (Stephen Curry inherits a house and some money from his older brother. Number One Cloudstreet has been empty for a while and has its own history of misfortune which we discover over the course of the series, but initially it looks to be an upturn in the Pickles' family fortunes. However when Sam loses the money betting on horses the family is left in almost as dire straights as before they took over the house.

In an effort to help cover their expenses Sam decides to rent out half the house. The Lambs have been having their own run of bad luck. Their middle boy, Fish, had almost drowned, and although they managed to bring him back from the dead, the experience left him brain damaged. Unable to make a go of it farming because of drought they find themselves homeless and living out of their car until they answer the Pickles' advertisement for tenants. To the astonishment of their landlords the Lambs decide to operate a grocery/general store out of their half of the house as a way of making ends meet and turn their half of the grounds into a small farm.

The first two episodes are primarily spent introducing us to the characters who will dominate the rest of the series. Oriel (Kerry Fox and Lester Lamb (Geoff Morrell and their six children make for a crowded and noisy house when combined with Sam and Dolly Pickles (Essie Davis and their three children. Aside from the friction created by so many people living in one large ramshackle house, the Lamb's protestant work ethic lifestyle doesn't blend well with the Pickles more relaxed attitudes towards work. While Sam manages to land a job working at the Royal Mint, Dolly prefers to spend her days sleeping and her nights drinking and carousing in bars. A house full of people who rise at the crack of dawn doesn't mix well with her lifestyle.

Aside from the two families, there's another character who makes its presence felt, the house itself. While its been empty for a while, at one point it was some sort of boarding school for young Aboriginal girls. The comment you hear from the lawyer who gives Sam the deed to the place is, the previous owner had tried to "civilize" them, but it hadn't worked out. There's some dirty secret hidden in the walls of the house, and one room in particular seems to be particularly haunted. It sits empty on the top floor of the house its only occupant an old upright piano left over from the attempts at "civilizing" and what appears to be the ghosts of two young girls who lived there. For something drives Fish Lamb to bang at the piano and moan and cry as if he's feeling the pain the room remembers.
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This rather fantastic device of the house being a living breathing thing is reflected in the cinematography of the show. At times the camera operates so we see the scene as if we were a specific character as the angle the camera shoots at reflects his or her perspective. Or there is one scene in which the child Fish and his older brother Quick are travelling in a row boat at night. Seeing the stars reflected in the water Fish pictures them travelling through the night sky and then the boat is floating among the stars. It's a beautiful, almost surreal scene.

It's these elements, and the special effects used to animate the house on occasion to help reflect the emotional depth of the action on screen, which help prevent the story from becoming an exercise in sentimentality. Far too many of these type of programs, where we follow the fortunes of a family, or in this case two families, end up being soap operas which become tedious to watch after one or two episodes. In this case the combination of filming techniques and special effects with superlative performances from every member of the cast and a gritty story ensures it never cross the line over into the mawkishness of a soap opera.

As mentioned earlier the third disc in the set is a collection of bonus materials connected to the television show. While the special features range from what went into the show's making to a copy of the preview used on television to promote the series and are interesting enough, they still only serve to compliment what's on the rest of the discs in the package. As far as this type of short termed series goes, this is one of the best I've ever seen. If you are able to have the opportunity of buying a copy of the DVD set or seeing Cloudstreet in any manner, jump at the chance, you won't regret it.

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

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)



January 30, 2013

DVD Review: Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series


Organizing something as complex and involved as an Olympic Games is a task almost beyond comprehension. Not only do the organizers have to be able to provide venues for all the different sports and accommodate the thousands of athletes and associated individuals who will be participating in the games, they have to also consider the impact of hosting the even larger number of people who will be coming to watch the games. As if this wasn't hard enough, it all has to be done while ensuring they have minimal impact on the daily life of the city hosting the games. On top of all everything there are also the security concerns that are a fact of life in the modern era.

Everything from catering to traffic considerations must be taken care of. The country chosen to host an Olympic Games, especially the hugely popular Summer Olympics, must dedicate its best and brightest minds to the organizational responsibilities. Only those with the ability to cope with the multitude of details needing careful attention in a calm and rational manner will be able to rise to the occasion. At least that's the impression one has when one looks at the sheer size of the job involved in bringing an Olympic Games off successfully.

Is it possible for Games to succeed in spite of those organizing them? No matter how incompetent and ineffectual the collection of civil servants and outside consultants who have been assigned the task of coordinating the millions of details are, can the Olympics come off anyway? Available on DVD through BBC America this premise is fully explored in Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series. Originally aired in England during the two years leading up to London's hosting of the 2012 Summer Olympics this biting satire goes behind the scenes at the (hopefully) fictional offices of the ineffectual team in charge of "Deliverance".
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Charged with such tasks as ensuring the traffic lights will work in favour of athletes travelling from one venue to the other, what to do with the various venues after the games have ended, co-ordinating various coincidental cultural events and making certain the opening ceremonies' fireworks don't trigger surface to air missiles, the men and women of the Deliverance team prove how even the ineffectual and incompetent can occasionally do things right. Even if only by accident.

In spite of the serious tone adopted by the narrator of the documentary, we realize early on this is going to be an examination of the ridiculous in action. We're whisked right into the thick of things with quick introductions to the key players as they arrive for their Monday morning planning session. Doing his best to keep this bizarre ship and crew on course is Head of Deliverance Ian Fletcher. Played with beautiful low key understatement by Hugh Bonneville, Fletcher is the epitome of the earnest civil servant trying to come to grips with a job he might be capable of doing if only he had competent help. Unfortunately it soon becomes apparent his people aren't really sure what they're doing.

They're fantastic at coming up with explanations for why things have gone wrong, or why something hasn't worked out quite as expected, but actually getting things done on schedule and correctly is more a matter of luck than skill. The most commonly heard answer to "Can that be ready for Friday?" is "Oh certainly" (pause) "Do you mean this Friday?". Even the rather simple task of escorting a visiting delegation from Brazil - Rio De Janeiro is hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics - on a tour of the Olympic Stadium is fraught with difficulties. In a kind of metaphor for Fletcher's team's chances of success, the bus driver hired to ferry them all to the stadium gets hopelessly lost and they end up driving aimlessly through the streets of London before finally reaching their desired destination.
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While the majority of Deliverance team are career civil servants - the last couple of episodes see them all more concerned with what they're going to be moving onto next rather than making sure their jobs are completed satisfactorily - they have turned to an outside professional to help with promotional events. Head of Brand Siobhan Sharpe, played with perfect borderline psychosis by the hilarious Jessica Hynes, is responsible for communicating the big picture vis a vis little pictures to the general public. Or something like that anyway. As Sharpe seems incapable of speaking in anything other than partial cliches or meaningless catch phrases, we're never quite sure either what she is talking about or her actual function.

It might be something to do with publicity. She does have a team of so called creative people at her disposal from the public relations firm Perfect Curve. However they all do such a grand job of giving new meaning to word vague we're never quite sure if they know what they're doing. For the grand kick off marking the two year countdown until the opening ceremonies Sharpe commissions a conceptual artist to create a commemorative piece of art. He comes up with a functional wide up clock that runs backwards from the date of the opening ceremonies. Therefore, on the date the Olympics are scheduled to open the clock will read a date and time two years in the past. Forced to try and improvise an explanation for the press as to its significance Fletcher is left gasping out words about marking the journey they've all undertaken and similar nonsense.

There are times when watching the series you want to reach into your television and grab people by the throat and shake them. Or simply throttle them they are so annoying. On other occasions you're left stunned by the depth of their ineptitude and wonder how on earth they could have been entrusted with anything as important as organizing something as major as an Olympic Games. However, it gradually dawns on you over the course of the series, they really aren't actually responsible for anything too important. As we hear reports on what other committees are working on we realize our team is responsible for doing necessary drudge work nobody else can be bothered with.

While the included special features are limited to interviews with the primary cast and crew, it's fun to watch the cast talking about their characters and what went into creating the series. Without skillful actors, an intelligent script and tight direction this sort of show could easily have descended into something idiotic and not very funny. Thankfully by having everybody play their roles completely straight, letting the circumstances and their characters create the comedy, the humour is never forced or dumb. After all, these are serious people doing a serious job who take themselves and what they do very seriously - even if nobody else does. If you like satire and enjoy laughing at hapless civil servants than you'll love Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Twenty Twelve: The Complete Series on Blogcritics)

December 12, 2012

Television Review: The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour


Every year around this time there always seems to be something new being released associated with The Beatles. Those of you not old enough to have been alive when the group was still together must wonder what the hell is so special about a group who have been disbanded for over forty years. To be honest with even for those of us who were around it's easy to forget what made them special and distinguished them from the rest of the pack of pop bands. I don't listen to them very often anymore, in fact I don't even think I own a single one of their records, so I don't have many opportunities to be reminded of what the magic was all about.

However, when ever I do go back and dip into their catalogue, especially the stuff recorded from 1966 onwards, I'm struck once again by not only their inventiveness, but the musicianship and artistry that went into their work. By 1967 they had stopped touring and really didn't have anything to prove to anyone anymore. They were ruling the international pop charts and looking for new worlds to conquer. Although they all briefly experimented with Transcendental Meditation, with the exception of George Harrison, their hearts were never really into it. They were too curious, too interested in doing things and experimenting with their art to simply sit around and naval gaze all day. It was out of that insatiable urge to explore that was born one of their most controversial projects, the one hour movie The Magical Mystery Tour.

Originally aired on British television as a Boxing Day special (December 27) in 1967 it shocked people who were used to the four cute/mad cap guys featured in their previous movies A Hard Day's Night and Help. Instead what they got was an apparently haphazard collection of seemingly unconnected scenes concerning what happens to a group of people taking a bus tour together. After this one appearance on television the movie pretty much disappeared from view. Occasionally grainy prints of the film would show up, but the quality was so poor as to be almost unwatchable. Now, all these years later, its finally being restored and North American television audiences are going to be treated to their first opportunity to see it in their homes.
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Thanks to the good people at the Public Broadcasting Systems' (PBS) show Great Performances Friday December 14 2012 will not only see the broadcast of Magical Mystery Tour at 10:00 pm, directly preceding the movie viewers will also have the chance to see the documentary Magical Mystery Tour Revisited. Airing at 9:00 pm it will you in on the back story behind the film. (Please check local listings for dates and times) If you miss this airing of the film, don't worry, because this new remastered version is also being made available for sale in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo package with special features that seem to include most of the documentary as well.

I had previously tried to watch one of the aforementioned crappy versions of the film, so was very interested in seeing what it would be like with good quality sound and clean visuals. One of the problems for a North American audience will be we're not familiar with the concept of the "Coach Trip" - climbing onto a bus with a group of strangers and touring around for the day looking at sites. However in England, especially in the 1950s and the 1960s, this was a very common outing especially among working and middle class families like those the members of The Beatles grew up in. One of the observations made in the documentary is how much of the imagery used in the film would have been taken from the Beatles' childhoods and how much of it would have been very familiar to other English people at the time.

Village fairs and church socials would have featured things like sack races, tugs of war and races while novelty acts like midget wrestlers were common at side shows. The Beatles might not have been part of that world by the time they made the movie, but it was the world they grew up in and obviously had some fond memories of. However, they also understood the rather limited world view it represented and deliberately created a rather cartoonish version of it for their movie. However, there was nothing cruel about the depiction, it was more along the lines of gentle teasing that showed while they remembered these type of events they had long since out grown them.

If The Magical Mystery Tour was about anything it was about the joy of doing something just for the sake of doing it. The Beatles decided they wanted to make a movie and this was the result. They played with camera effects, different filters and various lenses to create distortion and multiple exposures. They took stock pieces from British Musical Hall and turned them on their head. The grand finale to the movie with them singing and dancing to "Your Mother Should Know" while dressed in white tail coats. (Notice while the other three have red roses in their button holes, Paul McCartney's is black - which was probably used to fuel the "Paul is dead rumours" that began circulating soon after) That none of them could really dance, made the sequence all the funnier. They manage to make it down the grand flight of stairs relatively in step, but once they hit level ground John Lennon and Ringo Starr especially seem to have a hard time walking and moving their arms at the same time.

As the interviews in The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited make clear, the movie wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It was done for the fun of doing it and to experiment with doing new things. Even the songs included in the movie itself, "I'm The Walrus", "Fool On The Hill", "Blue Jay Way", "Your Mother Should Know" and the title song "Magical Mystery Tour" were not standard Beatles fare. While Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released and had shown them starting to experiment with studio effects, these songs were just that much more out there. Ranging from the archaic to the psychedelic they all would have come as a surprise to those used to the nice safe pop songs of their early years.
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While people like Martin Scorsese and Peter Fonda weigh in on the significance of the film in the documentary, as well as some of those who were actually in the film, the most interesting bits in it are the commentary provided by McCartney and Starr. From Starr we learn that the movie was McCartney's idea. As the only unmarried member of the band at the time McCartney spent a lot of time checking out the avant-garde theatre and film scene in London. He also had picked up some rather basic film cameras and had begun playing with them and creating short films. So he came up with concept for the film and then assigned each of the others various scenes to write. However he was also fascinated with the idea of improvisation and decided things should be kept free and easy and allowed cast and crew to create spontaneously in front of the camera.

While the psychedelic era was also known for drug use, and there have been all sorts of rumours circulating about LSD and the Beatles, the subject of drugs and the film is almost completely avoided. The one brief reference to drugs is made by Starr when he's talking about experimenting with the different lenses used for filming the sequence of Harrison performing "Blue Jay Way". He says, in almost an aside something along the lines of various "medicines" available at the time made the effects even more fun to watch.

If you tune in to watch The Magical Mystery Tour on your local PBS station later this week don't be expecting to see a highly polished film. However, if you let yourself go along for the ride, you'll find yourself having a good time. You'll also come away with a new appreciation for both The Beatles sense of the absurd and their willingness to experiment. They had to have known the movie was never going to be popular and was bound to shock a number of people, but that didn't stop them. Can you picture any other band at the peak of their popularity taking this kind of risk?

To our eyes it will seem rather tame and the effects rather primitive, but for the time it must have been rather shocking to a mainstream audience. When it aired on Boxing Day in 1967 it followed a nice safe Petula Clark Christmas special. Imagine the family gathered around their television set the day after Christmas and being presented with The Magical Mystery Tour - even today I can think of any number of people who wouldn't consider it appropriate fare for the holidays. If you've never seen it before, or are like me and only seen a crap copy of it, this impeccably restored version will be a treat. Meet The Beatles all over again and remember what it was that made them so special.

(Article first published as Television Review: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour 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.)

October 1, 2012

DVD Review: Special Branch: Set 1


There was a line in the recent movie Paul which reminded me how wide the cultural gap is between Great Britain and the United States. Two British tourists are talking to an American State Trooper who when being informed they are from London England says,"I've heard of that. Isn't that the place cops don't have guns?" When the tourists answer in the affirmative the cop then asks "What do they do when they want to shoot someone?" and is left speechless when told they try not to. So, if there's going to one thing about British television police shows that will always make them alien to American viewers it will be the almost complete absence of casual gun play.

Times have changed in England and its probably more common for officers to carry weapons then it once was. One of the latest releases from Acorn Media, Special Branch: Set 1, is not only set in the 1970s but was filmed then as well. Those were the days of the unarmed British Bobby walking the beat and even the officers of the British Police force's domestic counter intelligence agency, Special Branch, didn't carry weapons as a matter of course. If they needed them they were available, and they were all trained in their usage, however they could go an entire fifty minute episode without once either drawing a gun or one even showing up in the course of the proceedings. Can you imagine an American show about FBI agents where guns aren't used in an episode?
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It's ironic therefore to find out in the special feature included in this four disc set, interviews with the two lead actors in the series, George Sewell (Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Craven) and Patrick Mower (DCI Tom Haggerty), it's revealed this series was shot in the hopes of selling it to the American market. Unlike most British television shows at the time it was shot on film instead of video and on location instead of in the studio in order to make it more appealing to American viewers. Unfortunately the producers were told it wasn't violent enough for the American market and it was never picked up..

One of the big differences you'll notice between this show and its American counterparts are the two lead characters. DCI Craven grew up in the rough East Side of London and freely admits to having seen the inside of many a police station when he was young. However a stint in the army straightened him up and having served in Military Intelligence on return to civilian life a job with Special Branch was a natural fit. When the show opens he's already a fifteen year veteran of the force. While DCI Haggerty is no less rough around the edges, he's also young and brash and a recent transfer to the department. While he fancies himself a bit of a lady's man and gets under Craven's skin periodically with his occasional relaxed attitude towards regulations, he's as dedicated an officer as Craven.

While both characters have the kind of tough attitude that was often common in police shows during the 1970s, think Starsky & Hutch, they hardly ever go rushing into a room with guns blazing or get into knock down drag out fights. In fact a great deal of their work is spent sifting through evidence, trailing suspects or keeping people under surveillance. Even when they confront a suspect or arrest someone they very rarely employ physical violence. That's not to say they won't rough somebody up on occasion. However, those times are few and far between and usually only because something has happened to make the case personal for the officer. One episode see's Haggerty's father fall victim to a mugger who is preying on elderly people who have just arrived in town by train. Needless to say when they finally track down the assailant he doesn't use kid gloves on him.

There are two other major differences between this show and its American counterparts from the same time period. The first major difference is there are times the episodes end inconclusively, without the matter under investigation being resolved. In one episode they pull a man in for questioning who had been arrested and served time for blackmail. First they want to know why he has a loaded unregistered pistol and a fake passport secreted in his apartment. However Craven is really trying to find out how the man obtained the information which allowed him to blackmail his victim five years ago. But the episode ends inconclusively when the suspect first attempts suicide and then escapes from his hospital bed. While this might confirm he has something to hide, Craven still isn't any closer to finding out the information he's after.
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The other way in which this show differs is the risks it takes with its subject matter. I doubt the topic of homosexuality would ever even have come up let alone be a factor in an American police show from this period, except maybe for bad jokes. Here the subject is raised when a high ranking civil servant has to report secret documents missing and has to cover up they were stolen from him by "gay bashers" pretending to be male prostitutes. Craven and Haggerty have to cross examine the man on a number of occasions to finally get the truth from him. While they are angry with him for misleading their investigation by not being honest in the first place they are remarkably nonjudgemental about everything else. He's still after all a victim and on top of that his career has just been ended in scandal.

This isn't the only time the show takes risks with its content. The number of mix raced couples on television in the early 1970s were few and far between as I remember, but Craven's girlfriend for the majority of the first year is of Jamaican descent. As a nurse her life is almost as hectic as his and there is a certain amount of friction between the two of them because of the demands their jobs place on them. However there's only the occasional reference made to the race issue. During one episode Craven asks her to move in with him and she wonders what his bosses would have to say about him living with a person of colour, but most of the time nothing is made of it at all.

Obviously the show is somewhat dated, there's not a computer to be seen anywhere and the rest of the technology at their disposal is equally quaint to our eyes. However that means they are still reliant on good old fashioned police work to find their answers and we get to watch them out on the streets of London chasing down leads. Although they were using the latest in cameras and sound equipment to film these shows, you'll notice some flaws in both the visuals and the sound. While the job of transferring it from tape to DVD is probably as good possible that doesn't prevent the occasional line appearing on the screen indicative of the age of the original print. However, none of these flaws are going to detract from the pleasure you'll take in watching the episodes from the show's first season.

Special Branch: Set 1 is both an interesting artefact of television from a bygone era and fun to watch. While the episodes are probably more action oriented than we're used to from police shows produced by British television, they still take enough time to allow plots to unfold naturally and for characters to be properly developed. They also change up the way in which the story is told from time to time, so we're not always following the police around. Sometimes the focus is on the subjects they have under observation and the story unfolds by following them with occasional interjections by the officers of Special Branch. All in all this is a lot of fun to watch and well worth picking up.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Special Branch: Set 1 on Blogcritics.)

September 25, 2012

DVD Review: The Crimson Petal and the White


London, England in the nineteenth century was a city of contrasts. In the well to do areas the world looked to be a beautiful place with wide tree lined avenues for people to stroll along. Yet travel only a few miles across town and you'd find slums crammed full of people and streets so filthy and dingy you'd wonder how anything could live. Instead of wide open spaces full of light and air, the tenements crowding the streets blocked out the sky and human and animal waste were piled in the streets. Here living was a desperate struggle for survival as men and women fought for whatever scraps of food and money they could lay their hands on.

For a young woman the easiest way to make a living was to sell her body. For the affluent men of the time, the seedy side of Victorian life was an adventure. A place where they could throw off the constraints society forced upon them and pretend to be free. There were even books published for the discerning gentleman informing them of places and people of interest. This is the world we are drawn into in The Crimson Petal and the White being released on DVD September 25 2012 by Acorn Media Group.

We are introduced to the two worlds and their point of intersection by the lead characters in the mini series; Sugar, (Romola Garai) a much sought after prostitute and William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd) the upper middle class son of a soap manufacturer who thinks of himself as a poet. When Rackham is cut off by his father for refusing to work in the family business he seeks solace in the arms of Sugar. Her name is much bandied about by men of his acquaintance and she even has her own listing in one of those above mentioned books for discerning gentlemen..
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Rackham quickly becomes obsessed with Sugar and she, seeing him as a potential way out of her life as a prostitute, encourages his interest. He uses her as a means to escape his reality of impending poverty and a wife (Amanda Hale) Agnes Rackham, who suffers from a type of mental illness. In order for him to be of use to her Sugar first must find a way to save Rackham from himself. Through a combination of flattery and encouragement she manages to convince him that he won't be untrue to his "poetic" temperament by working for his father. Soon, not only has he won himself back into his father's good graces, but he's become instrumental in breathing fresh life into the family business. Of course his father would probably be shocked and appalled if he were to find out the majority of the his ideas - including the complete redesign of the company's catalogue - are the work of a prostitute.

With Sugar becoming indispensable, Rackham first establishes her as his mistress in her own apartment by purchasing her from her madame, Mrs Castaway (Gillian Anderson) and eventually moves her into his house to become his daughter's governess. As his mistress Sugar is living the life she always dreamed of, out of the slums and in her own apartment in a lovely part of the city. However, when she's moved into his house as governess, she's all of a sudden reduced in status again to someone of little importance. For not only must she know her place as a servant, Rackham starts to take her for granted, forgetting how much she'd been responsible for his prosperity. She also see first hand that he will never leave his wife for her, no matter how ill she becomes or how much Sugar does for him.

While a bare bones plot outline might make the story sound like some sort of Dickens era soap opera its far more sophisticated and intelligent than not only any soap opera you've seen, but the majority of what you'll see on television these days. From the technical side of the production through the script to the acting, this mini series is special. The first thing you'll notice is the almost surreal way the seamy side of London is depicted. We walk through streets that are universally grey and claustrophobic. Everywhere the camera looks we see people in various states of desperation. The narrow and dirty streets crammed with dirty tenements are filled with beggars, prostitutes, drunks and those who just seem like they've nowhere else to go.

Sugar is the only flash of colour in this dingy prison and as we see the world through her eyes we begin to understand her desperation to escape. The first time Rackham follows her back to her room at Castaway's brothel, she seems to float in front of him. The camera work creates an almost surreal effect by reducing everything around her to a blurry soft focus and exaggerating both the colours and flow of her costume. Through the camera, Rackham's eyes, we see her as some sort of exotic bird with tail feathers enticing us ever onward. Ignoring the filth around him he sees only the promise Sugar represents. The irony is that while Rackham sees Sugar the prostitute as the means by which he can escape the repressiveness of Victorian society and its middle class values, she sees in him her chance for a life of safe respectability.

While the performances of all those involved in the production are wonderful, Anderson is almost unrecognizable as Sugar's Madam Mrs.Castaway, O'Dowd as Rackham, Garai as Sugar and Hale as Mrs. Rackham are superlative. O'Dowd, probably best known to most as the policeman boy friend in the movie Bridesmaids, is a revelation in a serious role. He somehow manages to convey his need for what Sugar has to offer him while simultaneously being sincere in his expressions of love for his wife. For Sugar, who has pinned all her hopes on him rescuing her from a life of poverty, finding out the depth of his affection for his wife is quite the blow to her ambitions. However, she also finds herself thrust into the role of Mrs. Rackham's protector and does her best to help her.
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Lest you get the impression Sugar is the cliched "hooker with the heart of gold", it only takes remembering how carefully Garai's character orchestrated everything to make herself indispensable to Rackham. However, we do see that while she doesn't have much respect for her clients, in fact she dreams of taking murderous revenge on most of them, including Rackham, we also see her compassion for those who she sees as being mistreated by the world. In her relationship with Mrs. Rackham, Garai does a remarkable job of being completely sincere in her feelings of pity for the other woman, while a part of her obviously would prefer if she were to just vanish. There is a blade of steel inside of her from having lived in the survival of the fittest streets of London, and while she may be sympathetic to others, we have the feeling that she's not going to let anybody get in her way of her dream of a new life.

Of course she also recognizes the feelings of being caged that Mrs. Rackham suffers from as being identical to how she felt about her old life. However, as Hale so magnificently shows, Mrs. Rackham's prison is caused by the pressures and expectations of society on her to behave in a certain manner. Hale manages to walk the line between overacting and playing somebody suffering from delusions and extreme nervousness wonderfully. It would have been easy to play this type of character as a single note, in a constant state of hysteria. However she makes her a far more believable character by showing us glimpses of the person she had been before she became afflicted by her illness. This is important because if we didn't see anything redeemable in her, Rackham's love for her wouldn't have been believable.

In the bonus features that are included on the second of the two discs in this package, we hear from both the actors and the technical people about how they approached their job on this shoot. While nobody goes into tremendous detail, the production designers and cinematographer do explain the techniques they used and the effects they were trying to achieve. In their interviews both Garai and O'Dowd explain the approaches they took to try and humanize their characters. I would have liked to hear more of how O'Dowd, whose background is mainly comedy, might have changed his approach for this role from what he's done in the past, but he just talked about how he tried to inject some humour into his character.

British television is no stranger to costume dramas set in the Victorian era as there have probably been adaptations for the small screen of every Dickens novel ever written. However, The Crimson Petal and the White is unlike any other show set in this period. It goes deeper into the darkness that lay beneath the surface of the times including the effects sexual and emotional repression had on people. Through a combination of superlative acting, a great script and inventive production techniques these issues are brought to light through telling the story of the relationship between an ambitious prostitute and an upper middle class gentleman. Less a tale of star crossed lovers and more a story of what happens when world's collide and the upheavals that ensue. While its not something to watch with the whole family, it can be quite graphic at times, its definitely not your typical costume drama, which makes it one of the most exciting television programs you'll see in a long time.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Crimson Petal and the White on Blogcritics.)

September 4, 2012

Television Review: Wallander lll


For some reason every time I hear Sweden mentioned I can't help but recall a series of ads that ran in the 1970s. I think they must have been put out by the Canadian government, but they claimed the average sixty year old Swede was in as good as if not better shape than a thirty year old Canadian. I guess the Health Ministry was going through one of their fitness crazes and wanted Canadians to exercise more. How much truth there was in the statement about the sixty year old Swede I still don't know to this day, but for the longest time he, ABBA and hockey players was all Sweden meant to me. Now I can add something else to my wealth of knowledge about this northern Scandinavian country, they've produced at least one brilliant writer of mystery stories.

Starting Sunday September 9 2012 at 9:00 PM and continuing through September 16 and 23 you can see proof of this on your local Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) (check local listings for dates and times of course). For those three weeks will see the airing of the latest adaptation of Henning Mankell's novels as part of the Mystery segment of Masterpiece. Wallander lll sees the return of the troubled Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) as he deal with three murder cases, "An Event in Autumn", "The Dogs of Riga" and "Before the Frost", which are not only brutal but wreck further turmoil on his already fragile emotions.
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If you've read any of Mankell's books or seen either of the previous two series, you'll be familiar with Wallander and what he's witnessed in the past. However, even if you've never seen or read anything that's come before, it won't take you long to see the emotional damage he's suffered in the past. Even the hope generated by his starting a new relationship and moving into a house with his partner and her son isn't enough to prevent him from shutting himself down emotionally when partially decomposed body of a young woman is found on his new property. With one wreck of a marriage behind him, and his relationship with his adult daughter tenuous at best, Wallander had hoped for a new start. However, he feels it can't bode well for anything when it turns out the body was the victim of murder.

Things go from bad to worse when a colleague is brutally injured during the course of the investigation. Not only does he feel responsible for what happened to her, when another young women turns up dead, a friend of the first victim, he feels guilty because she wouldn't be dead if he had been able to catch the killer. Even successfully solving the case does nothing to salvage his new relationship. His partner can't understand why he takes everything so personally nor why he can't leave his work at work. He may hate what he sees and the job might cause irreparable damage to his psyche, but his emotional commitment to the job is what makes him such a good cop.

However we have to wonder in watching the ensuing episodes how he'll ever survive without having a breakdown. The episode airing on September 16 2012, "The Dogs of Riga", sees him travelling to the capital of Latvia, Riga, investigating a drug smuggling operation. The bodies of two men bearing tattoos associated with the Russian criminal world are found in an inflatable dinghy adrift in the Baltic Sea separating Latvia and Sweden. Not only did the two men bear the signs of having been tortured to death the raft was stuffed with drugs.

Travelling to Riga Wallander finds himself being pulled into the murky world of corruption which seems to have sprung up all over the former Soviet Union. In Latvia he discovers a country split along ethnic lines between native Latvians and Russian nationals who settled there during the communist era. Not able to speak the language and unsure who to trust, his hotel room is bugged (but whether by the criminals or the cops he's not sure) and one cops doesn't hide the fact he used to be in the KGB.
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While that case is bad enough with its corrupt officials and the brutal indifference to life he is witness to, "Before the Frost", the final episode airing on September 23 2012, is the one which has the most potential to break him. An old childhood friend of Wallander's daughter disappears after showing up at his house one night distraught and emotional. Unfortunately it's no coincidence that a series of fires started by an escaped psychiatric patient are happening at the same time. The fires are the tip of the iceberg as both the escapee and the friend of Wallander's daughter are members of a fanatical Christian cult. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying it's enough to make an atheist of you, or at least turn you off organized religion forever.

While the scripts are uniformly excellent and the support cast is formidable in its talent, if you've seen the previous two series you'll notice quite a few new faces among the detectives working with Wallander, the show is ultimately a showcase for the talents of Branagh in the lead role. I've been fortunate enough to have watched him since one of his first television appearances back in the 1980s. While I've never had any doubts about him being one of the finest actors of his generation, his performance as Wallander still leaves me slack jawed in wonder. He seems hopelessly overmatched by the world around him; rumpled, unshaven and constantly under slept and you wonder how he can make it through a day let alone deal with the cases that come his way. Yet every so often we see hints of the iron will and resolve beneath the surface keeping him going. Unlike others though, he doesn't try and pretend or hide the price he pays for being a cop who cares.

He makes an effort to leave the job behind when he's with those who aren't in the police force, but it's obviously an effort. He's awkward in social situations, doesn't know how to make small talk or be inconsequential. When his phone rings to summon him back to the world of murder it almost seems as though its a relief, as if he back on familiar territory again. Yet such is the mastery of Branagh's performance we can see he knows how wrong this is, but he doesn't know how to change. However, he does give us occasional glimpses of how things could be different. There are two moments, one in "Dogs of Riga" and one in "Before the Frost" when we see the potential for uncomplicated happiness which somehow has managed to survive. The smile that literally lights up Wallander's face on both occasions makes you realize he's not given up hope of there being something better, he just doesn't have many opportunities to experience reasons for believing in them.

Wallender lll is tough and gritty and in some ways as desolate as the Irish landscape that stands in for Sweden. While it probably only feels like it, but it seems as if almost the entire show takes place in overcast weather and the prominent colours in the camera's palate are shades of grey and dank blue. These are difficult shows to watch, not only because of the nature of the crimes being investigated, but because of the emotional toll we seen them exact on the lead character. As the title character Branagh gives the type of performance that is the stuff of legend. Other generations had Lawrence Oliver and Alec Guinness, but we have Kenneth Branagh, and this is some of his best work. Don't miss this opportunity to watch genius at work for three brief Sundays in September; September 9, 16 and 23 at 9:00 PM on your local PBS station.

(Article first published as Television Review: Wallander lll on Blogcritics.)

August 29, 2012

DVD Review: Above Suspicion: Set 1


There are those who because of their position in society, or through personal arrogance, believe they will always be above suspicion. These are the types of people who think they can get away with murder and usually attempt to do so. Haven't you ever noticed how many serial killers are the ones nobody ever suspects of being able to commit horrendous crimes? Of course when it comes to those who believe their position in society allows them to do whatever they want, that's a different story, but the results are usually the same thing; people end up dead and the police are left trying to puzzle out who was responsible.

A new police procedural from British television released on DVD by Acorn Media, appropriately called Above Suspicion: Set 1, deals with just these types of crimes. Like most of these shows from Britain there are only two cases in a series, but in this instance each case is three episodes long. Disc one contains the pilot, simply called "Above Suspicion" while disc two's investigation is called "The Red Dahlia". Both cases involve fairly gruesome murders that display both a horrifying disregard for human life and a very deliberate brutality. Both are the types of cases you feel sorry for any police who have to work on them. Not only for what they are exposed to, but when they do catch the person, having to even be in the same room as somebody who could do these types of things.
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That's especially true for the first episode of the series as the lead character is a pretty young officer just starting out on her career, Detective Constable (DC) Anna Travis (Kelly Reilly). Due to illness in his squad she finds herself temporarily assigned to Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Langton's (Ciaran Hinds) murder team. On her first day working with him she's told to meet him at a crime scene where a body of a young women has been found. Unfortunately for her the body has been on location for quite a while and is a maggot strewn mess. Throwing up at a crime scene is not the best way of impressing your new superior officer and neither is feinting during the postmortem autopsy, both of which DC Travis manages to do on her first day.

Thankfully for the young cop her new boss is willing to cut her a very little amount of slack as he used to know her father. However, as she soon finds out, Langton drives his team almost as hard as he drives himself. The corpse they met over is only the latest in a series of women who have been killed in the same manner over the last twelve years. Each of them were found with their arms tied behind their backs and strangled with their own tights. Even worse is it's obvious from the way the tights are tied the killer strangled them while looking into their eyes. The only difference between this most recent murder and the rest is all the previous victims had been prostitutes while this one wasn't.

What is really good about this series is focuses on the nuts and bolts of police work. The hard slog and drudgery the police have go through to find their suspect. However they at least have a few fresh clues now. A closed circuit camera picked up a picture of the newest victim as she was talking with somebody inside a grey Mercedes outside a nightclub. So you see the police tracking down and talking to anybody who could have seen the car and can confirm whether or not the girl got in. Once they confirm she actually drove off in the car - they then have to try and track down the car. They also find other clues which send them off all over the place to interview potential witnesses, including sending Travis to Spain to interview an ex vice squad cop who might have some information that will help the investigation. While this trip has all the appearances of being a wild goose chase it sets them on the track that eventually leads them to the killer.

In the second case, "The Red Dahlia" we again see how it's the nitty gritty of tracking down every single lead that eventually pays off. This time they are dealing with somebody copying a series of murders that took place in Los Angeles in the 1940s and were never solved called the Black Dahlia murders. At first there's only one victim, but the body has been brutalized. Not only did the murderer cut the young woman in half he's drained all of her blood and removed some of her organs. Even more appalling is the fact the postmortem reveals the victim had been tortured and some of the surgery had been done on her while she was alive. Things start to turn really ugly when the murderer starts to send first letters and then tape recordings to a reporter at a newspaper bragging about what he's done and warning the police he's only just getting started.

However. like all who think they are invincible and smarter than anybody else he makes mistakes. Even though they're minor, they're enough to set the police on a trail that eventually lead them to him. Now, the way the show has been scripted lends the program credibility, however it's the acting, especially of the two leads, that makes this series so powerful. As the rookie detective getting her feet wet, Reilly is wonderful. After her less than auspicious first day on the job we watch as she gradually gains confidence. When she goes to interview the witness in Spain she runs into problems as he refuses to speak to her because he's insulted they sent some "little girl" out to talk to him. The way she convinces him to talk leaves you no doubt as to her toughness and ability to think on her feet. Although, probably the thought of returning to face her boss empty handed was enough to motivate her to try nearly anything.
Ciaran Hinds and Kelly Reilly in Above Suspicion.jpg
For Hinds as DCI Langton doesn't have any patience with people who don't do what their supposed to do. While we find out there are instances when his bark in worse than his bite, it still doesn't pay to have him pissed off at you. However Hinds does a magnificent job of showing what's behind the bark; the human who is sickened by the depravity he sees in his work and his need to bring those responsible to justice. Travis finds that out to her chagrin that pissing him off is still not a great idea when she has a brief fling with the reporter who had received the messages from the killer in "The Red Dahlia". While she's asleep he gets up to get a drink and comes across her notes on the case and proceeds to read and copy them. The first she finds out about it is when Langton shows up at her door the next day brandishing the morning's newspaper containing a lead article filled with information the police hadn't released to the press. She only narrowly avoids being suspended from the investigation because she's able to convince a potential witness to talk over the phone when nobody else is able to get her to open up.

It's interesting to watch how the dynamic between the two characters changes over the course of the two cases. At first Langton treats her in as close to a fatherly manner as would be possible for him. However, gradually you can see that changing as he brings her more and more into his inner circle of trusted officers. Not only does he start recognizing her value as an officer, but he starts seeing her as something other than the daughter of a late colleague. The more Travis starts to get know Langton, and begins to realize what fuels his impatience, the more she begins to appreciate him as both an officer she can learn from and as a human being. It will be very interesting to see how this relationship is developed in future episodes of the series.(Of which one has already been televised in England and another is being filmed so hopefully we will be seeing them on DVD within a year or so)

Special features on the disc include an interview with Lynda La Plante who both wrote the books the show was based on and the screenplays for the show. As she's also the person who created Prime Suspect, the TV show that first brought Helen Mirren to wide public attention, she is able to offer insights into the making of the show that only a person with a lot of experience in the world of television can proffer. There's also an interesting, if rather morbid, bit about how they made the dummies for the corpses in "Red Dahlia". Finally there are interviews with both the cast regulars and some of the special guests who appear in the series, which provide some interesting tidbits of information about the process of making the show.

Above Suspicion: Series 1 is not your typical police procedural. First of all the crimes they deal with are particularly gruesome. (If you have a sensitive stomach or are at all squeamish do not do what I did and make the mistake of watching either episode while eating - maggots don't improve your appetite.) However there is nothing gratuitous about anything they show. It's necessary for us to see what DC Travis experiences in order for us to fully appreciate how she's feeling during the investigation and to understand what it is that drives Langton so hard. It's dark, gritty and not very pleasant at times, but it's also probably one of the best acted and produced/directed police procedurals I've ever seen. You may have to avert your eyes at times, but you won't want to miss watching this and any future episodes that come to disc.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Above Suspicion - Set 1 on Blogcritics.)

August 27, 2012

DVD Review: Injustice


Have you ever wondered how defence attorneys can defend people who are obviously guilty of heinous crimes like murder or rape? Especially when, in spite of all the evidence, they somehow manage to get them acquitted? Some lawyers will tell you that everyone deserves a defence as that's an integral part of the judicial system - people are after all presumed innocent until proven guilty. In fact the prosecution has a far harder job than the defence attorney as he has to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that a person is guilty. If a jury has any doubts about a defendant's guilt they have to find in his or her favour. Yet doubt about guilt is not the same as proving innocence, sometimes it just means the case against a person wasn't conclusive enough for the prosecution to persuade the jury the accused was guilty - even if they were.

So, it's not necessary for defence attorneys to believe their clients are innocent, it's just necessary for them to believe they can convince a jury there isn't enough evidence to find them guilty. However, that's not always the case. In the five part mini-series Injustice, being released on DVD Tuesday August 28 2012 by Acorn Media, we meet barrister William Travers (James Purefoy) who has always believed in his clients' innocence. (In British law there are two different types of lawyer; a solicitor represents a person in all matters outside of court while barristers are hired specifically to represent them in court) Even his opponents in the crown prosecutor's office (British equivalent of district attorney but not a political office or appointment) admit he always believed his clients were innocent.
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All that changed at some time before the series starts. Travers had defended an animal rights activist accused of setting a car bomb which blew up the small child of the scientist it was intended to kill. While the circumstantial evidence was substantial, he was able to get the accused acquitted by giving credence to the defendant's claim the police had coerced the confession he initially gave them. Closed circuit television tapes showed two officers entering his cell but unlike all the other times they had visited there were no audio or video tapes recording what happened while they were in there. When that was combined with the fact there was no conclusive evidence proving he had committed the crime the accused was set free. However, for some reason Travers suffered a nervous breakdown shortly after the trial, left London and his successful practice, and moved with his family to the small town of Ipswich. While he continued on as a barrister, he refuses to handle murder trials ever again.

So his wife Jane (Dervia Kirwan) is surprised and worried when he agrees to defend a friend of theirs from university who has been accused of murdering his much younger secretary whom he had been having an affair with. She had given up a successful career with a publishing house in London in order to help him start over again, and is slightly put out that he's all of a sudden agreeing to go back and work in London again. However, she's mainly worried whether or not he'll be able to handle the pressure of working on such a high profile case again, figuring that was what caused his breakdown after the bombing case.

While we find out what's really troubling Travers through a series of flashbacks (there's no way I'm telling you anything about them) and that he's nowhere near as well as he claims he is, on the surface he seems to be the consummate professional. The one thing he does insist on when he agrees to take his old friend's case is if at any time he receives the impression his client is guilty he will quit immediately. It's while he's preparing to go to London to start work the police discover the body of the man he defended in the bombing case. He had been shot in the head at point blank range and, as the cop heading up the investigation, Detective Inspector (DI) Mark Wenborn (Charlie Creed-Miles) says, it looks like he'd been executed.

While DI Creed-Miles hunts for clues as to who might have killed his victim, Travers is investigating who else could have possibly wanted to kill his friend's secretary. She had been murdered in the hotel room the two of them had been sharing. He had gone out to get her something from a restaurant around the corner and claims to have found her dead when he returned. Closed circuit cameras confirm he had left the hotel and show him going into and out of the restaurant at around the time he claims to have been out of the room. Aside from the secretary being murdered he also claims his laptop computer was stolen from the room, and it contained information about the business dealings of the oil company he worked for. Could there have been something on the computer important enough for somebody to kill the secretary? That's what Travers wants to find out. If he can convince the jury somebody else had a motive for killing the young women, his friend will look less like a suspect.
James Purefoy and Dervla Kirwan in Injustice.jpg
The series is basically split between Travers's and DI Wenborn's investigations. It is an incredible study in contrasts. For while Travers is compassionate, intellectual and sophisticated, Wenborn is his exact opposite. He's not above threatening or blackmailing individuals to get the information he needs and is generally a nasty piece of work. As his superior says to a junior officer whose been partnered with him, don't take it personally, the guy hates everybody. Even their home lives are completely opposite. Travers is a dotting father and loving husband who's happiest in the bosom of his family. Wenborn on the other hand is emotionally abusive to his wife to the extent she's started shop lifting and the only time he pays attention to his infant daughter is to tell his wife to make her shut up. All in all we know which of them we prefer.

So when Wenborn starts to find circumstantial evidence tying Travers to the murder of his former client you don't want him to succeed in building a case against him. For even if Travers is guilty, the idea of this little creep taking down such a nice guy feels wrong. Especially as the man who was murdered could still have been guilty of killing a little boy. For while he was found innocent by the jury, there was still plenty of evidence that pointed to his guilt. Yet, should that matter if Travers is guilty? Where's the justice in somebody taking the law into their own hands?

