Sunday, February 19, 2017

Thirteen At Dinner (1985)

Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot.
Premise:  Lady Jane Edgware (Faye Dunaway), an actress, seeks Belgium detective Hercule Poirot's help with obtaining a divorce. Surprisingly, Poirot (Peter Ustinov) agrees--only to discover that Lord Edgware has no qualms about splitting from his wife. The divorce becomes moot, though, when Lord Edgware is found murdered in his study. All the suspects have solid alibis...to include Lady Edgware who attended a dinner with a dozen other guests at the time of the murder. Another actress, noted for her impression of Lady Edgware, is soon found dead from an apparent drug overdose (it's not!). There's a third murder before Poirot and his little gray cells can identify the murderer and his or her methods.

Running Time: 94 minutes.

Status:  CBS originally broadcast Thirteen at Dinner in September 1985. It's available on DVD as part of the Agatha Christie Classic Mystery Collection, which contains all three of Peter Ustinov's made-for-TV movies as Hercule Poirot plus other TV movies based on Agatha Christie novels.

Production Notes:  This was the third of Peter Ustinov's six appearances as Hercule Poirot. It was preceded by the theatrical films Death on the Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), which was his best. His next three Poirot films were all made for CBS and broadcast in 1985-86: Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man's Folly, and Murder in Three Acts. He returned as the Belgium detective one last time for the theatrical film Appointment with Death (1988). Thirteen at Dinner is notable for co-starring David Suchet as Inspector Japp. Suchet would go on to play Poirot in a long-running, critically-acclaimed television series beginning in 1989.

Our Review:  The main problem with this adaptation of Christie's 1933 novel Lord Edgware Dies is that a key casting choice gives away the ingenious nature of the crime much too early. I won't say more at the risk of spoiling the plot. A secondary issue is the decision to update the novel from the 1930s to the 1980s. Hearing characters utter expressions like "dude" in a Christie mystery just doesn't seem right. And Lee Horsley's action movie star, played broadly for comedic effect, decreases the menace in a film that should reflect at least a modest tone of danger. Finally, it's also jarring to see Poirot looking at a model's posterior and remarking: "Not bad." Yes, Hercule admired ladies, but always in a respectful fashion. Weaknesses aside, Thirteen At Dinner benefits from location filming in England, a clever mystery, and the presence of Ustinov and Suchet. The latter, without his mustache and sporting an English accent, may be unrecognizable to fans of his Poirot series. He and Ustinov work well together and it's also fun to see a young Bill Nighy as one of the suspects. Still, Ustinov's next Poirot appearance, 1986's Dead Man's Folly, is a significant improvement and makes Poirot less of a bumbler. If you want to see a better version of Lord Edgware Dies, then I recommend you seek out the 2000 adaptation with Suchet. It make take some liberties with the novel, too, but it's the better of the two films.

Grade: C+.

This post is part of The Movie of the Week Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Click here to visit the schedule and read about all the great made-for-TV movies in this blogathon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Seven Dials Mystery

Cheryl Campbell as Bundle Brent.
Premise:  In the late 1920s, a group of affluent young people are staying at a country estate called The Chimneys when one of them is found dead in his bedroom. Although the incident is ruled "death by misadventure," Gerry Wade suspects that his deceased friend was the victim of foul play. However, before Gerry can provide details, he is murdered. With his dying words, he tells Eileen "Bundle" Brent: "Seven Dials...tell...Jimmy Thesiger." Bundle relays the message to Jimmy and, together with their mutual friend Bill Eversleigh, the trio embark on uncovering the truth about a secret society known as The Seven Dials.

Running Time: 132 minutes.

Status:  The Seven Dials Mystery was originally broadcast in 1981. It was released on DVD in 2004, but is now out of print. It can be streamed in the U.S. on Acorn TV.

