Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Great Train Robbery

Luke Evans as Bruce Reynolds.
Premise:  On August 8, 1963, Bruce Richard Reynolds masterminded the biggest heist in British history when he and 14 others stole £2.6 million from a Royal Mail Train. To put his crime in perspective, that haul would be worth approximately £51 million today. The Great Train Robbery, a 2013 miniseries, covers the the crime's preparation, execution, and investigation in two parts. The first half, subtitled A Robber's Tale, introduces Reynolds (Luke Evans) as a criminal more interested in the challenge of the crime--and the camaraderie with his follow robbers--than in the loot. Reynolds' meticulous planning pays off when the heist is executed almost to perfection. However, the aftermath is filled with unforeseen events and careless mistakes. The minseries' second half, A Copper's Tale, focuses on the investigation by Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler and the Flying Squad (a special robbery division in London's Metropolitan Police). A shrewd loner nicknamed "One Day" for his success in nabbing criminals, Butler (Jim Broadbent) navigates political interference as he pushes his team to follow up every lead and capture all 15 gang members.

Running Time: 180 minutes (two 90-minute parts).

Status:  It originally aired on the BBC in December 2013. It's available on DVD in the U.S. and can be streamed on Acorn TV.

Production Notes:  Robert Ryan's 2010 novel Signal Red, which was based on the real-life crime, served as the basis for the miniseries. Several of the robbers and the coppers wrote autobiographies, to include Crossing the Line: The Autobiography of a Thief (1995) by Bruce Reynolds and No Fixed Address (1973) by Butler's deputy, Detective Inspector Frank Williams. (Spoiler alert!) Reynolds eluded capture for five years before Butler tracked him down, spending much of that time in Mexico and Canada. He served 10 years in prison, a shorter sentence than many of the others caught earlier. Two of his fellow criminals, Ronald Biggs and Charlie Wilson, escaped from prison. Wilson was eventually caught, but Biggs underwent plastic surgery and settled in Brazil where he could not be extradited. At age 71, he voluntarily returned to Great Britain--and was promptly arrested again. Incidentally, singer Phil Collins played gang member Buster Edwards in the 1988 film Buster.

Our Review: The first half of The Great Train Robbery is a breezy caper film grounded by Luke Evans' compelling portrayal of the fascinating Reynolds. It would have been nice to get to know some of the other characters better, but there are too many of them and the compact 90-minute running time doesn't have a minute to spare. The second half slows down the pace, as befits Butler's methodical investigation. The detective, superbly played by Broadbent, remains something of an enigma, though his dedication to pursuing justice is never in doubt. Although The Great Train Robbery is a first-rate affair, it does glorify Reynolds and his colleagues, glossing over the more violent aspects of the crime. In real life, train conductor Jack Mills experienced a traumatic brain injury as a result of being struck by one of the gang.

Grade: A-.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Striking Out

The cast of Striking Out, with star Amy Huberman on far right .
Premise:  After discovering her fiancĂ© Eric with another woman, Tara Rafferty (Amy Huberman) hits reset on her life and career. She quits the law firm where she worked with Eric and breaks off her engagement. Describing herself as a "corporate attorney gone walkabout," she sets up practice in a former metal works factory adjacent to a coffee house. Tara surrounds herself with a team comprised of: a client--awaiting trial for fraud--who serves as her assistant; a leather-clad, soft-spoken female private detective; and a legal colleague immersed in a high profile case. Tara's clients include a bigamist's wife, a young couple who may lose custody of their son, and a woman written out of her late father's will. These cases often cause Tara to cross paths with Dunbar & Calloways--and Eric's parents, who are seriously displeased that she refuses to take back Eric.

Running Time: 50 minutes.

Status:  Striking Out debuted on Irish television in 2017 and can be streamed on Acorn TV in the U.S. Thus far, it consists of one season of four episodes.

Production Notes: The most familiar faces for American audiences are probably Neil Morrissey and Nick Dunning. Morrissey, who plays barrister Vincent Pike, previously starred in the TV series Line of Duty, Grantchester, and The Night Manager. He was also cast as a murder suspect recently in a season 19 Midsommer Murders episode. Nick Dunning, who stars as Tara's father Conrad, has had a long career in film and television. His previous work includes Da Vinci's Demons, Vexed, Injustice, and The Tudors.

Our Review:  Striking Out is an engaging, well-written legal drama that hits the ground running and never lets up. There's no shortage of subplots, whether it's Tara's strained relationship with her mother or the potentially dark ulterior motive of private investigator Meg Riley (smartly played by Fiona O'Shaughnessy). Amy Huberman makes an appealing lead, portraying Tara as a professional woman still sorting out her emotions even as she embraces her new "adventure." The colorful Dublin cityscapes will be an added bonus for American viewers. It's too bad the first season includes just four episodes--but thankfully, a second season has already been commissioned.