What's amazing about this series is how it manages to raise these questions about the nature of justice while telling the story of the two investigations at the same time. It's like watching a top notch detective story and a debate on morality at the same time. Even better is how the show's creator's have managed to handle this without ever throwing the subject up in your face. Not once do any of the characters talk about it, yet it's an ever present subtext which comes out through the natural development of the story and the character's behaviour.

Both Purefoy as Travers and Creed-Miles as Wenborn, do exemplary jobs in their respective roles. While it's easy to hate the police officer for the creep he is, we also come to have a little bit of grudging respect for him as he doesn't care who he pisses off, he just wants to solve the crime. While he may have very few redeeming qualities as a human being, as his boss says, he gets results and usually catches the crooks with strong enough evidence to make a conviction stick. Travers on the other hand is someone we like and admire. Yet Purefoy's performance is such that we know there is something wrong with him. He seems like he's holding himself just a little too tight, or saying he's fine as if he's trying to convince himself as well as the person asking him. When we start to see what he's hiding, those moments he lets his guard down, it still doesn't make him any less likeable, and in some ways even increases our sympathy towards him.

While I know most of us have come to expect special features with DVDs these days, don't let the lack of any save for a photo gallery from the show in this set put you off. Injustice is not the type of mini series you're used to seeing as it takes you into very grey moral territory and leaves you stranded there to find your own way out. The acting, script and overall production is everything you've come to expect form this type of show from British television. However, be warned, once you start watching you will not want to stop, so start early in the evening if you don't want a late night. However, its worth the loss of sleep to watch something of this calibre.

(First published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Injustice)

August 17, 2012

DVD Review: Judge John Deed: Season 6


There are some actors whom you grow so accustomed to seeing in a particular role it becomes hard to visualize them playing anything else. So when you eventually see them in another part you end up spending a lot of time trying to see if they've managed to create a different character for this new situation. In far too many cases these days film and TV actors simply play variations of themselves when on screen and don't bother with such mundanities as creating a character. Sure they may be able to cry or be angry on demand, but they're doing it as themselves not as the person who they're supposedly portraying. So when I sat down to watch the DVD of Judge John Deed: Season 6 from BBC America, released August 14 2012, I have to admit I was initially more concerned with how much of Inspector George Gently I'd see in Martin Shaw's performance as Deed then the plot of the show.

While Shaw had impressed me with his performances in George Gently, I hadn't seen him in anything else and had no idea what he was capable of. Thankfully it didn't take more then about fifteen minutes of the first episode for me to have completely forgotten he'd ever been the other character. Everything from his vocal mannerisms to the way he held himself as Deed was different from what he had done in the other role. What's even more amazing is how subtle all the differences were. It wasn't as if he assumed an accent, limp or other immediately obvious trait, it was just he did a whole bunch of little things differently which when combined added up to being a different character.
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It's a good thing too, for even more then in George Gently, this series is built around his character. John Deed is a high court judge in England. He is also something of a maverick who has no problems with rocking the boat and ruffling the feathers of his fellow judges. In order to rise to the position of a high court judge in England, or anywhere else for that matter, one has to be a pretty entrenched member of the legal establishment. Usually this means you haven't made any waves in your previous career as a lawyer. Judges are supposed to be impartial arbitrators who base their decisions upon the letter of the law. However, as we all know, there are plenty of grey areas in the law which allow judges a great deal of latitude when handing down their judgements. Thus it's almost impossible for a judge's personal opinions not to play a role in their findings. Why else would the appointment of judges be such a contentious issue in most countries?

As we discover in the two episodes in Judge John Deed: Season 6, "War Crimes" and "Evidence of Harm", Deed's reputation for rocking the boat are well known and something of a concern to his political masters. In fact they do their best to try and keep him out of harms way by designating him for assignments like being Britain's representative at an International Tribunal in the Hague. In "War Crimes" he's one of three judges hearing a case against a British soldier being charged as a war criminal for the killing of Iraqi citizens while on duty. Complicating matters for Deed is the fact his sort of ex-partner Jo Mills (Jenny Seagrove) is the soldier's defence attorney.

For some added spice, we find out Deed has also been targeted for assassination by a radical Islamic organization. Prior to taking the case in the Hague he was one of three judges hearing the case of a white supremacist charged with hate crimes against Muslims who ended up being acquitted. Ironically Deed had thought the man guilty, but he was outvoted by the other two judges. As if these factors weren't enough, Deed also has to deal with the fact his government is doing everything it can to coerce the British soldier to plead guilty. Of course the more pressure exerted on him to play ball, the more Deed is determined the soldier be given a fair trial. It almost seems the more somebody attempts to steer him in a particular direction, the harder Deed will attempt to go the other way.

This is reinforced in the season's second episode, "Bodily Harm". This time Mills asks him to look into the reasons why a client of hers was all of a sudden denied legal aid in a case he was pursuing against a pharmaceutical company. He, and other soldiers in the British army, were given a vaccine for protection against biochemical weapons. Unfortunately he and quite a few others became seriously ill after receiving the vaccine. When it turns out the judge who ruled on the decision to withdraw the legal aid has connections to the company in question, Deed agrees to attempt to head a review of his findings. Attempt being the key word because he finds himself running into serious opposition from his judicial colleagues, the government and the company in question.
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It's the latter he needs to worry about the most. For he soon discovers of the two scientists who first raised the question about a connection between illness and the vaccine one has died under mysterious circumstances and the other is too terrified to talk. When his daughter who is doing research for him is robbed, and all that's stolen is her laptop containing her notes, his suspicions increase. What he doesn't know is both he and Mills are under full scale surveillance and every word they say to each other about the case, and more personal exchanges, are being recorded by the same people who robbed his daughter. They've even gone as far as placing a bug on his dog's collar. As in the previous episode, this is a man who keeps a boxers heavy bag in his office after all, we find out the more people try to make him back off, the more he comes out swinging. He takes his role as an arbitrator of justice very seriously. Any attempt to subvert its fair and equal dissemination only increases his determination to see it carried out properly.

While this show is up to the usual high standards one has come to expect from British television when it comes to this type of show in terms of script and overall quality, the show hinges upon its central character. Thankfully Shaw is up to the challenge of not only carrying a series but of making a recurring character with the potential for growing stale always interesting. In this, the series' concluding episodes, we see the many facets of the man. His personal life is complicated due to the fact he has a roving eye, and while his dedication to the ideal of justice is admirable, he also tends to be arrogant and stubborn. While his self assurance might prove initially attractive to some women, the ego accompanying it isn't quite as appealing.

What's amazing about Shaw's performance in the role of Deed is he's able to communicate this so easily to the viewers. While it would have been easy to create a character who is simply a white knight charging off to rescue the world, Shaw manages to show how positive character traits can, under certain circumstances or when taken to the extreme, become negatives. While we admire the character of Judge Deed, we also see him for the flawed individual he is, which not only makes him more human, but infinitely more believable. Judge John Deed: Season Six is a good television series made great by the tour de force performance from its lead actor. Watch it and be amazed at what can be done by an actor at the top of his game.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Judge John Deed: Season 6 on Blogcritics.)

August 16, 2012

DVD Review: The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection


As a writer the origin of words has always fascinated me. In particular I enjoy finding out how words which today appear seemingly unrelated, not only have the same origins, but have similar meanings as well. It was while watching the newly released DVD set of the 2002/2003 remake of The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection from Acorn Media that I began to wonder about a possible connection between the words property, proper and propriety. Set in the years spanning the last decade of the nineteenth century through to the mid 1920s among the British upper middle class, to whom property was king and the appearance of propriety and doing what was proper more important than anything else, the series made a connection seem likely. It turns out the three words share the same Latin root, proprietas, meaning one's own, or particular.

In many ways the entire series is built around characters' conflicting attitudes to the meanings implied by those words. While most people might have lived in a sort of grey area which allowed them some room to manoeuvre, there were those who either took them as gospel or rejected them completely. The Forsyte Saga is all about the repercussions of what happens when people from either end of the spectrum are brought into close contact and the damage it does to all parties involved. The Forsyte family are everything one would expect from the upper middle class during the reign of Queen Victoria. While they may not be titled they are wealthy in both cash and property. They are also firm believers in class and people acting in accordance with their station and standing. Any deviation from the norm is dismissed with the ultimate rejection of the era - "It's just not done".

When Jolyon Forsyte (Rupert Graves) makes the mistake of falling in love with his child's governess and leaving his wife for her not only is he is cut off and disowned by the entire family, everyone from his father to his cousins act like he never even existed. As the eldest male child in the family he was to have taken over the family's affairs and inherited the bulk of the money when his uncle died. However, with his banishment role of heir passes to his cousin Soames Forsyte (Damian Lewis). While Soames is everything the family could wish for, a successful solicitor who would never behave in a manner that would bring discredit to the family, he's not married. It's no good him being the heir if there isn't anyone to follow in his footsteps.
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Thankfully Soames soon meets the woman he wants to be his bride, Irene Forsyte (Gina McKee), and begins to relentlessly pursue her. Irene is almost everything Soames isn't and has no real interest in him. However her father has recently died and left her and her step-mother with very little money. When her stepmother threatens to throw her out she's left with no option but to marry Soames or to face a life of desperate poverty. Even then, before she accepts his proposal she elicits the promise from him that if she's ever unhappy he will release her from the marriage. He of course readily agrees to this saying he will make her happy. Unfortunately his proposal and her response foreshadow trouble in the future. He asks her, "Will you be mine?" and she replies "I will marry you".

Under British law at the time a wife was considered the husband's property much like a house or any other possession. While Soames does love Irene, he also treats her like a possession instead of a human being. While she might be surrounded by wealth and all the trappings that accompany it, her marriage rapidly turns into a gilded cage. When she approaches Soames to honour the promise he made her before their marriage, he refuses, claiming that he has done everything in his power to make her happy and that divorce is just not done. So it comes as little surprise that she eventually turns to another man, Phillip Bosinney (Ioa Gruffudd) to make her happy. Unfortunately he is just happens to be the fiancee of Soames' niece, the daughter of the man who left his wife for the governess.

As you can see the groundwork is being laid for what could turn into a very convoluted , multigenerational, and typical soap opera. However, this series has a number of redeeming features you don't usually find in soap operas. While I've never read the John Galsworthy books the show was based upon so don't know how the well they've adapted them, I do know this series does a fine job of bringing the era in question to life. Aside from British television's usual talent for dressing a set and its characters accurately, their recreation of Victorian England goes much further than skin deep. It would have been easy to have made the character of Soames a one dimensional villain who we could blame everything on. Instead what the show's creators have done is show how he is merely a product of his times, and that according to his lights and the standards of society at the time, his behaviour was always legally proper.

Right from the start of the series we see what happens to somebody who deviates from the norm in this repressive and judgemental society. There's no way a person in Soame's position could have a chance of knowing how to communicate with another person on an emotional level. At one point his mother says to him, "I'm sorry I didn't teach you how to love", but that's the closest anyone comes to admitting there might be something amiss in their world. Even when the world is changing around them, after WWl and into the 1920s, the Forsytes are still clinging to their outdated code. We see it in Soames' daughter by his second wife in the behaviour she exhibits when she starts to pursue the man she sets her sites on.
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However, what really sets this series apart from your everyday soap opera, is the quality of the acting. In the role of Soames, Lewis, does an extraordinary job. This is a guy who it would be easy to hate, but somehow the actor manages to allow us to see beneath the surface, and in spite of his reprehensible behaviour, we actually end up feeling sympathy for him. McKee, as Irene, is equally brilliant. She's one of these actors who appear strangely luminescent, so the screen literally lights up whenever she's in the shot. Her character could have been played as a wounded bird victim type, but then we would have wondered what the hell anybody saw in her. As McKee plays her Irene is a beautiful, spirited and independent woman. Bright and vivacious she would have shone like a lighthouse in a storm in contrast to the repressed society around her.

Even though Rupert Graves' character is disowned near the beginning of the show, he ends up being central to the plot of the series. As the only Forsyte willing to ignore propriety in favour of following his heart, we already know Jolyon is different from the rest of them. Throughout the series Graves does a wonderful job showing us the type of strength of character it takes to willing accept being an outcast and all that implies . While his father eventually comes around and accepts him again, and in fact ends up thinking he was right not to care what others thought of him, any chance there might have been for reconciliation with the rest of the family is permanently destroyed when he and Irene marry. It seems almost inevitable that Soames' daughter, Fleur Forsyte, (Emma Griffiths Malin) and their son, Jon Forsyte, (Lee Williams) fall in love.

Yet, even here the series manages to avoid being too cliched and does its best to steer away from the whole "star crossed lovers" theme. In fact, they use it to open the way to make Soames more human instead of having him just play the role of tyrannical father opposed to his daughter's wishes. Even better is the fact the two young actors give very believable performances as the respective children of their parents. For it's Fleur who actively pursues the relationship and manipulates events so she can get what she wants. Neither character is your typical ingenue and the series is far better for it.

The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection contains both the first and second parts of the series on six DVDs. The special features included with the set includes a biography of author Galsworthy, it's interesting to note the similarities between his life and the Forsytes, and a short documentary on the making of the series. The short film includes interviews with both McKee and Lewis, who talk intelligently and extensively about their respective characters and the society they lived in, and the show's creators, who outline what they were attempting to achieve and create with the series.

As is the case with other British produced dramas of this type, The Forsyte Saga not only does an immaculate job of recreating the time period the action takes place in physically but in all other ways as well. In particular we are left in no doubt as to the importance property, propriety and proper play in the lives of the Victorian upper middle class. While script, direction and design play a role in all of this, it's the actors which bring it to life. From the leads to those who have minor roles as servants every single actor is not only believable in their role, but brings a depth to their characterization that is a joy to watch. A word of warning - once you start watching its very hard to tear yourself away. Unless you're prepared to have a very late night, start watching early in the day and unplug the phone. You're not going to want to be interrupted by anything.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Forsyte Saga: The Complete Collection on Blogcritics.

August 2, 2012

Television Review: The Barnes Collection


There are those who collect art for the status it brings them, those who collect it as an investment and those who collect it for their love of paintings. No matter what their reason most people's collections probably don't exceed a few treasures they've managed to pick up at small galleries or at auction. The idea that one person could amass enough works of art to fill a gallery is almost beyond belief, but that's exactly what American collector Albert Barnes managed to do. Now a fascinating documentary, The Barnes Collection, airing on PBS Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 - 10:00pm (check you local listings) introduces us to this enigmatic man and his legacy to the people of his native Philadelphia.

The roughly hour long film loosely splits along three lines. The story of Albert Barnes and how he amassed his collection, the history of the collection in America and Barnes' and his collection's legacy. In order to tell the parts of the story that take place in the 19th and early parts of the 20th century the film makers have had to rely on interviewing art historians and those involved with the collection, still photographs and readings from Barnes's correspondence and other writings. While that may not sound like much to go on for creating a picture of what this man was like, such was the force of his personality we learn more about him than you'd expect. It also helps that he was opinionated and outspoken in his letter writing and didn't hesitate to speak his mind on any subject, even on the subject of himself. It's not often you hear someone come as close as he does to referring to themselves as an asshole - although he couches it in terms just a little bit politer.

The historians associated with the The Barnes Foundation - the non-profit organization responsible for the up keep of the collection and programming associated with it - and the other art historians interviewed for the film confirm both Barnes' assessment of himself and fill in the details of his biography. His was the classic rags to riches story of the 19th century. Born in a rough working class neighbourhood in Philadelphia, he still managed to go to university and graduate with a medical degree, although he never seems to have practiced medicine. It was through this education that he fulfilled the American Dream by making a fortune from Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness that he developed with Herman Hille. He could have pretty much afforded to retire once he was in his twenties.
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We also find out that it was during his time as a student in Europe, he studied physiological chemistry and pharmaceutics in Germany, he first was exposed to the world of modern art. While there's no real explanation for why he became such an avid collector, the documentary does make a point of mentioning his early friendship with American Impressionist painter William James Glackens. It was through Glackens he obtained introductions to some of the biggest dealers in Paris in the early years of the 20th century when he began buying up modern art by the bushel load. The original bill of sales for his collection read like a who's who of modern art at the time. Picasso, Gauguin, Cezanne, van Gogh, Braque, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Miro, Modigliani, Monet, Jean Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Seurat and Tolouse-Lautrec are just some of the names which show up on receipts and invoices.

After a while he began making trips to Paris himself and buying works directly from the painters. He had no formal training in art, but judging by some of the things he said, that was a plus not a negative. He talked about paintings in terms of them being conversations he could have with the artist and how they were constantly telling him new things. He didn't bring any preconceived notions of what art should be to his evaluation of a work and was able to appreciate them in a way that few people of his time were capable of doing. This was driven home to him when he arranged for an exhibit of his modern works back home in Philadelphia and the paintings were roundly condemned by everyone from academics to politicians as crude, vulgar and obscene.

After detailing how he amassed his collection, which aside from the modern art included Old Masters, Americana, wrought iron, furniture, African sculpture and many other miscellaneous items, the documentary covers what he did with it all. In 1922 he had purchased a large property in Merion, an outskirt of Philadelphia, which he used as a residence and gallery. It was here the collection was put on permanent display and where he began to try and implement the ideas on the role of art in education that he developed. To that end he founded The Barnes Foundation with the purpose of "promoting the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts".
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He began developing educational programming inspired by the idea expressed by American philosopher John Dewey that it was only through education a society could achieve true democracy. It was to that end that some of the first "students" the foundation worked with were the workers in his factory. He discovered they only needed six of their eight hour work day to properly do their jobs, so for two hours a day he'd bring them out to the Marion gallery and began teaching them about art. The foundation continues to do this type of work to this day as we see when the film crew follows some of its members into a Philadelphia school as they teach students about art and how to see what an artist might be trying to say with a work.

The final stage in the history the documentary recounts is what's become of the collection today. When the residents of Marion began to object to having a museum in a private residential area a new home was constructed to house it in downtown Philadelphia. Interviews with the architects of the new gallery show us how much care and planning went into the creation of the new space - with an emphasis on ensuring an ample supply of natural light for viewing the work in the day time. However, what's really fascinating is seeing the care taken by the foundation's employees to ensure the collection would be displayed exactly as Barnes had hung it originally. Prior to packing each room in the Marion gallery they mapped out how everything was positioned. This involved measuring the distance between each work so when they were rehung in the new space each room would look exactly the same as it did before and would have the same visual impact on visitors Barnes had intended.

While The Barnes Collection only scratches the surface of both the man who created the collection and the collection itself, it is a great introduction to both. While its unclear on why Barnes felt the need to amass such a huge collection of art work in the first place, it's what he did with it, and what the foundation bearing his name still does, that's his true legacy. Making this massive collection of great art from around the world, a collection which includes works by some of the most renowned modern artists, available and accessible to the public is in itself a gift whose worth is next to impossible to judge.

However, even more important as far as I'm concerned, was his understanding of the role an appreciation of the fine arts played in education, and how important it was for everyone to have the opportunity to obtain that education. To know this collection exists for that purpose and the foundation continues to carry out Barnes' original mandate is a ray of light in today's otherwise bleak educational landscape. In an era when governments consider arts education in schools a luxury and a waste of money, it's a relief to know there are those in the world who know its true value. So on Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 - 10:00pm take the time to see how one man's vision of art and education is still a goal worthy of trying to fulfil.

(Article first published as Television Review: The Barnes Collection on Blogcritics.)

July 4, 2012

DVD Review: George Gently: Series 4


When filming any period piece television and film makers take great pains to make everything as authentic as possible. Whether it's ensuring the clothing people wear or the sets they act on are accurate representations of the period or they're speaking in dialects appropriate to the age, the attention to detail is remarkable. Yet for all the care taken film makers will still slip up in one crucial area by allowing characters to react in a matter reflecting modern attitudes and sensibilities. Perhaps I'm the only who finds it jarring to see anachronisms in behaviour, but when a character in a movie set in the 1950s expresses opinions more in line with the twenty-first century it can ruin the whole show for me.

In fact the closer a piece is to being contemporary the harder it is to ensure characters stay consistent with the tenor of their times. Especially difficult are those eras when a society is going through a period of radical change as it's tempting to allow characters to become caught up in events and ignore the reality of their situation. Like everywhere else the north of England in the second half of the 1960s was a society divided between those hell bent on preserving the comfortable world of their youth and those who weren't going to be satisfied with the world of their parents. While this type of atmosphere could provide complications for a police force, the law stays the law and no matter what's going on it has to be enforced. While that might sound somewhat inflexible, in the hands of Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw) in George Gently: Series 4, released on DVD July 3 2012 by Acorn Media, it provides a moral compass which helps him steer a smooth course in turbulent times.

Teamed up once again with his young Sergeant, John Bacchus, (Lee Ingleby) the two ninety minute episodes of Series 4 bring the two officers face to face with the shifting moral ground of the times. In the first the death of a female secondary school student takes them into the fantasy world of pop music and romantic poems. In episode two the two officers have to deal with a case of local authorities wanting to not only maintain the status quo but turn the clock back in order to keep the peace. While each case is different, the two are forced to put their personal opinions and feelings aside and rely on the letter of the law in order to reach correct conclusions.
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As viewers of previous series are aware despite his youth and appreciation for some of the material changes occurring, flash cars and sharp suits, Bacchus is the more conservative of the two when it comes to social issues. However, this doesn't make Gently some sort of advocate for change. It's just that he's seen more of life than his junior, but instead of it turning him cynical and bitter it has made him more compassionate and understanding of others and their situations. Yet no matter how sympathetic he might be towards a person and their circumstances, he's firm in the belief that nobody is above the law. It was this belief which ran him afoul of his fellow officers when he served in London, he refused to turn a blind eye to police officers on the take, and continues to make him the bane of anyone who tries to obstruct or take the law into their own hands.

While the opinions and views of both Bacchus and Gently might seem a little dated or old fashioned to today's viewers, and the object of some derision among those they end up dealing with in their cases, they are consistent with people in their line of work and background for the time period. In the first episode their investigation takes them into the strange world of teenage girls on the verge of becoming women. Unlike earlier generations whose rebellion might have taken the form of illicit cigarettes, these girls are demanding independence and dreaming of being more than just dutiful wives and mothers. While this serves to muddy the waters of the circumstances surrounding the case of the girl who was murdered by introducing a number of potential suspects, including the host of a pop music show and one of the girl's teachers, it also shows the strength of the series' writing.

Some might look on this type of setting as an opportunity to make some sort of statement or comment on society. However, in this series they content themselves with depicting as accurately as possible what was happening during the time period and let the police get on with trying to solve the murder. While the plot does hinge on the over heated fantasy of a teenage girl, social conditions at the time have little or no bearing on who the guilty party is. Watching the two officers squirm,, especially Bacchus as they deal with a teenage girl's burgeoning sexuality is both funny and consistent with what we've seen of the characters previously. It also makes perfect sense considering the time period. Sex was not something talked about easily by most people during this time, and discussing it in terms of young girls was just not done.
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In episode two we are given an even clearer picture of Gently's strict adherence to his own moral code of nobody being above the law. An informer Gently had used for many years both in London and in his new location turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. With the death occurring outside his jurisdiction he has to rely on another areas police force for information about the death. When he discovers an old colleague from his days in London is in charge he is initially hopeful, but he soon discovers discrepancies in the reports about the death that make him suspect something is being covered up. In spite of attempts to stonewall him, Gently eventually does end up solving the case.

However, while finding out how the victim died is of course the point of the episode, the circumstances surrounding the incident are such they offer a test to Gently's "nobody's above the law" credo. Not only does he pass the test once but twice in this episode. For aside from the coverup surrounding his informer's death there are other abuses of the system going on in the small community. Some might have seen the extenuating circumstances which are revealed as justification for not pressing charges against those involved with both impeding investigations into the murder and the other activities. Bacchus raises the question with his superior only to be told, in no uncertain terms, nobody is above the law, for any reason.

When working on a series set in recent history it would be difficult not to allow contemporary views and opinions to colour either a character's behaviour or their reactions to situations. One of the great strengths of the entire George Gently series is not only how well they manage to depict the way changes in society's attitudes and beliefs have a way of trickling into all aspects of life, but the various character's reactions to what's happening. Whether it's a teenage daughter refusing to conform to her parents' expectations as to what's proper behaviour or the larger issues of the day everything is presented in as realistic a fashion as possible. George Gently: Series 4, while living up to the standards set by the previous Series as a police procedural television show a notch above others of its kind, is further proof, if any were needed, of how well the show's creators have handled this task.

The two disc DVD set not only contains both episodes from Series 4, it also includes a behind the scenes documentary on the filming of the previous episodes. It has the usual shots of the cast members joking around on set and some amusing chatter from each lead about the other. However, they each make a point of talking about the time period the show is set in and how interesting it is to do an almost contemporary period piece. As interesting as it is for them to act in, George Gently: Series 4 is as fascinating to watch. Not only is the show intelligent and well acted its also an unsentimental look at a time which is too often coloured by somebody's personal opinion. For those wanting a detective show with more than just the usual bad guys and good guys, this will make a perfect fit.

(Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently: Series 4 on Blogcritics)

June 10, 2012

Television Review: Zen


Rome Italy. Home to the Colosseum, the Forum and Vatican City. Its cobblestone streets have seen the likes of Julius Caesar and Sophia Loren stride their lengths. However, the romance and history of the city are easily matched by its reputation for intrigues behind closed doors, governments collapsing with regularity, labour unrest, organized crime, corruption and bribery. Where police corruption is taken for granted to such an extent an honest cop is believed to be as rare as hen's teeth and a figure to be exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

This is the stage upon which three marvellous adaptations of Michael Dibdin's police detective novels take place. Zen, named for its lead character Aurelio Zen, was originally shown in July 2011 on PBS's Mystery. Now, those of us who missed it the first time, and those who require another fix, will have the opportunity as all three episodes, Vendetta, Cabal and Rat King, are being rebroadcast starting tonight June 10 2012 and successive Sundays from 9:00 - 10:30 p.m. ET. (As always with PBS check your local listings for exact scheduling)
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For those of you who've not yet had the pleasure of experiencing Zen have no fear, I won't be giving any secrets away. However, the plots of each episode are only half the joy of watching the series as the human characters compete for our attention with both the beauty of their surroundings and the aura of intrigue they swim through. Leading the cast is the inestimable Rufus Sewell as Zen, the Venetian detective now working in Rome's main criminal investigation division. More often cast as the villain of the piece than the hero, given the opportunity to play the good guy for once he shines. When the series opens both his career and life appear to have reached something of a standstill. Separated, on the verge of divorce, he's moved back home to live with his mother and as he approaches his mid thirties, younger and more politically connected detectives look to be on the verge of leaving him in their dust.

His one advantage is the fact that he's an outsider with no obvious connections to any political party or interest group. Unfortunately for him that has brought him to the attention of the government officials responsible for the police force. Somehow, to his chagrin, he's earned a reputation for integrity and honesty which his political masters have no trouble exploiting when it suits their needs. After all, as one high ranking civil servant says when requesting him to figure out a way of getting somebody off a murder charge, nobody will question the findings, no matter how outrageous, of one so well known for his honesty. As both Zen and viewers discover, once his political masters understand his usefulness they have no hesitation in treating him as their personal arm of the law.

Of course Zen isn't quite as innocent or naive as those around him would like to believe. In fact he ends up using those beliefs to his advantage by surprising people with his intelligence and willingness to go to any lengths to protect himself and his reputation. A quick study he soon realizes ways in which he can use the goodwill he earns to do things like ensure his department is spared the next round of government budget cuts. Of course he also discovers the importance of concealed recording devices when meeting with politicians and how to best make use of the resulting tapes. It's a subtle and dangerous game he's forced to play as more often than not the needs of the politicians put him in direct conflict with both his department and even the law. But like the best high wire performers no matter how precarious the footing he always seems to be able to put his feet right.
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He also brings his famous discretion to his personal life when he starts an affair with his boss's beautiful secretary, Tania Moretti (Caterina Murino). Object of every detective's lust, and an office pool as to whom will bed her first, Moretti surprises by spurning all advances. Determined to not be the object of discussion, the two do their best to keep their affair quiet. Unfortunately for Zen and Moretti the course of true love doesn't run smooth. She is in the midst of a messy divorce which puts a strain on their relationship as she finds it hard to trust another man after putting up with a jealous husband for ten years. For his part Zen is still feeling the pain of having, as far as he's concerned, failed because his marriage didn't work out and his wife now wants a divorce in order to marry another man.

Shot on location in Rome and the italian countryside Zen is as beautiful and lush to look at as it is well acted and directed. In fact the only slightly disconcerting element note in the series comes about because of the authenticity of its look. From his rugged good looks to his physical mannerisms Sewell comes across as thoroughly Italian. So when he opens his mouth and speaks with his British accent it is something of a surprise. With many of the cast being Italian and speaking accented English it's initially off putting. However, it doesn't take long to become so immersed in the stories that something as trivial as accents no longer matter. In fact, thinking of the alternative, actors attempting to put on accents, one quickly comes to appreciate the choice made to let actors speak in their own dialects. It actually ends up making the series more believable.

Ever since Julius Caesar was brought down by the knives of Brutus and his fellow conspirators Italy has put the rest of the world to shame when it comes to skulduggery and political intrigue. Conspiracy theorists the world over could never even dream up some of the plots that seem to be daily occurrences in Italian politics. When money, sex and politics are combined they weave particularly convoluted trails and in the Italy Zen lives and works in they come together to make life for an honest cop particularly difficult. Starting tonight, June 10 2012, at 9:30 pm and continuing for the next two weeks, don't miss the opportunity of stepping into this world. You won't regret it.

(Article first published as Television Review: Zen on Blogcritics.)

May 23, 2012

Television Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live


String quartets come in many shapes and sizes but you can normally predict what they're going to perform. Beethoven, Mozart perhaps even some Bach or other composer from the recognized classical canon. While there have been exceptions to this rule in the past, the most obvious being the Kronos Quartet doing their rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze", even they have worked from carefully scored and arranged material. The idea of a string quartet coming together to create their own works is almost unheard of; for those creations to be the result of improvisation unthinkable. The idea is so improbable that it would require those involved to be uniquely talented and blessed with the immense good fortune of having hundreds of seemingly disparate ideas come together in the face of almost impossible odds.

Those of you who have listened to the CD The Goat Rodeo Sessions featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Stuart Duncan on violin/banjo/mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass and piano and Chris Thile on mandolin, guitar and violin will have already experienced the stars lining up in just the right manner to allow the improbable to occur. However it's one thing to do this in the safety of the recording studio where mistakes can be corrected though over dubs and the opportunity to do second and third takes, but it's another altogether performing the same music live. So pushing the envelope a little further they are taking their show live and thanks to the great folk at Public Broadcasting System (PBS) you'll be able to see them on Friday May 25 at 9:00pm (check local listings) in an hour long special The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live.

I don't think it will be spoiling anything for anyone by telling you watching them perform the music they created in the studio live makes you even more aware of their incredible accomplishment. Listening to the CD was awesome enough, but it's only seeing them perform most of these same pieces on stage that the enormity of their achievement is brought home. For now you see first hand not only the complexity of each person's part, but how incredibly difficult it must have been both creating and bringing them together to a make single entity. With Thile serving as de facto band leader/concert master/host the four opened the show with the piece I think epitomizes their efforts "Attaboy".
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This piece reflects the musical background of each performer and simultaneously shows the listeners both the difficulties they faced creating the music on the disc and the means they used to overcome those difficulties. Listening to it on CD one could hear how their diverse approaches to music blended to form something which was literally greater than the sum of its parts. However, watching them perform you are able to witness how they managed to accomplish this. The first thing you notice is the high level of communication going on silently in front of you. From the moment Thile counts them in to start the piece and sets the tempo on his mandolin there's never a moment when they aren't either listening or looking at each other for cues and, perhaps, encouragement. A nod here, eye contact there, and the tempo changes or somebody starts a solo or a solo ends and the rest join in. It's as fascinating an example of watching co-operative music in the making as you'll ever see.

As on the recording the four musicians are joined on stage occasionally by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. She and Thile serve up beautiful vocal harmonies with lyrics specifically created for the recording sessions. On stage, as on CD, their voices add another layer of texture to the sound being created by the four instruments. In some ways they are like a calm in the middle of a storm as they seem to allow everyone from the audience to the performers a pause in which to breath between the thunder and lighting of the instrumental pieces. For there is an intensity to what the quartet are creating and performing on stage that listening uninterrupted might have been too overwhelming. Those couple of moments of calming influence allow us to appreciate the instrumental sections all the more.

Aside from the excitement of being able to see these four men in action, there are two other great reasons for watching them on television this week. First is seeing them react to playing in front of an audience. There's always an exchange of energy between performer and audience in a live situation that changes the dynamic of the music is some manner or other. When the audience began to clap the tempo - and when was the last time you saw that happen during a concert by a string quartet? - you could see the band react in delighted surprise. I don't think they had expected or anticipated audience participation and it appeared to push them to even greater levels of exertion, if possible. Each piece from then on seemed to soar a little higher and strive to reach a little further.
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The second, and just as important reason for watching, is to see the expressions on their faces while they are performing. Normally watching a string quartet in action is an exercise is studied formality. Everyone seems to be playing as if there lives depended on them looking intensely serious. Brows are furrowed and faces locked in intense stares of concentration. Well I don't think I saw one furrowed brow, let alone a serious face, on stage during the entire hour of this quartet's performance. From Thile's almost impish grin as he bends over his mandolin (Is it just me or does he reming anyone else of a young Jude Law?), the sly smiles on Duncan and Meyer's faces to Ma's spontaneous grins of delight as he listens and plays, there's not a straight face among them. These guys are so absolutely delighted to be where they are at that specific moment in time you can't help but feel privileged to be part of this performance even as an audience member.

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile created something special when they recorded the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Now they are bringing that something special to life on PBS stations around America on Friday May 25 2012 at 9:00 pm. If you aren't able to see it that night, or your local PBS station ends up not carrying it, don't despair, its being released on DVD as of May 29 2012. Whichever way you end up watching, believe me, this is an experience no music lover will want to miss.

(Article first published as TV Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live on Blogcritics)

May 14, 2012

DVD Review: Monroe: Series 1


Television shows about doctors have been on the air for decades now. Probably next to catching criminals healing the sick has provided the basis for more shows than any other profession. Unlike police shows where there's the built element of danger our fascination with medical drams is based more on the mystery surrounding exactly what it is doctors, especially surgeons, do. Somehow or other these men and women cut people open and fiddle around with the internal workings of our bodies in order to fix things that have gone wrong. It's no wonder we look on them as part miracle workers and part magicians. They do things few of us have the capacity to understand let alone carry out.

All of which explains why we want to watch shows which not only show them carrying out their duties but depict them in their off hours. What kind of person becomes a doctor? How does their work effect their lives away from the job? How do they cope with the stress of performing life and death procedures or the times patients don't survive? We might look to medical shows for the answers to those questions. but is that really a valid source of information? Television exists to entertain us in the hopes of achieving high ratings so they can sell their advertising space. Out of necessity the scenarios they create for our viewing are going to emphasis the dramatic over reality. How riveting would it be to watch a surgeon performing twenty-five gall bladder removals and then go home to his nice family at the end of the day like any other professional? Therefore, since we're not going to be getting reality when we watch these shows, the best we can hope for is the characters are as believable as possible and their actions and reactions consistent with the character as presented.

Judging by the six episodes of Monroe: Series 1 to be seen on the DVD being released by Acorn Media on May 29 2012 the creators of the show understand this concept far better than most other medical shows I've seen. James Nesbitt plays Gabriel Monroe, a gifted neurosurgeon working in medium sized British hospital. Within each episode we usually watch him dealing with one major procedure, interact with fellow hospital staff - specifically cardiologist Jenny Bremner (Sarah Parish) and anesthesiologist Lawrence Shepherd (Tom Riley) and then with what time left over his wife, Anna, (Susan Lynch) and son.
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North American audiences will require a bit of time to get used to the differences between the way hospitals in England work and the way they do here. Surgeons like Monroe only see a patient after he has been examined by an admitting doctor and the surgery scheduled. In some ways they're not even considered "doctors" because they only do surgery - you'll notice that on most occasions Monroe is introduced to his prospective patient as Mr. Monroe, very rarely as doctor. It will seem slightly informal and odd, but once you acclimatize to the new environment (an environment which includes universal health care which explains why the patients come from all walks of life) the patterns of hospital life will take shape quickly enough viewers should have no trouble following the action.

As for the character of Monroe on the surface he seems confident and extraverted. Always ready with a joke or a sarcastic remark, the butt of most of his jokes in the highly reserved and seemingly dispassionate Jenny Bremner. As equally gifted a surgeon as Monroe she keeps her relationships with her patients strictly professional and never communicates anything to them other than information about the procedure she is about to perform. Monroe is just the opposite and does his best to reassure and comfort both his patients and their families. He isn't able to resist making jokes about Bremner, both to her face and to his best friend on the staff, Lawrence Shepherd, about her being an ice queen. It's hard to decide which is greater, his incredulity or his glee, when he discovers Shepherd and Bremner have started a relationship.

Yet, for all his apparent compassion, Monroe isn't able to find time for his family. In fact he's so out of touch with what's going on within his own home that Anna announcing she's leaving him now that their son has left for university catches him completely by surprise. Six years prior something happened which drove a permanent wedge between the two of them. He was able to lose himself in his work and caring for others, but he left his family alone, cut off from the emotional support they needed. For the first few episodes of the series he does his best to avoid dealing with these issues, but then something happens in the last episode which forces him to come to terms with it.
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What I appreciated most about this series was that it managed to avoid the melodrama so many of these hospital dramas seem to rely on in dealing with either the personal lives of the staff or the surgical procedures they perform. Never having been awake in an operating room, I've no idea whether the depiction of what goes on is accurate or not, but everyone's behaviour in surgery is consistent with what we know of their characters. Monroe is driven to try and rescue all his patients, and when a colleague has to undergo surgery to prevent an aneurism he skirts close to the edge of giving her permanent brain damage in order to save her. Yet, even this episode doesn't make a meal of the topic and turn it into something over the top. There's no dramatic recovery or sudden reversals - healing from brain surgery is a long slow process and there's never any guarantees of a positive outcome.

Over the course of this first series each of the main characters and the various secondary characters are gradually filled out. The writers, and the actors, understand there's no way for us to get to know somebody really well in only an hour, so they take the entire six episodes to let us get to know everybody. Even better is the fact that they don't follow the obvious patterns with characters. Bremner doesn't turn out to be hiding a heart as soft as a marshmallow beneath her hard exterior - she might not be the ice queen she pretends to be, but that doesn't mean she can deal with people's overt displays of emotions or has a sudden outpouring of compassion.

As Monroe James Nesbitt does his usual great job. The impish humour of his character is not just something he hides his troubles behind - its a genuine part of who he is. Yet he's more than a one dimensional character and the other aspects come out gradually over the course of the season. As we see in his relationship with his family he can be self absorbed to the point of ignoring everybody and everything save for how things affect him personally. For all his compassion he is surprisingly ignorant of the impact his actions or words can have on those around him. It's this type of carelessness that almost costs him his friendship with Shepherd, ends his marriage and almost alienates his son. As the series ends it appears that's he's beginning to understand this, and it will be interesting to see how his character is developed in any future episodes.

Maybe because Monroe is set in the relatively foreign environment of a British hospital it seems different from most of the hospital dramas that I've seen produced for television. However, the care taken with character development and the ways in which the show handles the surgical procedures its characters deal with gives it an air of realism that I've usually found lacking in other shows of this type. In the past I've never been interested enough in any hospital show to want to watch it on a regular basis, let alone watch six episodes in almost one sitting. This show was so well done I was disappointed there weren't more than six episodes on the two discs and found myself wanting to watch more. I don't know if its an accurate representation of life in a British hospital, but it sure is good television.

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

May 10, 2012

TV Review: Sherlock: Season Two


Basil Rathbone, Christopher Plummer, Jeremy Brett and Robert Downy Jr. have each taken on the role and brought something indefinable to it. Each actor has brought the same character to life and left his personal stamp on a figure who has become an icon. With each new interpretation another layer has been added to the famous character's mythos until one would think it impossible for anybody to bring something new to the role. At least that's how I felt until I watched Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock: Season 2 currently airing on the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) program Mystery!.

Although Episode One "A Scandal In Belgravia" aired on May 6 2012 if you missed it you can usually count on PBS rebroadcasting progams or you can wait for them to release the DVD for public sale on May 22 2012 after Episode Two, "The Hound Of Baskervilles" (May 13 2012) and Episode Three, "The Reichenbach Fall" airs (Sunday May 20 2012, 9:00pm on most PBS stations - check local listings). Those of you who saw Season One are already aware that while the titles are the same as the master detective's great cases, there is one crucial difference, instead of being set in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 19th century England, these take place in modern times.

Sherlock and Dr. John Watson, Martin Freeman still live at 221B Baker Street, Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) is still their landlady, and Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) is still Sherlock's pet police man at Scotland Yard. However instead of his trademark magnifying glass our consulting detective carries a smart phone and uses computers and modern pathology equipment to break down the clues he finds at crime scenes. Oh, and Holmes still has the annoying habit of being able to observe everything that others miss, and has no problems pointing out that he can't see how everybody else could be so blind.
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Now, thanks to press access I've seen all three of Season Two's episodes, but don't worry I'm not about to give away any details. However, if you know anything of the original stories you'll have a fairly good idea how they play out anyway. For although the stories have been adapted to meet the 21st century - in "The Hound Of Baskerville" there is a mysterious government facility named Baskerville where it's rumoured they do genetic modifications to animals located right next to the moors where the hound is supposed to have been seen - they don't diverge too far thematically. One thing that I will tell you is that its important to remember that lurking in the background of nearly every episode is Holme's unscrupulous counterpart, the consulting criminal, Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott).

He appears at the beginning of Episode One to resolve the cliffhanger from Season One then vanishes from sight until the end of Episode Two and finally takes centre stage with Holmes in the season's finale. All along we are made aware of the similarities between the two men. Each of them have superior intellects which they need to be employing or they become bored. The difference being while Holmes is willing to wait for puzzles to come along for him to solve, Moriarty is completely amoral and delights in creating the puzzles for Holmes no matter what the cost in human lives.

Ever since Moriarty discovered Holmes existed he's been setting puzzles for him as a diversion and to gauge what kind of threat he poses. He could be two, even three steps removed from the actual crime, but if you dig deep enough you'll find he's had something to do with every case Holmes and Watson are involved in right from the onset of Season One. Does he merely enjoy the game, seeing Holmes respond to his moves and attempt to outwit him, or is there some other deeper, more sinister motive, driving him?

While the plots and the scripts are well developed and well written what really matters in any telling of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are the performances of the leads. As Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch has to be seen to be believed. Even in repose you have the impression of a coiled spring ready to explode at the first chance. While those around him think he enjoys making others look stupid with his powers of observation and intellect, if they were paying attention at all they would realize he doesn't care enough about what they think to bother wanting to show them up. He might get frustrated with their inability to draw the same conclusions he does from the evidence at hand, and often makes belittling comments about their abilities, but he's so removed from the mundane world he can't understand why people might be offended by his behaviour.