Production Notes:  Agatha Christie wrote The Seven Dials Mystery in 1929 as a sequel to The Secret of the Chimneys (1925). Both novels featured the characters of Bundle Brent and Bill Eversleigh. London Weekend Television (LWT) mounted its TV adaptation in 1980 when its earlier mini-series of Christie's novel Why Didn't They Ask Evans? became a ratings hit. When The Seven Dials Mystery likewise garnered a large audience, LWT launched Partners in Crime, a TV series based on Dame Agatha's Tommy and Tuppence novels. James Warwick, who played Jimmy Thesiger in Seven Dials, also starred in Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and Partners in Crime.

Our Review:  The Seven Dials Mystery is an entertaining romp bolstered by the effervescent Cheryl Campbell as Bundle Brent. Whether sleuthing with Jimmy Thesiger or flirting subtly with the reserved Bill Eversleigh (Christopher Scoular), she keeps the plot perking along once she's introduced. The opening scenes without Bundle are a bit plodding, though, and there's no reason for the running time to exceed 100 minutes. While the story may not rank with Agatha Christie's best, there's a well-disguised twist at the climax and John Gielgud provides some dry humor as Bundle's father. The Seven Dials Mystery also affords James Warwick with one of his best roles. He's much more effective here than in Partners in Crime, perhaps because Cheryl Campbell makes for a better partner.

Grade: B+.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Witness for the Prosecution (2016)

Toby Jones as the solicitor Mayhew.
Premise:  In London in 1923, a young man named Leonard Vole (Billy Howle) is accused of murdering his middle-aged lover, Emily French (Kim Cattrall). Shortly before her death, Emily changed her will, leaving Leonard a tidy sum of £185,000. Emily's maid testifies that she saw Leonard leaving Emily's apartment around the time of the crime. However, Leonard's common-law wife Romaine (Andrea Riseborough) testifies that Leonard was home with her that evening. But will a jury believe an alibi supported solely by the accused man's "wife?" That's the challenge facing solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones), who is convinced that Leonard is innocent. Mayhew's case becomes infinitely more challenging when Romaine inexplicably changes her testimony and becomes a witness for the prosecution.

Running Time: The Witness for the Prosecution was originally broadcast in two parts in Great Britain. Each part was 60 minutes (without commercials).

Status:  It can be streamed in the U.S. on Acorn TV.

Production Notes:  The Witness for the Prosecution is based on Agatha Christie's 1925 short story--originally titled Traitor Hands--and not on the author's later more famous play. Dame Agatha expanded her story into a stage play in 1953 and added the character of Sir Wilfred Robarts as barrister. Director Billy Wilder adapted the play into a motion picture in 1957. That film starred Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid, Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, and Marlene Dietrich as his "wife" Christine (formerly named Romaine). Wilder's version also added Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), a nurse temporarily assigned to the recently-ill Sir Wilfrid.

Our Review:  The Witness for the Prosecution is a bold, though not wholly successful, adaptation of Dame Agatha's original story. The producers deserve credit for trying something different, as opposed to mounting another remake of Wilder's famous film. The performances are its strongest element, led by Toby Jones as the solicitor Mayhew and Andrea Riseborough. The latter gives an effective portrayal in the pivotal role of Romaine, though she fails be convincing in her key scene. The movie's first half presents a dark, grim portrait of 1920s London, with its foul-smelling prisons and murky streets. That nicely sets up the second half in which the film becomes visually brighter as Christie's tale takes a surprising change in direction. Yet, the acting and direction cannot overcome the biggest challenge faced by The Witness for the Prosecution: How to expand Agatha Christie's short story into a feature-length film. Alas, I don't think the film's additions enhance the story. Mayhew is now a World War I veteran who suffers from the effects of mustard gas and has a complex relationship with his wife (which is explained in the final scenes). Emily's maid has become a lesbian jealous of her mistress's relationship with Leonard Vole. And Mayhew makes a decision at the climax that ends the film on a depressing note. These changes sapped all the fun of Agatha Christie's twisty tale for me--though viewers looking for something different may be satisfied with this new adaptation.

Grade: C+.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Mr. & Mrs. Murder

Shaun Micallef and Kat Stewart.
Premise:  Husband-and-wife Charlie and Nicola Buchanan operate ToxiClean, an industrial cleaning business that specializes in removing blood stains (and more) from crime scenes. It's the perfect occupation since they also dabble as amateur sleuths. In fact, they frequently help Detective Peter Vinetti solve his homicide cases. Peter harbors a "thing" for Nicola--who looks similar to his ex-wife--leading to a bit of friction with Charlie. Nicola (Kat Stewart) and Charlie (Shaun Micallef) frequently enlist the aid of their niece Jess, who is studying for her MBA.

Running Time: 45 minutes.

Status:  There has only been one season of 13 episodes, which aired in 2013 in Australia. The series can be streamed on Acorn TV and is also available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Star Shaun Micallef created Mr. & Mrs. Murder with television producer Jason Stephens. The two worked together earlier in the half-hour Aussie satire Newstopia. Both Micallef and his co-star Kat Stewart have credits as associate producers for Mr. & Mrs. Murder. Although the duo are not yet well-known in the U.S., they have starred in numerous popular television series in their native country.

Our Review:  A modern day Thin Man, Mr. and Mrs. Murder is a lighthearted, witty series with snappy dialogue and two amusing leads. Shaun Micallef and Kat Stewart make a very believable married couple, right down to their inside jokes and never-explained pet names ("Fizzy" for her and "Chuka-Khan" for him). Some of the funniest scenes are the casual banter between them, such as discussing synonyms for "hooker" because Charlie thinks the word is "unpleasant". (Charlie offers up alternatives such as escort, jezebel, concubine, and courtesan, while Nicola opts for floozie because "you can still be a nice person.") As for the mysteries, they range from clever ("Early Checkout") to unexceptional ("En Vogue"). The best episodes are the early ones. By the way, we love the comic book-style opening credits.

Grade: B.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1983)

James Warwick and Francesca Annis.
Premise:  After a chance encounter during World War I, childhood friends Tommy Beresford and Prudence "Tuppence" Cowley meet again in 1919 in London. Both are unemployed and looking for adventure. While sharing tea at a nearby cafe, Tommy mentions overhearing a conversation about a young woman with the unusual name of Jane Finn. Shortly afterwards, a man named Whittington approaches Tuppence, mentions the name Jane Finn, and says he may have a job for Tuppence. It's not long before the "young adventurers" are immersed in a spy plot involving the Lusitania's sinking and a missing treaty. This is the plot of "The Secret Adversary," which served as the pilot for this series. In subsequent episodes, the grounded Tommy and impulsive Tuppence are married. Tommy purchases a detective agency and the two become full-time sleuths. Albert, whom they met as a hotel elevator operator in "The Secret Adversary," becomes their butler/assistant.

Running Time: The pilot is 115 minutes; regular episodes are 52 minutes.

Status:  There has only been one season of 11 episodes, which aired in 1983-84. The series can be streamed on Acorn TV and is also available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Agatha Christie introduced Tommy and Tuppence in 1922 with the aforementioned novel The Secret Adversary (by the way, the TV adaptation is pretty faithful). The couple appeared in three more novels and a collection of short stories titled Partners in Crime. One of the novels, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, was adapted in 2006 for the TV series Agatha Christie's Marple. It featured Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi as Tommy and Tuppence. However, it also inserted Miss Jane Marple into the plot, essentially having her replace Tommy who is away on intelligence business. In 2015, David Walliams and Jessica Raine portrayed the married sleuths in a new series that updated the setting to the 1950s.

Our Review:  Obviously intended as a lighthearted affair, Partners in Crime never finds the right mix of witty banter and mystery. Francesca Annis (as Tuppence) and James Warwick (as Tommy) are fine actors, but both appear to be trying too hard to inject energy into the slowly-paced episodes. Annis, in particular, exaggerates Tuppence almost to the point of irritation. The leisurely pacing is a huge liability, too; in "The Affair of the Pink Pearl," the episode is almost half-over before a crime involving the missing pearl is introduced.