All that exists for him is the puzzle to be solved. He will literally skip for joy at the announcement of a particularly difficult murder enquiry, refers to serial killings as fun and has a nasty habit of making no secret about how much fun he's having even thought lives are at stake. You would think he was selfish and conceited except for the fact in order to be those things you have to think the rest of the world matters, and he never gives the impression they do. Cumberbatch somehow manages to communicate all of this both with his physical characterization of Holmes and his delivery of the lines. There is something about the way he always holds himself which creates the impression all his energy is pointing inward. Even when he's completely still we know there is incredible activity going on inside.

However, Cumberbatch doesn't just play him as a feelingless robot. He clamps down hard upon his feelings as they are a distraction to his intellect. He lets us have occasional glimpses past the wall he's erected around them, and those are enough for us to realize there is a human being beneath the surface. He might not need to give vent to the needless demonstrative displays so many in the world do, but that doesn't mean he doesn't care about those in his life as we find out as Season Two progresses. It's these glimpses he offers us that make the loyalty offered him by Dr. John Watson believable.
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Martin Freeman is the perfect Watson to Cumberbatch's Holmes. Short and rather soft around the edges he offers a great physical contrast to Cumberbatch's tall and sharp Holmes, but it's not only their physicality that sets them apart. Watson wears his heart on his sleeve, cares about what others think of him, and, just as importantly, cares about what others think of Holmes. It's wonderful watching the two of them in public situations with Watson serving as a buffer between Homes' brutal honesty and people's feelings. He doesn't quite elbow his friend in the ribs, but his whispered asides of "Say thank you" or "Maybe you shouldn't smile so much, two children have been kidnapped" serve the same function.

While Freeman frequently allows Watson's exasperation with his friend's behaviour to show through, he also makes it plain he's also having the time of this life being involved with the cases Holmes takes on. Like Holmes it's not because of the attention they start to receive for solving the cases, in fact he could do without people jumping to conclusions about two single men living together, he too enjoys the thrill of the chase and the adventure. While both he and we might occasionally wonder why Holmes involves him in his cases, there is obviously something about Watson he finds invaluable. While he's just as impatient with Watson as witheveryone else, he also seems to appreciate somebody he can talk out loud to and, more importantly, trust. It's a complicated relationship and one that both actors do a remarkable job of making very real and believable.

There have been many film and television adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's enigmatic hero Sherlock Holmes, but the one being broadcast on the PBS show Mystery over the next couple weeks of 2012 May has to rank up there with the best. The scripts are well written and the acting is of the highest quality. However, the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martim Freeman as Holmes and Watson respectively are what make Sherlock: Season Two probably the best thing currently on television. In the words of one character, "Smart is the new sexy" and this is the smartest thing you'll have seen in a long time.

(Article first published as TV Review: Sherlock: Season Two on Blogcritics)

April 27, 2012

DVD Review: Terry Pratchett's Going Postal


Adapting a book to the screen, be it television or film, is always a risky business. It becomes especially tricky when dealing with a work that has a huge popular following. Fans of the book will be on the lookout for anything they see as a deviation from a beloved text and take any transgressions personally. In some ways the writer of a work is probably a lot less demanding than his or her fans. To a certain extent a writer surrenders their work once they agree to its publication and don't have the same sense of proprietorship towards it as those who become its devotees. Having to deal with that type of scrutiny on top of the inherent difficulties of bringing a book to the screen it's something of a wonder some movies are ever made.

However, recent years have seen the turning of so many popular books into film it makes you wonder whether directors and producers are gluttons for punishment or are they willing to risk that much on the chance of cashing in on a book's popularity? And it is a risk, for every successful Harry Potter franchise there's disasters like The Golden Compass and Ergaon. The latter saw the first book in each series turned into a film and then nothing - not even word of a sequel. Still if it works, the payoff is obviously worth it, and the movies themselves can end up being wonderful compliments to the books. So when I heard that the two part television adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal was being released on DVD by Acorn Media, I couldn't resist checking it out.

Now I'm not an initiate of Pratchett's Discworld, the who know's how many books the author has written set in a fantastical world populated by creatures from all corners of the magical universe. But I have read a couple of his books and liked his humour and sense of the absurd. You only have to read one or two in the series to appreciate the amazing amount of detail that's gone into creating the reality the books are set in. If you can picture a Victorian era with a strange mixture of magic and technology populated by vampires, werewolves, mortals, dwarfs and all the others you'd associate with tales of imagination and fantasy, then you can begin to imagine the difficulties a filmmaker faces bringing it to life.
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Of course setting the stage is only half the battle. Bringing the characters who populate the world to life and telling their stories is the real challenge. On the surface Pratchett's books are humorous escapades populated by flamboyant characters. However there is far more to them than meets the eye and to properly capture the nuances and subtleties on screen would take a great deal of care and effort. I was thrilled to see that the people behind this production of Going Postal had done just that and didn't settle for simply playing it for laughs.

The story is relatively straight forward. Convicted con-man Moist Von Lipwig (Richard Coyle) is given a last minute reprieve from hanging by Lord Vetinari (Charles Dance) on the condition that he takes on the task of rebuilding the moribund post office. The new system of communications, a combination of telegraph and semaphore called Clacks, is not performing as well as it should and is making a hash of the Lord's attempts to play a long distance game of something like chess. Given the option of death or Postmaster, Moist takes Postmaster, unaware the reason the post office isn't doing so well is the previous five people who have held the position have met untimely ends. It turns out the man who runs the Clacks operation, Reacher Gilt (David Suchet) doesn't like competition and has employed the services of a Banshee assassin to shorten the odds in his favour. Initially the job's only redeeming feature for Moist is the head of the local golem union, Adora Belle Dearheart (Claire Foy, who is responsible for the well being of the parole officer assigned to ensure Moist doesn't do a runner.

At first Moist tries his best to see how he can turn this posting to his advantage somehow. Is there some angle he can work to allow him to turn this into just another score? In order to do that he will have to make sure the post office becomes a success, which of course puts his life at risk. While threat of death from Reacher Gilt might seem enough of a problem to deal with, there's also the disturbing fact the post office itself is haunted. Not by ghosts of people, but by the words of thousands and thousands of undelivered letters. They seep into his sub conscience and when he's asleep he has dreams which show him the consequences of his crimes.

Night after night he has nightmares of the people's lives who were ruined by his scams and sees what happened to them. One of those people was Adora's father who had invented the Clacks but had them sold out from under him when banks were forced to call in all their loans because of forged bonds created by Moist. Even before he witnesses Adora's family's misfortunes he was starting to feel remorse for what he had done. Of course when she finds out he was responsible he's even more distraught. However, instead of running away he is determined to prove to her he has changed by making the post office viable and bringing down Reacher Gilt who had squeezed her father out of the Clacks.
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While the people behind the production have done a wonderful job of creating the world in which the story takes place and created a script, with the aid of Terry Pratchett, that allows the story to unfold without feeling rushed or forced, its the acting that really carries the show. You'll never find more unlikely romantic leads as the characters of Moist and Adora, but Richard Coyle and Claire Foy do brilliant jobs of bringing them to life. Foy's characterization is especially well done as she captures both the tough shell Adora has put up to protect herself from being hurt after her family is ruined and the vulnerability beneath it. Needless to say she is livid when she finds out Moist was indirectly responsible, but even then she manages to convey she wants to believe he's sincere in his efforts to save the post office.

Richard Coyle matches her performance as his transformation from the callous con man who initially tries to see how he can turn the post office gig to his advantage to the person who genuinely wants to make it work is very believable. While he might have been initially motivated by a desire to impress Adora and win her heart, we watch as he becomes genuinely attached to the job and the people he works with. Of course there's the added bonus that by making the post office viable again Reacher Gilt will suffer. David Suchet does a beautiful job of making Reacher Gilt the type of character you love to hate. He manages to take his characterization right to the edge of overacting, but never crosses the line. As a result he is delightfully creepy - his smile alone is a thing of absolute beauty/evil guaranteed to make your skin crawl.

The wonderful thing about Going Postal is you don't have to be an aficionado of Terry Pratchett's work to enjoy this adaptation. While the story takes place in the universe of Discworld the author has created, you don't need to have read anything else by him to understand what's going on. Part of that is due to the fact that Pratchett wrote these stories with that in mind, but it's also because the people behind the filming have made sure not to assume their audience know anything about the world it takes place in. As a result even if you've not read any of Pratchett's books you should have no problem understanding what's going on and enjoying this DVD. The acting is superb, its beautifully filmed and its a great story - you really can't ask for anything more from television.

(Article first published as DVD Review; Terry Pratchett's Going Postal on Blogcritics.)

April 21, 2012

DVD Review: In Their Own Words


The invention of first radio and then television should have witnessed the birth of an age celebrating the sharing of ideas. The ability to communicate to a large number of people over great distances was the ideal opportunity to bring the formerly exclusive worlds of art, philosophy and science out of the ivory towers of learning and the salons of the wealthy into everybody's living room. Unfortunately that wasn't to be the case. Instead of presenting a wide range of ideas they've been used mainly as vehicles for the dissemination of propaganda or marketing goods. In fact, if anything, radio and television has resulted in fewer people having access to the arts or being exposed to diverse opinions and ideas as their content bears a striking resemblance to a modern version of the Roman "Bread and Circuses" designed to pacify the mobs and keep them from reflecting on the ills of society.

While nobody seems to question the argument the media are only giving the public what they want, what kind of choice are they offered? Oh sure a few underfunded public television stations in North America offer alternatives to the standard fare, but they spend most of their energies on trying to stave off budget cuts by those whose best interests is served in keeping the public placated and uninformed. What's even more frustrating are those few examples over the years of the media fulfilling its potential with programming exposing listeners/viewers to some of the world's most creative and innovative thinkers. For those who don't believe that television or radio shows consisting of people talking can be as captivating as any situation comedy, soap opera, day time talk show or cop thriller should take the opportunity offered by the Athena imprint of Acorn Media release of the two disc DVD set In Their Own Words on March 13 2012.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have done more to bring the words and ideas of some of the great English language writers and thinkers to the world than other television stations. In Their Own Words is a compilation of highlights of this type of programming from the twentieth century. From the early days or radio comes the only known existing recording of Virginia Wolfe talking about her work and the voice of Sigmund Freud discussing his then groundbreaking ideas on psychotherapy.
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With disc one devoted to English language, predominately British, authors and disc two to great thinkers of the modern world, viewers are given the chance to re-familiarize themselves with the famous who are responsible for not only the development of the written word as we know it today, but the philosophies and policies that have come to form the basis of our society. Economists, social critics and scientists broach their ideas on the welfare state, feminism, free markets, genetics, quantum physics and medicine. We watch and listen to the steady evolution of the novel from the days of the world's recovery from WWI through the angry young men of post WWII and as the joint influences of technology and immigration from the furthest reaches of Britain's former Empire came to bear upon its format and content.

Presented in the format of a documentary about its subject the set is more than a compilation of old recordings and footage of the writers and thinkers in question. What's almost as fascinating as hearing from the various parties involved is seeing the twentieth century being treated like an historical era. Having known people who had lived during every decade in the century I had never really stood back and observed it. Watching this set I was able to see how patterns that have occurred history were repeated during my own lifetime.

You also gain a real appreciation for how the pace of change sped up as the century progressed. On both discs the first two or three eras covered are defined by events. So they start with WWI - the years just prior, during and the years after and then continue with WWII and its immediate aftermath including the 1950s. However from then on change comes fast and furious. While the 1960s are one segment onto their own, after that major shifts in thought and policy seem to be almost yearly occurrences. Is it any wonder there was such an explosion of wildly different world views during this time? You have the rise of Thatcherism in Britain but at the same time there is a new wave of civil rights protests by both women and homosexuals.

It's against this backdrop we witness the changes that occur among both writers and thinkers. In the early part of the century both were still the preserve of the upper classes. Even those considered radical like the Bloomsbury group that produced Virginia Wolfe and others came from upper class backgrounds while the major thinkers, like Bertrand Russell, were all academics with little real world experience. It wasn't until WW II and after that we saw novelists from other backgrounds making their voices heard. While academics still made up the majority of people making contributions to our understanding of the human condition, economics and philosophy, as the century progressed their work can be seen to develop a far more practical application then before. For instead of presenting theories that spoke in generalities about ideas, they started to try and come up with explanations for things that went on in society.

The various programmes from which the interviews that form the basis of the set were culled for the most part allowed each subject to present their ideas and thoughts without challenging them. In some ways this was quite refreshing as it gives the viewer the chance to form their own opinions without somebody else's influence. However, in order to give us a better understanding of a subject's significance the film makers have also included interviews with both their contemporaries and current experts in the field. However they have done their best to keep editorializing to a minimum and restrict the commentary to explanation and comparison to what had come before. We still may not agree with what somebody has to say or believe, but we will gain a much better understanding of why they thought what they did and the process which allowed them to develop their thoughts.

Obviously In Their Own Words is limited as its subject matter is only British writers and thinkers. However, it still manages to give viewers a wonderful perspective on the evolution of thought and literature in the twentieth century. Of course being able to hear first hand from people like Kinglsy and Martin Amis, Salaman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, Graeme Greene, John Maynard Keynes, Jane Goodall, Martha Meade and the countless others who are the subjects of this set is somewhat amazing. The producers have done a great job organizing what could have been an overwhelming amount of material into a fashion that allows us to fully appreciate each voice and mind. Even better is they've taken material that has been stuffed in archives in some cases for nearly a hundred years, recorded on equipment we'd consider hopelessly primitive, and managed to clean them up sufficiently for us to have no trouble understanding those talking. All in all this is a must own for anybody interested in the history of thought and literature in the twentieth century.

(Article first published as DVD Review: In Their Own Words on Blogcritics.)

April 14, 2012

DVD Review: Shades


Most of us still wonder what will become of us after we die. While various religions try to reassure us that as long as we lead a good life here on earth we will be rewarded by an eternity of paradise, only the truly devout accept those promises at face value. What about those belief systems which insist we are destined to come back in different forms until we have gained the amount of spiritual enlightenment required to ascend to another, higher, plane of existence? Than there's the whole matter of ghosts, where do they come from and what's prevented them from either being assigned to an afterlife or taking the next step along the path to Nirvana?

While its difficult to find any religion taking an official line on the whys and wherefores of ghosts, one of the most common theories used to explain them is they are the spirits of people who had unfinished business here on earth. Until such time as they are either able to make peace with themselves or set their affairs in order they are stuck in sort of a half life. Some theories have them wandering among us invisibly, only able to communicate with those they loved indirectly, while other's have them able to appear as spectral type figures who are able to talk to us in spite of being almost transparent.

Ghost are most commonly depicted in popular culture as malevolent creatures intent on causing the living harm in revenge for some crime perpetrated against them when they were alive. Whether in movies or books they are most often associated with old abandoned buildings, long lost treasure or ancient temples protected by some curse or another. However, once every so often, the cliche is ignored and ghosts aren't merely a means to scare an audience, but are characters every bit as substantial as their living counterparts. Such was the case with the British six part mini series, Shades televised back in 2001 and now being made available on DVD in North America by Acorn Media on February 14 2012.

Maeve (Dervla Kirwan) and Mark (Stephen Tompkinson) never knew each other when they were alive but that doesn't stop them from being thrown together when they both die unexpectedly. She was killed by a hit and run driver and he died while undergoing a routine surgery to repair a hernia. While Mark's circumstances seem more poignant, his wife gave birth to their second child while he was dying, it turns out neither of them left behind an idyllic existence.
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Maeve had been having an affair with a married man and had been more focused on her career than relationships. Yet when she finds out her former lover wasn't just cheating on his wife with her, but sleeping with a friend of hers as well she is not only hurt but furious with both of them. Even though she tries to convince Mark she doesn't care what her former boy friend gets up to she becomes obsessed with checking up on him and finding out who he's "cheating" with. Mark, on the other hand, at first appears to have been a devoted husband and father cruelly deprived of the chance to see his son and daughter grow up. However it turns out he'd not been honest with his wife about their financial situation. An independent electrical contractor, his business had been steadily losing money for the last couple of years. The insurance policy that should have provided for his family after his death had been cancelled because he hadn't been able to make the payments. On top of that he had also left them with a pile of debts, including back taxes.

While both Maeve and Mark would dearly love to have direct interaction with those they've left behind, they soon discover anybody who knew them when they were alive is unable to see or hear them. They are able to communicate with strangers, but those people never remember meeting or talking to them. In fact, the second someone turns their back on them, they immediately forget they'd ever met them. This can lead to both amusing and rather sad consequences for both characters, but also means the only people they can rely on for anything are each other. At various times throughout the series they use each other to talk to those they cared for in an attempt to deal with their unfinished business.

Both Kirwan and Tompkinson do wonderful jobs of portraying the two ghosts. Initially their characters follow the same arc as they deal with the traditional three stages of grief; disbelief, denial and then anger, but from the non-traditional stand point of seeing it from the dead person's perspective. As a result they enjoy a sort of misery enjoys comfort relationship for the first little while. However the writers of the series took great pains to make sure that death didn't change them. The only way they're going to be able to correct the mistakes they made during their life is by learning the lessons about themselves they would have needed to learn had they kept on living. In order to do this they won't be able to simply wallow in self-pity or act like they did when they were alive.

One thing that puzzles them for the first little while is why they haven't run across any other ghost aside from each other? Where has everybody else gone? Then they meet an elderly man who is able to remember them from previous meetings. Curious as to why he has this capability they investigate and discover that he only has a short time left to live. As they get to know him they discover he has been keeping a secret from his wife. Finally, just before he dies he tells her and he dies happy. Maeve and Mark see him just after he dies, and he thanks them for giving him the courage to talk to his wife. However, the second they turn their backs on the old man he disappears, and they never see him again.

Now that they understand the only reason they're hanging around is because they have unfinished business to take care of most series of this sort would have Maeve and Mark happily fade away into some sort of eternal bliss by miraculously finding a way to deal with their own unfinished business. However, the writers of Shades haven't been doing the expected, i.e. read sentimental, route throughout, and they don't start now. Just because someone's dead doesn't make them any more insightful then they were when they were alive. I'm not going to spoil the ending of the series for you by telling you how its resolved. However, I will say that it stays true to the way the story has been told all along and it makes perfect sense considering the characters and the plot.

Whether you believe in ghosts or don't, Shades is a beautifully told story about two people thrown together under very peculiar circumstances learning to make the best of it. Well acted and intelligently written, it tackles the subject of death and survival with humour and sympathy without once stooping to cheap sentimentality. Whether seen through the eyes of the two central characters or through those they've left behind, the series never strikes a wrong note. It may not be exactly what happens after we die, but its definitely one of the more interesting takes on the subject you'll see in a long time.

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

November 24, 2011

DVD Review: Case Histories - With Jason Isaacs

The policeman with the troubled past as a plot line for television shows and movies has been used to the point where its coming close to being a cliche. The worst of these has the cop nurturing some dark secret resulting in him bordering on a brooding sociopath who exacts bloody revenge on the criminal class. If I have to sit though one more flashback of a young hopeful cop coming home to find his wife and infant daughter slaughtered by a junkie looking for the money for a quick fix I might explode. You can pretty much be guaranteed at some point finding the cop either sitting in a bar staring into a drink or exploding in a senseless range.

What truly strains my credulity about these plots is in the world of modern policing most forces frown on officers having personal agendas influencing their behaviour. Not only do they now have police psychologists who would be quick to relieve anyone so inclined of their duties, the last thing they want are accusations of excessive force or police brutality screwing up a conviction. Anyway, why is it a cop's answer to his troubled past always violence? There are other ways people react to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Thankfully it turns out there are script writers who understand and have started to create characters who aren't quite so simplistic. As is often the case the best of these characters are being created for British television shows with the most recent example being the six part series called Case Histories. Now available as a two disc DVD set from Acorn Media, it was adapted from the works of British crime writer Kate Atkinson featuring the character of Private Investigator Jackson Brodie.
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Brodie, portrayed brilliantly by Jason Isaacs (Best known as Lucious Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) has previously been a soldier and then a cop. While he deals in the bread and butter of private investigation work, checking on cheating spouses for insecure partners, he seems to have a particular affinity for missing persons and cases where the trail has long since gone cold. We also learn early on that he is haunted by a memory from his childhood. It turns out his sister was murdered and his older brother was so guilt ridden he attempted suicide and has ended up catatonic in a nursing home.

While it sounds like we're headed into the typical brooding cop type thing mentioned earlier, the series manages to avoid that pitfall. Instead of having Brodie losing himself in a glass at the end of each day, the fact that his sister's killer has never been caught dictates his choice of cases. The other thing we quickly learn about him is he doesn't wallow in self pity. Instead the memories of his sister's death seems to have increased his sense of compassion towards both those who are victims of crimes and their families. He might never find out who killed his sister or have been able to protect her, but he's not going to let another murder go unsolved, allow someone to be victimized or to suffer needlessly.

While this white knight riding to the rescue sounds like it shortened his career as a police officer, we're never really told why he left the force. However,we do know the only cop he's on good terms with, DC Louise Munroe, played by Amanda Abbington. We do find out during one of his visits to Munroe at work that he somehow managed to have two cops suspended for apparently not pursuing the capture of a rapist as thoroughly as Brodie would have liked. Whether that happened while he was a cop or more recently isn't made clear, however it does explain why uniformed officers casually call him "wanker" whenever they see him.

However strained his relations are with the rest of the police, and no matter how much he might piss her off periodically, Munroe not only has a great deal of respect for Jackson's skills as an investigator, she also covers for him on those times he skirts around the edges of the law. As the series progresses the nature of their relationship actually becomes more not less confusing. Both of them become involved with other people, but they always seem to be drawn to each other, and you have the feeling with a little bit of encouragement they could become a couple. There's very little said overtly, but both actors are wonderful at communicating what's between the lines through the manner in which they each behave around the other.

It's like they both realize any relationship between the two of them wouldn't be casual, and they'd better well be damn sure about it. Both have had previous marriages and each has a child. It's not said what happened to Munroe's, but it's pretty obvious that Brodie's wife just couldn't put up with his work hours. It quickly becomes apparent that as far as he's concerned there's no off duty hours when he's on a case. He even takes his five year old daughter with him when he goes off to interview people, which thrills his ex-wife no end when she finds out.
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One of the great things about this series is the arc we're able to watch the character of Brodie travel. When we first meet him the death of his sister dominates his life. When his ex-wife announces she and their daughter will be moving to New Zealand for a year, he freaks. It's not just because he will be separated from his daughter whom he loves, but because he can't shake the belief something horrible will happen to her if he's not there to protect her. Even after he finally resigns himself to their going, he still can't let go. It hasn't helped that the cases he'd been working on prior to them leaving were two involving young girls who had gone missing thirty and about sixteen years ago respectively and two unsolved murders.

However its the last case he takes on in the series, after his daughter has already left for New Zealand, that helps him to finally begin to resolve his own issues. After a teenaged girl saves his life when he's injured in a train wreck, she convinces him to investigate the disappearance of the woman she baby sits for. It turns out this same woman had only just escaped being murdered as a child after watching her mother and daughter be cut down in front of her by a knife wielding crazy. She had managed to escape by hiding in the the tall grass near to where the murder took place. It was there she was found by a young soldier named Jackson Brodie who was part of the search party looking for her.

Now all these years later he's searching for her again and while he finds her and brings her home, he also sees how she was able to protect herself. Not everybody is a victim, and he begins to realize he can't and shouldn't try to be everybody's saviour. Sure he should do what he can for his daughter, but he also has to let go. Isaacs depiction of Brodie's transformation is so gradual you barely notice it happening over the course of the six episodes. However, when you look back at how he was when we first met him and compare that to the man we see on the television screen in the final frames of the series, it's like a twenty ton weight has been taken off his shoulders.

All through the series we've seen him running for both exercise and an attempt to run away from his past. However hard he runs though, his mind can't help but travelling back to the day he saw his sister's corpse being found. In the last frames of the show we see him crest a hill while running and looking around himself with a smile on his face. Case Histories is not your typical crime show and Jackson Brodie is not your typical private investigator. The cases he takes on are intriguing and following along with his investigations is as interesting, if not more, than any other series of this type. However it's the study of Brodie the character and Jason Isaacs's performance which elevates this show into a category all its own.

The two disc set contains all six episodes of the series plus a fifteen minute bonus, making of , short. While there's no real startling revelations in the feature, the interviews with Isaacs, Amanda Abbington and author Atkinson are interesting for the perspectives they offer on the characters in the show and the author's intent with creating the series. However, it's not the extra features that make Case Histories special, it's the show itself. If you weren't able to catch it on your local Public Broadcasting Station recently, than you need to watch it now. It ranks right up there as one of the best mystery/crime shows to come out of Britain in the last few years.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Case Histories Starring Jason Isaacs on Blogcritics.)

October 27, 2011

DVD Review: Smiley's People

It's said that nothing can earn you enemies faster than being right. It seems like most people would prefer the status quo be preserved no matter what the consequences. In the televised adaptation of John Le Carre's (the pseudonym for british writer David Cornwall) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy we saw how retired spy George Smiley, played by Alec Guinness, uncovered the deeply planted Russian spy, a mole, in British intelligence. In one of the final scenes of the series he tells the upper echelon of the agency, also known as The Circus, that he has been appointed the new head of the service. So it comes as something of a surprise to find out in the sequel series, Smiley's People, now reissued in a new three disc DVD set by Acorn Media Group, as of October 25 2011, that he is once more on the outside looking in.

What you don't know if you hadn't been following Le Carre's books, was another book, The Honourable Schoolboy continued the story of the Circus in the days immediately following the uncovering of the mole. With all his agents known, or blown in the terminology, Smiley was forced to recall everyone in the field and close down every outpost in the Circus' empire. However, after months of pulling in their horns they were finally able to launch one caper in an attempt to recoup some of their lost glory and regain a measure of credibility with the only ones who matter, The Cousins, American intelligence. Even as Smiley is putting his pieces into careful motion, manoeuvring in the corridors of power have started to have him replaced by someone less old school and untarnished by any associations with the betrayer. By the end of the book, in spite of scoring a huge intelligence coup for the Circus, Smiley is out and the new order has taken over.
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Of course as both Smiley and us now realize, there's only so far you can retire from the secret life. In Smiley's People he's once again he's called out of retirement by the Ministry responsible for The Circus. However, this time they don't want him leading an investigation, they want him to cover up something that might be potentially embarrassing; something that doesn't quite mesh with the new urbane image the service has been at great pains to cultivate. An ex Russian military officer, known simply as The General, who had formally spied for them has been murdered. Unfortunately just prior to having his face blown away by a high calibre bullet he had called The Circus requesting an emergency meeting with Max, his code name for Smiley. He told the agent who answered the phone to tell Max he had proof.

Only Smiley is willing to believe there is something behind his former agent's phone call. Everybody else dismisses it as an old man's desire for attention. Instead of following orders and merely making sure that nothing about the man's life can be traced back to The Circus, Smiley decides to investigate and discover whether the proof is what he thinks it might be. As we discover in a flashback years earlier the agent had approached Smiley with information they believed could bring about the downfall of the head of Moscow Centre, Karla, the very man who had recruited the mole in British Intelligence. At the time Smiley had told him that he needed more proof. Was this the urgent message The General was trying to deliver when he was shot, the proof required to bring Karla down?
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Smiley uncovers two pieces of seemingly unrelated evidence. The first is a letter from a Russian emigrant , Madame Ostrakova ( played by the remarkable Eileen Atkins) living in Paris, containing the story of how an obvious Russian spy has approached her with an offer to let her illegitimate daughter, who she hasn't seen in nearly twenty years, leave Russia and join her in the West. All she has to do is fill in an application at the Russian Embassy in Paris requesting she be allowed to immigrate, and the papers will issued. However after months of hearing nothing from either the Russian government or her daughter she is wondering what has happened. Her late husband had always told her if she ever needed any help with anything she should contact The General. The second piece of evidence is a negative that when developed shows two men and two women in bed together.

Watching Guinness make the rounds as George Smiley again, first trying to piece together the two pieces of the puzzle he's been left behind by dead men and then setting an operation in motion in order to snare the biggest prize of his career, is a joy. He's a different person from the rather self-effacing civil servant we met in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. There's a layer of anger to him that wasn't there before. Anger at the mole who betrayed the Circus, but also anger at the Circus for what he sees as their betrayal of all his generation stood for. If they had only taken the General seriously he wouldn't have been killed. Even worse, if Smiley hadn't disobeyed orders by investigating, nobody would have followed up and they would have missed out on the biggest intelligence coup of the Cold War.

Somehow Guinness is able to convey all of that within his performance. The slight edge you hear in his voice, the bite of impatience that creeps in when he's dealing with petty officials and the air of overall fatigue he seems to exude at times when he thinks nobody is looking. Everything seems to be weighing on him now; the people he's known who have died and the moral ambiguity of his own work. At the end when he's congratulated by another character -"You've won George" - his half questioning response of "Have I?" makes you wonder what it must be like to have dedicated the majority of your life to something, only to find yourself questioning its validity as your career winds down.
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While Guinness is giving another tour de force as Smiley, the supporting cast is once again universally strong. Aside from Atkins my personal favourite was one of the returning actors from the previous series, Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase, ex Circus agent, now dodgy art dealer. In "Tinker Tailor" his character had affected a British accent in an attempt to climb the ladder in the service, but now he's allowed his Hungarian roots to show through in his speaking voice. At first Smiley goes to him for help in tracking down information, then they work together to implement the operation. His character is a delight first as the dubious art dealer he's become after leaving the service and then as the field agent called back in for one last hurrah. He has some of the best lines in the series as far as I'm concerned: "There's Degas and there's Degas, George, it's sort of a grey area" he responds when questioned about a statue's provenance and "When dealing with creeps like that you need a creep like Toby Esterhase guarding your back George" is how he words his request to be included as part of operation. It's the way he says the latter with a note of pride in his voice that makes him so wonderful.

First aired back in 1982 Smiley's People is just as potent a piece of television today as it was back then. It not only features fine performances and a great script which brings the book it was based on to life wonderfully, it does a fine job of showing just how little separated one side was from the other during the Cold War in the world of espionage. Special features on this three DVD disc set are again limited to filmographies of the cast members and an interview with Le Carre about the series. However, nothing can detract from the fact this is another fine example of how to adapt a book to the small screen and somebody fully realizing television's potential.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Smiley's People on Blogcritics)

October 26, 2011

DVD Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Television has often disappointed me as a media because of both its failure to live up to its potential and its willingness to sink to the the lowest common denominator. Unlike movies which are limited by time constraints and the need to make huge returns at the box office, television productions are relatively inexpensive to produce and can be released episodically in order to tell a story properly. Unfortunately this capability is mainly wasted now on so-called reality shows or glorified talent contests. The occasional gems produced by cable stations have become fewer and fewer as the years pass. Even British television, once far superior to its American counterpart, is no longer the reliable source for great television it once was.

Of course memory can play tricks on you, and it's easy to deceive yourself into thinking the past, or the good old days, were better then what's on offer today. So when I requested a copy of the newest DVD version of the television adaptation of John Le Carre's (the pen name for British author David Cornwall) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy being released by Acorn Media Group on October 25 2012, I hoped it was as good as I had remembered it being from watching it on television some thirty years ago. I needn't have worried, its not only as good as I remembered it being, its even better.
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For those of you somehow unfamiliar with John Le Caree, he pretty much single handed changed the face of spy fiction as we know it today. Instead of James Bond style sex, glamour and violence he gradually introduced us to a world of furtive observers, back room manoeuvring and the faceless civil servants who were the backbone of British intelligence during the height of the Cold War. George Smiley, the quintessential faceless civil servant, was first introduced as a minor character in one of his early works, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. His first "starring" roles were in Call For The Dead and A Murder Of Quality, but these were just warm ups for his taking centre stage in what is probably Le Caree's most well known book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

When a loose cannon field agent shows up after mysteriously vanishing spinning a tale of a Russian agent highly placed in the British intelligence agency known as The Circus, Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate whether or not there's any truth to the man's claims. Through a series of flashbacks we see how both George and his former boss and mentor, Control, were forced out. The Circus had been suffering from a series of failures. Agents captured in the field, spy networks arrested and sources of information going dry. All of a sudden a new source appears promising to deliver the innermost secrets from the Kremlin and Moscow Centre, the Russian equivalent of the Circus. Control smells a rat and sets out to prove the information is false and that one of his senior agents is a mole - a Russian spy who was recruited when he was young and has gradually worked himself up into a position of authority. Unfortunately the mole is one step ahead of Control and sets him up for one more disaster. As a result a British agent was captured in Eastern Europe and worst of all the events make the newspapers. When the dust settled Smiley and Control were out, and those who supported the new source were in.
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Once brought up to speed on the events of the past, we then follow Smiley as he begins the painstaking process of tracking back through the files, interviewing other former agents about what happened on the night the British agent was captured in Eastern Europe and finally tracking down the agent in question and hearing his story. At every step he discovers somebody has been doing a very careful job of trying to cover his or her tracks. Agents have been warned off and fired who had any information that either lends credibility to the mole theory or discredits the new wonder source.

What's remarkable about this televised version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is how beautifully it manages to translate the process of Smiley's investigation from the book to the small screen. Instead of rushing the information out in blurts and speeded up chunks, we are allowed to witness the whole story unfolding before our eyes. From the whispered instruction Control gives his chosen agent before sending him off to Eastern Europe in the hopes he'll come up with the name of the spy, the agent eluding possible tails on his way to meeting his contact and his eventual capture, to each step of Smiley's path on his way to pushing the mole out into the open, in one way or another the entire book ends up on screen. Very smartly the scriptwriters, Le Caree being one of them, make use of visuals to tell the story when able, and fill in whatever blanks that might have been left behind further on down the line. So if you are confused by what's going on at anytime during the show, don't worry, it will all come clear in the end.

However, the best thing about this series are still the performances. Simply put, Alec Guinness delivers one of the best performances of his career as Smiley, if not one of the best performances ever seen on television. In television everything takes place in a very tight focus, there are no vast vistas like film and very few long shots for an actor to hide in. Almost the entire time Guinness is on screen, he occupies the centre of the frame if he's not in a close up. The slightest twitch communicates volumes, and Guinness never over or underplays his performance. From the polishing of the glasses that was Smiley's most famous characteristic to his sudden displays of authority while conducting interviews and interrogations, he works with the camera to create one of the most fully realized characterizations I've ever seen on television.
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Of course Guinness isn't the only actor in the series, and the entire cast is a wonder. Ian Richardson and a young Ian Bannen (you might just recognize him as the same actor who played Jackie in Waking Ned Devine) in particular do stand out jobs as the intellectual and urban Bill Haydon and the agent Jim Prideaux, who was captured in Eastern Europe, respectively. You'll also notice Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame in a small but important role. No matter how small the role, each of the actors involved with the production are letter perfect. They go about their business calmly and sedately, lulling one into believing they are all simply minor functionaries in some obscure branch of the government. Yet every so often you are reminded that what they are so casually discussing over tea and biscuits around the board room table are things like Russian troop movements in Eastern Europe or reports on the inner workings of the Russian secret service.

The three disc DVD set contains all six episodes from the television series first broadcast back in 1979. Naturally the sound and visual quality are not quite what were used to, but that is more than compensated for by the quality of what you see on the screen. While the bonus features are primarily limited to things like cast filmographies, there is a wonderful interview with John Le Carre, in which he discusses everything from his experiences helping write the script for the show to his memories of Alec Guinness preparing for the role of Smiley.

This adaptation of John Le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when television lives up to its potential. No movie could afford to take the nearly six hours required to create such a stunning adaptation. The series might have been first broadcast more then thirty years ago, but it's still by far some of the best television you're liable to ever watch.
(Article first published as DVD Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on Blogcritics.)

August 27, 2011

DVD Review: Murphy's Law, The Complete Collection

I'm sure many have noticed how some actors seem better suited to one type of role than another. It's like they are only capable of handling a certain range of emotions, or playing a certain type of person with any credibility. However there are some actors whose talents are such not only are they perfectly capable of handling any role offered them, the characters they play come to life on screen or stage. Mainly this is due to their ability to render them as multidimensional and multifaceted as real human beings. Somehow they are able to not only enact what is required to tell the story being presented, they are able to tell the character's story simultaneously.

As we go through our daily lives each of us carries around an involved personal history which impacts our decision making process. Even though it very rarely bubbles through to the surface, the actor who is able to bring that sense of personal history to their portrayals, is far more convincing in his or her performance than another. Whether an audience is aware of them doing it or not, they recognize something in the character that helps them identify with him or her. Instead of being merely a one dimensional figure, they are fully developed characters who are far more believable than most of the ones normally seen on screens.

After watching the box set of Murphy's Law, The Complete Collection, being released by Acorn Media on August 31 2011, what sticks out the most is the quality of the acting of everybody who appeared in the series, and especially James Nesbitt's performance in the lead role of undercover police officer Thomas Murphy. Over the course of the five seasons the series ran we watch as Murphy's job evolves from being undercover as an observer in an effort to find answers to a crime (In the first episode of Series Two he pretends to be a homeless man in an effort to find the person who killed a fellow officer) to acting the role of a hardened criminal in order to gather evidence against various crime figures. As this involves winning the criminals trust, there are times when he has to play fast and loose with the laws himself and observe things that sicken him without reacting.
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While he lays on the stereotype of the comical Irishman, always ready with a joke and a laugh, to cover over any of his reactions to what he observes, there are times when the veneer cracks. Sometimes it's nothing more than him having to state into a mirror to make sure his mask in place, other times it's a certain deadness in his eyes and, when he's off duty, he'll go on drunken binges in order to dull his pain. By the time the fifth season comes around he's barely able to hold it together. Two fellow undercover officers, he had been their contact on the "outside - their cover officer, go missing on the job. The guilt and anxiety he feels over their disappearance manifests itself in anger and frustration at his fellow officers, the amount he drives himself to find them and the depth of his emotional reactions as he uncovers some of the secrets behind their vanishing.

While Nesbitt is wonderful, the rest of the actors in the various casts are equally as talented. While the first two seasons had each episode being a complete investigation onto itself, which didn't allow for much character development among the criminals, the final three seasons were each made up of multi-part episodes dealing with one case. In each we become as close to the criminals as Murphy does. While there are those who you're not going to spare any sympathy for, Series Five in particular deals with smuggling people in from Eastern Europe and trafficking young women as prostitutes, there are also times when even when we don't like the person in question we learn enough about them to understand how they ended up being the people they became.

Series Four in particular is wonderful for this as we are introduced to two brothers. Both former Loyalists - Protestant Irish who carried out terror attacks against Catholics - Drew, (Liam Cunningham, and Billy Johnstone, Brian McCardle, have left Belfast Ireland and moved to England upon being released from jail. As they had both been violent criminals into drugs, robbery and assault before they were jailed, when violence starts to erupt in the housing estate they now live in they are immediately suspected. However, the elder brother Drew claims to have converted to Muslim in jail and renounced the ways of violence and crime.

Ironically, while initially the police don't believe in Drew's conversion, it turns out to be genuine. It also turns out to be one of the reason behind the recent crime spree as his younger brother Billy longs for the days when it was him and Drew against the world. He gets it into his head if he can drive a wedge between Drew and those people who have "taken his brother away" everything will go back to the way that it was. It's only when we learn that Billy's mom, dad and sister had all died when he was ten we begin to understand the level of his panic at losing the only world he'd ever known. What he does might be reprehensible, but he ends up being so pathetic we almost feel sorry for him. The real victim of the series is Drew, who was genuine in his desire to turn his life around. We see him struggling with his demons and look to be winning the battle, but history and circumstances tear his dreams apart.
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Of course in order for there to be such good characters the writing and direction of the series have to be excellent. While British television excels at this sort of thing, Murphy's Law set's a new high water mark in crime dramas for others to reach for. While the episodes are always intense right from the start, over the course of the five series they become progressively darker and more involved both in their plots and character development. The more we learn about the lives led by undercover police, men and women, the more it makes us wonder why anybody would take on the job. For months on end they have to live completely isolated from their families, not able to trust anybody. Never able to let their guards down they must always stay in character and occasionally run the risk of, as one officer puts it, "going native", or crossing the line from doing what's necessary to get the job done to becoming who they're pretending to be.

While we don't learn the exact reasons why others do this kind of work, what we know about Murphy's past offers some insight into what could motivate an officer to take it on. His daughter had been killed by the IRA when they kidnapped her in an attempt to make him bomb his own police station. He loses himself in the danger of the work and the different people he portrays in order to run away from his feelings about what happened. Unfortunately he doesn't count on the fact there are just as many opportunities for emotional upheavals that only increase the amount of pain he feels. The work also prevents him from functioning in the "real world" as he's become so used to hiding behind masks he no longer knows how to deal with real individuals. This is depicted beautifully in Series Four where, when he's not dealing with the Johnstone brothers, he's trying to help his father cope with his mother's Alzheimer disease. It's heartbreaking to watch him attempt to offer comfort to his dad, hesitantly reaching out his hand to touch his shoulder as if he's not sure that's what he's supposed to do.

While the nine DVD set of Murphy's Law, The Complete Collection might not contain much in the way of special features - a written out biography of James Nesbitt and his notes on Series Four - the material is so brilliant that it is sufficient reason in itself to own the set. The writing, the direction and acting are of a calibre that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Even the musical score, especially Edmund Butt's for series 1 through 4, are amazing. Instead of overwhelming the action with melodramatic music that only points out the obvious, it compliments everything that happens on screen. So subtle you barely notice it, the music is like an extra actor who somehow adds atmosphere and colour to each episode. It all adds up to, with Nesbitt's performance leading the way, to being not only one of the finest police dramas ever made, one of the best pieces of television I've ever seen, period.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Murphy's Law - The Complete Collection on Blogcritics.)

June 21, 2011

DVD Review: George Gently, Series 3

While there are a number of difficulties facing any film or television company who sets their project in the past, most of them are easily overcome with just a little research. How did men and women wear their hair, what were the clothes like and questions about interior design can all be answered through a few trips to any library or museum. Shows set in recent history have it even easier as magazines and other media can usually be counted on to at least give an idea of what was fashionable during the time in question. However, while there is usually no problem in dressing a period piece, other, less tangible aspects, of recreating an era present far more difficulties.

Probably the most difficult of these is to try and recreate societal values and present them without comment, no matter how different they might be from those held by contemporary society. The more recent the history, the more difficult the task becomes as the differences become less cut and dried as attitudes evolve towards ones closer to our own. Complicating the matter even further is having to take into account how the pace of change came at different rates of speed to different areas. This was especially true in a country like England in the early 1960s where the impetus for change ran into into the stone wall of propriety and tradition. While there were some voices calling for change, many, from all walks of life, were happy to maintain the status quo.

However, change can't be put off, even in the remote areas of Northumberland where Inspector George Gently, former London cop, has settled in an attempt to start over again after the death of his wife. George Gently: Series 3, being released on June 28 2011 by Acorn Media Group finds Gently (Martin Shaw) and his sergeant, John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) having to navigate through uncharted waters as they investigate two very different murder cases. In both Gently Evil and Peace & Love they are forced to deal with issues which to us might seem run of the mill, but in that era were barely heard of, let alone dealt with publically.
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In Gently Evil a young woman of questionable reputation is found brutally murdered in her apartment. Just prior to the murder neighbours heard voices raised in argument and one even witnessed a man running from the apartment. Unfortunately his eyesight is unreliable and can't be positive about what the person looked like, only that he sounded like he had a Scottish accent. The murder victim turns out to have been a mentally unstable young woman whose family had committed her at one point. In her small flat they discover a birth certificate for the woman's daughter on which she has crossed out the father's name and replaced it with Satan. Both the daughter and the woman's ex-husband were in town that night, and while the daughter was forbidden to visit her mother, it soon comes out that both husband and child had been at the apartment. When the husband confesses to the murder, angry at his wife's promiscuity and taunting he claims to have killed her in a fit of passion, the case seems closed.