Grade: C+.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Agatha Raisin

Ashley Jensen as Agatha.
Premise:  After making enough money to "get out of the rat race," Agatha Raisin sells her successful public relations firm and relocates from London to the quaint village of Carsely. The fortyish Agatha (Ashley Jensen) has a hard time fitting in among the local residents. So, she decides to win the Annual Fete and Quiche Baking Competition to become more popular. Of course, Agatha can't cook--so she purchases her quiche from a London bakery and wines and dines the contest judge and his wife. To her dismay, Agatha loses the competition. Even worse, though, the judge eats a slice of her quiche that night and dies from poisoning. This does not endear her to the townsfolk, one of whom scoffs: "Nobody ever died in the village before you arrived." Agatha, with the help of friend Roy (Matthew Horne) and "cleaning girl" Gemma (Katy Wix), decides to solve the murder. In doing so, she finds a new calling as Carsely's resident amateur sleuth. Other regulars include Detective Inspector Bill Wong (Matt McCooey), who has a "cougar crush" on Agatha, and James Lacey (Jamie Glover), a handsome neighbor who also becomes interested in Mrs. Raisin.

Running Time: 60 minutes (pilot was 90 minutes).

Status:  The 90-minute pilot aired in December 2014 with the regular series starting in 2016. Eight episodes have been broadcast to date. They can be streamed on Acorn TV and are also available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  Marion Chesney, writing under the pseudonym of M.C. Beaton, wrote Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death in 1992. It was the first of 27 Agatha Raisin books (as of 2016). After solving numerous murder cases as an amateur, Agatha sets up her own detective agency, Raisin Investigations, in the fifteenth book in the series (Agatha Raison and the Deadly Dance). Penelope Keith played Agatha Raisin in 19 episodes of a BBC Radio 4 series that was broadcast from 2003-2006.

Our Review: The 90-minute pilot is first-rate entertainment, effortlessly blending mystery, comedy, and distinctive characters amidst a picturesque English village. The subsequent episodes can't sustain that level of quality, though some of them (e.g., "The Wellspring of Death," "Witch of Wyckhadden") come awfully close. Part of the challenge is that it's hard to adapt a full-length novel into a compressed 45-minute running time without sacrificing plot or character development. The latter is what separates Agatha Raisin from other mystery series, for our heroine wants to find love as well as the murderer. Scottish actress Ashley Jensen makes a captivating amateur sleuth, her plucky nature masking her vulnerabilities. She receives marvelous support from Katy Wix and Matthew Horne (as amusing as he was in Gavin and Stacey). Jamie Glover is convincing, too, playing Agatha's on and off love interest James Lacey (who, frankly, doesn't deserve Aggie). We're hoping that a second season of Agatha Raisin is in the works.

Grade: A-.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Level

Karla Crome as DS Devlin.
Premise:  On the same day that she receives an award for bravery, Detective Sergeant Nancy Devlin receives a desperate call from Frank Le Saux, a former classmate's father. Nancy (Karla Crome) meets Frank at an isolated clearing in the woods at night. When he asks Nancy for help, she emphasizes that all she can do is "make his name go away if it comes up in an investigation." Before Frank can explain the source of his new "trouble", he's shot and killed--and Nancy is wounded as she makes her escape. She reports nothing to her superiors, but later is assigned to a police team in Brighton that's tasked with investigating Frank's murder. Nancy also starts receiving phone calls and texts from the killer, such as: "Frank's Girl--I'm coming for you." As if that's not enough, her gunshot wound worsens, Frank's mistress is almost killed after contacting Nancy, and the police discover that another suspect was present at Frank's murder. That suspect is, of course, DS Nancy Devlin.

Running Time: 
45 minutes.

Status:  The Level aired in September-November 2016 on ITV and made its American debut on Acorn TV on December 12th.

Production Notes: The Level features a number of familiar faces to viewers who watch British television detective series. Amanda Burton, who starred in both Silent Witness and The Commander, plays Frank's wife Cherie. Philip Glenister, who portrayed DCI Gene Hunt in Life on Mars, is on hand as a shady businessman. And Noel Clarke, a detective inspector in the underrated Chasing Shadows, is a detective sergeant teamed with Nancy Devlin. The cast also includes Rob James-Collier (valet Thomas Barrow on Downton Abbey), and Joe Absolom (Al Large on Doc Martin).

Our Review: While the central mystery in The Level is a conventional one, writers Gaby Chiappe (Shetland) and Alexander Perrin transform it into an intriguing puzzler with a series of carefully planned plot twists and turns. The first twist--Devlin being assigned to track down herself--propels the series as the detective tries to find Frank's killer while thwarting her colleagues from discovering her involvement. It's not an original premise (see the 1948 classic film The Big Clock), but it's executed well in The Level. It also holds viewer interest until the third episode when a truly unexpected revelation changes the plot's dynamics. The writers also succeed in creating a mélange of shadowy characters, almost anyone of which could be a villain (though one of Devlin's colleagues is so obviously bad that we concluded he must be a good guy). Karla Crome is adequate in the lead role, though her character is fairly one-note and it's hard to imagine a series being built around her.

Grade: B.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Brokenwood Mysteries

Neill Rea as Mike Shepard.
Premise:  With a senior sergeant on the verge of retirement, Detective Inspector Mike Shepard (Neill Rea) arrives in the small New Zealand town of Brokenwood to investigate an apparent suicide. Shepard is a quirky individual that listens to country music (on audio cassettes!), drives a 1971 white Holden Kingswood, and sometimes talks with dead bodies (a colleague dubs him "the corpse whisperer"). He also confesses to having "three or four ex-wives." His eccentricities aside, the savvy veteran detective excels at recognizing the importance of minor details that could prove to be invaluable clues. At the end of the first episode, Shepard requests a demotion to Detective Senior Sergeant so that he can remain in Brokenwood. His less-experienced colleagues include Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland), Detective Constable Sam Breen (Nic Sampson), and Russian medical examiner Dr. Gina Kadinsky (Cristina Ionda). Shepard's neighbor, Jared Morehu (Pana Hema Taylor), provides invaluable information about the town and its residents. Jared is elusive about what he does for a living ("a little bit of this, a little bit of that"), though he works part-time by tending Shepard's vineyard.

Running Time: 90-99 minutes.

Status:  Three seasons of four episodes each have been broadcast since 2014. The first two seasons can be streamed on Acorn TV now and the third season will begin on December 5, 2016. The first two seasons are also available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes: In a 2014 interview in The New Zealand Herald, star Neill Rea described The Brokenwood Mysteries: "It's not a show about a detective who is a twisted genius with dark secrets. He's not Cracker, he's not an alcoholic, he's not Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. Mike's got a few secrets, a few ex-wives, but he's not a really dark character." By the way, Mike Shepard's car, the Holden Kingswood, was manufactured in Australia from 1968 to 1984. It was a family car priced between the entry-level Holden Belmont and the luxury Holden Premier. It's used mostly for comic relief in The Brokenwood Mysteries.

Our Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries has been compared to Midsomer Murders and there are some similarities: the brightly-lit scenes, the dark humor, and the high number of homicides per capita. Certainly, some episodes--like "Sour Grapes" in which victims are drowned in wine vats--are very reminiscent of the beloved British series. However, Brokenwood has a different vibe with its coastal town setting, headstrong residents, and, of course, New Zealand accents. It's a mystery series that is understandably still finding its voice after a handful of episodes. Its greatest asset is Neill Rea as the likable, easygoing sleuth. It would be easy to make Shepard quirky for the sake of quirkiness, but Rea never forces his hand and keeps one watching to find out what his detective will do next.