However, there are too many loose ends for Gently, and as he starts to follow some of these threads to their centre the picture that begins to develop is hard for him to believe. First the case starts tie in to the mysterious death of a young child a year earlier. Then, first one child almost wanders off and another disappears, from a local camp ground near where the previous child's body turned up dead. When it turns out the murdered woman's brother has some connection to each case, Gently and Bacchus come to the obvious conclusion. Yet how does all this tie into the woman's death? Even when they discover the ex-husband wasn't the child's natural father it doesn't get them any closer to discovering the real culprit or uncovering the horrible secret behind the murder of the young woman, the missing child and the dead child from the previous year.

The remarkable thing about Gently Evil is not just the way the case is handled without sensationalizing the circumstances, but in the reactions of all those involved with the case as it unfolds. Ingleby, whose character's marriage has fallen apart and is only able to see his young daughter once a week, does an especially fine job depicting the anger of a man riddled by his own guilt over being a negligent father when he questions people about the children who have disappeared. In fact, from beginning to end, the reactions and actions of all the characters to a set of circumstances (unfortunately I have to be vague or I risk giving spoiling the story) beyond anything they've previously experienced, are as multilayered and complex as the situation deserves.

While Peace & Love, the second episode of series three, is not as complex as the first, it still deals with a couple of the cans of worms which were being opened during the era. Protests against nuclear weapons started as early as the 1950s in England so a demonstration against submarines armed with nuclear missiles being docked in the local shipyards is almost to be expected even in Northumberland. What's not expected is the murder of the university professor responsible for organizing it. However, the more Gently and Bacchus find out about the victim, the longer the list of possible suspects. There's any number of young female students he'd slept with, especially the most recent who he's just dumped and who is pregnant with his child. There's also a fellow professor who was once his lover who has any number of reasons for being pissed off at him.
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Spending time on campus bring Gently and Bacchus face to face with the societal changes which has barely rippled the surface of the stolid Northumberland waters until now. Free love, open dissent, revolution, ban the bomb and all the baggage, including soft drug use, are not what either man are used to. While Gently is old and experienced enough to look on most of it with a rather benign amusement, unless it contravenes a law or results in people being hurt, Bacchus is nowhere near as sanguine in his reactions. In fact, despite his youth and supposed "hipness" the younger officer is far more conservative and easy to shock than his superior. Again Ingleby does a wonderful job with Bacchus. Confronted by a young woman who takes the initiative, in any way that you can imagine, he is quickly thrown for a loop and left retreating in confusion.

As the two officers wade through the maze of university, sexual and radical politics in order to solve the murder of the much hated professor and the subsequent murder of a young man who had been an early suspect, they discover no matter how many changes take place in society, the motivations for murder remain the same. Blackmail, guilty secrets, ambition, thwarted desires and moments of blind passion have stood the test of time and no amount of sexual liberation or demonstrating against Polaris missiles are going to make a difference. Once Gently and Bacchus discover which of the above ties in with the murder, discovering the murderer isn't far behind.

The fascinating thing about both episodes of George Gently, Series 3 is how well they have managed to recreate the time period they are set in. The two cases under investigation delve into areas which might seem commonplace to our eyes, but in the early 1960s were either not talked about or would have been considered too far fetched by most to be believed. Part of the key to their success is how well they've managed to avoid imposing twenty-first century standards on the characters as their reactions to what they see are not only completely in character, but are also in accordance with the beliefs and prejudices of the times. We might be a little appalled by what they say or how they act, but to have them be otherwise would have made the show far less believable.

George Gently, Series 3 comes in a two disc DVD set with 5.1 surround sound. (Its also available as a single disc Blu-ray as well) As has been the case with the previous two seasons of this show the acting from the leads down to the smallest parts is impeccable and the scripts are both attention gripping mysteries and revealing looks at a society in the midst of change. England in the early 1960s was just starting to recover from the trauma of WW II and the split between those who lived through it and those who were born after was just starting to come to a head. It was a messy time with one side desperate to throw aside the conventions of the past and the other just as keen to hold on to them. Watching George Gently and John Bacchus navigate through this world is a treat you really shouldn't deny yourself any longer. There's only one shortcoming in this year's version; only two ninety minute episodes, which while wonderful, leaves you wanting more. Thankfully Series 4 is scheduled to start airing August 2011 in England, so hopefully it will end up on disc over here soon after.
(Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently, Series 3 on Blogcritics.)

April 28, 2011

DVD Review: Doc Martin The Complete Collection: Series 1 - 4

When people think of small town doctors the usual image that comes to mind is of a kindly old gentlemen who has known most of the people in the vicinity since he helped usher them into the world. He always has a friendly word of encouragement for the young person with the broken arm, can be counted on to make house calls in the worst of weather, and is generally considered to be one of the pillars of wisdom in the community. While it's a lovely image, the person probably never really existed outside of the minds of screenwriters and other Hollywood types.

If for some reason you've been hanging on to that image a sure fire cure for it is now available through Acorn Media in the form of the nine DVD box set Doc Martin Collection: Series 1 - 4. Doc Martin, (Martin Clunes) is the antithesis of the genial country doctor. A former London surgeon he was forced to give up his practice when he developed a phobia which would cause him to vomit and feel faint at the site of blood - a decided weakness in somebody performing surgery. Not wanting to give up medicine entirely, he applies to take over the practice in the village of Portwenn, Cornwall, the same village he used to summer in as a child.

Neither the good folk of Portwenn nor Doctor Martin Ellingham are quite prepared for each other. Ellingham is used to the highly impersonal world of a big time surgeon where patients are usually unconscious and a bed side manner is something you leave to the underlings and nurses. Portwenn's inhabitants, on the other hand, are used to a doctor, who, while he might not have been quite the stereotype described earlier, came pretty darn close to living up to it. He'd known most of those in the town and surrounding area since birth and leavened his health care practice with his knowledge of the individuals in question. In his time the doctor's surgery (In England a doctor's office is referred to as a surgery) was not just a place to go when you were feeling sick, it was also a social event with tea, cookies and chat on offer.
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To say that Doc Martin has a few issues when it comes to interpersonal relationships is putting it mildly. He's rude, blunt, intolerant of those he considers fools (most of Portwenn) and is completely useless at small talk. These deficiencies are compounded by his stubbornness, the absolute belief in the fact he is always right and the fact that he's emotionally repressed to the point of being crippled. While he's obviously a brilliant doctor and over qualified for the work required of him as a General Practitioner in a small town, after only a few days in Portwenn he just about manages to alienate the entire town with his behaviour.

Now if this were your typical sit-com or even drama series you could predict what would happen. Eventually the town would come to love Ol' Doc. Martin and learn to see the soft-hearted man hidden beneath the crusty exterior. In his turn the Doc would learn to appreciate the spirit of small town life and come to respect the inherent wisdom of his neighbours. Well don't hold your breath waiting because over the course of the four years of the series so far the Doc is just as patronizing and condescending as he was on the day he arrived and would no more look to his neighbours for advice than he would the fish so many of them catch. For their part the villagers do come to appreciate the fact they have a top notch doctor, but don't go looking to him for the milk of human kindness or a sympathetic ear.

How is it than that as viewers we can stand watching the doctor in action? Wouldn't one season of watching him bully his clients and generally being an arrogant prick, let alone four, be a little too much to bear? It would if it weren't for the fact there is more to Martin Ellingham than what he shows the world. Thankfully the writers are smart enough to ensure we see far more of the Doc than just his attitude towards the fools surrounding him and also gradually fill us in on his history. We learn why and how he developed into the person he is sufficiently to appreciate his character more and more as the series develops. There's also the fact that a good deal of the time the people he treats are as big as fools as he thinks they are and we can't help but sympathizing with him for having to put up with people who wonder why they are sick after living on a diet of roadkill.
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Of course the series wouldn't be complete if there wasn't some sort of romantic interest. In this case its provided by the local school's headmistress Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz) There on again off again romance not only keeps the locals wondering, but the viewing audience as well. While for the villagers it might be what the hell does she see in him mixed with will they ever get together, for us at home its wondering whether Doc will ever find the courage to overcome a lifetime of repression and fear to tell her how he feels. Their relationship is marked by his mishandling of any moments of intimacy that do happen. Instead of allowing himself to experience and enjoy them he barricades himself behind a wall of medical professionalism that allows him to ask her about her dental hygiene after a particularly passionate kiss.

Her natural reaction of storming away - actually chucking him out of the cab they're sharing at the time - is completely understandable to everybody except poor Martin. Yet neither of them can deny they are attracted to each other. Like magnets who keep switching their polarity they push each other away periodically only to feel the pull of attraction to the other just as strongly, if not more so, as before, and come back together again. The best thing about their relationship though is how while there are moments that are genuinely funny, the writers of the series never play it for laughs. We want them to succeed and end up as a couple, but we can also understand why they just might not ever manage to.

It's this adherence to reality that makes the series so effective. It would have been easy to populate the village with types with stock phrases guaranteed to fetch laughs or write episodes which ended with warm hearted feel good moments that unite the town and the doctor. However the people who live in Portwenn have to work for their living and while they may come up with inventive ways to hurt themselves and illnesses that are occasionally off the beaten track, they are true to their environment and real people. Which means that while they may be grateful to Doc for saving somebody's life or figuring out why a person is sick, that doesn't mean they have to like him any better than they did before.

The myth of the small town doctor has been perpetuated to the point of nausea in films and television. Doc Martin is not only the perfect antidote to all that saccharine, its funny, thoughtful and a pleasure to watch. It doesn't hurt that the series was shot on location in Cornwall so the scenery serving as the backdrop for the stories is breathtaking. The new nine disc set containing all four seasons, Doc Martin The Complete Collection: Series 1 - 4 (A fifth series is currently being filmed) might not keep the doctor away but it will make you very happy. The special features include some behind the scenes footage and written cast biographies. The discs are set up for 5.1 surround sound and subtitles for the hearing impaired or those who trouble with some of the thicker regional accents in England.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Complete Doc Martin Collection - Series 1 - 4 on Blogcritics.)

March 31, 2011

DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs Series 1 - 40th Anniversary Edition

My parents finally broke down and bought a colour television in 1973. At the same time they also decided that in order to get full value for the set they would try out what was still a new concept, paying to receive television channels, and signed up for cable television. Prior to then television had been free to everyone and with a good enough arial you could bring in all the stations you wanted. However, there was never any guarantee of quality, or of being able to receive certain channels all the time. Cable, on the other hand, assured us we would not only have consistent picture quality, but we would always be able to receive the stations they offered.

Naturally, as a kid I was thrilled. It opened up a whole new world of television. Living in Canada we were pretty much limited to what was offered on the two Canadian stations of the time and what could make it up from the States via the antenna. However, I soon realized I wasn't the only one who was receiving benefits from the increase in service. What I hadn't known was my parents had very sneakily purchased cable television not with my best interests in mind, but for their own selfish reasons. They wanted to be able to watch Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS) from the United States without having to worry about service interruptions.

It was an appalling predicament, as all of a sudden I was in competition with my parents for use of the television. It never seemed to matter if there was something on that I wanted to watch, no priority was given over to what they wanted to watch. To make matters worse, the damned PBS station always seemed to be running something they liked during prime time at least one or two nights a week. However, the night I came to dread most, and basically gave up on ever being able to watch anything ever again on, was Sundays. How I came to loathe Alistair Cooke and Masterpiece Theatre.
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Although it wasn't the first show broadcast on the program, the one I came to identify most, and by extension loathe the most, with it was of course Upstairs, Downstairs. To a twelve or thirteen year old male the program was almost incomprehensible. First of all the women were not only all clothed, they were covered from the neck to the feet, secondly nothing ever seemed to happen. It was close to an hour of people seeming to do nothing but sit, or stand, around and talk about, well, nothing. Yet my parents were glued to the television almost from the moment it began broadcasting in North America until it went off the air five years later.

Of course in latter years I discovered what all the fuss was about and now in celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the show's first airing Acorn Media is releasing box sets of each year's episodes, starting with Upstairs Downstairs Series 1: 40th Anniversary Edition March 29 2011. The 4 disc set not only contains all thirteen episodes from the first year, it also offers viewers a chance to see an alternative pilot episode that never aired in North America, and the first part of the documentary The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs. For those of you who have somehow still not managed to see any of this classic piece of British television, this set will get you well on the road to discovering why people would be riveted to their television sets every Sunday night for weeks on end when it first aired in North America.

On the surface it might not sound like much; a show set in the first years of the twentieth century that deals with the goings on in the very wealthy Bellamy household in London England. The Upstairs of the title refers to the aristocratic family who owns the house, while Downstairs is in reference to their servants, who live and work behind the scenes making sure everything is just the way it should be. Like I said, doesn't exactly sound like very entertaining stuff. However, unlike the majority of what is aired these days, instead of relying on flash and bang to draw an audience in, the show's writers and directors assumed their audience not only had a brain, but an attention span which could focus on something for more then thirty seconds.

The combination of superlative acting, intelligent scripts and careful attention to historical accuracy - including social mores, dress, behaviour and, most importantly, the British class structure of the time - works together to create not only a fascinating portrait of a bygone era, but wonderful theatre. The two worlds, the Upstairs and the Downstairs, are so far removed from each other, that neither really has a hope of understanding the other's reality. Even though they both occupy the same geographic territory, they live in separate planes of existence. For members of the Bellamy family can easily sit in a room and treat any servant sharing the space with the same amount of regard as they would the wallpaper or a piece of furniture until they require them to perform some task for them. The servants don't exist as individuals when they are Upstairs, they are defined by their function.
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However, appearances are deceptive, and as we discover the deeper we go into the series, it only seems like the Upstairs and the Downstairs are separated by an insurmountable divide. Aside from the fact that the Bellamy family depends on their servants to do everything from feeding to clothing them, and the servants depend on the family for their livelihood, we begin to notice there is another type of bond holding them together. While mutual respect might be stretching things to describe how they feel about each other, there's a sense that both groups are aware of their interdependence, which in turn breeds a certain level of trust between them. Certainly there's something paternalistic in the way Upstairs treats the servants, as they will often talk of them in the same manner as they would children. However their concern is genuine, and taken in the context of the times is more than enough to explain the servants loyalty.

The episodes in this first season do an excellent job of bringing to life both the lives the servants and the family and the relationship between the two. It's interesting to see how the only times conflicts develop between them is when the barriers separating the two worlds come down even a little. You can't be a master and a friend, as the family's son, James Bellamy (Simon Williams) discovers. Unfortunately he's not the one who suffers as he is protected by his position and his class, while the servants could end up not only losing their jobs, but their home. So when the older servants in the household, the butler Hudson (Gordon Jackson) or the cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley) offer the advice of "know your place" to younger servants, it's not just to keep order, but is sage advice on how to protect themselves.

In part one of The Making of Upstairs, Downstairs series co-creator and star Jean Marsh, she played the house maid Rose, tell us how the series came about and the story behind the extra pilot included in this collection. At the time the pilot was being shot television in Britain was just making the switch to full colour. Camera crews had been given pay increases to reflect the extra work they were having to do with the new equipment and the sound people all of a sudden they needed more money as well because, as Marsh says, having to record in colour. So in order to prevent a strike and get the pilot shot, it was originally filmed in Black and White. However that episode was never shown in North America, because it was decided to re-shoot it in colour before broadcasting it over here.

While the show is brilliantly acted and wonderfully written, and the producers obviously spared no expense in recreating the era through sets and costumes, forty year old television is still forty year old television. So the quality of the picture and sound aren't going to be what you're used to. However, whatever technical deficiencies the set might suffer from, they are more than offset by its substance. Upstairs, Downstairs was shot in the days when television had to rely on scripts, directors and actors to hold an audience's attention instead of special effects or pseudo reality/voyeurism. While it may take you a while to get used to the slower pace if you exercise only a little patience you'll discover this fiction is probably one of the most realistic programs you'll ever watch. It still might not appeal to twelve your old boys, but for the rest of us Upstairs, Downstairs remains one of the best examples of television living up to its fullest potential.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Upstairs, Downstairs Series One - 40th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.)

March 22, 2011

DVD Review: Murphy's Law, Series 3

Your life is a lie. Each day you wake up is another day you continue to live that lie, and if somehow you slip up and make a mistake you'll die. For weeks, months even, you pretend to be someone else and are constantly in danger of being found out and killed. Even worse are the things you have to do in order to preserve that lie. Watch with approval as people do things that all your instincts cry out for you to interrupt. Sometimes it's not enough to just sit back and watch, you have to join in, and tear another hole in your soul.

When does the lie cease to be a lie and become reality? Does there come a point when you cross the line and become who you're pretending to be? How do you hold on to the vestiges of yourself when everything you do is in direct opposition to what your conscience tells you is right? Do you ever find, to paraphrase Frederick Nietzsche, that by staring into the eyes of the dragon too long you start to become the dragon? It's hard to imagine there are people who would willingly put themselves into the type of position described above. However, as is brilliantly depicted in the Tiger Aspect production Murphy's Law, Series 3, now available on DVD from Acorn Media, that just about describes the life of an undercover police officer.

Detective Sergeant (DS) Tommy Murphy, James Nesbitt, is an undercover officer for the National Crime Squad working in London England. Those who have seen previous episodes of the show will know he's pretended to be everything from a bent cop to a homeless alcoholic in the course of his operations. While he's had to deal with difficult situations in the past, the six episodes making up Series 3 take him down roads that are darker and more twisted than any he's walked before. Unlike previous years where each episode has been a stand alone story, on this occasion the operation he's involved in is spread out over the course of the season's six one hour shows. As a result we watch everything he has to endure in order to get a result.
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What starts off as a simple attempt to catch people willing to buy illegal firearms, Murphy is posing as a supplier and armament expert, gradually turns into a far more elaborate sting operation. When the person who shows up for the initial meeting, one Caz Miller (Michael Fassbender) tells him the gun will be used for a murder, Murphy refuses to sell him a gun but offers his services as a contract killer. It's hoped that by doing this he'll not only be able to prevent a murder from taking place, but be able to bring down not just Miller but whoever is responsible for ordering the hit as well. It's this spur of the moment decision that begins his long and dangerous journey of the soul.

It tuns out Millar's boss is somebody the police have been trying to catch for a long time, but have never been able to accumulate sufficient proof to nab him. Dave Callard (Mark Womack) is a known cop killer (A frustrated senior officer says "Two hundred witnesses just happened to be in the loo" on how Callard was able to get away with beating the cop to death in the street), and drug dealer who has been gradually giving himself the gloss of legitimacy through front operations. When the connection between Millar and Callard becomes clear, those higher up in the force decide this might be the chance to bring him down and direct Murphy to start infiltrating his organization in order to accumulate evidence against him.

They first fake the murder of Collard's target by bringing him into police custody and offering him witness protection in return for supplying them with evidence of Callard's illegal activities. After proving his worth as a hit man, Murphy is gradually drawn deeper into Callard's operations and starts to gain his trust. However, just as he thinks they're about to pull Callard in for possession of hundreds of thousands of counterfeit Euros, a bigger fish appears on the scene and the officer in charge, Detective Superintendent Reece (Michael Feast) insists they put everything on hold so they can check out the nature of the new arrival's involvement.

While a good deal of the action takes place with Murphy undercover, the show also does a great job of showing the amount of work going on behind the scenes in this type of operations. One of the more interesting characters is DS Paul Allison (Owen Teal) Murphy's "cover officer". His job is to ensure Murphy's fake identity can stand up to any digging the target might do into his background. In this case that includes creating and entering into the system a false criminal record in his name, finding him a place to live, creating ID and coming up with any sort of documentation he might need at any time, for any occasion. Including a program for a funeral when Murphy has to come up with an excuse for missing a meeting and says his uncle died.
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Even more fascinating is the relationship between the two men. While the two characters are old friends and Murphy trusts Allison completely, it doesn't stop the latter from being a mixture of parent and confessor for the former. When Murphy sleeps with the wife of the man he supposedly murdered and looks to be developing feelings for her, Allison gives him holly shit for his unethical behaviour then lies to Reece in order to prevent him from finding out about the incident. When Murphy starts to go off the rails because the case is dragging on for far longer then was anticipated, it's Allison who both brings him back on track and convinces everybody else that Murphy is up to doing the job. In many ways Allison is the only real friend Murphy has, and knows him better than anybody else. He is Murphy's life line, the reminder of who he really is and what he really stands for.

Most police procedurals seem to think a one hour time slot is more than enough time to solve a crime no matter how complicated it might be. If you're lucky you may get a two or even three part special. Spaced over the course of six full one hour episodes (that's no commercials and about fifty-five minutes a pop) Murphy's Law, Series 3 gives the writers not only time to allow events to unfold in a much more naturalistic manner, but allows them to spend plenty of time with Murphy himself. Given that type of latitude, an actor of James Nesbitt's quality can't help but give what can only be deemed an incredibly special performance. While everyone in the cast is remarkable his performance is simply one of the best I've seen in a police television series before.

While he rarely allows Murphy to show any moments of weakness, even when he's off the job, things come up through the cracks periodically, He lives a life of almost complete isolation with no family nor friends outside of whomever is on his team at the time and the criminals he's associating with. His sleeping with Ellie, (Georgia Mackenzie) the wife of the man he "killed", is brought about by his genuine feelings of affection for her and his loneliness. Of course it also makes him hate himself for doing it, as he knows she would never have slept with him if she thought her husband were alive, and he's taking advantage of her grief. The layers of lies he is forced to live while undercover takes him places that tear him apart inside, and Nesbitt's depiction of what Murphy goes through because of Ellie, gives the viewer a clear indication of the effects this can have on a person.

Murphy's Law, Series 3 is not only an excellent police drama, it is also an incredible peak behind the scenes into the life of an undercover police officer. I've never seen another show on television to compare to this for the starkness of its depiction of the life people like Tommy Murphy have to lead in order to do their jobs. On top of that the show makes no attempts to hide any of the moral ambiguities associated with this type of work and in the process reminds us the gap between those who commit the crimes and those who prevent them isn't as wide as we'd like to think. For while there's no doubt who the good guys are, they tend to think a little too much the same as the bad guys for comfort. You might just end up agreeing with Callard when he tells Murphy at the end, "I could have been you and you could have been me". Only a really good television show would be brave enough to say that, and only the best of those have the ability to create a world where it is believable. This is one of those shows.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Murphy's Law, Series 3 on Blogcritics.)

February 1, 2011

DVD Review - Discovering Hamlet

Having worked, read lived, breathed and died, in theatre for a little over a decade, I'll never be what would call a passive observer of the action taking place on a stage. In fact I'm probably the person you least want to sit beside when your in the audience of your local community theatre's production of anything. If you thought the critic from your paper was a snot, before the first scene is over you'll probably want to have me physically removed from the theatre. If its not the muttering under my breath about incompetent actors who shouldn't be allowed on stage, it will be because of the constant shifting around in my seat as I fight the urge to stand up and demand the show be closed down.

And that's just for those occasions when people are hacking their way through summer stock fare like Noel Coward or Neil Simon. When it comes to anybody foolish enough to try and attempt even the simplest of Shakespeare's work thinking if Mel can do it why can't I, I turn from being merely insufferable to deranged. Usually the only difficulty I'm faced with under those circumstances is figuring out what is pissing me off the most, the fact nobody understands what they're saying or how they attack their speeches like sprinters attempting a world record in the 100 meters.
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I refuse to apologize for any appearance of snobbery or elitism these attitudes might convey, for having experienced the magic and wonder of seeing Shakespeare performed by those who know how to speak the language, anything less is tantamount to sacrilege. Unfortunately the opportunities to see these works performed at those standards are few and far between if you don't live in a major metropolitan area or a community like Stratford Ontario, which hosts a professional Shakespearean festival every year.

Well, if you can't go to Shakespeare the next best thing is to bring it into your home. The new, two disc, DVD package of Discovering Hamlet, from the Acorn Media Group, provides the viewer with not only a chance to see great actors at work, but also provides some insight into what goes on prior to what you see on stage opening night. The first disc is a documentary made of the rehearsal process for a 1988 production of Hamlet directed by Derek Jacobi and starring Kenneth Branagh.The second disc features extra footage from the film, including extended versions of the interviews with the actors in the play, choreographing the stage fight between Hamlet and Laertes that ends the play and hanging out backstage with the actors at the opening night party.

In 1988 Branagh was just on the cusp of international renown as his film version of Shakespeare's Henry V would be released shortly after this production of Hamlet closed its run. He had already established himself as the next rising star of British classical theatre and was now set to climb the next rung on the ladder. As the director of the play, Derek Jacobi, says in an interview conducted many years after the film was made, the role of Hamlet is see as a bell-weather mark for classical actors of a certain age. All the great ones, and he listed Olivier, Gielgude, Richardson, Redgrave, Burton, and then shyly included himself, took on the role at roughly the same point in their careers and it was now Branagh's turn to put his stamp on it. The impression we're given is not only was Branagh tackling one of the more challenging roles in classical theatre, he was also feeling the pressure to step into the shoes of those who came before him. So not only does he have to learn an amazing amount of dialogue and create a character, he also has to do so knowing that his performance will be compared with those who have come before and judged accordingly.

If you think that's a daunting task wait until you hear the rest of what he's up against. Hamlet was being presented by Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in repertory with two other works by Shakespeare. Meaning, he was not only spending his days in rehearsal, at night he was performing in one of two other plays as well. The company has only four weeks with which to pull the production together with a first time director at the helm. For while Jacobi was, and is still, an accomplished actor, this was to be his first, and he now claims his last, directing job. As Jacobi is the first to admit, just because someone is a gifted actor, it doesn't mean they will have any talent for directing.
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The movie, which is narrated very capably by Patrick Stewart, joins the actors and director in the first week of rehearsal and then follows them though to just before Branagh walks on stage opening night. We don't actually see his performance, although we do see clips shot during the final dress rehearsal, but what the movie does is show us the process both actors and directors go through in preparing a play as complex and difficult as Hamlet. If nothing else, viewers will gain a far better understanding of just how much work it takes to bring a piece of professional theatre to life on stage. The actors not only are in rehearsal for close to eight hours a day, they are also expected to learn their lines when they're not rehearsing and are expected to have them memorized by the third if not the second week. (The fight scene I mentioned earlier was choreographed outside of the normal rehearsal hours, meaning the actors involved had to show up early that day.)

However, don't be looking for anybody giving away any acting tips or hints on how to mount your own production of Hamlet. In fact I had forgotten how frustrating it can be to talk to actors and directors about their process for developing a character or staging a play. It's not that they don't know what they're doing, it's just not the sort of thing you can easily articulate to people who are not directly involved with the project you're working on. While the woman (Dearbhla Molloy) playing the role of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, says something about drawing upon her relationship with her son to help her prepare for the role, that's the closest any of the actors come to talking specifics about what they did to help them prepare. Even when we overhear the rehearsals via the camera, it doesn't make much of a difference as everybody seems to be talking in a shorthand incomprehensible to those who don't work in theatre. At one point we watch Jacobi giving notes to his actors - telling them things they need to work on to improve their performance - and while his words obviously mean a lot to his actors, the fact that he's telling them they need to listen to each other more instead of anticipating their lines will probably mean nothing to those who haven't worked in theatre in some capacity.
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The other thing you have to be aware of is even when the camera does capture some of Branagh's, or any character's performance for that matter, it will seem like they are overacting horribly. This is when you realize the huge difference between film and stage acting. Aside from having to memorize the whole script at once instead of merely whatever pages you'll be shooting on a day, actors are also having to make themselves understood by people who are as much as 200 feet away from them without using any amplification when they are on stage. On film they will look ridiculous because of the mediums tendency to exaggerate even the smallest motion. (In the interview conducted years later with Jacobi, the director of the movie asks him what he thinks is the biggest challenge facing the classical theatre today. Jacobi's answer is actors have become so reliant on amplification few know how to use their voices sufficiently well to handle the nuances required to perform Shakespeare live anymore.)

Discovering Hamlet won't tell you very much about the process of putting on a play or creating a character. However this glimpse of life backstage and in the rehearsal hall does help you realize there is real magic in the world of theatre, although it might not be quite what you were expecting. The magic is how these seemingly perfectly normal looking people, wearing jeans and t-shirts for the most part, transform themselves into princes, kings and queens. Perhaps after watching this two DVD set you'll begin to understand some of my frustration with watching less than stellar performances of Shakespeare. For while it might not allow you to experience the excitement of seeing the play performed, the glimpse you are offered of actors preparing will whet your appetite to seek out the plays as they should be seen. On stage and performed by actors who are able to fulfill Hamlet's instructions to the company of travelling players he hires in Act III scene 3: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had lief the town crier spoke my lines."

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

December 28, 2010

My Top Ten DVDS 2010

This is something new for me, in fact its a first. In all the time that I've been critiquing I've never put together a list of the movies/DVDs which have appealed to me most in a year. So what's so different about this year that all of a sudden I feel compelled to inflict my opinions on you? Looking over the list of movies I've selected the only reason I can think of is because none of them are ones that are going to be getting much, if any attention, elsewhere.

Let me be clear, I've not put this list together just because they are the ten most obscure movies of the year, they just happened to be ones that I've liked the most from those released this year on DVD that I've reviewed. There are other movies I've watched this year I might have liked more, but they weren't current releases or I didn't review them. (Primary among those was the film adaptation of Arturo Perez-Reverte's books set in 17th century Spain, Alatriste with Viggo Mortensen in the title role. It's taken me nearly two years to find a copy of the movie as its never been released in English speaking North America, but if you can get your hands on a copy of the South American DVD do so as its a brilliant film) However, that does not diminish the worth or quality of the titles listed below as each has something of value to offer an audience.

You might not necessarily be entertained, and I wouldn't recommend sitting down and watching all ten of them back to back, but the viewing will never be boring. I've never been a big fan of the passive entertainment that's normally on offer in our multiplexes and cinemas, and the list below is reflective of my tastes, so my choices aren't likely to have much in common with similar retrospectives. Hopefully you will be intrigued enough to follow the links to check out the full reviews and maybe even watch one or two of them. They may not be what you're used to, but they're all fine examples of the art of film making and the power of visual communication.

Che: The Collectors Edition. This three disc collection contains both parts one, The Argentinean and two, Guerrilla of the movie tracing Ernesto "Che" Guevara's life as a revolutionary. From his success in helping Fidel Castro overthrow the American backed Batista government in Cuba to his death in Bolivia, we follow him through the jungles of South America. While there're obviously going to be disputes over his place in history, hero or villain, there can be no disputing this is an excellent movie and that Bencio Del Toro gives the performance of the decade in the title role of Che. Complaints have been made that the movie ignores the executions he ordered and is biased, but after more than a century of a pro American bias in history books, the media and film when it comes to Latin America, isn't it about time we see and hear something representing another opinion?

The Yes Men Fix The World. About a month ago the mighty oil company Chevron was publicly embarrassed when their new ad campaign was subverted by press releases under their logo announcing they were taking full responsibility for all the environmental damage they've caused. Naturally they were outraged and said they would never admit to any wrongdoing or take any responsibility for any actions they may or may not have done. The Yes Men had struck again. Andy Bichlbuam and Mike Bonanno have been doing their best to take the corporate world to task for decades. They've done everything from go on live television as representatives of Union Carbide Chemicals promising to finally clean of and provide proper compensation for the disaster in Bhopal India to appearing as representatives of HUD in New Orleans after Katrina announcing the government had changed their mind and would rebuild all the public housing destroyed in the hurricane.

This movie documents the various actions they have taken around the world, showing us how they go about preparing for events, and just how gullible most of the corporate world really is. Unfortunately, as they are the first to admit, while they may be having a good deal of success increasing public awareness of what corporations like Chevron are up to, they're not having much success in stopping them. While corporate America might claim to be victims after a Yes Men prank, after watching this movie you have to wonder how that's possible. A multi billion dollar corporation on one hand - two guys, some friends, a good graphics program and a whole lot of chutzpah on the other hand, and the former are the ones crying foul because they're being called on their failures to take responsibility for destroying the world and the deaths of thousands of people? After watching a documentary like The Yes Men Fix The World you begin to understand why the world is in such a mess and how much work we still have to do in order to have a hope in hell of fixing it. At first this is a bit of a laugh, and although it ends hopefully, the overall impact is the realization we need millions of Yes Men if we ever hope to change the world.

Lost In La Mancha. Anybody who has any illusions left about the film industry will quickly have them dashed after watching this documentary about Terry Gilliams attempts to film an adaptation of Don Quixote. What was supposed to have been a project on the part of two film students, follow the director of a major motion picture through the process of making a movie from pre-production to screen, ended up becoming a record of the insanity involved in producing a film in today's market. As Gilliam discovers there is little or no room for artistry or imagination in this world as all anybody is worried about is the box office after the fact, not how you get there. The truly depressing thing about this documentary comes at the point when you realize the potential being lost with this movie remaining unmade. Without being overt, but just by letting the facts speak for themselves, Lost In La Mancha shows just how far removed film making has removed itself from anything close to representing an artistic vision.

Black White & Grey. I'd wager that most Americans who even think they know something about the visual arts wouldn't be familiar with the name Sam Wagstaff. However if you have any interest in photography as an art form, according to this DVD, its Sam you have to thank for it being considered something other than a poor cousin to painting and sculpture. The movie traces Wagstaff's career in the arts from a curator who championed experimental art in the early 1960s, an independent collector of first objects d'art and then photographs, to patron of the arts through his championship of his lover, the brilliant but controversial photographer, Robert Maplethorpe. As is usual with this type of film a great deal of what we learn about the man comes from other people's opinions, and some of the talking heads are just a bit catty and should be taken with a couple of tons of salt. However, people like poet and rock singer Patti Smith not only provide a good deal of insight into Wagstaff's motivations for collecting, but go behind the rumour and innuendo in describing his and Maplethorpe's relationship. While remaining relatively unknown outside of those active in the art world, without people like Sam Wagstaff it is impossible for a country to reach its potential culturally. Not a visual artist himself, he had an eye for knowing what was real and the courage to champion unpopular work. This is a moving portrait of one of the great unsung heroes of contemporary art in North America.

The End Of Poverty?. Anyone out there who still doesn't consider the economic imperialism of the developed world to be the root cause of poverty in Africa, South America and Asia needs to watch this movie. Interviews with economists, historians and individuals from various countries whose lives have been effected by the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank show both how the system works and its results. When a country is forced to allow foreign corporations to develop their national resources so they receive little or no economic benefits and have no say in how the development takes place the situation is bad enough. When the raw product is then shipped overseas for processing and then sold back to the country again at usurious prices the effects on their economy are crippling. It's more than obvious after watching this movie that the answer to the question of the title is, there is no end in sight when it comes to poverty. You may want to deny what your hearing and seeing at first. but the arguments and testimony are too compelling to be ignored. By the end of this film you will have to agree there is a serious problem and the only way it can be addressed is if we radically change the way we treat the developing world.

Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam. This is rock documentary with a difference. Inspired by Muslim convert Michael Muhammad Knight's novel The Taqwacore he and a collection of Islamic punk bands head out on a barnstorming tour of the US with their ultimate destination being the Islamic Society Of North America's national convention. When the tour is over, the cameras and Knight then follow one of the bands over to Pakistan where they are attempting to start a punk movement in their parents' homeland. For Knight it is also a chance to re-visit the mosque where he first studied after converting and to continue his exploration of his new faith by visiting the shrines of various Sufi saints. While a bit rough around the edges the movie does a good job in not only capturing the excitement felt by the young people involved in the tour and their fiercely independent attitude - best expressed by Knight as giving the finger to both Bush and fundamentalist Muslims. The movie also introduces us to Knight, a figure of interest for having converted to Islam at seventeen, and we learn he is a very complex and intelligent man not afraid to take responsibility for past mistakes and willing to accept the challenges converting throw at him. A fascinating portrait of a man that will also offer viewers a far different view of Islam than is normally seen in popular media - a view that as many people as possible need to see.

A Single Man. Aside from being one of the most beautiful examinations of life and death ever depicted, a wonderful script, and amazing cinematography this film should be compulsory viewing because of Colin Firth. Maybe there have been more flamboyant performances by an actor in a movie before, but this, to my mind, has to have been one of the most complete I've ever seen. Everything, from his body language to the way he uses his voice conveys something of his emotional state every step of the way through the movie. Their is such grace and economy of movement in everything he does that you almost forget he is acting. It's still beyond me how he could have failed to win the Oscar for best actor. If you haven't seen this movie yet, do so now as its brilliant.

Leonard Cohen: Bird On A Wire. In 1972 Leonard Cohen was probably at the height of his international popularity as a singer/songwriter. On his twenty concert tour of Europe that year he was joined by documentary film maker Tony Palmer who followed him with cameras on and off stage from Dublin Ireland to Tel Aviv Israel. For various reasons the film was never released and it was only in 2009 Palmer was informed the raw footage had been found in a warehouse in Los Angeles. After a year of restoring and doing what he could, he came away with this remarkable portrait of both Leonard Cohen the individual and Leonard Cohen the performer. You'll be surprised at both Cohen's sense of humour and the intensity of his passion. While there are obvious deficiencies in the sound quality, the tour was plagued by equipment trouble, the concert footage is wonderful for its intimacy and the way it captures the connection Cohen has with his audiences. While one movie will never be enough to reveal Leonard Cohen, this one does a remarkable job in peeling back some of his layers.

Infidel. There are occasions when a little irreverence is a lot better than a ton of seriousness, and this movie is proof positive of that. Completely without shame this movie makes fun of fanatics on both sides of the Muslim Jewish divide without ever losing sympathy for the individuals caught in the middle. Omid Djalli plays a British born man who is the son of immigrants from Pakistan. Naturally he has always assumed he's a Muslim, but when his mother dies he discovers not only was he adopted but he was born to Jewish birth parents. At first he tries to overcompensate, making blustery anti-Zionist comments, but soon he decides he must get in touch with his real roots. He turns to a Jewish taxi driver, Richard Schiff, who teaches him dance steps from Fiddler On The Roof, how to shrug and say Oi-vey and other essentials of Judaism. This movie is bound to offend people on both sides of the issue who take themselves too seriously, and brings a much needed human face to the divide between the two faiths. People tend to forget that Jews and Muslims are kin from way back, and its politics which truly separates them not religion. Hopefully this movie will help us all remember the things we have in common are more important than those which divide us.

Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother If you ever needed proof that notoriety is probably the worst enemy of art, this two DVD set is a perfect example. Each DVD contains footage from one of the last two public readings American poet Charles Bukowski ever gave. Over the years his rough and honest poems and his vivid descriptions of the rough life of an alcoholic garnered him a literary reputation as a great writer. Unfortunately far too many people were unable to separate the man from his work and would show up at his readings in the hopes of seeing some "action". So while the record of the two readings does give us a great idea of his abilities as a writer, we also quickly see why he stopped giving public readings more then fifteen years before his death. He can barely get through a poem's introduction without being heckled, and is reduced to having to yell at the audience to shut up so he can keep reading. Even his occasional reminders that they paid for him to be there, and he'll happily sit there and say nothing if they don't shut up, doesn't stop them from acting like idiots. It's a real pity, because if they bothered to listen they would hear between the lines the real beauty and pain that he describes in his poems and might just realize he's not anything like they think or expect. Watching these movies lets you know just how much our expectations of those we call celebrities can actually destroy the art we claim to appreciate.

(Article first published as My Ten Best DVDs Of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

October 19, 2010

Movie Review: Reel Injun

I don't normally write articles that receive a lot of comments, but twice I struck enough of a nerve with people that they responded in the hundreds. One was on everyone's favourite topic, gun control, and the other was on the use of Native Americans, First Nations in Canada, as mascots in sports teams. I was astounded at how many people couldn't get their heads around the fact that a race of people would be offended by being equated with the San Diego Chicken or other figures of ridicule that dress up in costume and generally run around making fools of themselves at public events.

The most common argument I heard was these mascots were honouring the brave fighting spirit of Native Americans and how it should be taken as a compliment not an insult. What these people seemed to forget is that when you reduce a people to one characteristic they lose their humanity as we ignore every other aspect of their culture. If you want to honour Native Americans maybe you should teach students in schools how one of the models for the American Constitution was the Iroquois Confederacy and their system of governance, instead of creating cartoon figures who have little or no bearing on the realities of Native American life across North America.
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You can't really blame the sports teams and fans though for the mascots. These representations are merely an extension of the way in which Native Americans, and indigenous people everywhere, have been portrayed in popular media since the 19th century. From Buffalo Bill's depiction of the slaughter of men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek as a glorious triumph for the 7th Calvary to contemporary New Age books selling "Native wisdom" the culture of over five hundred different nations has been exploited and distorted with depressing regularity and with little concern for reality. Now Canadian film maker Neil Diamond, a Cree Indian from Northern Quebec near the Arctic Circle, has made a documentary tracing the history of Hollywood's representations of Native Americans. While its already made the round of Film Festivals last year, Reel Injun will have its American television debut on the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) show Independent Lens November 02/10.

A mixture of film clips from the earliest silent movies and interviews with film critics, actors, directors and Native American activists, Reel Injun not only shows how Native Americans have been depicted on the big screen over the years, it also explores the effect these negative stereotypes had on Natives. It seems like the camera has always loved them, as the first films ever made, Thomas Edison's back in the late 19th century, were of Laguna Pueblo dances. They were also the first peep shows to be shown in Times Square in New York City; put a penny in the slot and watch the savages dance; and there is something almost pornographic in the lurid black and white images of the dancers caught by this early camera.

Still, the early days of silent film, when technology was simple and cheap, actually saw movies being made by Native Americans about Native Americans depicting the realities of their lives at the time. It wasn't until the "talkies", and more specifically Westerns, came along that the problems began. Diamond himself talks about how as a young kid the only movies he saw on his reserve were the ones shown in a church basement on Saturday afternoons and how he and his friends would never identify with the Indians on the screen when a Western was shown. First of all none of them wore feather head dresses or rode horses, and secondly who'd want to be the bad guy?

Ah, but that's the past you say, and things have changed since then. Look at Dances With Wolves with its sympathetic portrayal of the Lakota for example. While its true, according to some of the film critics interviewed in Reel Injun that it was a watershed in the way it depicted Native Americans as multi-dimensional humans, it was still an outsider's view of what Native life was like, and a distorted one at that according to some. Russell Means, a Lakota and former leader in the American Indian Movement, was offended by the depiction of his nation requiring some "white guy with a mullet" to teach them how to fight. The people who defeated Custer at Big Horn didn't need "Lawrence of the Plains" to teach them anything.
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In fact, while most interviewed agreed, including Clint Eastwood, John Trudell, and Native film critic Jesse Wente, individual performances by people like Chief Dan George, Graham Greene and Gary Farmer, were invaluable in changing people's perceptions of the one dimensional stoical Indian, it wasn't until Native Americans began making films about Native Americans that real change occurred. Smoke Signals, based on a story by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, was set on the Spokane reservation in the state of Washington. Nobody was wearing feathers, riding a horse or talking in pidgin English, The characters lived in the modern world and dealt with the day to day shit that concerns most Native Americans today.