Grade: B+.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Lord Peter Wimsey: A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter.
Premise:  In the 1920s, Lord Peter Wimsey (Edward Petherbridge) and his loyal valet Bunter (Richard Morant) dabble as amateur sleuths. Wimsey's aristocratic mannerisms mask a keen intellect and a soldier's taste for adventure. During World War I, he served as an Army major and Bunter was his sergeant. In Strong Poison, he meets writer Harriet Vane (Harriet Walter) and immediately becomes smitten with her. The only problem: She has been arrested for the murder of a former lover. In subsequent episodes, Peter pursues the free-spirited, intelligent Harriet romantically as they become involved in other murder cases.

Running Time: 52 minutes.

Status:  Lord Peter Wimsey: A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery only lasted for one season of ten episodes. There are three cases, with two of them spanning three episodes and one lasting for four. The series is available on DVD in the U.S. until the title of Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries: Harriet Vane Collection.

Production Notes:  This is the second British television series about Dorothy L. Sayers' beloved sleuth. The first appeared in the 1970s and starred Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter and Glyn Houston as Bunter. Although immensely popular, the series received minor criticism from Sayers' hardcore fans who complained that Carmichael, then in his 50s, was too old to play the thirtyish Lord Peter. At 51, Edward Petherbridge wasn't much younger than Carmichael when he first appeared as Wimsey in the 1987 TV series--however, he looked younger. Petherbridge, who is best known for his stage work, also appeared as Lord Peter in the 1988 play Busman's Honeymoon, which co-starred his real-life wife, Emily Richard, as Harriet Vane.

Our Review:  The Ian Carmichael Wimsey mysteries were our introduction to British TV detectives. Thus, we approached this 1987 version with much trepidation. To our surprise, we enjoyed it immensely. Although a different Lord Peter, Petherbridge is delightful and shares great rapport with Harriet Walter as his love interest. Our only quibbles are minor: the emphasis on Peter and Harriet means less Bunter (who was a great sidekick in the earlier series) and, at times, Peter comes across a bit of a lovesick puppy in his quest to earn Harriet's love. As for the rest of the show, the mysteries are first-rate and the production is handsome.

Grade: A-.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Chasing Shadows

Alex Kingston and Reece Shearsmith.
Premise:  Sean Stone (Reece Shearsmith) is a brilliant detective capable of recognizing complex patterns--such as how two seemingly unrelated crimes are connected. However, he also suffers from a social disorder that makes it difficult to interact with  people. When he embarrasses the homicide division during a news conference, the detective sergeant is exiled to a missing persons bureau where he is paired with Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston), a "civilian analyst." Like everyone else, Ruth has a hard time coping with Sean's unusual behavior (e.g., when they have an appointment to interview a witness, Sean will take off on his own, leaving Ruth stranded to find her own transportation). Still, Ruth recognizes Sean's keen intellect and even his occasional attempts at "normal" social conventions. On the home front, Ruth lives with her teenage son (who is fascinated by serial killers and wants to meet Sean) and her mother. Sean's closest "friend" is his housekeeper Adele, who cleans, shops, and cooks for him.

Running Time: Each case consists of two 45-minute episodes.

Status:  Only one season (four episodes) was broadcast in 2014; it's available on DVD in the U.S.

Production Notes:  The four Chasing Shadows episodes were written by Rob Williams, who also penned scripts for DCI Banks and Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle (which he also produced). Alex Kingston is probably best known to U.S. audiences as Dr. Elizabeth Corday in the long-running medical series ER.

Our Review:  Buoyed by a flawlessly executed premise, Chasing Shadows deserved a second season--and more. Its premature demise deprived viewers of learning more about Sean's housekeeper (who was involved a season-ending cliffhanger) as well as a potential friendship between Sean and Ruth's son Bryan. The two leads, Reece Shearsmith and Alex Kingston, make an irresistible odd couple and Rob Williams' well-paced mysteries grab--and hold--one's attention.

Grade: A.