However, even Eyre says that his movie was made with the wider world in mind, and it wasn't until the release of The Fast Runner by Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk was there was a film by, about and for Native people in North America. Winner of the Camera d'or for Best Feature Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, Fast Runner was set a thousand years ago among the people of the far north. Shot entirely in the language of the people, it was a gritty and real representation of what life was like in the days before contact with Europeans. There was nothing glamourous or holy about the life depicted - it was just who they were and what they had to do in order to survive.

That's a long way from the days of Chuck Conner playing Geronimo or Native actors being told they didn't look "Indian" enough to play themselves. However stereotypes die hard and its going to take a lot more movies along the lines of The Fast Runner before the image of noble savage is erased from people's minds. Perhaps the days are gone when young Native boys are going to be beat up after Saturday afternoon matinees like Russell Means and his brother were for being Injuns, or be made to feel ashamed of their heritage because they only see themselves as villains on the screen. However movies like Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and their honest depiction of Natives are still in the minority and reach far fewer impressionable minds than Disney's Pocahontas with its depiction of a real woman as a Barbie Doll Indian Princess.

Reel Injun might be light hearted in tone at times, but it tackles a serious subject with directness and courage. Many people who watch this movie aren't going to be happy as it cuts the legs out from under American icons like John Wayne and Western movies in general. However there were lots of people who thought segregation was a good thing too and we know how that turned out. Not all Native Americans are noble, great horsemen and very few of the ones I know talk to animals anymore than I do. For those who don't understand what all the fuss is about when people complain about mascots or how Natives are depicted in films, if you keep an open mind when watching this film, you'll come away at the end of the hour with a far better understanding of why it hurts so much.

(Article first published as TV Review: Reel Injun on PBS on Blogcritics.)

June 30, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Countdown To Final

For some reason I only ever seem to watch the World Cup every eight years. I doubt I could have told you before this year's started who had won in 2006 (Italy), while I watched almost the whole of the 2002 tournament. Of course that year I was pretty much a captive audience as I was in a hospital bed for the majority of the tournament. I went into hospital for surgery during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and was in until almost the final game of the World Cup. Four to five weeks of being in a hospital bed has you searching pretty desperately for distraction, and so that year the World Cup was a welcome diversion.

The years when I lived in Toronto, Ontario - up until 1990 - you couldn't help noticing when the World Cup was being played. As one of the most ethnically diverse city's in the world there's a fair chance that every country participating in the tournament will be represented by a segment of its population. It was especially difficult to ignore when Italy, Portugal, Brazil or Greece, are involved as they each have both large communities and specific neighbourhoods where their populations are concentrated most heavily. (In years when Portugal have been eliminated they naturally switch to supporting Portuguese speaking Brazil - the chance of a Portugal versus Brazil final this year will make for some interesting times down in Little Portugal if it becomes a reality). This year I have a feeling that World Cup fever in Toronto has been somewhat restrained up to now with the downtown core being turned into a police state for the G20/G8 get together. There's something about running battles between protesters and police, burning cars, barricades, and the constant din of helicopters patrolling the skies that tends to cut down on the festive mood.

The attraction for me this year has been the locale; for the first time ever the tournament is being held in Africa - specifically South Africa. That was enough to have me start tuning in for the group stages via the live stream offered by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). Usually these early rounds are fairly boring as the teams are all trying to find their feet so to speak, and while there have been some startling results in opening games in the past, by the time the group stage ends the old order usually reasserts itself with the same old names leading the way into the round of sixteen. While there was still some truly remarkably boring football played, (The BBC commentators the CBC uses were constantly bemoaning a lack of goals in the early games) by the time the dust had settled, while some familiar names remained, it was obvious the old order was changing.

France, who only qualified for the tournament through a disputed goal, and reigning champion Italy failed to advance; England only managed to score two goals in three games and barely qualified; and Spain, favoured to win it all this year, lost their opening game to Switzerland and only scrapped through by the skin of their teeth. While Europe was treading water trying to stay afloat, South America's representatives had no such problems. Of the six teams five advanced, with only Honduras falling short. While Brazil is always expected to compete, in their usual Eurocentric fashion the rest of the contingent were given short shrift by the so called experts.
Argentina were discounted because not only did they barely qualify everybody questioned the sanity of their manager, the mercurial Diego Maradona. As for the rest, well what type of threat could countries like Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay pose to the traditional powers? Well, of the five advancing only Chile failed to win their group. Maradona's Argentineans are proving to be the most enjoyable team to watch in the tournament due to his decision have them play an attacking style which saw them win all of their group games and then demolish Mexico with ease in the round of sixteen. (Of course it doesn't hurt that their attack is centred around Lionel Messi easily the most exciting player in the world right now.) Uruguay has also moved on to the quarter finals, overcoming a tough South Korean team in the pouring rain to win two to one in their round of sixteen match.

Unfortunately for Brazil and Chile one of them won't be continuing on after today (Monday June 28th/10) as they face off against each other. While Brazil hasn't looked like anything special yet, they haven't really been forced to exert themselves either as they easily handled an Ivory Coast team depleted by injuries, an over matched North Korean side, and played Portugal to a zero - zero draw in a meaningless game. One has the feeling they'll be able to elevate their game to whatever level is required of them in order to continue advancing for quite a while yet. Chile, while game, simply don't have the talent to compete with their northern neighbour and barring a miracle will find themselves going home after today. As for the game between Paraguay and Japan to be played on Tuesday (June 29th/10) that one is hard to call. In the two games I've seen involving the Japanese they not only have been able to attack well, unlike other teams they've also been able to deliver on free kicks during this tournament, scoring twice from a set piece during their three to one victory over Denmark to wrap up the group stage. Paraguay had two draws and a win to head up what turned out to be one of the weaker groups, and although I never saw them play, I have a feeling they might not be up the challenge posed by Japan and will be the third South American team heading home.

While I know American supporters were disappointed by their team's loss to Ghana after they had won their group with the thrilling last minute victory over Algeria, I think their expectations might have been falsely elevated by their success in the first three games. They only need look at how easily Germany dominated England in their match yesterday (Sunday June 27th/10) to know how weak their group opposition had been and their match against Ghana was a return to reality. Faced with a world class goal keeper in Richard Kingson and strikers able to take advantage of the few opportunities offered them, their own inability to finish around the goal finally caught up to them. Although when it comes to creating false expectations nobody quite matches up to the English. Why anyone could have considered them a threat to challenge for the World Cup this year was beyond me. They can yell about referee error until they are blue in the face, but they were still outplayed and outclassed at every turn against Germany. Anyway, every team playing has to live with the fact that the refereeing in international football matches is archaic and flawed, and its how a team responds to those setbacks which shows its mettle.

While some European sides have been a source of embarrassment and disappointment for their fans there are still five remaining. Germany has a long history of success at the World Cup, and although critics were prepared to write off this year's side because of injuries and inexperience, they have proven to be one of the more exciting sides to watch. Aside from their let down against Serbia where they obviously went in over confident after their easy four - nothing result against Australia, they have played with confidence and ability. Holland, Portugal, and Spain, have all at one time or another deservedly earned the title of the best teams to have never won anything. Spain finally broke through to win the European Cup in 2008, but aside from that, despite exceptionally talented sides for years, none have ever won any title of significance. With Spain and Portugal facing off tomorrow (Tuesday June 29th/10) one of them will keep the that tradition alive - and quite frankly its a toss up depending on which side is able to field players instead of prima donnas. However, I'll go with Spain based on their gritty win over Chile.

Holland has managed to sneak under everybody's radar this tournament, or at least not attract the publicity that other less deserving sides have managed, and have quietly gone about winning every one of their group matches in a solid if unspectacular manner. In a couple hours they'll be going up against one of the surprises of the tournament, Slovakia, who advanced after their three - two upset of Italy. While Slovakia might be a sentimental favourite for some, they stand no chance against the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the winner of this game, their next opponent will be the winner of the Brazil - Chile match-up and even Holland will be hard pressed to rise to that occasion. Ironically the European team with the best chance of advancing past the quarter finals will be the winner of Spain versus Portugal as they will take on either Paraguay or Japan, as Germany already has a date with Maradona's Argentineans.

In fact there's a very real possibility that the semi-final match-ups will see three South American sides and one European side vying for a berth in the finals, with either Spain or Portugal (my bet being Spain) trying to get by Argentina and Uruguay duelling Brazil for the other spot. No matter how much I'd love to see an African side move all the way through to the finals the first time the games are held on their home continent, even if Ghana were to overcome Uruguay by some miracle, Brazil would just be too much for them. With Argentina improving with every game, and Lionel Messi continuing to dominate the mid-field creating opportunities for his team mates to score nearly every time he brings the ball near an opponent's goal, neither the surprising Germans nor a desperate Spanish side will do much to slow down their march to the final. So come July 11th/10 expect to see the blue and white of Argentina take the field against the gold and blue of Brazil in the final- and hopefully one of the best football games played this decade. As long as Maradona doesn't decide to send himself on as a substitute, when the dust finally settles we should be seeing the boys from Patagonia raising the cup at the end of the day.

(Article first published as World Cup 2010: Rooting For An All-South American Final on Blogcritics.)

May 27, 2010

DVD Review: George Gently Series 2

I have to admit I'm not a big fan of police procedurals; television shows which follow cops through their day to day, but more specifically as they tackle a particularly vexing case. In fact I doubt I've watched anything remotely resembling one on a regular basis since the early days of Hill Street Blues. While I know there are people who swear by Law & Order and others among the wave of new shows of the type that are prevalent on the small screen these days, none of them have ever captured my imagination. Perhaps it's some sort of residual feelings left over from the anti-cop prejudices of my youth, but it takes a pretty special show to make me want to watch people get busted.

One of those shows has just had its most recent series of episodes gathered together as a four DVD box set by Acorn Media for release on Tuesday May 25th/10. George Gently Series 2, continues where the first season left off in following Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw), who after the murder of his wife by London gangsters and sickened by the burgeoning corruption among London police officers, relocated to the north of Britain in an attempt to start over again. Ironically, the Detective Sergeant assigned to assist him, John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) is a slick young officer with dreams of a career in the big city, and who occasionally plays a little fast and loose with his ethics. Set in 1964 against the backdrop of an England adjusting itself to reduced role in the world's affairs and on the cusp of major social change, each of the four episodes contained in the set not only have the officers solving a case but dealing with the changing world around them.
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With each show being nearly feature length, around eighty minutes long, the show's writers have plenty of room to develop not only the plot in each instance, but the relationship between the two men. Interestingly enough, while Gently has a stricter moral code than his junior partner, in some ways he's by far more the liberal of the two. For while Bacchus is attracted to the material aspects of the new era, his world view is still rather limited and as a result is somewhat more close minded than his boss. There's a place for everything and everything in its place in John Bacchus' world, but Gently knows better, which leave him open to accepting that things might not always be as they seem. What's wonderful to see is how these characteristics subtly emerge while an episode is unfolding, so we are able to witness the natural development of their relationship and come to understand each of their characters a little better at the same time.

As for the cases themselves they start conventionally enough with the finding of a body and the boys being called in to investigate. However, while there's the usual stuff involved in the solving of the case like the cross examination of suspects, interviewing witnesses, checking the sites for any clues that might have been left behind and the following up of any leads that might develop, we spend far more time getting to know all who are involved with case than is normal for these type of shows. In episode one, for example, Gently With The Innocents, an old estate is in the process of being sold and when the developer who purchased it shows up one morning she finds the former owner dead in the garden. While Gently and Bacchus first suspect the mute gardener as he's found with some of the victim's blood on his shirt. there's far more to the picture then what meets the eye. What is the relationship between the village's police sergeant who was first on the scene, the developer, and the gardener? It also turns out that the old man hadn't wanted to sell but was being forced into doing so by his ex-wife and what looks like a falsified surveyor's report saying the building was in immediate danger of collapse and unihabitable.

Even the most cursory of looks around the mansion are enough to tell Gently and Bacchus the building is structurally fine, so why all this effort to have it sold and destroyed? Those who benefit most are the young woman who bought the place in order to build a housing development and the ex-wife, who now that the husband is dead, will receive all the money from the sale.Yet as their investigation continues Gently and Bacchus start to peal back the layers of mystery surrounding the building and those who owned it. In the early 1960's the sexual abuse of children wasn't a subject one talked about in proper company, hell it wasn't even a subject most cops would think about as the idea would be so alien to them. However when they find out the building was once a child's home, and then discover a boarded up basement containing a bed and the former inhabitants' old medical files, the picture that develops, while not pretty, can't be denied.
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What's fascinating to watch isn't just the police officer's disgust and anger at what's happened in the building over the years, but their gradual giving in to understanding and then believing what had happened. Not even world weary Gently who has seen the worst of what big city crime has to offer can get his head around the idea initially. That attention to detail is the hallmark of all the episodes. When social issues we're familiar with, like racism, birth control, and abortion, are brought up in other cases, they are done so in the context of the time period.

During the questioning of a suspect in Gently In The Blood Gently has to catch himself from using a racist epithet at one point, and admits to his younger partner how a few years earlier he had found himself making a similar slur and is unable to explain why he did. In another episode, Gently In The Night, while investigating the death of a pretty young woman their inquiries lead them to a doctor who they discover is guilty of giving birth control pills to unmarried women. It's touches like these that give each of the episodes a verisimilitude that merely using appropriate costumes or driving the right model of car can't match.

Shaw and Ingleby continue their high level of work from Series 1 with Ingleby in particular bringing more depth to his character of John Bacchus this time round. He's like a young child who resents that he can't have everything he wants, but who is gradually growing up and learning that some things are worth more than others. He's still trying too hard to impress his boss for all the wrong reasons, but at least he's no longer making the wrong decisions while doing so. More and more you see him beginning to have doubts about his earlier ambitions of moving to London. While he continues to spout them, you have the feeling it's more from habit than anything else and that he just hasn't figured out a way of backing down from them without losing face. Shaw's Gently continues to bear the scars of his time in London, but he shows a great deal more humour than before. While the anger he displayed in the first series is still there, it's now not as close to the surface and he's become far more open than he was in "Series 1". It will be interesting to see how the two characters develop in future episodes - Series 3 began filming in January 2010 - and I look forward to seeing what the writers have in store for both of them.

While George Gently Series 2 only comes with some basic special features; text interviews with Ingleby and Shaw, production note, and some historical data about 1964, you will see some familiar faces making special appearances in some of the episodes. In particular watch for Mark Williams (Mr Weasley from the Harry Potter movies) giving a remarkable performance in Gently In The Night. While I know people have become used to all sorts of special features and bonuses with DVD packages, in this case the actual material is so special that it doesn't need any bells and whistles to make it any more attractive. You're still not going to find a better police procedural television series anywhere on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

(Article first published as DVD Review: George Gently Series 2 on Blogcritics.)

May 16, 2010

DVD Review: Sound Of The Soul

The lack of tolerance for other people's belief's has been the bane of mankind's existence for who knows how long. Theoretically we're a rational species and after the millions of years we've been hanging around on the planet you'd think we'd have matured sufficiently to accept not everybody looks at the world the same way. Unfortunately the reverse seems to the be the case as the longer we hang out the more intolerant we seem to become. From east to west you'll find the world has become more and more divided into "us" and "them", with them being responsible for all of "our" problems, no matter who they are.

Yet wouldn't the world be a lot easier to live in if we weren't afraid of the person beside us on the plane because they're a different colour or call their god by a different name they we do? What makes it so hard for people to be tolerant of somebody else's beliefs or even worse, makes it so easy to hate and fear them for it? Are we all so desperate to find somebody we can blame for what's wrong in the world that we have to find a scapegoat? Why is it so easy for our leaders to convince us that those others over there are evil and we are good? Have you ever stopped to think what would happen if there were a place where people of all faiths could come together and appreciate what they have in common instead of fearing their differences? Where we could all celebrate the fact that we all believe in something and see that for the miracle it is?

You might think that's an impossibility in this day and age, but every year since the first Gulf War people of all faiths from all of over the world have been coming together to do just that for a week in June at the Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music in Morocco. Of course Morocco is a bit of an oddity in itself, for as hard as this may be for many to believe, its an Islamic country where Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived together in peace for centuries. The festival brings together faith based musical groups of all beliefs from countries all over the world to perform for international interfaith audiences.
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A few years ago director Stephen Olsson travelled to Fez to record the event and find out more about the remarkable circumstances that have allowed it to happen. The resulting movie, Sound Of The Soul is now not only available on DVD through Alive Mind Media, its also being broadcast on the Internet by Global Spirit, one of the many programs available through Link TV. (The initial broadcast is on Sunday May 16th/10 at 6:00 pm EST but check the schedule as it will be re-broadcast throughout the month) The Global Spirit broadcast will include a question and answer session with the director and a panel discussion about the film with Marla Kolman Antebi, Sarah Talcott and Kabir Helminski, a Jewish scholar, an organizer of Inter-faith youth camps, and a Muslim/Sufi scholar and musician respectively.

The movie not only takes viewers to the Fez Festival to enjoy the variety of music on display; vocal groups from Ireland, England, and Russia, a French Jewish vocalist singing with a Moroccan Muslim orchestra, a gospel band from New York City, a fado singer from Portugal, and performances by groups from Afghanistan, Morocco, various African countries, and South America; but provides a look into the remarkable history of its host country. Founded by a Sufi saint Morocco has a history of tolerance that should make it the envy of the world. When the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in Spain, Jews, Muslims, and those Christians not comfortable living under the Inquisition, fled across the Mediterranean to North Africa and settled in Algeria and Morocco. It was the latter that has proven to be the haven for all, as even through the turmoil of the last century she has not been swayed from her founding creed of respect for all.

The film maker interviewed leaders of all three faiths who talked about the history of their people in the country and their current situation. While the founding of Israel saw the Jewish community's numbers drastically reduced as people immigrated, it didn't create the huge divisions that occurred in other countries where there had formally been tolerance between Muslims and Jews. Not once in any of the interviews did you have the feeling that any of those being interviewed were dissembling in any way. It never felt like they were glossing over any uncomfortable truths or making the situation sound any better than it is.
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As we followed the cameras through the streets of Fez what strikes one is the way the modern world and the past have come together so comfortably. Narrow streets filled with people of all ages and sexes dressed in everything from t-shirts and shorts to headscarfs and robes rub shoulders naturally and seemingly without discomfort. We visit courtyards that are hundreds of years old and stare in awe at what first appears to be decorative patterns carved into the walls, only to discover it is scripture spelling out the tenets of Sufism etched by hand hundreds of years ago.

Of course its the music that brings people to Fez each year, and the music is incredible. If you buy the DVD you'll not only find bonus features of complete concerts, there's also a CD featuring some of the performers from the film. While there is plenty of commentary provided by members of each faith on the importance of music for building bridges between peoples, watching people's reactions to the different performers tells the story of music's power far more than talking head can hope. One only has to watch the young Moroccans dancing up a storm to the New York City based gospel group,The McCullough Sons of Thunder, to make that connection.

The camera also go behind the scenes at the Festival to cover a symposium being held at the same time featuring spiritual and business people from around the world, including members of the World Bank and the head of the World Trade Organization Michael Moore. This was the one part of the film where you could feel the tensions of the world intruding on what had been an oasis of peace until that point. It was hard to watch somebody like Moore, whose organization is one of the root causes of suffering in the developing world through policies that continue to siphon the wealth of many into the hands of few, spout words about tolerance and understanding without feeling a wee bit cynical. When the camera drew back to show his audience you could see the scepticism on the faces of many of those listening - especially those spiritual leaders from the developing countries. While the point of the symposium was the need for balance between the spiritual and the secular needs of the world, it was obvious the spiritual leaders present weren't convinced of Moore's sincerity.

Sound Of The Soul is a wonderful movie in that it gives us an example of what the world could be; of how it is possible for men and women of all faiths to appreciate and respect each other and their beliefs. However at the same time it makes perfectly clear just how unique The Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music is, and how far the world has to travel before we can live up to the example of Morocco and its remarkable people. In a world where hope for peaceful coexistence is in increasingly short supply, this movie is a godsend - no matter what your god looks like.


(Article first published as DVD Review: Sound of the Soul on Blogcritics.)

April 26, 2010

DVD Review: Murphy's Law

Gritty and realistic cop shows are no longer the rarity they once were. Gone are the days of the squad car with the clean cut officers in uniform helping little old ladies across the street and arresting the bad guys. It was a far less complicated time, when cops didn't swear, cheat on their wives, drink too much or have any of the personal problems that seem to affect cops on television these days. Heck, I doubt the boys on Adam Twelve could have even told you what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was let alone be suffering from it after being involved in one too many shoot outs or seeing one too many corpses.

Nowadays the troubled but honest cop with a checkered history is close to being a cliche. It's amazing there are any cops able to climb into a squad car on television anymore so many of them seem to be in need of therapy of some kind or another. It's come to the point where you have to wonder if there's anything new that can be done with the genre, or at least a way that doesn't flog the same old horse to death. On the surface the six episodes of Murphy's Law, Series 2 to be found on the two DVD set being released by Acorn Media on April 27th/10, appears to adhere to the familiar formula.

Tommy Murphy (James Nesbitt) has moved from Ireland to join an elite undercover squad in London in an attempt to put his daughter's murder by the IRA behind him. He's slapped on the stereotypical face of the charming wisecracking Irishman to hide behind while working on some of the most dirty and dangerous jobs the force has to offer. Even better, as far as he's concerned, is the fact his job requires him to take on a different persona for each case, giving him one more barrier he can throw up between himself and the rest of the world. Even with that extra twist, it was still a pleasant surprise to find how little Murphy's Law depended on the "troubled cop" for their story lines.
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Instead of spending huge swathes of time watching Murphy agonize at home alone or drinking himself into a stupor because of his past, its merely part of the baggage he carries around with him. Sure there are occasions when it all gets to much for him and he goes on a bender. However, most of the time it comes out in far subtler ways, as in his attitudes towards particular types of criminals or the decisions he makes when on a case. As for the cases themselves he works in a division of the police force which other cops don't even know exist whose job it is to investigate suspicious activity to see whether or not a crime has occurred. Murphy's job is to go under cover, blend in with the environment and ferret out information anyway he can. Needless to say his methods tend towards the unorthodox, but as he gets results his superiors usually have no trouble turning a blind eye to his means.

In the six episodes in "Series Two" Murphy pretends to be everything from a bent cop to a homeless alcoholic as he investigates the apparent serial killing of homeless women, the mysterious death of a drug squad member, the covering up of a possible toxic waste spill, a victims of crime support group suspected of vigilante activity, a mysterious death in a convent, and joins forces with an Interpol agent in investigating a high end car theft ring. While for the most part the story lines are what you'd expect from the "lone wolf cop who marches to his own beat" type of show, Nesbitt's portrayal of Murphy, and the character's personal history, adds the extra ingredient needed to elevate them above the usual.

On occasion Murphy will let his emotions overcome his sense resulting in either his pursuing the wrong person or making decisions he will come to regret later. Whether sleeping with a suspect or taking the crime he's investigating personally, he always seems to get overly involved one way or another. While sometimes that doesn't work out to well for him on a personal level, it seems to be the way that he operates best. He's pushed to do that little bit extra others wouldn't in order to solve a case. He's not very worried about the legality of what he does either, as he has no problem breaking and entering into premises without a search warrant in order to garner evidence.
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While that type of behaviour might not help obtain convictions in court, as illegally procured evidence is inadmissible, in some cases Murphy appears more interested in justice as he sees it rather than convicting people. Which doesn't mean he's going to kill anyone, but he'll use whatever means he can to bring them to their knees and confess. In some ways you have the feeling that he sees the crooks he hunts down as surrogates for the person who murdered his daughter all those years ago. However, as we find out, no matter how personal it becomes, there's still a line he's unwilling to cross and he won't carry out a sentence on his own.

James Nesbitt does a masterful job of bringing the driven Murphy to life. When the mask slips completely, as it does a couple times over the course of the series, to reveal the deeply scarred man underneath, we see there's more than just grief at work. Guilt and self-loathing over the circumstances in which his daughter died are digging a far bigger hole in his soul than grief ever could. When we see that, we begin to understand why he's so reckless and willing to risk his life, and what drives him to take on the cases nobody else is either able or willing to deal with. He couldn't prevent his daughter from being murdered, or bring the people who did it to justice, so by solving these cases he's able to work off some of his frustration and guilt.

While Murphy's Law may have many elements that will seem familiar from other police procedurals, its elevated to another level by the performance of James Nesbitt. The box set of Murphy's Law: Series 2 may not come with much in the way of special features, a text biography of James Nesbitt, but that's more than compensated for by the one built into it; James Nesbitt. Even if you don't like police shows, you'll not want to miss these if only to witness his portrayal of Tommy Murphy.

DVD Review: Six Centuries Of Verse

Sometimes when you think of the opportunities for the sharing of information and the dissemination of knowledge that are being neglected and compare it to what's normally on offer through today's mass media, it's hard not to be appalled at the waste of technology and resources. Humans have created so much that is beautiful and awe inspiring in the past few thousand years, yet the chances of seeing any of it outside the confines of educational programming are minimal. Instead of using the media as a means of celebrating our genius and inspiring people with examples of our potential for greatness, it's main use appears to be as a means of advertisement. What else can we assume when keeping sponsors happy with high ratings is apparently the major factor in deciding what is aired or isn't aired?

Even more demoralizing is how the majority of the shows created which might make a difference and expose people to some of the marvels of creation are as likely to alienate viewers as enthral them. For instead of dispelling the beliefs that intelligence and appreciation of the arts are not only suspect but the preserve of an elite segment of society alone, they end perpetuating both lies. Either the material is presented in such a reverential manner the viewers can't help be intimidated or believe it has nothing to say to them or their lives, or it comes across as being beyond their abilities to understand.
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British television has rightfully garnered a far better reputation for presenting intelligent programming than its American counterpart. However, that doesn't mean they aren't subject to falling into some of the same traps as their counterparts across the Atlantic ocean when it comes to dealing with the arts. That was brought home to me again while watching the new three disc DVD package Six Centuries Of Verse being released on April 27th/10 by Acorn Media through its Athena label. Originally broadcast by Thames television in 1985, airing on public television in North America in the 1990's, the sixteen episodes of the series trace the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the 1980's. Each of the episodes deals with a specific period in history, the poets and the style of poetry associated with it.

Hosted by Sir John Gielgud, the series also features assorted British and American actors reciting the poetry from the different eras. While there are names we would normally associate with this type of thing amongst the cast, Anthony Hopkins and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, there are also a couple of surprises, Lee Remick and Stacy Keach, actors more well known for their association with popular television shows and movies than the classics or poetry. When I read the names of the last two amongst those listed, I had hopes the creators of the series had attempted to make it appeal to a wider audience than usual for an arts related program, especially one that deals with poetry.

Unfortunately that ended up not being the case as right from the outset the atmosphere created was one of cloistered elitism. While there is no doubt that Gielgud had one of the finest voices of his generation and was a marvellous actor, the very qualities that made him renowned actually worked against him. He is too perfect in his speaking, and very British, two things that are most associated with the upper classes and higher education and most likely to give people the impression the material at hand is meant only for people like that. Filming him in what looks to be the drawing room of your typical English manor house and its environs only served to increase that impression.
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Thankfully they had the sense to ensure that the audience could at least understand the excerpts from Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the early episodes through the use of subtitles in the case of the former and reading a translation into modern verse of the latter. However, while I understand the desire to present the material in a chronological order, it might have been a better idea to find a way of starting with something more accessible. Poetry in of itself is incomprehensible to so many people that starting off with pieces in a "foreign" language is sure to frighten them away. Perhaps it would have better to have an introductory episode where they gave samples of poems from later eras which could entice viewers into watching. Then, when you do travel back in time to the roots of English language poetry, there's not really the need to spend more than one episode on examples of Old and Middle English verse. It's rather too much to expect people to sit through an entire episode on Chaucer, as even translated his work isn't something people are liable to read outside of the classroom these days anyway.

What I did appreciate about the program was their attempts to place the material in an appropriate physical context. Poems that were set in certain obvious locales, like prison cells or in a forest, were recited in those locations, giving the audience a much better chance of understanding not only the poem, but how poetry is able to convey emotion and ideas in a way that prose can't. While some of the actors gave into the impulse sometimes to "perform" the poems they were reciting, the times they chose to simply recite the material and strove to convey the poems meaning to the listeners were far more effective.

While Six Centuries Of Verse does a reasonable job of representing the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the modern day (although their omission of the "Beat" poets like Allan Ginsberg and modernists like e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce was strange) it, like other programs of its type, failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by television to reach a wide audience. Surely there must be a way of presenting poetry, and the arts in general, so that it can be appreciated by more than just those who are all ready interested in it? If even I, who appreciate most of the works presented over the three discs found my attention wandering, what does that say about its appeal to an audience who'd rather be watching American Idol? If we're really serious about the arts being for more than just a few, we need to find a way of overcoming the elitist stereotype associated with them. Unfortunately this set, while making a few steps in the right direction, still doesn't manage to make that breakthrough.

March 12, 2010

DVD Review: Dalziel & Pascoe Season 1

Adapting any book, or series of books, to either film or television is a tricky proposition as those involved have to decide how to best recreate the authors vision on screen. This usually involves paring the original story down to its bare essentials, and finding a way to visually represent intellectual concepts. This job only increases in difficulty the more popular the original title, as the audience is going to have expectations about what will appear on their screens which the show's creators will have to live up to if they hope to cash in on the success of the books.

It's debatable which is the most delicate when it comes to making an adaptation; ensuring the story adheres to the original as closely as possible, or, bringing much beloved characters to life on the screen. On the one hand if the story deviates too much from the way the author wrote it audiences will leave the theatre feeling let down. However, if the characters they see on screen don't at least bear some resemblance to what the audience expects them to be like you can pretty much kiss good-bye any sort of success with a project, especially if it's an extended television adaptation that will air over a series of evenings.

Reginald Hill's series of police procedural novels featuring the characters Detective Superintendent (DS) Andy Dalziel and Detective Inspector (DI) Peter Pascoe have been international best sellers almost since he published the first book, A Clubbable Woman. The two lead characters, their associates in the fictional Mid-Yorkshire Criminal Investigation Division (CID), and the civilians they associate with, have left indelible impressions on all who have read them, with DS Dalziel in particular being nearly literally larger than life. Those who made the decision back in 1996 to begin adapting the books for television faced the very difficult task of not only bringing to life stories that people were exceedingly familiar with, but ensuring the beloved characters were presented just right.
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Judging by the three episodes that made up the show's first season that have just been released as the DVD package Dalziel & Pascoe Season 1 by BBC America, not only did they succeed in retelling the stories, through a combination of skilled casting and well written scripts, they brought the two leads to life perfectly. Both Warren Clarke as DS Andy Dalziel and Colin Buchanan as DI Peter Pascoe manage to not only recreate their own characters, but have done an excellent job showing the beginnings of their professional and personal relationship.

The three episodes in "Season 1", A Clubbable Woman, An Advancement Of Learning, and An Autumn Shroud, all take place early in Pascoe's career with the Mid-Yorkshire CID. In fact, in the first episode it appears that he has not only just joined the force, but is also new to the area, as his boss spends a good deal of time filling him in about the locals and their stories. Pascoe and Dalziel are the proverbial "chalk and cheese", as the younger man is a university graduate with a degree in sociology while Dalziel is an old school copper who takes great pride in being referred to as "that bastard" and pleasure in announcing that he "scratches his balls in public and farts louder than is naturally necessary". However, as they discover to their mutual surprise, they work well together. It seems the combination of a bull in a china shop and polite intelligence is a very effective rendition of the good cop - bad cop routine.

Over the years Reginald Hill's mysteries featuring these two gentlemen have evolved to the point where the case they are attempting to solve almost serves as the backdrop for exploring a variety of themes and sociological situations. While these three earlier works were far more straightforward, the people responsible for creating the adaptations have still managed to capture those elements that even then separated Hill's work from others. None of the cases are the usual straight forward "who done it's" with a "bad guy", and an innocent victim, nor are the solutions ever completely cut and dried. Certainly somebody is always arrested in the end, but what their ultimate fate will be is another matter all together as there always seem to be mitigating circumstances that are sure to play a factor in their trial and sentencing.
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With each episode being nearly ninety minutes in length there is plenty of time to not only develop the plot slowly, but events proceed at what seems a far more natural pace than we usually see in police procedurals. Not only are the cases given plenty of time to develop, but equal time is given for character development for both our erstwhile protagonists and the other characters featured in that particular episode. Over the course of these first three episodes, and in particular episode three, An Autumn Shroud, special attention is paid to the character of Dalziel. Early on we learn that his wife left him years ago for another man, and although on the surface it doesn't appear as if he cares all that much, we are given glimpses beneath the rough exterior and something of the loneliness that he feels.

Needless to say the acting throughout, the leads, the secondary characters, and the special guests who only appear in individual episodes, is exemplary throughout. As usual part of the fun in watching an older British television show, and this one dates from 1996, is seeing familiar faces and trying to figure out what you might have seen them in since. However no matter how strong the work of those in secondary roles, the series still rests on the broad shoulders of Warren Clarke as Dalziel, and he does a magnificent job in bringing "Fat Andy" to life. He brings just the right mix of bluster, belligerence, and arrogance to the role in the first two episodes to make it obvious its not an act, while at the same time showing a natural intelligence and awareness that make his more introspective moments in episode three seem unforced and natural.

At this stage in the series Dalziel is the catalyst round which everyone else revolves, and the other characters' performances are still based primarily on reacting to their boss. Colin Buchanan's Peter Pascoe has caught just the right note of wry affection warring with impatience at his boss's pigheadedness. He does give us the occasional glimpse of his own intelligence, but at the moment his light is still being hidden by the rather large shadow cast by superior. All of which would be consistent for a person who has only just started working in a new situation for somebody as unique as Superintendent Dalziel.

It's not often that favourite books survive the transition from page to either small or large screen completely unscathed, and maybe there will be those who will be able to find fault with how well Reginald Hill's beloved characters have made that journey, but I'm not one of them. Not only have the episodes in Dalziel & Pascoe Season 1 succeeded in telling the stories with the same intelligence as the author, they have captured the spirit of the books as well. While the DVD package is straight forward with no special features, and the sound is basic stereo as befits the age of the original programming, the quality of the material is so superior that I doubt anyone who liked the books will walk away disappointed.

February 23, 2010

DVD Review: GBH

When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of England the country became polarized between the two extremes of the political spectrum. While her Conservative government gutted England's industry in the name of the economy but in reality as a means of destroying the country's unions - if there are no jobs for union members there's no need for unions - extremists in the left wing of the socialist Labour Party seized the opportunity to take control of the party where ever possible. Municipal governments - town councils as they are called in England - became bastions of opposition against the federal government and did their best to disrupt the federal government whenever possible.

With both these elements intent on destruction rather than doing anything constructive for their constituents, there were plenty of people who ended up being caught in the middle and suffered accordingly. Those, who under different circumstances, might have voted for either the Labour or Conservative parties found themselves being left out in the cold. In the early 1990's British screenwriter Alan Bleasdale created a ten hour miniseries loosely based on events that occurred in the city of Liverpool during this period. GBH, being released as a four DVD set by Acorn Media on Tuesday February 23/10, is more than just your average political drama however, as it recreates the events of the period and shows them through the eyes of two people who have been ensnared in their web.

Michael Palin and Robert Lindsay play Jim Nelson and Michael Murray respectively, two men who find themselves on opposite sides of the political fence. Nelson is the headmaster of a school for children with developmental handicaps and Murray is the Labour Party Mayor of a mid sized industrial city in England during the Thatcher era. In an attempt to consolidate and increase his power base Murray hooks up with the radical wing of the Labour Party who encourage him to call a general strike in his city as a means of protesting against the Thatcher government. Pickets are placed around all the public services in the city from buses to schools, effectively bringing it to a stop, save for one small institution - Jim Nelson's school.
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With Murray having boasted in the lead up to the "Day Of Action" that he would close the city down, when the press catch wind that one school has stayed open they rub it in his face. Furious that he's been made to look foolish, Murray hurries out to the school with a group of "pickets" and surrounds the place attempting to intimidate Nelson into closing the school. Thus begins what will be an ongoing battle of wills between the two men that will last for the rest of the series. While on the surface this appears to be not very much to build a ten hour television mini-series around, what makes it fascinating is not only the way the show takes on everything from the press to the behind the scenes scheming in political parties, but the two characters who are the focus of the confrontation.

At first glance Murray appears to be your average ambitious politician, willing to hook himself to anyone and any cause that will further his career. He's not above pressuring an area hotel manager into rigging one of his rooms with cameras and recording equipment in order to catch people in compromising situations. However, underneath his slick surface is a boiling cauldron of insecurities and fears that are a result of things that happened in his childhood. We know from the start that his father was a great union organizer who died before Murray was born, but we learn throughout the series how that was the least of his problems.

Jim Nelson turns out to be something of a hypochondriac with a history of going to the doctor complaining of mysterious diseases and unexplainable symptoms which invariably turn out to be imaginary. While at first he appears to be somewhat of a figure of ridicule for this silliness, we gradually discover that he has very real psychological problems which manifest themselves in very strange ways. At first it's the imaginary illnesses, but as the pressure on him increases at work from Murray he starts to find himself waking up in very odd places without any clothes on. If the naked sleepwalking isn't bad enough, he then begins to develop an unaccountable fear of bridges to the point where he has to start planning car trips carefully in order to avoid even the smallest of bridges passing over local streams,
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What makes GBH so brilliant is the way it develops certain expectations, Michael Murray is a villain and Jim Nelson the victim, and then gradually starts to turn them upon their head. While Nelson is always going to be the hero of the piece as he struggles to overcome his personal problems and deal with the political pressure being brought to bear on him, the more we get to know about Murray, the more we realize that he's even more of a victim than any of his opponents. Whether it's the way he's being manipulated by those in his political party, or his past coming back to haunt him in the form of nightmares and blackmail, he gradually loses control over what's going on in his life and becomes little more than a puppet.

The performances of the two leads, Palin and Lindsay, are nothing short of magnificent. Lindsay in particular does a wonderful job in somehow making his despicable character sympathetic. He has these wonderful moments where Murray's smooth surface cracks and we see the turmoil beneath the surface, and then just as alarmingly see the veneer snap back into place and him carry on as if nothing had happened. Over the course of the show the surface gradually breaks down more and more as his control over events disintegrates and he watches his dreams of political power evaporate. The irony is that even at his most corrupt, he was genuinely doing things that were good for his community, creating more housing for the poor, easing relations between the black and white populations of his city - at a time in England when race riots were common - but those good things are gradually undone by his ambition for more power and what he does to try and achieve it.

GBH originally aired in the early 1990's so the technical quality isn't probably up to the standards you're used to from modern television shows, but the sound is stereo and well balanced so the dialogue isn't buried under the soundtrack or background noise. Speaking of the soundtrack, it was partially created by some guy named Elvis Costello, but don't be expecting it to sound anything like what you're used to hearing from him. He's done his job in creating music to augment what we are seeing on the screen, and a good job of it as well, as it doesn't interfere with the show, while helping to generate appropriate atmosphere. The special features include the usual filmographies of those involved in the production, an interview with the script writer Alan Bleasdale, and commentary for episode one provided by the two leads and director Peter Ansorge.

While GBH will probably be appreciated most by people who know something about contemporary British history, and the British political system, there's still plenty for everybody else to enjoy in this production. Aside from the two leads, the cast, which also includes Julie Walters, is universally excellent, the scripts are well written and intelligent, and you can't help but being caught up in the story of the conflict between the two men. It's not often that a ten hour television drama can hold you attention throughout its entire course, but without a doubt this one will have you glued to your screen from start to finish.

February 5, 2010

DVD Review: The Evelyn Waugh Collection

The works of the late British author Evelyn Waugh, focused mainly on the life and mores of the upper class in his country from the period leading up to WW II to the years immediately following the war. While some of his later works were primarily concerned with defending the place of Catholics in British society, (it is still part of the British constitution that no British monarch can be married to a Catholic) he is probably best known for his ability as a satirist. He was equally comfortable writing subtle, dark pieces which left one decidedly unsettled after reading them, to composing nearly farcical send-ups of everything from the military to journalists that were close to side-splitting funny. Either way his acid tipped pen could invariably be counted on to cut his subject matter down a peg or two, and hold any number of sacred cows up for ridicule.

Yet no matter how scathing he might be towards certain elements within society or the behaviour of a certain class of people, there would be always one or two characters in each book whom we the reader could relate to on some level or another. Often times this character would either serve as our guide into the world Waugh had created and we would see events unfold from his or her vantage point. Most of the time this character was usually an outsider being introduced to what on the surface is something new and splendid. However, as we and they observe more closely it turns out to be suffering some sort of malaise and we first see the wear and tear around its edges, until gradually the depth of its corruption is revealed.

In 1981, Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) telecast an adaptation of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons that went on to become one of the most successful imported mini-series. Of course it only stands to reason that having seen the success of one Waugh story from the page to the screen that others would be soon to follow. Now Acorn Media has released a package featuring two of those follow up releases, A Handful Of Dust and Scoop, under the title of The Evelyn Waugh Collection. The former being a dark look at the bored and idle rich, while the latter is a somewhat more farcical look at the press.
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A Handful Of Dust tells the story of the disintegration of the marriage between Brenda and Tony Last. For while Tony is quite content living in the country keeping up the old family home, Brenda is bored with country life and wants the fun of playing in London. It's because she's so bored that Brenda begins an affair with a selfish social climber nicknamed "Beaver". As usual the husband is the last to know in these instances and he quickly becomes rather an object of ridicule for Brenda and her new city friends as she and her paramour lead the high life paid for with Tony's money. Eventually Brenda convinces Tony she needs a flat in London so she can take "classes", and she and her lover are able to set up house together.

It's only when their young son dies in a hunting accident that Brenda decides to make the break with Tony. Being a gentleman, Tony agrees to grant Brenda a divorce and even goes so far as to pretend to be the guilty party by hiring a woman to spend the weekend with him in a hotel so he can be accused of adultery. However when Brenda starts to make unreasonable demands in terms of alimony - she has a young man to support in a style that he's accustomed to after all - he refuses to go along with the deal. Instead, when a chance meeting throws him together with an explorer setting off to chart unexplored regions of the Amazon river in South America, he agrees to fund an expedition and sets off into the wilds leaving Brenda high and dry.

While the acting of the leads is universally excellent, with Kristen Scott Thomas playing Brenda, Rupert Graves her young lover, and James Wilby the cuckold husband Tony, Anjelica Huston, Judi Dench, and Alec Guiness steal the spotlight with their cameo appearances at various points throughout the film. Unfortunately the script doesn't quite match up to the quality of the acting, for while we do feel some genuine sympathy for Tony, and loathing for Brenda and Beaver, we're never quite sure what has really motivated Brenda to take up with this young man who has almost no redeeming qualities and who treats her quite badly. He's so obviously only interested in her money, that one can't quite fathom how she could want to stay involved with him for any length of time let alone be the person she'd leave her husband for.
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Scoop on the other hand is not only well acted, it is a much better script. It does a great job in skewering all aspects of the British press from the reporters in the field to the owners of the papers and their editorial staff. Through a case of mistaken identity young William Boot, a nature writer for "The Beast", is sent off to the African republic of Ishmaelia to cover the civil war supposedly in progress. When he arrives he discovers the press core are all camped out in the capital city's one hotel and there's no sign of any fighting going on anywhere. Under orders to report back on a "Patriots" victory by Tuesday from the megalomanic owner of The Beast (Donald Pleasence), Boot is in serious danger of being fired until he uncovers an actual plot to overthrow the president by the minister of information.

Michael Maloney does a wonderful job playing William Boot, who although innocent to the ways of the world turns out not to be exactly stupid, as he does his best to report on a non-existent war. He is ably supported by Denholm Elliot as his editor at The Beast and Herbert Lom as a mysterious businessman who shows up in Ishmaelia just in time to help stage a counter revolution. Scoop is a rollicking ride which, although set in the 1930's, is every bit as topical in its treatment of the press as if were set today. This script captures Waugh's biting wit and acid tongue perfectly in both its depiction of the press's incompetence and the cynical manipulation of events by the unscrupulous businessman so he can secure Ishmaelia's mineral rights.

As both Scoop and A Handful Of Dust were originally shot in the 1980's neither are up to the standards were used to form modern productions when it comes to technical matters like sound and image quality. However these factors don't detract from the quality of the productions so they shouldn't be a deterrent to purchasing the package. Good acting, and, especially in the case of Scoop, quality script writing, overcome any technical deficiencies that you might experience.

Satire has become something of a lost art these days, so The Evelyn Waugh Collection from Acorn Media, is a very timely reminder of what that genre actually entails. Unlike today's writers who seem to lack the subtlety necessary to bring it off, Waugh never descended to the level of cheap laughs in order to win his audience over, and both productions in this package live up to that standard. This is an ideal opportunity to see two works by one of the masters of satire brought to life and shouldn't be passed up by anyone who still appreciates the genuine article.

February 3, 2010

DVD Review: Doc Martin Series 3

At one time or another I'm sure all of us have fantasized, or at least thought, of leaving big city life behind for the bucolic pleasures of living in the country. What could be better than to live in a small village - or even better a small village by the sea shore. It wouldn't take you long before you knew everybody, and while you might not like everyone, at least you'll know everybody well enough to know who to avoid. Of course if you ever get sick you'll be able to rely on the local general practitioner (GP) to take care of you.

Ah yes, the country doctor. An older man of the old school who is loved by all and has been present at the birth of everyone for the last three generations. A real country gentleman, he not only sets a broken arm and stitches up little Johnny's lacerated forearm when he tumbles down the cliff face, he'll find time in his busy schedule to sit and share a cup of tea with the lonely pensioner whose family has forgotten her. He can even be counted on to help out in lambing season when the local vet can't be everywhere at once and somebody has to reach up inside the mother sheep and turn the lamb so it comes out the right way.

Well if you end up in the small fishing village of Portwenn in Cormwall you'll soon discover that nobody bothered filling in local GP Dr. Martin Ellingham about what's required of him in the roll of that idealized country doctor. In fact, if you tried he would probably give them a blank stare, ask them what the hell they're prattling on about, and then promptly proceed to ignore them. Dr. Ellingham is the antithesis of the stereotype country doctor image we carry around in our heads. Brusque to the point of rude, honest to the point of - well rude again, and completely lacking in tact, he's also a brilliant and dedicated doctor. He not only deals with all the run of the mill illnesses a GP is expected to, he's able to handle anything the little fishing and farming community can throw at him - and they throw him some strange curve balls.
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While you'll probably never want to make use of the good doctor's services, and most likely won't be forced to, he and his patients do make for some highly entertaining television as can be seen on the recent (February 2nd/10) Acorn Media release Doc Martin Series 3. If the seven episodes that are included on the two DVDs are an indication of the show's quality, I'd recommend running right out and buying Series 1 & 2 as well, and hope that Series 4 makes an appearance some time soon. It's not often you find television where humour, intelligence, and acting of as high a calibre as are found here are combined in one package.

While there are a couple of ongoing story lines the show follows, each episode also deals with a particular issue - or two - that Doc Martin has to cope with. From medical emergencies; half the village apparently coming down with food poisoning apparently thanks to local plumber Ben Large's new restaurant, or the discovery that the new local constable suffers from narcolepsy and is literally falling asleep at the switch, to dealing with the eccentricities of his neighbours as in his aunt Jane taking a lover half her age in a bid not to feel so old, there's always something happening to keep him on his toes and us laughing. Meanwhile he is also struggling to see if he can resurrect his relationship with the headmistress of the local primary school, Louisa (Caroline Catz), as well as dealing with his pathological fear of blood - the sight of which makes him sick to his stomach.

There's a tendency with medical shows, even the funny ones, to make each episode into a disease of the week. Faced with people falling sick from unusual symptoms, the beleaguered medical personnel are frustrated in their attempts to heal those afflicted and it's only in the last five minutes of the show they come up with the solution that saves everybody's life. Even when Doc Martin is called upon to play medical detective on occasion, it never become the raison d'etre for an episode, and more often than not it ends up being the comedic highlight, not some nail biting drama.

An example of this is aforementioned time when Doc Martin accuses Ben Large of poisoning half the town because of unclean conditions in his restaurant. However the true culprit turns out to be in the doctor's office. Some how or other when he was hooking up his new dishwasher, the good doctor hooked up its intake hose to the outflow from his toilet and proceeded to wash all his dishes in .... . It's amazing how quickly the Norwalk virus can spread through a small town - especially when they've all been having a nice cup of tea while they're waiting to see the doctor.
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Martin Clunes does a remarkable job playing Doc Martin as we grow to genuinely like and admire him for who he is. This isn't just a one dimensional character whose always rude, but nor does his gruff exterior hide a soft squishy interior. He's opinionated and has no patience for fools and idiots - you do something stupid and he'll let you know all about it while he's treating you for the consequences of your actions. However he's not without his compassionate side, although sometimes he has to be reminded of it, and will surprise you with his ability to understand and willingness to help where others might not. What you gradually come to realize is there's an almost painfully shy man hiding behind the rudeness, one whose all to aware of his own shortcomings when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

This becomes clear when he and Louisa make what appears to be an ongoing attempt to establish a "relationship". In most cases like this on television the love of a good woman will bring out the best in our tormented hero and he'll undergo some sort of miraculous transformation. Thankfully that's not the case here as Martin invariably finds just the wrong thing to say on all occasions. While they do eventually stumble into each other's arms, almost in spite of themselves, its not what you'd call smooth sailing. The drawback of living in a small village is that everyone knows everybody and has something to say about them, resulting in both the doctor and Louisa doubting they can make the other happy.

For anybody who was raised on a diet of television shows depicting the small town doctor as something akin to a saint, Doc Martin will be greeted with a sigh of relief and a burst of laughter. The good doctor has a way of saying the things all of us would love to have the nerve to say - telling a mother who thinks her daughter might be suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder there's nothing wrong with the kid save for being exceptionally annoying. It's like the editing function that most of us have in our brains that prevent us from speaking what we're really thinking has somehow broken down. Supported by a wonderful cast of loveable eccentrics, watching a couple of episodes of the good doctor's daily routine can't help but improve anybody's mental health.

The two DVDs that make up Doc Martin Series 3 come with only a couple of special features, the filmographies of the leads and some background trivia about the actors. As its a recent production it's suitable for playing on most modern digital systems, however the sound is only stereo which means there are occasional difficulties in discerning dialogue, although that could have just been my difficulties with some of the accents. However any technical failings in the sound are more than compensated for by the quality of the show itself. While it may cause you to have second thoughts about retiring to some peaceful fishing village in the country, Doc Martin is the perfect remedy for boredom as there's never a dull moment when he's on call.

November 25, 2009

DVD Review: Life On Mars: Series 2

Sometimes it feels like people who make and develop television shows always try to milk a series just a little beyond the ability of the original idea to sustain interest. I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't know how many times I've liked the first two, maybe even three seasons, of a show, but after that watched in dismay as it became almost a caricature of itself. Sure everybody likes a successful television show, and actors need the work, but wouldn't everybody be better served if people were left wanting more than feeling sick to death of something?

Everything needs an ending, of some sort of another, and the failure of so many television shows is their inability to deliver a resolution. Either they fade away from neglect or they are cancelled abruptly before they are able to wrap things up. So instead of everybody involved being in demand because they've generated such great memories among the public and the industry, they get shunted aside as either failures or has-beens. The next time you see the former leads from the show they're making guest appearances on something like Celebrity Hollywood Squares and they look like someone whose face used to be famous.

These flaws become glaringly obvious when you encounter a show which is handled properly by being brought to a successful conclusion. Those of you who have had the pleasure of experiencing Life On Mars: Series One will be thrilled to know that the producers and writers of the series have not only managed to match what they brought to life in Series One, but have surpassed it. They've not only retained all that was fresh and exciting about the first season, with Life On Mars: Series 2, the complete second season on four DVDs being released by Acorn Media on November 24th/09, they find a way to up the stakes for all involved and bring the series to a resolution that remains true to the characters and the story line.

Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Sam Tyler (John Simm) of the Manchester Police force in England is struck by a car in 2006, and the next thing he knows he's gone back in time more then thirty years and he's a Detective Inspector (DI) in the same city in 1973. Aside from having to deal with the obvious differences between the two eras ("Where's my mobile (phone)?" "You're mobile what?") where the culture shock hits him hardest is on the job. Aside from the primitive working conditions - when he asks where his PC is one of the others wonder what he wants with a uniformed police constable - the attitudes and approach taken by his fellow officers are what effect him the most. Unfortunately for Sam, his new boss, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) appears on the surface to be the epitome of all their worst attributes.

While over the course of the first season we discover some of those appearances are deceiving, San and Gene still disagree over the methodology used by the other. Although each develops a genuine appreciation for the other, they still come, literally, to blows over their differences in opinion on how suspects and cases should be handled. For while Sam comes from an era when police work is based on the analysis of data and the careful accumulation of evidence in order to build a case against a suspect, Gene uses a combination of bluster, force, and instincts ("gut reactions") to solve a case. Still, most of the time they're able to find a middle ground which not only makes them a good team, but helps solve some difficult cases.

Playing all along in the background throughout both the first and second series is Sam's desire to return home. Periodically he's made aware that he has another life beyond 1973. Mysterious messages from doctors and family members are transmitted to him via televisions, radios, and telephones. Are these actually things being said to him while he's lying in a coma in 2006 that are slipping through to this place where his mind is active? Will they really provide the clues he needs to be able to "find his way home" and wake up from the coma? Or is it something else? Perhaps the concussion he is said to have suffered in the first episode has given him amnesia so he's forgotten his "real life" as a policeman in 1973?

I've very deliberately not mentioned details of any of the episodes, as really very little can be revealed that won't be either spoil the fun of watching the officers solve each case, or how the series works itself towards its conclusion. What's important is the journey the creators of the series have Sam take through the course of the entire series. It's not just been in the workplace where he's relegated feelings to the back burner and it's the imperfect world that he finds himself in that makes him understand what he has been repressing all along. In the end he has to make a decision as to who Sam Tyler wants to be. No mater what he decides it will come with a cost, but in the end he understands some costs are worth paying no matter what the price.

As in the first series one of the delights of these episodes is the relationship between Sam and Gene. While Sam is still continually appalled by Gene's behaviour and Gene is equally pissed off with Sam's more anal qualities about rules and regulations, their friendship - while mystifying to everybody around them - continues to grow stronger and deeper. Both Simm and Glenister deliver multi-layered performances that are some of the most believable and enjoyable that you'll see on television. Glenister does a remarkable job of portraying both the bluster and the integrity that lie beneath the surface of Gene Hunt, and making the two seemingly irreconcilable characteristics believable.

The three supporting characters Detective Constables (DC) Anne Cartwright (Liz White) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), and Detective Sergeant Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) not only continue the excellent work they had begun in the first series, the writers have made sure to give them sufficient challenges which allows them to add even more depth to their portrayals. While Anne continues to be a mixture of Sam's confessor and conscience, her increase in self-confidence as a result of her promotion to detective results in her taking a more active role in their relationship. She pushes Sam and forces him to confront aspects of his character he might not otherwise have been brave enough to do on his own. While Skelton and Carling still provide a fair bit of the comic relief -mainly through their ineptitude - the actors never let their characters become caricatures and are completely believable in their roles.

The four DVD set comes with special features that provide some great background to both how those responsible for creating the series worked out how to conclude it (Do not watch the making of documentaries on discs one and four until after you've watched the episodes as they are full of spoilers) and provide some fascinating details about the mechanics of shooting a period television piece. Unlike some of Acorn's product which are limited technologically by a show's original shooting date, Life On Mars: Series 2 comes with 5.1 surround sound and wide screen pictures ideally suited to today's home entertainment equipment.

After having watched the first year of episodes one could be forgiven for having doubts about the ability of the people responsible for Life On Mars to either match what they had already accomplished or bringing the series to a successful conclusion. Doubt no more - not only do the episodes in the second season continue to match the level of excellence seen in the first year, the way they integrate the conclusion of Sam's personal story is brilliant. Life On Mars is a perfect an example of how to make use of the potential television offers for telling a story. Unlike most of what you see on the small screen its ending is as satisfying as its beginning. You may be left wanting more, but that's a darn site better than wondering what the hell its still doing on the air.

October 23, 2009

DVD Review: Life On Mars: Series One

Of the many things about the 1970's that I really disliked living through, cop shows and movies that glorified police violence and disrespect for the law were pretty high up on the list. Starskey & Hutch, Dirty Harry, and Serpico all depicted police officers who worked on the premise that the ends justified the means. Who cares if you had to beat the crap out of a suspect, lie to, or threaten them in order to obtain a conviction; as long as you got the bad guy in the end that made it all right. I couldn't help wondering then, and now, what kind of example those shows were giving when their message was it was okay to break the law as long as you were doing it for the right reasons.

Needless to say I don't share any of the nostalgia for the 1970's or early 1980's that has fuelled movie versions of Starsky & Hutch or Miami Vice. All of which might make it seem odd that I would have been interested in checking out a police procedural that was set back in those dark days. However, all you have to do is watch the first of eight episodes in the four DVD pack Life On Mars: Series One put out by Acorn Media earlier this year, to know this is going to be a completely different take on 1970's policing.

The premise of the show might sound a bit far fetched, a modern day British cop falls into a coma in 2005 and wakes up to find himself having been transported back to the mean streets of Manchester England in 1973, but the result is some of the most brilliant television that I've seen. Not only does it depict the tension you would expect between cops of the two eras, it does a credible job of having them conduct investigations into crimes, all the while sustaining the question as to what the hell is going on with the central character. Is Sam Tyler (John Simm), the cop from the future, lying in a coma thirty odd years in the future and is all this is a figment of his imagination?Or maybe he has somehow fallen through some chink in time that has allowed him to travel into the past? On the other hand he could be an officer from the 1970's who has suffered a head injury which has left him delusional. For although episode one opens in modern day Manchester with him going about his duties as a Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) in the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), by the time it ends his new reality as a Detective Inspector (DI) thirty years back in time, is every bit as convincing as the former.
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Part of what makes 1973 so believable are the people populating it. Chief among them are Tyler's new boss DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). On the surface Gene appears to be your stereotypical 1970's copper, leading with his fists and filled with every racial and gender bias in the book. Gene isn't above planting evidence on somebody in order to get a collar -"Anybody I stitch up deserves it". Needless to say twenty-first century, scientific, and very clean Sam Tyler doesn't see exactly see eye to eye with Gene about his methodology which leads to quite a bit of yelling and the occasional punch up.

However, while Gene's bluff exterior isn't hiding a sensitive soul underneath, we soon discover appearances are not only deceiving, there's a bloody good reason for them. First of all Gene doesn't have any of the technology at his disposal that Sam or today's cops have. Forensic science that we take for granted like lifting finger prints from skin don't exist. Gene and his cops have to rely on what their "snouts" (informers) can tell them, their instincts honed from years working among the criminal classes of Manchester, and catching the guilty party either red handed or getting them to confess.

While both Sam and us are appalled by some of Gene's methodology, we gradually begin to understand him more with each episode and see what drives him so relentlessly. He takes any crime committed upon his streets personally and desperately wants to clean them up. Although he gets royally pissed off with Sam, he appreciates what he stands for and his abilities as a cop. There's one brilliant scene between the two of them where Gene talks about how he came to start accepting "backhanders" (bribes). When Sam asks him how it makes it feel inside he replies "like there's a creature inside eating away at me", and is happy to kill the creature when Sam gives him the opportunity by bringing down a local gangster.

While Sam and Gene are the leads, the supporting cast, Police woman Anne Cartwright (Liz White) Detective Sergeant Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Detective Constable Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) are equally important to the series. Carling thinks he knows what his "guvnor" DCI Hunt is all about, but only sees the rough and tumble exterior and not the brain and heart at work underneath, which leads him into making a horrible mistake. Skelton is torn between being interested in the new ideas Sam is suggesting about police work and not wanting to risk alienating his mates by chumming up to the new boss and doing anything that might look different from the way everyone else acts.
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Anne Cartwright could be a love interest, but more importantly she's a friend and acts as Sam's conscience by forcing him to consider what's more important to him - his procedures and "how things should be done" or his friends and the consequences of his actions. However, unlike the rest of the men she works with, Sam doesn't treat her walking into the room as an excuse for making dirty jokes, and doesn't think her gender makes her less intelligent then the rest of them. So although she treads carefully, over the course of the first series we begin to see her come out of her shell and taking a more active role in investigations.

As he's conducting investigations into murders and robberies Sam Tyler is also continually dealing with coming face to face with his "past". In various episodes over this first season he meets his mom, hears the voice of his younger self once or twice, and, finally, his father is a suspect in the final episode of the year. Sam "remembers" his dad mysteriously vanishing when he was young, and as the episode unfolds he realizes that he is not only going to be solving a crime but is about to discover what happened to his father all those years ago. Near the beginning of the case he latches on to the hope that maybe this is the reason he's been sent back into the past - to prevent his dad from leaving - and perhaps if he can do that he'll be able to go home. Back to the present.

Each of the fours discs are in widescreen format and come with optional cast and crew commentary. There are also various special features scattered throughout the four disc set including a very good two part documentary about the making of the series that includes interviews with the writers, producers, and cast members. I'd advise not watching it until after you've watched the series so as not to ruin any of the surprises in store during the show.

Life On Mars does an amazing job of weaving together the three story lines; the clash of police techniques, the actual investigations themselves, and Sam's quest to understand just what the hell is going on with him. A combination of great writing, even better acting, and a refusal to either glamourize the violence of the 1970's coppers or make Sam's character a saint, make it not only a great police procedural show that's surprisingly funny, but also amazingly credible. With the action being so believable, it becomes even more difficult to understand what Sam is actually going through and by the end of Series One we aren't that much the wiser. Life On Mars: Series One is as marvellously produced piece of television as you're going to see in a long time and leaves you definitely wanting more.

October 4, 2009

DVD Review: Paradise Postponed & Titmuss Regained

The late British novelist John Mortimer, is most famous for his series of novels featuring the barrister Horace Rumpole. Rumpole Of The Bailey which went on to have enormous success as a television show on both sides of the Atlantic. A barrister himself, he defended Virgin records when they were charged with obscenity for including the word bollocks in the title of the Sex Pistols album Never Mind The Bollocks, it's not surprising that he had great success with novels about life in and around the London courts, specifically The Old Bailey, the infamous criminal court. However that didn't stop him from branching out into writing about other matters, including his satirical look at British social mores and the class structure in Paradise Postponed and its sequel Titmuss Regained.

As with Rumpole both books made a successful transition to the small screen in 1986 and 1991 respectively, and now they have just as nicely made the move to DVD. On Tuesday October 6th/09 Acorn Media will be releasing the five DVD set,Paradise Postponed/Titmuss Regained, with the first four discs being Paradise Postponed and the last Titmuss Regained. While the age of the original episodes means they are in full screen format and the sound is merely Dolby digital stereo instead of the wide screen and surround sound most of us have come to be accustomed to, that by no means detracts from both the quality of the writing and acting that are on view in all five discs.

Paradise Postponed tells the story of both the Simcox family; brothers Henry (Peter Egan) and Fred (Paul Shelly), their father Reverend Simeon Simcox (Micael Hordern), and Leslie Titmuss through a series of flashbacks that traces the interrelationship between the family and Titmuss from the time the boys are all children up to the present day. As the series opens noted social activist and wealthy brewery owner Reverend Simeon Simcox is clearly reaching the end of his life. So it's no surprise when he soon passes away. What is surprising, to the press and family who attend the funeral, is the appearance of Conservative cabinet minister Leslie Titmuss at the funeral. The Reverend, he tells anybody who will listen, was always very good to him as a child, and he was attending the funeral not as a representative of the government, but as an old friend of the family.
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That he is an old friend of the family comes as a bit of surprise to the family, the mother referred to him as that odious little boy when he was a child and still does to this day, but that's not the worst surprise that's in store. For it seems that Simeon Simcox has left his rather considerable fortune not to his sons as would be expected, but to Leslie Titmuss. At a loss as to explain how there father could have done something so "irrational" as leave everything to someone who is the antithesis of everything they believe in, Henry Simcox is convinced their father had taken leave of his senses in his last days and vows to contest the will on the grounds his father was not in his right mind.

Yet, as we learn in our travels into the past, Simeon Simcox was always taking an interest in Leslie Timuss' life. The other members of the family, and their circle of friends, might either do their best to ignore him or treat him badly, but the Reverend, no matter how obnoxious or obsequies the boy is, can't seem to turn him away. While it might be possible the reverend feels sorry for the child for the way others treat him, the truth of the matter is that Leslie Titmuss is not very likeable either as a boy or an adult. He has the unerring habit of always saying or doing the wrong thing which either ends up making him look a fool or a jerk. However neither of Simeon son's come off much better as Henry the eldest is mean and selfish, while Fred just turns out to be ineffectual.

The secrets that tie Titmuss to the Simcoxs, and other assorted dirty linen, come out over the course of the series until finally all the pieces fit into place. Those used to the faster pace of American television shows might find Paradise Postponed a little slow at first, but your patience is rewarded by the fine performances and the quality of the script. While there's very little to recommend about Leslie Titmuss when you first meet him, and he remains incredibly hard to warm up to over the course of the series, David Threlfall does a masterful job of inserting just enough humanity into his characterization that you can't end up feeling both a little sorry for, and respecting him, all the same. It's a good thing too, because Titmuss Regained wouldn't work at all if that weren't the case.
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In the sequel Titmuss still carries with him the resentments of his youth against the privileged who laughed at him, but now he's in a position of power that allows him to look down on them. However that doesn't stop him from wanting to fill the hole in his life left by the death of his wife in Paradise Postponed. A chance meeting with the widowed Jenny Sidonia (Kristin Scott Thomas) at a lunch in Oxford opens the door to romance in his life and he stumbles through in his usual blustery manner. Much to the shock of Jenny's liberal friends she actually begins to respond to his advances and agrees to marry him. However, while one can understand her initial attraction to Titmuss, it's not long before cracks start to appear in their relationship.

There's also trouble at the office for Titmuss as his ministry, responsible for development and planning, are studying plans for the construction of a housing development and infrastructure in the rural area where he not only spent his childhood, but has just bought a stately home for his new bride. While on the one hand he makes public speeches deriding those wishing to protect "unspoiled countryside" as selfish and looking to protect their privileged lifestyle, on the other the last thing he wants is a new town plopped down in his own back yard. As if that weren't bad enough his new bride strikes up a friendship with the head of the local protest group against the development, none other than Fred Simcox.

Like the earlier series Titmuss Regained is a wonderfully written and masterfully acted piece of television. Not only has Mortimer written an elegant story that satirizes both sides of the political spectrum in England, the snobbery of old money, and the callousness of the new conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, the script and the actors bring all the characters to life in a way that's rarely seen on television or film these days. With the exception of Jenny Sidonia, none of the characters in either Paradise Postponed or Titmuss Regained are completely sympathetic. While this might make it difficult to watch if one requires a character to identify with in order to enjoy something, the upside is that it makes for highly realistic and intelligent television. This even handed approach towards characterization also allows the viewer to make his or her own decisions as to who their sympathies lie with, although, in the end, you might just want to wash your hands of the lot of them.

Originally produced in the the 1980's and early 1990's when new conservatism in Britain was still fresh in everyone's memories Paradise Postponed and Titmuss Regained don't lose any of their bite for no longer being contemporary. They both so perfectly recapture the era and the people on both sides of the political divide in England at the time, that it remains just as potent a piece of television as it was twenty some years ago when it first aired. As a result it is one of the best pieces of social satire you're liable to see for quite some time to come.

July 21, 2009

DVD Review: Tracey Ullman Tracey Ullman Takes On: The Complete Third & Fourth Season

Something that's always mystified me about movies is how the term character actor signifies a lower class of performer. You see I was always under the impression it was an actor's job to re-create the character that either the playwright or script writer had created. Silly me, people don't want to pay money to see Tom Cruise trying to be someone else, they want to see Tom Cruise fighting Martians War Of The Worlds or being a brave German army officer trying to kill Hitler Valkyrie. In fact, if the character's name isn't in the title of a film, I'd bet most audiences would only know his character as "the guy Tom Cruise played".

Nothing personal against Tom Cruise, you could replace his name in the previous paragraph with that of almost any other current or former movie star and it would be that same story. I say almost because there are some actors out there today who do create characters to play on screen, and aren't content to only play a variation of themselves. However, even when you do get someone creating a character for a movie, you often get more of a caricature than a real person. Most of the time what you'll see is a something along the lines of a few emotions passing itself off as a person; this is my character angry, sad, happy, and horny. Or even worse, what you see on screen is a mish-mash of stereotypes that identify a type but bear little or no relationship to a human being.

It's been years since I've seen any of Tracey Ullman's television work, so I had forgotten her skill at creating characters and bringing them to life. However, after watching the new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Tracey Takes On, a triple disc DVD set of the third and fourth seasons of the HBO show of the same name, her talent is indelibly etched into my brain. What makes her work so memorable is the fact her characters are multi-dimensional and the more you see and get to know them, the more human they become.
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The premise behind Tracey Takes On is that each segment of the show has Ullman's characters acting out what everything from "Obsession" to "Hollywood" means to them. Ullman introduces each collection of vignettes by citing an example or two of her own experiencesand then we immediately segue to the first of her characters with something to say on the subject. Now I haven't seen any episodes from the first two seasons, but I have to assume that the collection of characters we meet over the course of these three DVDs are ones that have appeared throughout the course of the show, so some of you might already be familiar with names like Ruby Romaine the make-up artist; "Chic" Middle Eastern taxi driver; Trevor the gay airline steward; Sydney Cross the loud mouthed attorney; Chris and her lover Midge, a pro on the LPGA tour; Fern Rosenthal a Jewish retiree from Long Island living in Florida; Linda Granger ex star of the television show VIP Lounge; and the rest of Ullman's menagerie of characters.

While her characters cross all boundaries of sex, race, religion, and age not once do they come across like stereotypes. Of course in some people's minds Ullman wearing black face in order to play an African American airport security officer named Sheneesha Turner, or her portrayal of Mrs. Non Nang Ning, the ancient Asian donut shop owner, is probably horribly politically incorrect. However as she's not holding back from skewering anyone or anything, I think these characters have to be taken within the context which they are presented, some of the best social satire you'll ever see on television.

It's not just the way in which she tackles each of the subjects being "taken on" in each segment, it's the fact that the opinions being expressed are by characters who border on being stereotypes which makes each scene's sharp edges even keener. For as we watch the characters over the course of the three discs we get to know them far better than we would normally know any character on television. Ullman tricks us on occasion by sliding in something that's not funny, or is very gentle in it's humour, which creates a bond between the audience and the particular character by showing them to be more then we had previously thought them to be.
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Of course some of the characters you're not going to feel any affection for like Birdie Godsen who has annual book barbecues in her gated community for her fellow Devout Christians living on Dan Quail Drive, or Erin McColl the earthy folk singer who you end up wanting to plant under six feet of earth for being so annoying. However, for the most part something of what can only be described as the characters' humanity shines through allowing us to identify with their situation. It also turns the tables on us as it changes them from being objects of ridicule who we've been laughing at into people whose feelings we can identify with, which leaves you feeling just a little wrong-footed.

It would have been nice if there could have been some liner notes with the package breaking down who appears in which episode alongside Tracy Ullman, or that supplied a little bit more information about the show aside from the blurb on the back cover. True, there is a link to the show's web site where you can find detailed information about each episode, but that's not the same thing as having something you can refer to while watching the show. The special features on the other hand are great as they feature in depth looks at two of the characters we met in this package and one we didn't meet at all. While one skit is a repeat, the rest is all new material and as funny and pointed as anything else in the collection.

It's a rare film and television actor these days whose willing to subordinate themselves to the character they're playing and even rarer to find one capable of creating a character with more depth than a cartoon cut out. Not only has Tracey Ullman created a very pointed, and sometimes poignant, look at modern life with her series Tracey Ullman Takes On she does so by creating characters who are both funny and very real. As this was a cable television show originally it comes with the requisite warnings about drug use, nudity, and some language. However it fails to give you two very important warnings that you'd be wise to heed before watching any of the material on this three disc set: Do not attempt to drink while watching this show because of the danger of chocking and spitting, and ensure that you have emptied your bladder in advance in order to minimize the risks of pissing yourself laughing.

June 7, 2009

DVD Review: The Adventure Of English With Melvyn Bragg

I've always been fascinated with words and their origins, wondering where they came from and how they came to mean what they do today. I had studied enough Latin in high school, and know enough French, to know where quite a few words of English came from. However, even a quick glance at other words will tell you that there's no way they could have roots going back to either French or Latin. So it didn't come as much of a surprise to learn that English not only has its origins in about a half dozen older languages, but every time its contacted another language, its sucked up new words like a vacuum.

Now I had always joked about English being a mongrel language but I wasn't prepared for just how many different cultures had contributed to building the words I work with on almost a daily basis. Watching The Adventure Of English, the four DVD disc set of the British television show just released by Athena, a division of Acorn Media, was therefore an eye opening experience. Hosted by British author Melvyn Bragg, the series traces the history of the English language from its roots in the mists of time to the language of mass communication and commerce its become today. It may not sound like the most thrilling of topics, but in the hands of Bragg the journey is nearly as exciting as any adventure story.

The early history of the English language revolves around a series of invasions of the British Isles that took place over a five hundred year period. English as we know it today has its earliest European roots in the North Sea. It was Germanic tribes from the Friesian Islands invading in 500 AD that brought the beginnings of English to Britain. They conquered the native Celts and established kingdoms in the east, west, south, and north of England with only a small enclave of Celts surviving in what is now known as Wales. However those kingdoms weren't to last long as the Danes under their king soon followed and drove the Saxons out of the north and east and established their own holdings there.
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Bragg shows us how each of these two initial waves of invaders left there mark upon present day English through offering examples of their tongues presence in today's speech. In the north and east of England for instance names that ends in son, Robinson, Harrison, and Williamson, can be traced back to the Norse tradition of naming people "son of". He also shows how place names have retained traces of the former dominant language. However it was only after peace and trade between the two sets of invaders were established that "Anglo-Saxon" began to thrive (the Anglo comes from the name of one of the Kingdoms, East Angles which is now known as East Anglia).

With the introduction of Latin and the Roman script, they were even making headway on establishing "English" (what we know as Old English and barely recognizable as being the same language we speak today) in the written form, when the Normans invaded in 1066. That was nearly the death knell of English as French became the official language of the land. It did die out as a written language because of the Norman invasion, but while English absorbed some words we now take for granted (justice, court, and castle) it lived on as the spoken language of the majority of the population. Ironically enough it wasn't until the new "French" empire invaded and conquered Normandy, cutting off all links between the rulers of England and their former homeland, that English mades its comeback.
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Of course it doesn't take too long for English to go on the offensive once they've got their own house in order. After taking care of the whole matter of the Catholic church and establishing the Church of England under Henry VIII thus ensuring masses are held in English not in Latin, their eyes turned further afield. The Puritans took English with them to North America where they established where they incorporated mispronounced Native American words into their vocabulary in taking the first steps in establishing "American English". Then came the first forays into India and the Caribbean.

While initially British merchants in India were forced to learn the language of the rulers as they were dealing with a civilization both older and more sophisticated than their own, eventually the roles were reversed. Taking on the "White Man's Burden" of elevating the poor misguided coloured people of the world, the East Indian Trading company passed laws prohibiting the teaching of any language but English to those Indians receiving an education. While this was an incredibly patronizing attitude, it did result in the development of "Indian English", which in turn helped support Indian nationalism by supplying those struggling for "Home Rule" the vocabulary with which to articulate their demands.

Bragg doesn't mince any words in his descriptions of how English was spread through out the world. While his conversational approach to delivering the material may sound like he's making light of the way events took place in India and other locales, he doesn't shy away from telling the truth when it comes to showing English being spread by the sword. From Australia to America settlers and traders were backed up with gun ships and muskets to ensure that business was carried on in the Queen's English. When the sun began to set on the British Empire after the World Wars of the twentieth century, the American Empire took up the task of imposing the language on the rest of the world through a mixture of economic and martial might. When you think about it, not much has changed since the Germanic tribes left the Friesian Islands.

In The Adventure Of English Melvyn Bragg does an excellent job of not only unravelling the roots of the language we all take for granted, but he does it such a manner that he makes it enjoyable to watch. Often programs like these are either so dry as to be indigestible, facile to the point of being useless as sources of information, or delivered in such a manner that the dirtier aspects of history are whitewashed out. Remarkably none of that happens here. Not only are details of the history of the English language revealed that most likely you would have never discovered on your own, Bragg's approach is that of a story teller not a lecturer. In fact he's so good a story teller you hardly notice your learning anything, and you eagerly await the next adventure. If you have any curiosity about how and where the words you speak came from, The Adventure Of English not only supplies the answers, it does so in a way that brings both the language and its history to life. One thing is for sure, after watching this program you'll never look at a word, any word, in quite the same way again.

June 2, 2009

DVD Review: Playing Shakespeare Featuring Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, And Ben Kingsley

Most of us at one point in our lives have been confronted with one of the plays of William Shakespeare. For the majority our first and last experience has been struggling through the text in high school and never hearing or seeing the words taken from the page and brought to life on stage. If we were very lucky we may have had a teacher who was able to impart upon us a sense of the beauty and the wonder of the text. However, for the majority of us it was an experience we only strove to survive before moving on to something a little more comprehensible, hoping the final exam wouldn't devote more than a question or two to the play.

Of course it's the language that defeats most people. The strange vocabulary, the different cadences, and of course the fact that it all appears to be poetry of some kind or another. Reading it aloud, let along acting it out, is more of a challenge than most of us are willing to consider attempting. Yet if ever you have the good fortune to see one of Shakespeare's plays performed by those who know what they are doing it all of a sudden makes sense. What was close to incomprehensible on the page is miraculously understandable on stage. How, you may wonder, did it undergo such a remarkable transformation? What magic formulae did the actors and director follow to turn gibberish into English?

Well according to Playing Shakespeare, a nine part television series that first aired in 1984, and now available as a four DVD box set from Athena a division of Acorn Media, there is no set answer as to how best perform Shakespeare. In a series of master class workshops John Barton, Associate Director of the Royal Shakespearean Company (RSC) of England and members of the company at the time, including Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Peggy Ashcroft, and others, explore everything from the difficulties of marrying modern acting styles to plays written for Elizabethan actors, the mysteries of the iambic pentameter, to how to best perform soliloquies. With Barton introducing each segment, and then leading his actors through examples of the topic under discussion, we are given remarkable insight into not only the works of Shakespeare, but the work involved in an actor preparing for a performance.
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For each segment Barton calls upon his actors to attempt various ways of doing the same scene in order to illustrate the point he's trying to make. For example, in the segment on soliloquies one of the points under discussion is whether it's better for the actor to directly address the audience or to conduct the speech as an interior monologue. Which way, Barton wants to know, will hold an audience's attention more? He has the actors first try the speech in the latter way, and then he stops them and has them address the audience directly. The difference is immediately noticeable, for when the actor speaks his or her speech directly to us we hang on to their words and are pulled into the story far more deeply than when he or she directed the speech inwards.

If there is one element that Barton constantly comes back to throughout the whole series, it's the importance of maintaining the audiences' interest in the proceedings. Now well that might sound so obvious to be laughable, however, with something like Shakespeare, where it so easy for an actor or an audience to get caught up in the language and get lost, it's not as easily accomplished as you might think. Here again Barton has his actors experiment with performing the pieces in two ways. First to latch onto the over all emotion of a scene or speech and simply play that while ignoring any individual nuances that might be found in the text. Then they reverse the process and break the scene or speech down into its component parts so we hear more than just the one emotion, but all the little bits and pieces of thoughts that have gone into creating that emotion.

It turned out that neither extreme was completely satisfying. For although the latter was more interesting to listen too, and would pull the audience more into the story, it lacked the passion and excitement of the former. In there is the key that Barton thinks leads to creating a Shakespearean production for a modern audience - balance. A contemporary actor must balance the needs of a script that was written to be played in the open air in a highly stylized manner with the modern day audience's need for realism on stage. He or she must be able to transmit the heightened emotions called for by the language while at the same time ensuring the meanings of individual lines aren't swept away in a sea of passion.
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Anybody who has the slightest interest in Shakespeare and acting will find this series to be a riveting experience. It's not often you have the opportunity to watch actors actually rehearse and experiment as they prepare for a role, and in Playing Shakespeare you are able to watch some of the finest actors of our generation do just that. There is nothing staged about any of this either, as Barton will stop them, and ask them to try something again, but this time do it this way. What I found truly amazing, was the apparent ease with which each of them were able to take his direction and do something completely different from what they had done previously.

However, by far the best thing this series does is make Shakespeare more accessible. Far too many people put him up on a pedestal and worship his work to the extent that they lose touch with the fact that it was written as popular entertainment in its day. They're full of sex, violence, coarse humour, and high passion, all of which should be as equally entertaining to today's audience as for the one it was written. Barton and his actors bring Shakespeare back to a human level, but without sacrificing any of the magic and beauty of the language and the poetry inherit to the work the way many modern "realistic" productions do.

It doesn't matter if you've hated Shakespeare since high school, or loved his plays all your life, watching Playing Shakespeare will open your eyes and allow you to look on the material as if it were brand new. The program may be twenty-five years old, but the ideas it expresses and puts into action are just as fresh and exciting today as they were then. This is brilliant television and great theatre.

January 6, 2009

DVD Review: The Last Detective: Complete Series

If there wasn't any truth to an expression it probably wouldn't ever have been said, so although you can't take a saying like "nice guys finish last" as gospel, you can be sure there has to be some truth to it. One only needs look at the way the world conducts business to realize how a saying like that could have come about. In everything from running for political office to office politics if you're not prepared to be a little underhanded or dirty, your chances of finishing on top of the heap are reduced substantially.

There are some professions where even the very notion of niceness having a part to play in getting the job done seems too ridiculous to contemplate. Take being a police officer, can you imagine politely asking someone in the midst of robbing the corner store to please drop their weapon, put their hands down, and give themselves up? Sure a police officer is polite to the general public, but when it comes to dealing with criminals, well that's another story. All of which could explain why Detective Constable (DC) "Dangerous" Davies of the British television series The Last Detective remains firmly planted at the bottom when it comes to his job and his personal life.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of watching DC "Dangerous" Davies in action, the good people at Acorn Media are going to be releasing The Last Detective: Complete Collection on January 20th/09. The nine DVD set not only contains all seventeen episodes of the television series, it also includes the 1981 Granada TV movie Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective as a bonus feature, which offers a different take on the story told television series' first episode.
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Everybody knows and likes DC "Dangerous" Davies (Peter Davison) except for perhaps his colleagues who think he's a bit of a joke. The word on the street is that if you're going to get nabbed, "Dangerous" is the one you want to get picked up by, as he's always polite and never out of line. As one bloke says to him, "Always a pleasure to be picked up by you "Dangerous", you never go in for any of that rough stuff or racial epithets like some others". Unfortunately that high opinion isn't shared by his north London police station's Inspector: "You're the last detective I'll ever think of for a job, unless it's shit, the stuff that no one else wants, then you'll be the first I'll think of".

In episode after episode we see that DC Davies is the one who gets to deal with the little old ladies who believe their neighbour has cut up his wife and is throwing him out in the garbage, and all the other calls that his fellow officers thinks are beneath them. He's the one who gets called to the scene when a petty thief is threatening to kill himself with a home made bomb made from an alarm clock and sausages, or to deal with anyone whose being particularly bothersome.

Yet what's probably most aggravating about "Dangerous" is his unerring ability to make the rest of his colleagues look bad. A case that's been unsolved by his, younger, higher in the ranks, fellow detectives, gets handed to him because the victim is being a bother in the episode "Tricia". Through perseverance, dogged determination, and a willingness to spend time listening to the victim, Davies figures it out. What makes matters worse, is that the answers weren't that hard to come by, if only the detectives investigating the case in the first place had bothered to do their job properly. Nobody likes a loser, especially when he wins and makes you look bad doing so.

For the viewer the great thing about DC Davies is how human he is. How often do you see on a cop show the officer kicking the door in fallinf on his face on top of the door and then being stepped on by the other officers running into the apartment? It's not that DC Davies is literally a door mat, he wouldn't be the sympathetic character he is if he was, but he just can't bring himself to be rude. Sometimes you have the distinct impression he wants to be, the way his shoulders stiffen when his back is to someone, and the deep breath he takes before turning around. Yet, by the time he's facing the camera again, his smile is hitched firmly in place and he's ready to give who ever his total attention.
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Peter Davison does a wonderful job portraying DC Davies as we see all sides of his character. The frustration he feels at the way he's treated, at the crap jobs he's given to do, war with his desire to do his job to the best of his capabilities and his very real belief that he is supposed to be helping people. He is a genuinely decent man and the compassion he feels for the people he deals with is honest. On the other hand, in spite of what anybody he works with might think, he's not a pushover and has no sympathy for the real villains of the world. He might have a kind word and smile for the winos, the petty thieves, and other basically harmless types, but those who do genuine harm will find out that "Dangerous" isn't necessarily just a sarcastic nickname.

As he receives little or no help from his fellow officers, Davies is forced to call upon the services of his friend Mod (Sean Hughes) for advice and the occasional helping hand. Mod seems to change jobs like some people do shirts, as at one point he's a dog walker, another teaching English to Japanese au-pair girls, and in one instance doing a door to door survey of the sexual habits of the local senior citizens. However, in spite of his peculiarities he's a good friend to Davies, and one of the few people he can count on. Hughes has a lot of fun playing Mod and its obvious that both he and Davison have a great time doing their scenes together.

In fact the quality of the acting through out the entire series is spot on (look for guest appearances from various familiar faces including Roger Daltry of the Who) from the actors in the continuing roles of Davies' ex-wife and colleagues to those who only show up for a single episode. What I especially appreciated were those characters who you think you have figured out and either over the course of an episode, or the series, they surprise you by the way they change and how well the actors are able to make those transitions work.

As the show The Last Detective is fairly recent, the picture and sound quality are of very good quality. While the special features are limited to an interview with actor Peter Davison, and some on screen reading material about the author of the books the series is based on, the inclusion of the the 1981 television movie Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective is a real treat. With Bernard Cribbins playing Davies we get a different view of the character, and I found it only increased my enjoyment of the series as a whole rather than forcing me to choose which of the two I preferred. It was like seeing a photograph of the same scene from a different angle with each one offering an equally fascinating perspective.

DC "Dangerous" Davies is not your typical television police officer and The Last Detective is definitely not your typical television cop show. However if you like intelligent television that's a little off the wall, and mysteries that are sometimes not what they seem to be, than you are sure to enjoy The Last Detective: The Complete Series.

December 14, 2008

DVD Review: New York Noir: The History Of Black New York

With the advent of speciality television stations like The History Channel and Discovery there has never been a healthier market for documentary movies. Gone are the days when the documentary was considered so commercially unviable that aside from the occasional nature film produced by people like The Disney Corporation, the chances of them receiving any public attention were minimal. Now, aside from the above mentioned channels, film festivals like Hot Docs, the annual Toronto Canada round up of international documentaries, have sprung up that not only give people the opportunity to see them in the cinema, but give the movies and their producers the exposure needed to attract a distributor.

Documenting an event or events, a person's life, or any of the other subjects that end up being grist for a film makers mill, traditionally the camera played the part of neutral observer. Never commenting or passing judgement, merely recording, it was a supposedly impartial eye that allowed us to be a fly on the wall in rooms so that we could overhear those conversations we would normally miss. Of course even in the pre Michael Moore, documentary with an axe to grind days, objectivity was highly subjective, as the director and producer could still control what we saw and heard by what they chose to shoot or not shoot.

Producers of documentaries dealing with historical matters face different challenges than those working on contemporary issues as they are unable to film the events under discussion. Depending on the time frame they may be able to find archival footage that's applicable, but on the whole they are reliant on voice overs, stills, and other static means of disseminating the information, including the infamous "talking head". Experts in the field are usually filmed sitting down so that they are only visible from the waist up, and become nothing more than talking heads holding forth on the subject matter. While they lend an air of credibility to a film, unless they are particularly interesting or dynamic, too many talking heads can sap the life right out out of it.
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With a subject matter as interesting as the history of African Americans in New York City, you'd think that the directors of New York Noir: The History Of Black New York, produced by Little Dizzy Home Video would have had no problems making an interesting and informative film. Of course they suffered from the constraints of not having any footage dating back to the days when the city was called New Amsterdam and ruled by the Dutch in he early 1600's. Still it was to be hoped that they would have found a more interesting way of presenting the material than relying as heavily upon "talking heads" as they did, or at least found ones who were marginally more interesting than those they ended up with.

Instead of simply laying out the history of New York as seen through the eyes of the African American community, what they've done is divide the movie up into a series of chapters dealing with the various issues and topics relating to the theme of the movie. Starting with the history of black New York City, the chapters covered such topics as politics, civil rights, business, heroes, entertainment, and the great Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and thirties. While the movie makes certain that you know it won't be shrinking from dealing with the truth of the black experience in New York City, the opening chapter is called "Living A Lie" in reference to the fact that in spite of the constitution's claim that all men are created equal, African Americans went from slavery to second class citizens, there is still something about its focus that rang hollow.

Now, obviously this movie was made prior to the most recent American presidential election so they make no mention of Barack Obama's election, and Colin Powell is from New York City, but to place him at the zenith when talking about heroes seemed to me a little unsettling. In fact the whole hero section dealt with African American participation in American wars dating back to the revolution as if being a soldier was the sole outlet for heroism. Again they didn't stint from talking about the how black soldiers were allowed to die for their country in WWl but were treated like dirt upon their return home from the front, but they glossed over Vietnam by simply saying many blacks served with distinction.

There was no mention of how under a policy, known as McNamara's 100,000, in honour of Robert McNamara who authored the plan, physical and intelligence requirements for entrance into the armed forces were lowered. Or that from 1966 on, each year, for three years, recruiters swept through the urban centres and rural areas snapping up the uneducated to serve as front line troops, resulting in a disproportionate number of poor blacks serving and dying in Vietnam.

While the makers of the movie did a credible job in explaining how the Harlem Renaissance came about, they only briefly mentioned how the bottom was allowed to fall out because most of the real estate, including apartments and businesses were owned by whites and that the city officials did its best to ignore spending any money on infrastructure, schools, and health care for the district. Although the movie went to great lengths to extoll the virtues of the few African American business people who were successful in the early part of the twentieth century and showed it was possible for "blacks to pursue the American Dream", the poverty, crime, and horrible living conditions that have been the lot of the majority of blacks in New York City is glossed over.

I also question the fact that in the Civil Rights segment of the movie they focused so much attention on Marcus Garvey, without once mentioning his infamous "Back To Africa" policy which received support from folk like The Ku Klux Klan, or barely mentioned Shirley Chisholm. While they did say that as New York's Twelfth district congresswoman she was the first African American woman to enter Congress, they failed to mention that she sought the Democratic nomination for President in 1972. To give the movie its due, they did present one of the fairest treatments of Malcolm X that I've seen, mentioning that he never advocated violence, only self defence, and how after making his pilgrimage to Mecca he began preaching universal brotherhood.

To try and cover a topic as complex as the history of African Americans in New York City, as New York Noir: The History Of Black New York attempts, with any sort of authority would require far more time than the fifty minute length of this movie allowed. While they don't shy away from mentioning the usual stories about the battles for integration and the overt racism of city hall and the New York Police in the past, they also make no attempt to go below the surface of any of the issues or mention anything about what life is like currently.

There is no mention of how badly the population has been damaged by the HIV/AIDS virus, or the affects of drugs and its related violence on the community. Nor is there any examination of the state of the school system in the inner city, the availability of health care, how many African Americans in New York have health insurance, or what the economic prospects for the current generation of young blacks coming of age in New York City are like.

By ignoring these types of details, making injustice sound like a thing of the past, and glossing over some of the more insidious crimes against the community, this movie doesn't even come close to telling the history of black people in New York City as its title claims. Its movies like this one that perpetuate the lie that everything is all right with American society today, and inequality is a thing of the past. That's a dangerous message to be sending, and the harm a movie like this can do shouldn't be underestimated. It's a very good example of how through omission a documentary movie can offer a distorted view of the truth without resorting to telling outright lies.

November 15, 2008

DVD Review: The Commander: Set 1

It seem ironic to be writing about a television show that deals with the issue of the glass ceiling women run into in the professional world, when the same glass ceiling exists for female actors. Look around and tell me how many really good roles there are for women in either film or television that aren't dependant on their looks and or age. How well a woman fills a t-shirt or a bikini seems to be more important to the screen than how well she can create a character or whether she can deliver a line convincingly.

While there has been some progress made in the past few years, you've still less chance of seeing Dame Judi Dench showing up on your television screen or film than you do the latest bimbo from the pop charts. Even when the do create roles for women, the tendency is to latch onto a successful type and stick to it. How many more series are we going to see featuring a driven woman who has been so desperate to succeed in her career that she has no personal life, or even worse has made a right hash of it. Not only has she had to struggle to survive in a "man's world", but there's always at least one man bitterly resentful of her position and determined to bring her down if its the last thing he does.

If I were to tell you the above scenario was in regards to a British television series that focused on the trials and tribulation of a senior police officer whose personal life tends to spill over into her work, your first guess would probably be the former Helen Mirren vehicle Prime Suspect. Well you wouldn't be too far off, because The Commander comes from the pen of the same person, Lynda La Plante. Acorn Media has just released a box set of the series' first season with The Commander: Set 1's four DVDs each containing an entire episode.
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Amanda Burton plays forty-something Commander Clare Blake who after twenty years on the force has risen to become the highest ranking woman in New Scotland Yard; Serious Crime Group Commander and head of the Murder Review Team. Even under normal circumstances both these jobs would be considered high profile and high pressure, but with her being the first woman to ever hold either position the ante is upped even higher. For not only does she have to deal with the public scrutiny that comes with the job, there are those within the force who can't wait for her to slip up and are constantly eyeing her every move on and off the job.

Unfortunately Clare is her own worst enemy and in the first episode, "Entrapment" allows herself to be placed in a compromising position that not only threatens her career, but could put her life in danger. Even if she comes through this unscathed the repercussions won't die down overnight, as the senior staff don't look fondly upon officers who become involved with suspects in a murder investigation. James Lampton has just been released from prison where he served twelve years of a murder sentence. While inside he wrote a book about his rehabilitation and the Commander is very surprised to receive a request to write a forward for the book, as she had been the arresting officer on the Lampton case. However, she agrees to do so, under the impression that the book is only going to distributed among prison officials.

Imagine her surprise when she discovers the book has been published and is climbing to the top of the best seller list, but she decides not to make a fuss because all the proceeds from sales of the book are being donated to a victims of crime charitable organization. Still when two murders are committed with similar MO's (Modus Operandi) to that of Lampton, and he's picked up for questioning by the police at a book signing, it can't help but be a little embarrassing for Clare.

Which is what causes her to become suspicious of the officer in charge of the case, Detective Inspector (DI) Hedges, for she is currently looking into the shooting of a civilian by police a year ago that Hedges had investigated and cleared all the officers involved. The problem is that the family of the victim have filed civil suit against the Police, and all evidence has to be checked and double checked - including a the video from a security camera that captured the whole event and that somehow didn't make it into the initial reports investigation.
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While up to this point the show had proven to be well written and interestingly scripted with a few neat plot twist, its credibility takes a serious beating when Clare begins an affair with Lampton. While she's undoubtedly lonely and vulnerable, I found it hard to credit that any senior police officer would become involved with anybody who has the remotest chance of being a suspect in a murder case. This is especially true of a woman officer who has managed to rise to the top as Clare has, meaning she, even more than her male colleagues, would have learned what sort of behaviour could ruin a person's career.

The fact that she had been warned by friends and superiors alike to keep her distance from Lampton as soon as he was charged because of her connection to him from having written the forward to his book and goes ahead with the affair shows the type of "error in judgement" that would see any police officer in trouble. Sure, she's only human, but any woman who has fought her way to the top and dealt with the type of political bull shit she'd have dealt with on the way up the ladder, would know how that type of slip up could be used against her and that there are plenty willing and prepared to do so.

If the writers are serious about wanting us to sympathize with Clare Blake and identify with her struggles as a "woman in a man's world" they have a strange way of doing it. That's not the type of behaviour that any police force would tolerate of any officer man or woman. By trying to mitigate on her behalf by making the officer in charge of the Lampton investigation a slime ball with a vendetta against her, making it seem like she's being set up, in no way changes the fact that he's right when he says that he doesn't have to do anything as she's bringing herself down.

While I applaud any efforts made to provide good roles on television or film for female actors, and especially those which depict women in what are still considered non-traditional careers, it would be nice if it could be done without turning a very serious situation into a cliche or a cheesy soap opera. The glass ceiling is very real in all areas of the work force, and in what were traditionally male dominated professions like policing, the military, and fire fighting it's especially true. However, creating a formula for television serials out of a real social problem doesn't do either the situation or those who are actually struggling with it, any justice.

When Prime Suspect was first televised some twenty years ago, it was a very real and gritty piece of work that was also groundbreaking in its depiction of a mid level female police officer and her struggle to advance in her career. The Commander, in comparison, is merely turning over the same old soil and compounding its failings by undermining the lead character's credibility for the sake of soap opera plot lines. The fact that they've chosen to combine that with lurid crimes scenes complete with the naked bodies of rape victims makes the whole show reek of sensationalism and exploitation.

The DVD box set The Commander: Set 1 comes with special features that include interviews with the creator of the series and the actor, Amanda Burton, who plays Clare Blake, and a featurette about the supporting cast - none of which contain any surprises. The production values are top notch, Dolby stereo sound and widescreen picture, make it as professional as anything you'd see in the theatres. Unfortunately there's nothing any of those features can do to save the series from the flaws in the script and the overall concept that make it at best a poor imitation of other shows of a similar nature.

November 14, 2008

DVD Review: George Gently: Series 1

I don't normally watch what are known as police procedurals, television shows which involve a crime being committed that follow the police officers through the lengthy process of uncovering who done it. Truth be told I don't usually watch television, as although I own one, it's not hooked up to either cable, satellite, or even an old fashioned antenna. Instead its sole purpose is to act as a video monitor so my wife and I can watch DVDs. So on the occasions that I end up reviewing the box set of a television series, I don't have much that I can use as a basis for comparison save for memories of what television was like in the 1970's and 80's or other material that I've watched in the same format.

In the past couple of years I've taken advantage a few times of some of the box sets offered by Acorn Media of the higher end of British police procedurals; Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren, Cracker with Robbie Coltrane, and Rebus with Ken Stott as the irascible Scottish detective created by Ian Rankin. Each of these series were distinguished not only by superlative writing but by the performances of their lead actors. The problem is of course that material like this tends to spoil you for most of what's on offer, and it's going to take a pretty special show to match up to any of the above programs.

You wouldn't think to read the description, disillusioned police officer transfers from London's Scotland Yard to the North East of England to fight crime among the pig farmers and fishermen in the early 1960's, that George Gently would stand up in toe to toe competition with any of the heavyweights mentioned above. I mean, it sounds like a cross between Green Acres and All Creatures Great And Small more than anything else, let alone a show that could generate any of the intensity or suspense that makes a good cop show work.
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Well, if the three episodes that are included in the box set George Gently: Series 1 distributed by the good folks at Acorn Media are anything to go by, this series is every bit as good as its more established brethren. Not only are the scripts intelligent, and the plots intriguing enough to be interesting without be convoluted to the point of incomprehension, the show's main character is every bit as fascinating as any cop whose appeared on the small screen.

Commander George Gently, played by Martin Shaw, is an incorruptible officer in surrounded by officers at all levels who are on the take. When he starts pushing his investigations into the rot in London's police force a little harder than he should someone sends him a warning: his wife is killed by a hit and run driver right in front of him. When the man he suspects of having been behind that murder is spotted at the funeral of a young man who died under suspicious circumstances in the North East of England, Durham County, he asks for the chance to take over the case.


One of the nice touches in this first episode, "Gently Go Man", was that instead of us meeting George's new colleagues when he arrives at his new assignment, we travel on ahead of him and are introduced to both some of the locals who are involved with the crime and the police officers who are investigating it. So we get to form our own impressions of Detective Sergeant (DS) John Bacchus, Lee Ingleby, who ends up assisting Gently on this first case. Young, ambitious, and a little slick, he drives a MG, it appears that Bacchus is more than likely to get on the wrong side of Gently who is decidedly old school. Yet, at the same time we see that he is a good cop, and really cares about what he does, even if he's not too concerned about the how's, just the results.

Each of the three episodes, "The Burning Man" and "Bomber's Moon" are two and three respectively, check in at just under ninety minutes, which allows plenty of time to not only develop plot, but establish the characters who will be appearing in them. In "Go Gently Man" they take full advantage of the time to not only establish the characters and develop the plot, but to also set the atmosphere of the times. England in 1964 was going through a social upheaval, and there was a real changing of the guard happening. Those who were born during the war are just starting to come of age and aren't content to be like the generation before them - those who fought in the war.
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Yet, while Gently is a veteran of WW2 and Bacchus has only vague memories of it, the writers don't play up the obvious areas of conflict. In fact Bacchus' decision to join the police makes him something of an anomaly among his peers as it's seen as being very conformist. At the same time he's enough a product of his generation that he's considered a bit unconventional for a police officer. While this makes his character that much more interesting, we discover as the episodes continue, and we get to know both characters better, that Gently is actually the more liberal and more forgiving of the two. He can understand someone making a mistake, and is willing to overlook minor transgressions in most cases. That the writers resisted going for the obvious, and cliched, approach to the characters is just one example of what marks this series as special.

However, as we learn in "The Burning Man", when a Special Branch agent (sort of like Homeland Security) shows up and starts throwing his weight around and interfering in Gently's investigation, he has no tolerance for people in authority who abuse their power. "We're supposed to be different from them" he says at one point, referring to those who use violence to get their way, Of course that's sorely put to the test for him when he confronts the man who ordered his wife's death, or when he comes into contact with evidence of police corruption. While he's able to resist the call of vengeance in some occasions, there are others when he does let his anger get the best of him.

While the second episode, "The Burning Man", involves gun running and the I.R.A. making it a bit more sensational then the normal police murder, each of the cases are solved through the boring process of a slow investigation. Every so often Gently has to reign in his younger colleague, but together they make a good team. In fact the relationship between the two characters, and the way each actor plays them, makes for some very funny as well as tense moments. They don't instantly become buddy buddy, and even after three episodes they are still getting on each nerves, but that only serves to make what's being depicted all the more realistic.

There's not much in the way of special features included with the three discs of George Gently: Series 1, but what there is are interesting. They've included text interviews with both Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby where they both talk about what appealed to them about the script and analyse their characters. The text is easy to read, which is a nice change, and both men offer some interesting insights, so they are worth reading. As this is a current television series, the second and third episodes aired last spring in England, the sound quality is very good, Dolby Digital, and the widescreen picture is of the best quality.

George Gently: Series 1 contains the first three episodes of what looks to be another great police procedural series from England. I know they are filmming more episodes and I'm interested to see how the characters continue to develop, and what other interesting plot lines the writers can come up with. One thing I'm sure of, if they continue to produce episodes of the same quality that came in this box set, it will be the equal of any that have come out of England before it.

October 8, 2008

DVD Review: Mister Roberts

To most of us the nearest television comes to being live anymore is when they say that a show was shot live in front of a studio audience. Of course that's still not live television, as the actors will still get a chance to re-shoot scenes and the show isn't being broadcast live out over the airwaves as they film it. Yet, hard as it may be to believe that is something that used to happen all the time in television, shows would beam out to audiences un-edited and actors would run the same risks that their cousins in theatre did when it came to forgetting lines or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although there were similarities between live theatre and live television, there were sizeable differences as well. Live television was made to be performed for the camera, while live theatre is made to be played in a large hall with a live audience. If you don't think that makes much of a difference think of what an actor has to do to make himself heard and seen from the fortieth row of the theatre. Then think of putting that same person in front of a camera and having him or her doing the exact same performance - it would look and sound ridiculous. His voice would be far too loud and facial expressions that look normal up on stage to people in an audience would look horribly exaggerated when captured by the television camera.

One of the hardest things to do is to take a live performance of any play and put it on the screen. To do it successfully usually involves re-staging it specifically for the camera instead of for the audience. To actually stage it for both and make it look convincing both on camera and for those in the audience is a very tricky proposition that not only requires particularly skilled actors, but a director skilled in editing camera shots live to ensure you get the right mix of television and theatre. Shooting flat with one camera - just opening the lens so you can see the whole set and all the action taking place on it - makes for both lousy television and lousy theatre - so you'd want to be able to cut back and forth between close-ups of central characters, mid range shots to show the reactions of those in the immediate surroundings, and long range shots to capture the fact that it is indeed taking place on a stage set.
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In 1984 NBC TV took the risk of staging a live television broadcast of the one time Broadway hit play Mister Roberts, and now the Acorn Media Group have just released a DVD of that performance. Based on a novel by Thomas Heggen, it was originally staged on Broadway in1948 starring Henry Fonda in the title role of Mister Roberts, a role he latter recreated when it was made into a film in 1955. In the version that was telecast in 1985 the producers returned to the Broadway script to attempt the exceedingly difficult feat of televising a piece of live theatre.

The plot centres around the relationship between officers and crew aboard a cargo ship in the American Navy during the closing months of WW2 in the Pacific Ocean. Lieutenant (Mister) Roberts not only serves as cargo officer, but acts as a buffer between the crew and the ship's ambitious and overbearing Captain. While he is respected and admired by the crew, Mister Roberts chafes at what he considers a useless assignment and is constantly submitting requests to be transferred to a combat ship, which the Captain stamps as not approved assuring they will be ignored by those higher up in the chain of command. According to Navy protocol a ship's Captain can't refuse to pass along an officer's request for transfer, but he can make it impossible for the transfer to be considered by not approving it.

Aside from Lieutenant Roberts and the Captain the ship's officer complement includes Ensign Pulver, a young man who spends as much time as possible asleep and his waking hours trying to avoid coming to the Captain's attention, and Doc, who serves as mentor and confessor figure to the crew, as well as providing essential services like grain alcohol from medical stores for parties. While initially the story line and the behaviour of the crew might feel a little dated, the performances have been so carefully directed that they contribute to creating the atmosphere of the times. What in 1948 would have been realistic behaviour looks and sounds strange to our ears, but in the end it makes the play all the more authentic.

It's one of many intelligent choices the director of the production, Melvin Bernhardt, made. The other was to use only three basic sets to shoot on. The set where the majority of the action takes place is an exterior of the ships fore-deck. This included two levels and a multitude of places for actors to exit and enter from, so that a few actors could create an impression of a ship hard at work merely by appearing and disappearing either up, down, or to the left and right. The other two sets were both interiors, the quarters shared by Roberts and Pulver and the Captain's office. Both of these sets allowed the director to focus our attention squarely on the primary characters and gave him the opportunity to establish the relationships between the ship's officers as well as getting to know them individually.

Of course this type of performance is entirely dependant on the skill of the actors who are entrusted with the lead roles, and in this case none of the four; Robert Hays as Mister Roberts, Kevin Bacon as Ensign Pulver, Howard Hesseman as Doc, and Charles Durning as the Captain, disappoint. Not only do each of them do a convincing job in creating their characters obvious traits, they are also talented enough to make them more than one dimensional. Although Durning is playing what is basically an unsympathetic character, he does manage to make us understand where his attitude comes from. We may not like him any better then we did after but he's not just a bully anymore, there's something deeper and almost more malign at work in his character than just enjoying bossing people around.

In some ways Hays has the most difficult job, as he's playing the straight man to everybody's character around him, but he carries it off by paying close attention to the details that make up his character's personality and the way he treats the crew. Kevin Bacon does an equally excellent job with his performance of Ensign Pulver, as he allows his character's insecurity to come through his brash exterior and does a credible job in showing his development into maturity so that his actions at the end of the play are believable. The biggest surprise though was Hesseman as he showed that not only does he have a wonderful instinct for timing when it comes to comedy, he can put that same gift to use when it comes to more dramatic acting. He is so supremely comfortable on stage and in front of the camera that everything he does is completely believable.

There are a few glitches in the sound and audio on the DVD, but that's to be expected when you're dealing with the digital transfer of old footage and they don't detract from the overall production. One thing is for sure though, you know this was live television, because there is no way that the occasional glimpses of boom microphones you catch in the footage would have been left in otherwise. There aren't many special features, but there is a nice overview of the script's history and the attempts to make a sequel to the movie and a television series in the early 1960's.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by not only the quality of the acting involved but with the over all production itself. The cast and crew have managed to carry off the very difficult task of bringing a stage production to the television screen without sacrificing any of the excitement of a live performance and making full use of the intimacy offered by cameras. Mister Roberts is one of the classics of the post war American stage, and watching this production is probably as good as seeing it live on stage, if not better.

October 6, 2008

DVD Review: Edward The King

While the twentieth century might have been the era which saw technological advances that continue to shape our lives, the nineteenth century was when the socio/political events occurred that made those advances possible. For it was during this era that many of the old ruling families of Europe found their power pulled out from under them, and the continent's map began to take the shape we are familiar with today. Countries which had previously not existed, Germany and Italy, were born when charismatic leaders rode the crest of the nationalist wave that was sweeping Europe.

Along with the political upheavals came social changes as the power base began to shift away from the aristocracy and their inherited wealth in courts across Europe, to a new merchant class who made their money through manufacturing and trade. With their increased wealth came demands for more say in how they were governed which led to a series of reforms across Europe that saw the gradual winnowing away of power from monarchs and into the hands of elected politicians. While it's true in countries like Germany and Russia it would eventually take war and revolution to oust the monarchy, in others the transition was far more painless.

England had already undergone its bloody civil war between parliament and the throne close to two hundred years earlier when Charles the 1st was deposed and beheaded by Oliver Cromwell. Although the monarchy was returned to power after only a short interval, it was with far less influence in the actual governance of the country. By the time the nineteenth century had come around the monarch in England was still considered head of the government, but in name only. So although she was head of a vast empire when she ascended the throne at seventeen, Queen Victoria's word was not law.
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This era, specifically the reign of Queen Victoria, is brought to life brilliantly in the Granada television production of Edward The King that has just been released as a four DVD box set by Acorn Media. For, although the series is about the life of Victoria's heir, Edward VII, their stories are irrevocably intertwined and the one can not be told without the other's. The series begins in the year preceding Edward's birth, only a few years into Victoria's reign, and not only follows his life to its conclusion, but provides details of her life with her husband Prince Albert and an overview of the changing face of Europe and the world.

The first four episodes, Volume 1 of this set, deal with Edward's formative years. In an attempt to mould him as a future King of England, Prince Albert devices an educational plan that keeps him working from dawn to dusk and isolates him from the "corrupting" influence of other children. Over the first few episodes a picture develops of a young man who, no matter how hard he tries, will never succeed in pleasing his parents. Unlike his brothers and sisters he is never shown any affection, given any encouragement, or allowed any freedom to do anything that he might enjoy. Naturally when the first opportunity arises for a little independence, when he's a student at Cambridge University, he jumps at the chance and begins an affair with an actress.

His timing couldn't have been worse, because it happens during the middle of the American Civil War and Prince Albert is involved with delicate negotiations to keep England from being drawn into the conflict. Britain needs the cotton trade with the Confederate states for its industry, but also can't afford to alienate the Union states either. Shortly after dealing with his son's affair he contracts typhoid fever and dies. Victoria blames Edward for the death of her beloved husband and for the rest of her life that dominates her relationship with her future son.

As the series progresses through its thirteen parts we see the effect this has on shaping Edward. While Prime Minister after Prime Minister pleads with the Queen to let her son play a more active role in government, she keeps insisting he's not ready to take on any positions of responsibility. At the same time Victoria retreats into virtual seclusion following the death of her husband and refuses to take part in any public functions. When the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, asks Edward and his new wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, to make themselves visible by attending parties and functions to remind the people of their monarch's existence, Victoria accuses her son of being frivolous and immature. Victoria also demands that Edward not be allowed to represent the monarch in public as she is the sovereign, not him.

It's no wonder that Edward began a series of extramarital affairs, he had nothing else to do. Even though the series shows that he clearly loved his wife and was devoted to her, it also shows that his mother's refusal to allow him any meaningful employment, and her continual low opinion of him and his character, pushed him to living down to her expectations. Although a part of him knew it was behaviour akin to cutting off his nose to spite his face, he couldn't stop and was involved in scandal after scandal.

Of course no one can live forever, although Victoria sure tries, and after over sixty years as Queen she finally dies and Edward inherits the throne. By then he's already advanced in years, and doesn't have very long a reign so very little of the series actually deals with Edward as King. In spite of this it's a fascinating study of both the time and the people in it. This is the first production of any sort that I've seen where Victoria, wonderfully portrayed by Annette Crosbie, is shown as a young woman, and happy. The first four episodes showing her relationship with her husband, Prince Albert (Robert Hardy) were exceptionally well done as they managed to not only depict their happiness together but show how they developed their low opinion of their eldest son.

While in the first four episodes a variety of younger actors portray Edward, it's Timothy West who portrays him from his early twenties onwards. He does an absolutely masterful job as he is able to bring out the various sides of his character. He is both charming and, contrary to his parents' opinion, very intelligent. We watch as his frustration with his limited role gradually turns him from a loving husband into a philanderer as he continues to look for ways to spend his boundless energy and enthusiasm for life. It doesn't help much that his wife prefers a quiet life, while he desires the adoration of society as consolation for the lack of attention and affection he received from his parents.

In spite of the fact that the original program was televised in the 1970's the sound and picture quality are fine. Special features included with the four discs include an in depth look at Robert Hardy, the actor who portrayed Prince Albert, some of the original introductions to episodes when it was originally televised in the US with Robert McNeal, and a featurette on the life of the real King Edward VII.

Not only is Edward The King an exhaustive history of one of the most important times in the modern era, it is also provides an intimate portrayal of the lives of some of its pre-eminent people. British television has always had a knack for bringing history to life and making the famous real, Edward The King is another shining example of that talent.

July 30, 2008

DVD Review: Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami


In the post WW2 era there weren't that many opportunities for a young black man to break free of the living situation they were born into. A very few were able to afford college or university, but for the rest professional sports provided the only other chance of financial success. With segregation still common place as far north as cities as Chicago, team sports in America were slow to integrate, professional boxing was one of the viable options for them.

It wasn't cheap to become a professional boxer, and the usual route that a young man would follow is that he would sign a contract with a group who in return for paying his way would pretty much own him. Inevitably the men with the money were white and a young black man would find that not only did signing a contract give them authority over his fight career, but he was expected to act in a manner befitting his station.

In 1960 a young black man returned home to Louisville Kentucky from the Rome Olympics only to find that the gold medal he'd won in the light-heavyweight boxing competition wasn't enough to break the colour bar. When the opportunity arose to continue his boxing career by signing a contract with a consortium of white businessmen in Louisville, The Louisville Sponsoring Group, he jumped at the chance. They decided that in order for him to fulfill his potential he needed a good trainer, and they sent him down to Miami Florida to train at the 5th Street Gym with Angelo Dundee. The rest, as they say, is history.
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Until 1966 when he left Miami, it became Cassius Clay's, and later when he changed his name, Muhammad Ali's base of operations. It was during his stay in Miami that Ali went from being a young boxer with talent and potential, to being not only the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, but an inspirational figure to people of colour all over the world. The Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) documentary that's just been released for sale on DVD, Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami, traces not only the route he took in becoming heavyweight champion of the world, but the way in which he managed to win the minds and hearts of so many people around the world.

Director Alan Tomlinson and writer Gasper Gonzalez have packed an hour long documentary with a mixture of footage of Ali from the time period, and interviews with people not only involved with Ali's fight career, but people able to provide the historical context for the time. After introducing us to the young Cassius Clay just back from the Rome Olympics, the movie makers take us down to Florida where we are treated to the reminiscences of not only his trainer, Angelo Dundee, but one of his corner men, various press people, and photographer Flip Schulke (responsible for the first photo in this article). For those of us who might have forgotten our history, they also bring in a historian to remind us that this period also marks the time when racial tensions in the Southern American states was reaching a boiling point because of the fight for civil rights.

We are also given a history of the black community in Miami, specifically the area known as Overtown which was said to have rivalled Harlem in New York City as a centre for black culture. While not as bad as other cities in the South, Miami was still segregated. Flip Shulke recounts being on assignment from Life Magazine to photograph Ali, and unthinkingly taking him into a department store in downtown Miami because there's a sale on. Ali is asked to leave because black people aren't allowed to try on clothes in the store - no self respecting white person is going to want to buy something after a black person has worn being the implication.

So even as he's learning his trade as a boxer, he can't help but be politicized at the same time. It would have been difficult for any young black person to avoid. For someone like Ali, who was developing a reputation as fighter and becoming famous for the force of his personality, a slight like that must have been particularly galling. For it was around this time that Ali was also starting to develop the brashness that he became famous for; predicting the round in which he'd knock out his opponent, proclaiming his greatness in rhyme for all to hear, and refusing to march to the beat of any drummer but his own. Yet he still couldn't try on a shirt in a department store.
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The movie shows how it was almost inevitable that he would find an outlet for his radicalization, and a meeting with Malcolm X led him into the Nation Of Islam and becoming a follower of Elijah Muhammad. In the early sixties there were probably no two scarier figures in white America's mind than Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. While Martin Luther King Jr. might be a trouble maker, he wasn't advocating equal rights by "whatever means necessary" as Malcolm X was. In the days leading up to Ali's first fight for the heavyweight championship with Sonny Liston his camp was doing everything they could to ensure that no one found out about his conversion or his association with the Nation of Islam for fear that the promoters would cancel the fight.

The movie does an excellent job of both analysing the fight between Liston and Ali in 1964 that gave him the world championship and showing how that catapulted him to the status of international celebrity, and an idol to black people in America and abroad. Unfortunately his association with the Nation Of Islam appears to have made people in power nervous. For in 1966, without any tests or warning, the draft board upgraded his status to 1A - meaning that he could drafted and sent to Vietnam. At the time opposition to the war wasn't as widespread as it was even a year or two later, and so when Ali said he wouldn't serve on the grounds of being a conscientious-objector for religious reasons he created a national uproar. Every single boxing commission in the United States revoked his licence and he was stripped of his title. When he was found guilty of refusing to be inducted into the military in 1967 he faced a potential five year jail sentence, and a substantial fine. It wasn't until 1971 that the Supreme Court of the United States reversed that decision and he was acquitted.

There are many gifted athletes but few of them have been able to transcend their sport and achieve the kind of international renown and iconic status that Muhammad Ali has obtained. To black people in America, and people of colour all over the world he was and is a source of inspiration and pride. From Nelson Mandella watching Ali's fights from his cell on Rodden Island to the children in America he taught that being black wasn't something to be ashamed of, he will always be more than just another boxer.

Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami shows how that those five or so years in the early sixties that he spent in Miami were pivotal in his becoming the figure he is today. Without Angelo Dundee guiding his early career and the support he garnered from the black community of Miami who knows if the world would have ever known the Muhammad Ali that we've come to know today. For those who only see the shadow of what he once was, crippled by Parkinson's disease his fancy footwork is now reduced to a slow shuffle, and don't understand why old folks like me speak of him with admiration, Muhammad Ali: Made In Miami is the perfect vehicle to introduce you to one of the truly great men of the twentieth century.

July 15, 2008

DVD Review: Robin Of Sherwood: The Complete Collection

In 1066 England was conquered by an invasion from Normandy, and the Anglo-Saxon populace of the country were brought under the thumb of barons and knights from across the English channel. While the Normans and Anglo-Saxons have integrated over the years so now there is little or no distinction between the two, in those early years of conquest the differences were stark. Money and power were in the hands of the Normans, and they did their best to milk their Anglo-Saxon subjects for as much as possible.

According to legend, it was during this time period that a group of men and one woman came together to fight against the oppressors and attempt to redistribute the wealth in a more equitable manner. Robin Hood and his followers stole from the rich and gave to the poor, is the way the story has come down to us through the ages. Versions of the legend of Robin Hood have appeared as books, comics, cartoons, live action movies, and television shows, but only one that I know of has depicted the struggle as one of rebellion against a conquerer as much as an issue of wealth redistribution.

Robin Of Sherwood ran for three seasons on British television, 1984 through 1986, and was rebroadcast in North America on various public television stations at various times since. In total there were only twenty-four episodes of the show made - two movie length pilots of 100 minutes each and twenty-two, fifty minutes regular episodes. Now, for the first time ever, all twenty-six episodes are available as a box set. Robin Of Sherwood: The Complete Collection, distributed by the Acorn Media Group, is a box set of twelve DVDs, two of which contain over seventeen hours of special features.
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While the series is noteworthy for its historical accuracy and for the fact that it associates Robin with pre-Christian English mythology, it was also one of the few series where they managed to kill off the main character one season and successfully continue for another year with a new actor and a new Robin Hood. For the first two seasons Robin of Loxley, aka Robin Hood, was played by Michael Praed, and when he was offered a role in a Broadway production of The Three Musketeers they gave him a hero's death. In the third season they brought Jason Connery in to play Robert of Huntingdon, who stepped forward to assume the mantle of Robin Hood.

They managed this trick easily enough because they had already established that the figure of Robin Hood was a role designated by a figure out of English myth, Herne The Hunter. While the original myth says that on the twelfth day after the Winter Solstice Herne gathered his hunt at an Oak tree in Windsor Park in England and ride the sky seeking prey, (I don't know if it still stands but there was an Oak Tree on the grounds of Windsor Palace known as Herne's or The Hunter's Tree) for the television show they've made him into more of a mixture of a few figures from pagan times; The Greenman, The Stag King, and Herne the Hunter. In both the first episode of the series, and the opening episode of the third season, the characters played by Michael Praed and Jason Connery are designated by Herne as his son, and the person to carry on the fight against the Saxons using the name of Robin of the Hood.

As with everything else about the series, the situation was handled neatly and cleanly. It may sound a little contrived on the page, but in the context of what had been established in the previous two episodes it worked. Unfortunately Jason Connery lacked the charisma of Michael Praed and, in spite of doing some fine work, never seemed to capture people's imaginations and the series ended after the third season. If he had been cast as Robin from the beginning Connery would have been a fine choice, but Praed had made the role so much his own that anybody would have paled in comparison.

There's also a noticeable drop off in the quality of the scripts from the first two seasons to the third. Part of the problem being is just how many variations on the theme of keeping out of the clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham, embarrassing his lackey Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and robbing from the rich to feed the poor can their be? In the first two seasons they were able to draw upon the adventures attributed to Robin Hood in various books, including many of the old favourites like his meeting with Little John, and give them new twists to create interesting episodes, but the scripts seemed to lose direction somewhat in the third season.
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Aside from making the outlaws resistance fighters against a conquerer, and utilizing pre-Christian beliefs in the story lines, the show's producers added the element of sorcery to the mix. While an episode involving Devil worshippers was a little over the top, the majority of the time the infusion of sorcery was handled subtlety enough that it gives the program an even greater air of authenticity. The majority of time the sorcery utilized were things like herbal concoctions to put people to sleep, or rituals that would put one person into another's control. In other words spells that people of the time period probably would have believed sorcerers capable of producing.

One of my favourite deviations from the way the story is normally told was the way King Richard the Third, The Lionhearted, was presented. Most of the time he is some great hero who returns at the end to preside over a happy ending and restore order to the Kingdom that has been abused by his brother John and the evil Sheriff Of Nottingham. In this case, though Richard is given his usual build-up, he is then revealed to be just another Norman who doesn't give a damn about the people of England. He's far more concerned with re-conquering territory in France than doing anything to improve the life of his subjects in England, and will gladly milk them dry in order to finance his wars.

As is usual for a British production the acting ranges from good to superb for the whole series. Aside from the two leads who both do great work, Ray Winston as Will Scarlet and Nickolas Grace as the Sheriff of Nottingham were both standouts. Ray's Will Scarlet is driven by his desire to rid England of the Norman's and has no compunctions about using whatever means necessary to accomplish that end. Yet he is also able to avoid falling into the trap of playing him as merely a one note, angry all the time, character. Will also has a great sense of humour, and shows on occasion the gentler man he could have been had not time and circumstances driven him to violence. As for Nickolas Grace - well sufficient to say he gives Alan Rickman's performance in Kevin Costner's otherwise forgettable Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves as the Sheriff a run for its money. He doesn't quite chew the scenery in the same way that Rickman does (who can) but he does a great job of being wonderfully nasty and evil.

With the show being as old as it is, and originally made for television, it is only available in full screen mode and stereo sound. Of the advertised seventeen hours of special features, of which a fair amount is made up of fourteen commentary tracks, I found the documentary on the folk group Clannad creating the score for the series the most interesting. However, there are also outtakes, bonus footage, a behind the scenes documentary, four documentaries that look back on the making of the show with former cast and crew, and more than enough other behind the scenes footage to satisfy the most ardent fan,

Robin Of Sherwood: The Complete Collection not only gathers together all the episodes of what is arguably the best adaptation of the Robin Hood myth into one collection, it also gathers together probably all the material related to the show that was ever filmed. Although the suggested retail price of $99.00 (US) might seem high, what you get for the price is more than fair value. If you were a fan of the show in the 1980's, or a fan of the Robin Hood story at all, you should seriously consider buying a copy when it goes on sale July 29th/08.

You can pick up a copy of Robin Of Sherwood: The Complete Collection either directly from Acorn Media or from any on line retailer.

July 1, 2008

DVD Review: Rebus: Set 3

With the publication of the novel Exit Music author Ian Rankin brought the career of Detective Inspector Rebus (DI) to a close. Since 1985 he had patrolled the streets of Edinburgh Scotland and its surrounding environs dealing with everything from organized crime, corrupt politicians and cops, serial killers, and drug dealers. After twenty odd, some would say very odd, years on the force and twenty books that followed his exploits, he certainly can be forgiven for taking his retirement. Yet, I know I'm not alone when I say I will miss him.

One of the things that made DI John Rebus such an appealing character was how human he was. He came with his own collection of flaws, a failed marriage, an obsession with popular music, and a past that was hidden in the shadows of Britain's Official Secrets Act from his days serving in the Special Armed Services (S.A.S). Through-out the series there were many times that Rankin forced Rebus to look in the mirror and examine himself, and as often as not, it wasn't the prettiest of pictures.

In the books featuring John Rebus, and the various police officers he worked with and the criminals he contested with for control of the streets of his city, Ian Rankin not only created a memorable lead character, he brought a world to life. While the Detective Inspector was the focal point around which all the novels revolved, the city of Edinburgh was always intriguing, and often times as complex as Rebus himself. It was just as much a recurring character as Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, and developed nearly as fully.
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The British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) initial attempt at adapting Rankin's books to television, starred John Hannah as DI Rebus. While Hannah is a wonderful actor, his performance as DI Rebus lacked a certain authenticity. The shows might have been faithful adaptations of the novels, but they were missing the full weight of John Rebus' character. In the second go round instead of worrying as much about being faithful to the books being adapted, the series has focused more on the character of Rebus, and the atmosphere generated by contrasting the physical beauty of Edinburgh with the gritty reality of what lies beneath the surface of the picture post-card scenery.

As can be seen by watching the episodes included in the box set of four DVDs Rebus: Set 3 being distributed by Acorn Media, the decision to cast Ken Stott as DI John Rebus continues to look like a stroke of genius. Not only does he look the part far more than Hannah did, his characterization is so strong that the shows can't help but make him their focal point. No matter what crime has been committed, or what other characters do, it's around him that everything circles like planets around a galaxies sun.

Part of that is the way that the scripts have been written so that Rebus' actions, once the crime has been committed and the investigation started, are the catalyst for everything that occurs in the rest of the episode. Yet, you have the feeling that the script writers aren't creating the scenarios that develop the character of Rebus, but are taking advantage of what Stott has created. He has given them a character of such presence that he only has to appear in the periphery of a shot and he becomes a viewer's focal point.

What makes this performance so astounding is Stott's ability to communicate a lot while doing very little. Sitting at a table in the local, reading a paper, smoking a cigarette with a pint sitting within easy reach he is the epitome of relaxation. Something catches his eye on the page that he is reading and you can literally see a shadow crossing his face and the sense of ease seeping out of his body. The face closes down, his body draws in on itself and the pint drawn in to nestle within the shelter of his arms. It's as if he is pulling himself into an armoured shell from which he can take on all that the world will send against him.

This is the John Rebus who lived in the pages of Ian Rankin's books. Even if the four episodes contained in Rebus: Set 3, Resurrection Men, The First Stone, The Naming Of The Dead, and Knots And Crosses, range from loose adaptations to having almost nothing to do with the books of the same titles, it does nothing to deflect from us believing that we are seeing John Rebus. Of course it doesn't hurt that the people playing the secondary characters, especially Claire Price as DS Siobhan Clarke, are every bit as plausible in their performances.

Ms. Price has over the course of the three seasons steadily increased her character's confidence in her abilities and shed any number of illusions she may have had about her work. In Rebus: Set 3 she does an admirable job of displaying both the respect and admiration she feels for Rebus, as well as how much he pisses her off, and the hurt she feels, when he takes her for granted. At times her faith in him is sorely tested, and she wonders why she puts her own career at risk for his sake. Ms. Price plays DS Clarke with a calm and cool assurance that acts as a nice balance to the heat of Stott's Rebus. It's not enough to extinguish his fire of course, but at least it prevents her from being singed too badly.

It's not often that cinematography in a television show makes that much of a difference, but it's the camera work in this show that establishes the character of Edinburgh. In distance shots she looks regal, with her castles on the high ground, and the hills and water surrounding her. Yet when it's time for her close ups, and we zero in on a crime scene, we see the dirt and the poverty. From the counsel flats (public housing projects) and their constant state of disrepair, to the fetid alleys in rundown neighbourhoods she doesn't bear well under close scrutiny. Like in Rankin's books, the city may look genteel, but beneath the surface she's just like any other big city.

Rebus: Set 3 proves that you don't need to have faithful adaptations of the original material to bring the world of a novel to life on the television screen. Ken Stott's performance of Ian Rankin's famous Detective Inspector from Edinburgh will ensure that John Rebus will continue to live on even though no more novels are forthcoming. If you are a fan of the books you can't help but be a fan of these televised adaptations.

June 9, 2008

European Cup 2008: Football At It's Best

Every four years sixteen of Europe's top national football (soccer) sides compete in the European Cup. Held exactly half way between World Cups, the European Cup, is in some ways even more intense and passionate than its bigger cousin. Rivalries between nations in Europe, on and off the football pitch, extend back hundreds of years. Border skirmishes and other ancient grudges are now played out by twenty-two men in front of screaming thousands, instead of in the mud and across no-man's land.

As is the case in all major international competitions the country hosting the event automatically qualifies while the rest of the spots are decided in a series of run-off games. Under normal circumstances that would leave fifteen spots up for grabs, but this year's event is being jointly hosted by Switzerland and Austria, reducing the number of spots available. Unlike EuroCup/04 which was hosted by Portugal whose team would have qualified anyway, neither of this year's hosts were likely to have made it into the competition. I'm sure this has led to quite a bit of resentment on the part of teams like England, a perennial power, who failed to qualify.

Of course the security forces of Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, who are lending men and expertise to its smaller neighbours, are probably relieved that they won't have to worry about the notorious English fans and their potential for violence. They've enough to worry about organizing security in two countries and multiple venues, where total attendance is expected to be in the millions, without wondering whether or not inebriated Englishmen will decide to go on a rampage.

Even without the English in attendance things are tense enough as it is with some of the previously mentioned nationalist grudges starting to simmer over already. Hostilities broke out between Polish and German fans in the run-up to Sunday's, June 8th, match between the two countries resulting in the arrest of seven German men. Hopefully once the early elimination rounds are over, when half the teams have gone home and the crowds thinned out some, the chances of this sort of thing happening will be reduced.

The sixteen teams have been divided up into four groups by random draw and play one game each against the teams in their section. The top two finishers in each group advance to the next round where the team with the most points accumulated in the first round plays off against the team with the fewest. A team receives three points for a win and a point for a tie in the preliminary round. From then on the games are sudden death, and decided by penalty kick shoot-outs if tied at the end of regulation and two, twenty minute, overtime periods.

In a shoot-out each team initially starts with five players, selected from those who are currently playing, and take turns trying to score on the goalie from the penalty kick mark. The team that scores the most goals out of five wins the game. If the teams are still tied at the end of the first five penalty kicks they proceed on to sudden death penalty kicks, where the first side to gain the advantage wins. If the first side scores, the second is given an opportunity to tie, but if they fail, the game is over.

With the goalie not allowed to leave his goal line, or move, until the shooter does, the advantage would appear to reside with the kicker. After all he has a huge amount of net to shoot at, and the goalie can only guess where he thinks the ball will be shot. Yet many a star laden team has gone down to defeat at the hands of an underdog because a game has gone to penalty kicks and their sure-footed scorers aren't able to find the net.

In the last EuroCup, underdog Greece won the championship by playing a tight defensive game and winning games on penalty kicks when their more highly rated opponents succumbed to the pressure of the situation. Greece is back again this year and is once again going to be considered fortunate to make it out of the round robin segment of the tournament - of course that's what everybody predicted four years ago when they won it all in the final over host country Portugal.

As is the case with every international football event, there are certain teams which are always considered a threat to win, and this European Cup is no exception. Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands almost always seem to field a team that can threaten to go all the way. This year the advantage is clearly Germany's as through the luck of the draw the other three have all ended up in the same preliminary group which means one of them are going home early. Even without that bit of good luck (if you're a German supporter) the Germans have to be considered favoured as their star players are all in top health and at the peak of their careers. Their only weakness lies in goal, as their keeper has a history of giving up weak goals.

Still, with Italy losing her captain, Fabio Cannavaro to injury in their first practice, and both the French and Dutch sides having star players just back from injury, even without the fortuitous draw, the real threat to the first major German international championship since the 1996 Euros could come from another source. Portugal and Spain are Europe's most renowned under achievers. They always seem to be on the cusp of greatness, but never manage to win in the end.

The loss to Greece on their home turf must have devastating to the Portuguese, but it might give them the desperation required to finally win it all. Yesterday's 2 - 0 victory over a tough Turkish side indicated that they aren't about to go quietly, and any team that can call upon Cristiano Ronaldo - arguably the best player in the world right now - can't be discounted. He scored a remarkable forty-two goals this year for Manchester United and is the front runner for the Federation International Football Association's (FIFA) world player of the year trophy.

The great thing about the EuroCup is that you can't count anybody out, except maybe the two host teams this year. Russia, Croatia, Romania, Turkey, The Czech Republic, and Sweden, can always be counted on to field solid teams with enough talent to pull off an upset. All it takes is a couple of missed opportunities - a goal post here and a missed net there - and a favourite can find themselves sitting on the sidelines wondering what the hell happened. Germany only needs to look at its record of no victories, three draws, and three defeats in the last two EuroCups to be reminded of how dangerous a tournament this can be.

While the idea of a tournament exclusive to Europeans is somewhat chauvinistic, excluding as it does teams from South America and Africa where the game is every bit as popular as it is in Europe, there is no denying that the European Cup makes for nearly four weeks of great football action. Do yourself a favour and check out a match or two, but be careful, you might just find yourself getting addicted. In Canada the games are being broadcast on TSN (The Sports Network) and Sportsnet with each station's web site broadcasting taped highlights of all the games.

June 3, 2008

DVD Review: Time For Murder

You know, if I worked in television in North America I don't think I could help but get frustrated with British television. Not only do they have an insufferable amount of high calibre acting talent and a literary tradition dating back to before quite a few countries even had invented the wheel to draw upon for their television shows, they also seem to be able to have the pick of the best of contemporary writers whenever they feel like it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not blind to the fact that the Brits are every bit as capable of producing bad television as the next country, but they also have an annoying habit of being able to produce stuff that leaves anything we do on this side of the pond in the dust. One of the big differences is they don't appear to make the distinction between working in television and working in film that is the norm over here. An actor, director, or script writer could be working on a movie one day and a television series the next and think nothing of it.

In the past North American audiences had only limited exposure to British television through rebroadcasts of select shows on Public Television stations in Canada and the United States. However all that's changed now with the expansion of the home entertainment market and speciality television stations. The advent of digital media has allowed distributors on our side of the Atlantic an inexpensive means of making a great deal of material that previously would never have been seen over here.
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Acorn Media is one of those companies offering a wide selection of quality productions from both the BBC and independent television companies in Britain. On June 3rd/08 they will be releasing yet another example of British television drawing upon the vast array of talent available to them, in order to produce shows literate and entertaining. A Time For Murder was originally produced in 1985 by Granada Television and featured six original scripts written by some of Britain's finest mystery and script writers at the time.

Charles Wood (the movies Iris and Help). Gordon Honeycomb, Frances, Galleymore, and Michael Robson might not be household names over here, but Antonia Fraser and Fay Weldon have both graced best seller lists across North America many times. Each of them, whether we've heard of them or not, are highly experienced and adroit writers. While it doesn't necessarily follow that a good novelist will make a good screenwriter, none of those involved with this project suffered from making the transition.

Take for example Fay Weldon's contribution, Bright Smiler. It doesn't follow the usual convention of the television mystery of a murder committed followed by the hunt for a suspect. Instead she has created a suspenseful drama that relies on the characters and the situation to create the mystery and build the tension. It starts off innocently enough when an overworked scriptwriter checks into a health spa in an attempt to get some rest and relaxation. She's immediately put upon a regime that includes a near starvation diet and plenty of massage. It turns out the masseuse is a fan of one of the earlier shows that the writer was responsible for, and begins to obsess upon the fate of its lead character.

As a young woman the masseuse was taken horrible advantage of by a man. He promised her the moon, and ended up throwing her away when he was done with her. Since then she has become the "Bright Smiler" of the title. Always trying to be helpful and walking through life with a smile painted on her face, when in reality she's a seething cauldron of rage and resentment. After years of suppressing her rage, the combination of an offhand comment by her scriptwriter client and the appearance of the man who scorned all those years ago at the spa with his wife, brings everything to the surface.

Will her anger and resentment build to the point that she will go on a killing spree? The more she talks to her client about the betrayal, and we see what happened in a series of flashbacks as she tells the story, the less she smiles. The less she smiles the shriller and more dangerous her voice sounds and more unhinged she becomes. Trapped on the massage table, covered only in a towel, and face buried in a pillow, the client must try and find a way to talk the woman out of a murderous rampage.

While Fay Weldon created a taut psychological thriller, Anotnia Fraser's contribution, Mister Clay, Mister Clay is slightly more conventional. Set in a down at the heels school run by a penny pinching head master, the story revolves around the murder of one of the school's students. A particularly horrible child, he had delighted in making all the teacher's lives as miserable as possible, especially young Mr. Clay. It was he who would lead the other students in reciting the taunting chant of "Mr. Clay, Mr. Clay who are you going to kill today?"

When a pair of Mr. Clay's gloves turn up hidden behind a locker suspicion falls on him, but there is far more going on in this school than meets the eye. The headmaster's wife has a roving eye and appears to be more friendly than necessary with one of the other teachers, who in turn is dating a young female member of the staff. What were the contents of the letter that the headmaster received that unsettled him so much, and to what lengths will he go to keep his school open?

Anonia Fraser's script is replete with red herrings and plot twists that will keep you guessing to the very end as to the murderer's identity. Nobody is as who they seem to be, and everybody is potentially hiding something, which makes it great fun to watch the plot unfold.

These two scripts are merely an example of the quality that permeates the whole series. Each show offers a different variation on the murder mystery theme, and has its own distinct quirks and characteristics, giving them an originality not often seen within the genre. Time For Murder is a wonderful opportunity for fans of mystery stories everywhere to see six examples of what a well written television mystery looks like.

It's just a good thing that the Brits are starting to share their previously buried treasures or you could really work up a good hate for them.

May 30, 2008

DVD Review: The Buddha Of Suburbia

England in the late 1970's and early 1980's, especially in the metropolitan centres, was incredibly volatile. Unemployment was high and prospects were bleak for any type of quick recovery. As is usually the case in these sorts of situations people began casting about looking for somebody to blame. It just so happened that around the same time Idi Amin Dada, President of Uganda, expelled everyone of South East Asian ancestry from his country, instantly creating tens of thousands of people refugees.

Forced to flee with almost nothing but the clothes on their back they were initially dependant on whatever country took them in for survival. In England, where there was already a sizeable South East Asian community, the sudden influx of these refugees brought long simmering racial tensions to a boiling point and gave people a target for their resentment and anger. Neo-Nazi groups like the National Front fanned those flames into open hatred that resulted in waves of rioting sweepng through London.

In the early 1980's an adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel My Beautiful Laundrette into a movie captured that time period beautifully. In the 1990's he adapted another of his novels set in the same time period. This time instead of a movie, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), took The Buddha Of Suburbia and made it into a television serial. Now for the first time, through BBC America, its available for home viewing as a two DVD package containing all four of the original episodes.
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Set in the suburbs of London in the late 1970's, The Buddha Of Suburbia tells the story of a young man trying to find his place in the world. Karim's life up until now has been quite conventional; his father is a civil servant, his mother is a house wife, and he's been living the life of a typical teenager. He listens to The Rolling Stones, The Beetles, and Frank Zappa, and wears jeans and is just like the rest of his crowd at school. He might be Indian by birth but he's assimilated by choice and habit.

However this comfortable little world is going to start crashing down around him, precipitated by his father's version of a mid-life crises. Spurred on by an attractive English woman, Karim's father, begins to instruct his neighbours in the delights of Indian mysticism. Despite the fact that he's easily as assimilated as his son, he not only becomes a hit as a guru, he scores a hit with the English woman Eva, and eventually leaves his wife for her.

As his family life disintegrates Karim tries to find his way in the world beyond his home, but is lost and unsure. The confusion extends to his sexuality as he finds himself attracted to Eva's son Charlie, but at the same time continues his relationship with his cousin Jenna. When Jenna is forced into an arranged marriage by her family to a man she's never met, Kalim finds himself even further adrift. He flunks out of college because he can't even be bothered to show up for the exams.

Eventually Karim follows his father and Eva to London where he embarks on a career as an actor and his old friend Charlie gets swept up in the Punk Rock scene. While the theatre takes Karim to New York as part of a touring show, eventually he realizes his success is illusionary, and he soon finds himself returning to London after one too many betrayals. After the harsh realities of the real world, even his father dispensing wisdom to the masses is a welcome relief.

One of the wonders of the BBC is the calibre of actors they have at their disposal, and The Suburban Buddha is no exception to that rule. Well known now for his continuing role in the television series Lost, a very young Naveen Andrews is wonderful in the lead role of Karim. He manages to capture both the false bravado of youth that Karim affects and the genuine insecurity that he feels with his performance. As Karim experiences more of the world's harsh realities he is able to depict his gradual increase in awareness, without once making him appear cynical or world weary.

Of the supporting cast, Roshan Seth as Karim's father, Brenda Blethyn as his mother, and Steven Mackintosh as his friend Charlie give especially good performances. Blyethyn in particular is quite wonderful, because in spite of being the woman wronged, she has created a character that at first you feel sympathy for, but who she gradually reveals to be a manipulative and unpleasant woman. Her forte is subtle emotional blackmail, and she does her best to make Karim's life as miserable as possible.

While The Buddha Of Suburbia is set in a time, place, and environment that will be quite foreign to most North American audiences, the subject matter it deals with is universal. Most of us will be able to recognize, if not the specifics of what Karim is going through, the idea of being lost and confused because of the onslaught of choices facing us as we enter adulthood. The fact that this further complicated for him because of the disintegration of his home life is something that far too many of us are probably all too familiar with from either personal experience or observation of others dealing with a similar situation.

The score for The Buddha Of Suburbia was written and performed by David Bowie, and the music captures the spirit of the times perfectly. As a special feature the DVD includes a video of Bowie performing the title song from the movie, and its vintage Bowie in all his ironical detachment and cool aloofness. The thing about Bowie though, is that you just know beneath the surface there is a cauldron of emotions that are just waiting to boil over, much like Karim in this movie. There couldn't have been a better choice for creating a soundtrack.

The Buddha Of Suburbia is a great coming of age tale set amidst a very turbulent time period. It's beautifully written, wonderfully acted, and full of moments both funny and sad. When all is said and done, its nearly four hours is some of the best television you'll see in a long time. If you wish to pick up a copy you can order it directly from the BBC America web site or any other on line retailer.

May 22, 2008

DVD Review:Stargate Infinity: The Complete Series(Cartoon)

When I was a kid...that's bound to turn everyone off I know but bear with me... cartoons were The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour. Like the title said it was an hour long show featuring the entire stable of Warner Brothers cartoon characters from the day. There were the two title characters, Bugs and that horrible bird (who wasn't secretly cheering for the coyote?); Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck, Pepe Le Pew, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Tweety & Sylvester, and the rest of the menagerie.

The animation was definitely low tech, with each frame being hand drawn by a human artist. The same went for all cartoons in those days, from the Walt Disney Studio creations through to Loony Tunes. Every move that you saw a character take on the screen had to be drawn out step by step by an animator. It was probably the most mind numbing, tedious work that an artist could do. The introduction of computers into animation is probably the best thing that could have happened in terms of making people's lives easier when it came to doing the nuts and bolts of making cartoons.

The trouble is it seems that when they automated the drawing part of cartooning, they seemed to do the same thing with the scripts and the characterizations. Now I know that nostalgia is dangerous, and can create a skewed vision of the past, but it doesn't mean that somethings weren't better then they are now. I still get pleasure from watching Bugs Bunny outwitting Elmer Fudd, so I know it's not just my memories playing me false when I say cartoons ain't what they used to be.
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Take the DVD box set Stargate Infinity: The Complete Series, distributed by Shout Factory, for example. Originally Stargate was a movie that starred Kurt Russell and James Spader released back in 1994. The premise was aliens had disguised themselves as a race gods in the time of the Pharaohs and had left behind the means they had used to travel between the worlds, something called a Stargate. You can see the potential in this for a major amount of spin off and so it's no surprise that following the movie were two television series, and from them was spawned Stargate Infinity, an animated version for a younger audience.

The premise for the series is that humanity has cracked the code of the "Stargate" and is now able to travel to distant galaxies in the blink of the eye simply by going through the gate. The gate is controlled by an arm of the military called Stargate Command, and they have their own elite force. In Stargate Infinity our heroes are four cadets and the officer in charge of their training. In the first episode the officer, Major Bonner, is set up as a traitor by an alien shape-shifting life form, and this sets in motions the events that will have him and his plucky cadets going world hopping for the rest of the series as they attempt to clear his name.

The creators of the series have also thrown into the mix an ancient sarcophagus that just so happens to contain an embryonic version of what might be one of race of ancients who created the Stargate in the first place. Naturally the bad guys, a race of lizard-like aliens, what to get their hands on this being, and when Bonner and his crew take the embryo through the Stargate with them, they give chase. So, the series is spent trying to clear the major's good name, finding out about the ancient one, and exploring the new worlds.

Unfortunately it sounds more interesting than it ends up being. Even making allowances for the fact that the series is geared towards a younger audience, both the story lines and the characterizations are awfully simplistic. While there are attempts to include little morality lessons in some of the episodes, it usually comes down to the black and white world of good versus evil. The bad guys want to kill the good guys and steal the ancient one so they can rule the universe, while the good guys just want everyone to get along. It's never explained why the bad guys so desperately want to rule the universe, it's just one of those bad guys things no matter if they're from earth or from another planet.

The team of four cadets is made up of the cocksure guy whose full of himself, the tom boy, the sensitive ethnic female (I think she was supposed to be a native American because she's dark skinned and named Seattle), and the alien who spouts ancient wisdom. Unfortunately their characterization isn't helped any by the lack of expression on their faces and in their body language due to the poor quality of the animation. The old hand drawn, frame by frame animation was able to provide Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck with an amazing range of facial expressions and body movements that made their characters much more effective and real to the audiences watching.

The characters in Stargate Infinity, on the other hand, only seem to be able to show, happy, sad, angry, and blank while their bodies move like robotic sticks. Even when the actors supplying the voices for the animations are doing their best to try and convey some emotions the contrast between what you hear and what you see on the screen is so wide that it just doesn't work. You'd think that with the technological advances that have been made, and the quality of animation that's possible, the creators of this series could have at least made an effort so it wouldn't have looked so cheap.

Stargate Infinity has the look and feel of something that was done as quickly and cheaply as possible. The animation is poor, the stories simplistic, and the characters are types. The four DVD set Stargate Infinity: The Complete Series comes with a few special features, but since they are just test drawings for the characters, and an effects test, it's nothing you don't see in the show itself. I'd recommend finding your child some old Bugs Bunny cartoons instead; you won't feel ashamed buying those.

May 12, 2008

DVD Review: DNA: The Complete Series 1 & 2

When I was a kid the cop shows that were on television featured, more often than not, the cop on the beat. Adam-12 was atypical of the type of show that you'd see - handsome uniformed officers who in the space of a half hour would respond to a number of radio calls and have to deal with situations that required little or no investigation. Over time the genre evolved and expanded its horizons until today where we now have everything from shows that deal with specific units within police forces like the forensic units of the CSI franchise as well as the more standard investigating police procedurals.

Of course no matter what, the modus operandi still remains the same as it did back in the days of the uniformed officer driving his black and white; solving the crime and maintaining law and order. Shows still start with a crime having been committed and the police force doing their best to solve who done it. The biggest change that's occurred in the years of police dramas is how much time is spent with the police officers outside of their life on the job site. Instead of the characters being one dimensional figures representing the forces of good, they now lead as complicated, if not more complicated lives than the rest of us.

Television writers caught on to the fact that being a police officer and around criminal activity for a large percentage of your day could potentially have an effect upon your existence away from the office. Whether a cop wants to or not he will bring his work home with him from the office as you can't just shut off what you've seen during a day of dealing with anything from murder to traffic offences. This has led to the creation of police dramas with scripts that take into account more than just the character's work life, and that include characters from the character's home life.
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One of this new breed of police procedure shows was the British cop show, starring Scottish actor Tom Conti, DNA, that dealt with the high tech world of modern forensic science. Forensic scientists search a crime scene for microscopic physical evidence that can be used as proof of a person's involvement in a crime. In DNA Tom Conti plays Joseph Donavan, a driven Forensic Science cop with his own history of medical problems, and a dedication to the job that causes strife on the home front.

While it did air on Canadian television, there probably weren't many opportunities for North American audiences to see this show. Acorn Media has gathered together the first two seasons of the show into a two DVD package, D.N.A.: Complete Series One & Two. Disc one contains the two parts of what must have been the pilot movie from season one, and disc two contains the three episodes from season two.

Now I'm not familiar with the North American versions of these types of shows so I have no basis for comparison, but what struck me most about this series was the balance that was struck between science, character, and plot in the scripts. The science is important of course, because that's what the characters use to solve the mysteries in the end, and the evidence upon which the plots turn. Yet it's not the be all and end all of the shows, and its also shown to be as fallible as the people who use it, as easy to manipulate as any other type of evidence, and not the great miracle for crime solving that it sometimes is made out to be.

Science is important to the plots because that's what the lead character does for a living. Yet instead of only having it used as the means by which the mysteries are solved, the plots deal with the various problems that face forensic scientists when actually trying to solve a crime. Evidence that appears black and white in a laboratory, ends up not being any use in court. A fingerprint proving somebody's presence at the scene of a crime doesn't necessarily make them the culprit because there is no way of dating when the fingerprint was left. Was the blood that spattered the coffee cup with the finger print sprayed there at the same time the finger print was left, or did it happen some time later?

Of course what's most important in all of these dramas are the characters and DNA is no exception. When we meet Jo Donavon he has been retired from the force for a number of years, and we find out that he hadn't left under the best of circumstances. He had made an error on his last case that resulted in both someone's acquittal and his own nervous breakdown. He's now a successful writer, but still not fully recovered from his breakdown. When faced with stressful circumstances he dissociates to such an extent that he doesn't remember where he was or what he did for great stretches of time.

Donavon is called out of retirement because a murder occurs and not only does the crime scene look exactly like the one which caused his mental breakdown, his name is written in blood on the wall of the victim's apartment. As Donavon is slowly drawn back into the world of police work, we are introduced to his wife and son, and see how both his job and his health issues have impacted upon their lives and the relationship he has with each of them. He is still suffering from dissociative episodes so severe that when a second body shows up in the exact same circumstances he can't be sure that he's not the culprit. That both men turn out to have been his wife's lovers only makes him more of a suspect.

What I've always preferred about British television over North American, is its willingness to take time to develop the relationship between the characters. Kate, Donavon's wife, is shown to have every reason to feel alone and neglected. On the other hand she also truly loves her husband and is incredibly frustrated by his seeming unwillingness to talk with her. She didn't go to the other men for love, but for companionship. Samantha Bond as Kate does a remarkable job of communicating the confusion, frustration, and anger of her character, while still being very convincing expressing her character's love for her husband.

Tom Conti is a wonderful actor and his work as Joseph Donavon is a testimony to his craft. While we sympathize with Jo as he tries to come to grips with his health issues and hope that he solves the crime, he is not the most likeable of people. His tendency to be egocentric and to be a workaholic are a combination that ensures he ignores those around them unless they do something drastic to catch his attention. Conti is able to communicate all of this to his audience simply by having his character go about his business. He is the type of actor who is so comfortable in the skin of the character he is portraying that he can communicate information about that character with a twitch of an eyebrow or the lifting of a shoulder.

DNA, like so many other British television shows, is a well acted and smartly scripted show that relies on intelligence more than shock to hold an audience's attention. The box set of DNA: The Complete Series One & Two available from Acorn Media as of May 13th/2008 gives viewers in North America an opportunity to enjoy all five episodes of this well executed police drama. An opportunity that fans of good television won't want to miss out on.

March 7, 2008

DVD Review: Helen Mirren At The BBC

Turn on the television on any given night in North America or go to a movie theatre, and if you were to believe what you saw was a fair sampling of the our population, you'd think that around 80% of our population was between the ages of twenty and forty-five and vapidly attractive. That figure rises even higher if you only concentrate on the female actors (the word actress is a diminutive that means lessor actor) as you rarely catch sight of a woman over the age of fifty doing anything other than cleaning up after one of today's beautiful losers.

In moments of idle speculation I wonder sometimes if there's not only really ten or twenty actors of each gender that are just given a variety of wigs to wear playing all the rolls; they all look so interchangeable. I know that's a gross exaggeration, but with the way casting directors and producers cast shows and movies by type instead of by acting ability there is an awful tendency for the "look" of an actor - especially in the case of a woman - to matter far more than anything as mundane as artistry.

Male actors seem to have a little more leeway, as nobody seems to find the idea of a sixty something guy with a twenty something girl all that unusual; it's the reverse you'll see as often as hen's teeth. It's not as if there haven't been roles written for women over the more than two millennia that the performance arts have existed, they just never seem to be performed on this side of the ocean.
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What makes this trend so terribly disappointing is the enormous amount of talent that is being ignored. Thankfully for those of us who want to see talented woman perform the miracle of modern technology rides to our rescue by giving us access to great performances from other countries, specifically England, where the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been going about the business of producing some of the best classical and contemporary theatre as television for nearly its entire existence.

Warner Brothers Hove Video has taken advantage of that fact, and in tandem with the BBC has been presenting some wonderful packages of various productions, and even more excitingly packages featuring highlights from a single performers work with the BBC. Helen Mirren has risen to stardom in North American in recent years through her performances in movies like The Queen and Calendar Girls and re-broadcasts of her long running television show Prime Suspect.

While her performances in those productions gives us an idea of her scope as an actor, watching the nine different productions included in the box set Helen Mirren At The BBC make you realize the true depth of her abilities as an actor. These productions were filmed over an eight year period from 1974 to 1982 and gives us an amazing opportunity to not only see her performing everything from the classics - Thomas Middleton's bloody Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, William Wycherley's bawdy Restoration sex comedy The Country Wife and Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart to the challenges offered by contemporary scripts like Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills and Soft Targets by Stephen Poliakoff.

While I was unfamiliar with a few of the titles, some of them having been written specifically for the BBC, or like J.M. Barrie's The Little Minister a less well known work by a famous author, the ones I did recognize made me wonder at the range that was being demanded of her as an actor. You couldn't find two more different worlds than the ones presented in The Changeling and The Country Wife yet here she was at an early stage in her career, 1974 and 1977 respectively, appearing in both and giving riveting performances.

But somehow the difficulties faced by her as an actor in those two productions paled to what she was called upon to do in her performance in Blue Remembered Hills, where she and her fellow cast members are dressed as, and play the rolls of children. It is a satirical look at how people idealize the past, especially childhood, that wouldn't work if the adult actors weren't able to give convincing performances as children. There is something almost frightening about watching a child's mannerisms and behaviours being performed with the sincerity and realism that Mirren brought to her role
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Playing an unsympathetic character from history is probably one of the most difficult tasks an actor ever faces, especially if they want to be true to their character. You can't let your personal feelings about who or what this person is or did come through, but must show them and their situation as honestly and clearly as possible. In Mirren's 1975 performance in Caesar and Claretta of Claretta, Mussolini's mistress on the last days of their lives we see her do a marvellous job that. She had been his mistress for ten years by the time they were captured by the Italian underground while trying to escape, and although she was offered her freedom Claretta chose to die with her lover.

That Mirren is able to make us see the depth of her character's love for a person history considers one of the villains of the twentieth century is remarkable as she is able to overcome our abhorrence for the object of her affection to the extent that we believe her feelings. We may not see what she finds so attractive in Mussolini, but there can be no doubting the depth of her character's devotion to him.

Also included along with the nine performances are two interviews conducted with Helen, one is from 1975 when she was a new rising star, while the other is newly recorded for this box set, and features her talking about these performances and her early career in general. Obviously the material in this set was not shot with modern DVD equipment in mind, but the sound is perfectly adequate and the pictures are clear. It's interesting to see the difference in quality though when they make the switch from shooting in studio on video, to on location shooting with film. Film seems to have a substantially greater depth of field than video, and the image quality of both Blue Remembered Hills and Soft Targets is far superior to those shot on Video.

Whether it was shot in video or film though is irrelevant to the quality of the performances on display in this collection. (Not just by Helen Mirren either - look for a spectacular performance from Ian Holm in Soft Targets and Prunella Scales', of Fawlty Towers fame, appearance in The Apple Cart) From the dark depths of depravity in the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, the farce of The Country Wife, to the melancholy of her character Celia in Soft Targets each performance Helen Mirren gives is as memorable as anything she's done in recent years.

In Helen Mirren At The BBC we are able to watch an actor perform in a wide variety of challenging and interesting roles, with spectacular results. It is not only a pleasure to watch her performances because they are brilliant, it's also nice to see a woman being given the same opportunities that are normally only given to men on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. If you liked Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, l & ll, you will love this set.

Helen Mirren At The BBC is available either directly from Warner Brothers Home Video's BBC America Shop or other on line retailers.

February 9, 2008

DVD Review: Cracker: The Complete Set

You'd expect a police show about a criminal psychologist to feature some deeply sensitive soul, who because of his deep insight into human nature solves crimes while sitting in a book lined office. Well maybe that's how it would be if the show were set in Los Angeles, or somewhere else removed from reality. But Manchester, England is a dirty, industrial city, far removed from the glamourous life of London let alone California, and no book lined office dwelling toff is going to cut it in this city.

Enter Dr. Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald: overbearing, opinionated, egocentric, drinking and gambling problems suggesting a need for some serious psychological help, combined with a questionable faithfulness to his marriage bed, make him the most unlikely and unlovable of lead characters to grace television screens within in recent memory. In spit of his foibles, or perhaps because of them, from 1993 - 1995 "Fitz" ruled TV screens in Britain as the lead character in the police drama.Cracker

While Robbie Coltrane is best known now for his role as the loveable giant Hagrid in the Harry Potter series, he achieved close to iconic status for his performances in the lead role of Cracker. For three years he stalked the streets of Manchester helping the police solve brutal crime with a combination of bluster, intelligence and sheer balls that was a beauty to behold. Along the way we'd also get to watch him play with fire in his personal relationships with his wife, children and occasional lovers on the side.
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For those of you who loved to hate, (or hated to love), "Fitz" the first time round, and those who somehow missed out and want to see Robbie Coltrane in a completely different light, you're in luck. The Complete Cracker, from the good folk at the Arts & Entertainment Network, contains not only all three seasons, a total of nine DVDs, but also includes the Acorn Media distributed, television movie A New Kind Of Terror released ten years after the original show went off the air.

From the first moment we meet Dr. Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald we know that we're not going to be dealing with your standard police detective. While Manchester's finest are trying to figure out who has been butchering young women on British Rail, "Fitz" has been running up tabs at the Bookies, overdrawing the bank accounts, and burning out the credit cards. At the opening of "Mad Woman In The Attic" he has sunk so low that he has to try and hit his eleven year old daughter up for the money to pay for a cab ride.

Just to make sure that we've get the full picture, he insults friends over dinner to the extent that one of them throws her glass of wine in his face, and when his credit card is declined they end up footing the bill. I doubt anybody watching blamed his wife for leaving him.

But where "Fitz" fails in his personal life, he soars in his professional. He has a brilliant mind, is an impassioned and inspiring teacher, and his understanding of human nature (aside from his own of course) is almost preternaturally scary. Although unwilling to make use of his talents at first, "Fitz" volunteers his services in "Mad Woman In The Attic" because one of the victims was a former student, the Manchester police begin to rely on his expertise when faced with cases that call for insights into the darker workings of the human mind.

As a result the cases we work on with "Fitz" over the years aren't the most pleasant; serial killings of women, serial rapists, pedophilia, and all the other crimes that exist in the darker recesses of the human soul. While some of the references to events in the past might be lost on North American audiences ( the Hillsborough disaster for instance in the 1980s, where ninety some people died watching a soccer match in Liverpool when the stands collapsed), and the language might get confusing at time with it's wealth of British slang, neither should be a deterrent to an audience's appreciation. All of us can relate to the horror and repulsion of the police in having to deal with what they consider the scum of the earth, and "Fitz's" desire to solve the crimes.
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As if it weren't enough that these are brilliantly acted by everybody from the guest actors playing villains, (look for a young Robert Carlyle of Full Monty fame in the episode "To Be A Somebody") to the regulars in the roll of police officers, and "Fitz's" beleaguered family, the scripts aren't you're standard who done it fare. Each episode is spread over three fifty minute instalments, which means there's plenty of time for sub-plots to be explored and developed along with the main story line. The writers aren't just content with solving the crimes either, as the scripts question both the methods used by police and their objectives. In "One Day A Lemming Will Fly" they expose how the police will cynically go for results, rather than worry themselves too much about justice.

But this isn't your typical blast the copper show either, it's more an attack on a system, and especially a media, that demands police "do something about crime" than on the police themselves. You get the feeling the police have their hands pretty much tied by circumstances and they do the best they can in the situation. Individually the cops are shown as humans doing a job that quite frankly brings them face to face with the worst humanity has to offer. It's bound to have an effect on the way they see the world.

The Complete Cracker comes with each season in a self contained box with three DVDs, and Cracker: A New Terror, the feature length show, in it's own case. With Dolby Surround Sound and Wide Screen pictures they play beautifully on all regular DVD equipment and look and sound great. Included with A New Terror is a forty-five minute making of featurette, that is about the whole series and takes you through all the characters who ever appeared and gives you all the background you need on the show's creation.

Dr. Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald is not your regular police series hero, and Cracker was not your regular television police drama. But if you're looking for something that's intelligent, with doses of biting humour, and insights into human behaviour that you wouldn't normally see, this is the show for you. Cracker was probably the finest police show ever televised on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, and is not something to be missed. You can pick up a copy of The Complete Cracker at the Arts & Entertainment web site or any other on line retailer.

January 13, 2008

DVD Review: Slings And Arrows: The Complete Collection

"The plays the thing, wherein I'll capture the conscience of the King", says a certain young Prince of Denmark, expressing his hope that a staged re enactment of his father's death will cause his Uncle the King to reveal his guilt. Even in Shakespeare's time the idea of a play within a play was common enough, and over the years there have been a variety of productions that have featured variations on that theme.

They have either been like Hamlet where a play is mounted incidental to the central action but significant to the plot, or as in Noises Off been the focus of the production that has centred around a company's attempts to mount a performance. I've always felt a rather mild sense of dislocation in watching actors play actors, as there is something strange watching them create what are usually exaggerated versions of themselves. That's especially true of productions where there are characters who are Actors with a capital "A", and the characters have been rendered as a series of clich├ęs by the playwright.

You can always count on there being an ingenue with stars in her eyes, a wise old character actor who has seen it all and knows every trick in the book, a bitter leading lady on her last run at good parts before being relegated to the scrap heap of character roles, a venerable leading man who will show up drunk as a skunk for dress rehearsal, the up and coming arrogant star who will be taught a lesson in humility, and of course the benevolent father figure of the director who pours balm onto troubled egos, and somehow manages to nurse the whole production safely through opening night.

It always has amazed me that people who work in theatre are able to go on stage or in front of the cameras and present something that does disservice to their profession by perpetuating people's perceptions of theatrical professionals as undisciplined eccentrics whose success and failure hinge more on fortune than on skill. Therefore it was with some trepidation that I began watching the seven DVDs, (six are three years of episodes and the seventh is bonus features), that comprise the box set of Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection.
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What attracted me in the first place to the production, the fact that the lead roles were being performed by some of the best actors in Canada, also went a long way towards assuaging my doubts. I hoped that the combined skill of Paul Gross (Due South), Martha Burns (arguably the best classical female actor of her generation), Stephen Ouimette, and Mark McKinney among the regulars, and with guest stars the likes of Sarah Polley, Rachel McAdams, Colem Feore, and the incandescent William Hutt, that any deficiencies in plot and script would be overcome by sheer talent.

The New Burbage Theatre Festival of Slings & Arrows is obviously modelled on Canada's renowned Stratford Shakespearean Festival right down to the swans that float gracefully through the river passing through town. Like the company its based on, the New Burbage is struggling to maintain its artistic integrity while remaining financially viable. As is often the case in real life artistry, is coming out on the losing end. Too many of the artistic staff, including the artistic director Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette), are merely going through the motions without any real passion for the job anymore.

In contrast we are offered a glimpse of the life on the low end of the theatrical totem pole in the shape of the Festival's prodigal son Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) as he struggles to keep his small alternate theatre alive by passing bad checks. Seven years ago Geoffrey had suffered a nervous breakdown on stage during a production of Hamlet at the Festival and had fled vowing never to return. But fate has other plans in store for him. When Oliver Wells is run over and killed, after passing out in a road drunk, by a delivery truck, Geoffrey allows himself to be persuaded to become interim artistic director. By the end of the first season he finds himself appointed full artistic director.

Each of the three season's six episodes focus on Geoffrey's efforts to direct one of three major works of Shakespeare; Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Each season the conflict between money and art grows, and the struggle for control of the festival between Geoffrey and the General Manager, Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) intensifies. Although he appears to get the point about the power of art periodically, Smith-Jones continually allows himself to be seduced by the lure of power, and the power of the buck until he is finally "too steeped in blood" to turn back.

The other major sub-plot that runs throughout the three seasons is the "star crossed" relationship between Geoffrey and the festival's leading lady Ellen Fenshaw (Martha Burns). They had first come together during Geoffrey's first stint at the Festival when they were both actors working under Oliver Wells' direction. She had been his Ophelia to his Hamlet and they had been madly in love. But when she slept with gay Oliver, Geoffrey, torn apart by what he saw as his betrayal at the hands of the two people he loved and trusted the most, suffered his infamous onstage breakdown.
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Seven years later they both have to deal with the anger, grief, and unresolved feelings between them, while working as actor and director and figuring out what to do about the fact that they've never stopped loving each other. Further clouding the issue is the looming presence of Oliver Wells between them. Not only is his legacy all around them, the Macbeth Geoffrey has to stage is expected by all to be based on extensive notes and designs that Oliver left behind, but Geoffrey is literally being haunted by Oliver's ghost.

At first Geoffrey tries to dismiss it as a delusion, but gradually he comes to accept that Oliver is really there, and refusing to acknowledge his presence only makes matters worse. Of course it does nothing to reassure others that his history of mental illness is in the past when he is seen having conversations and arguing with the someone who isn't there. But in the end ghost and man begin to take pleasure in each other's company.

The creators of Slings & Arrows could have taken any number of approaches to the series; satire, farce, or even melodramatic soap opera. Instead they took a path that's not often travelled on this continent when it comes to television, and avoided taking any approach at all. Like the theatre itself, Slings & Arrows is larger than life, but if characters and situations are exaggerated, it is never beyond the realm of believability and always to serve the aims of the script. There's not a cheap laugh or manipulated sentiment to be seen as the script, direction, and actors work in together to write a love letter to the object of their mutual affection - the theatre.

As I had assumed the acting is exceptional from the smallest of bit parts to the leads. Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Stephen Ouimette, Susan Coyne, and Mark McKinney (the latter two were also two-thirds of the writing team) as the five leads gave wonderful performances. Burns in particular handled the extremely difficult task of making a flamboyant character realistic by allowing the person under the actor's mask to show through as often as possible without it appearing to be a conscience effort.

Then there's the Shakespeare. I don't remember the last time that I've seen such universally wonderful handling of the text by all the actors required to speak the dialogue. For those of you who have ever feared Shakespearean language and say it's impossible to understand, I challenge you to retain that opinion after watching any of the episodes in Slings & Arrows where they venture onto the stage and perform.

Watching the late William Hutt recreate one of his final roles at Stratford, King Lear, in episode three, is watching a clinic in how to speak the language, and to remember that power has nothing to do with being loud. And I defy anyone to keep a dry eye when Rachel McAdams performs Ophelia's "Will he come again" speech from Hamlet in episode one. These are but two of many superlative performances of Shakespeare placed throughout the entire series, and I can only hope that perhaps upon seeing them, one or two people might be persuaded that there is more to theatre than pyrotechnics or song and dance.

While some of Slings & Arrows might come across as an in-joke, the beauty of this production is that the audience is given a very real look at what goes on behind the scenes in a repertory theatre company on both the artistic and business side of the ledger. That the balance is skewed to favour the art over the business is a choice that may not be in keeping with the current political climate - but it makes for a nice change from how the arts are normally presented.

Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection is available directly from the distributor Acorn Media and would make a wonderful gift for the theatre lover in your family or perhaps as a means to convince others of how wonderful the theatre can truly be. "We are all, but merely players" in the end after-all.

May 15, 2005

True Confessions

Don't let the title mislead you, this is not going to be a confessional. But have you noticed how many blogs are just that. Where did this spilling your guts to complete strangers come from? How about we come up with a name for it. The Oprah Syndrome!!

Find yourself a large audience and blat out your sob story. Feel the love and sympathy orchestrated for you by a benevolent host (as long as you fit the theme of week: Mothers Reunited With Their Daughters Lost In Tropical Storms Off The Coast Of Maui). That's what everybody has come to expect. We all have an audience. Or even worse we all need an audience. It's fascinating that as our one on one communication skills have deteriorated, our public confessional ability has improved.

Is it the lack of emotional commitment required that makes getting up in front of a studio audience full of strangers, and an potential audience of millions, seemingly so easy for countless bewildered and put upon people? Maybe it's the "fifteen minutes of fame" that so they find so appealing. Whatever it is there seems to be an insatiable appetite for this type of television, from the relative sophistication of Oprah to the white trash circus act of Jerry Springer.

No longer satisfied with the mass media coverage of so called celebrities and their foibles we have now begun to feed upon ourselves. Willing victims bring their lives up on stage to be dissected in the forum of television. Instead of an emperor passing thumbs up or down in judgement we are treated to the even sicker spectacle of a smug interviewer posing the ever provocative "Audience what do you think?" Then the hapless fool, who had to have known what they were getting themselves in for, gets to hear the accumulated wisdom of the couch potato philosophers. Accompanying chorus of Right Ons, Noes, rain down on the stage to the point where I half expect to hear Praise the Lord so much like a revival meeting has it begun to sound.

Damn, that's what they are. It just hit me as I was writing, they are revival meetings. Public confessionals orchestrated by a charismatic leader, the audience singing out inspirational phrases, and the atoner welcomed back into the embrace of their loving society. These shows allow people to "witness" their beliefs and morals. To stand up and be counted in front of their fellows and pass judgement on those who dare deviate, or to offer guidance to the lost.

They are in a hallowed space after all, the place where their beliefs and thoughts are shaped and orchestrated, a T.V. Studio. Is it any wonder that these shows are just an extension of what we watch and call fiction? They may not look as glamorous as the soap operas they watch in the afternoon, but goddamn it their lives are just as important and are governed by the same laws. So in this new court of Solomon they air their petty grievances, complain about the emptiness they feel, and are reunited with somebody they abandoned thirty years ago.

I was wondering why people used blogs and web sites as confessionals, where they reveal their innermost secrets for the titillation of total strangers. The answer is that they are just a natural extension of what's been happening on talk television every day now for years. The desire to be considered special, to obtain a tiny bit of that celebrity that we are told makes us worthwhile, is so strong that people lose any sense of personal pride. The Romans might have enjoyed watching people being fed to lions or fighting each other to the death, but I seriously question which circus is the more barbaric.