Grade: A-.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Republic of Doyle

Alan Hawco and Sean McGinley.
Premise:  Jake and Malachy "Mal" Doyle operate Doyle and Doyle, a father-son private detective agency in Newfoundland. Mal (Sean McGinley) is a respected retired police officer who occasionally calls on his old colleagues for favors. Jake worked briefly for the police, too, but his independent ways--and lapses in judgment--undoubtedly caused clashes with his superiors. How bad are those "lapses in judgment?" In one episode, Jake (Alan Hawco) sleeps with a client's wife--whom he's supposed to be investigating for cheating. Mal's second wife, Rose, runs the business end of Doyle and Doyle and also does research for their cases. Mal's 16-year-old granddaughter Tinny (short for Katrina) lives with him, Rose, and Jake. Rose hires a young graffiti artist named Des--who defaced Jake's 1968 Pontiac GTO--to help out at the agency. At the start of the first season, Jake is in the process of getting divorced from his wife Nikki and becomes romantically interested in police constable Leslie Bennett.

Running Time: 44 minutes.

Status:  Republic of Doyle ran for six seasons comprised of 78 episodes, beginning in 2010. Seasons 1-2 are available on DVD in the U.S. The series can be streamed on Acorn TV.

Production Notes:  Star Alan Hawco co-created the Republic of Doyle, wrote some of the episodes, and is listed in the credits as an executive producer. Hawco played one of Jake Doyle's ancestors in a 2013 episode of  the TV series Murdoch Mysteries, which is set at the turn-of-the-century. Murdoch star Yannick Bisson returned the favor in 2014 by appearing as one of his latter-day descendants in an episode of Republic of Doyle. Prior to co-starring in Republic of Doyle, Sean McGinley played a crooked pub owner in the Irish detective series Single-handed.

Our Review:  Republic of Doyle is a conventional detective show that relies on its agreeable stars to compensate for its lack of originality (although the crossover with Murdoch Mysteries was an inspired idea). Hawco and McGinley make the formula work well enough in most episodes. If you're a fan of "buddy action films," you'll enjoy Republic of Doyle. Just don't look for engrossing mysteries.

Grade: B.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Code of a Killer

John Simm and David Threlfall.
Premise:  In 1983, the Leicestershire police discover the body of 15-year-old Lynda Mann, who was raped and murdered near her home. After an extensive investigation, Detective Chief Superintendent David Baker (David Threlfall) has to shut down the case when his team cannot discover the identity of the killer. Three years later, another teenager, Dawn Ashworth, is found dead--and the evidence points to the same murderer. This time, the police hone in on a young man named Gavin Hopkirk, who is arrested and eventually confesses--but only to the rape and murder of Dawn Ashworth. While trying to link Hopkirk to Lynda Mann, Baker reads about the work of Leicester University professor Alec Jeffreys (John Simm). The scientist has perfected a process called genetic fingerprinting, in which an individual can be identified by their unique DNA. Can this new technique be used to connect the two crimes? Or will it prove that Hopkirk is innocent and the real killer remains at large?

Running Time: 130 minutes.

Status:  Code of a Killer aired as a two-part mini-series in Great Britain in 2015. Acorn TV began streaming it as a three-part series in the U.S. in February 2017.

Production Notes: (Spoiler alert!) This mini-series is a fact-based account of the first use of genetic fingerprinting to identify and convict a criminal. Following his arrest, Colin Pitchfork pleaded guilty to both murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment in January 1988. In 2016, Pitchfork was denied parole at a hearing, but was moved to an "open prison" according to BBC News. Bestselling author Joseph Wambaugh (The Blue Knight) wrote a non-fiction book in 1989 about the case called The Blooding: A True Story of the Narborough Village Murders.

Our Review: Code of a Killer is a gripping, fact-based drama that hooks the audience from the outset, but becomes more compelling as it progresses. The first episode cross-cuts between Baker's investigation and Jeffreys' DNA research. Each plot is interesting on its own, but it's when they converge in the second episode that the mini-series becomes essential television viewing. The introverted Baker and the absent-minded Jeffreys seem to share little in common at first, but their bond turns out to be an obsessive drive for knowledge. David Threlfall and John Simm are excellent as the unlikely duo. American audiences may be unfamiliar with Threlfall, who starred in the British comedy-drama series Shameless for eleven seasons (when the series was adapted for U.S. television, William H. Macy played Threlfall's role). John Simm has appeared in numerous series which have attracted followings in the U.S., most notably the original Life on Mars, Doctor Who (in a recurring role as The Master), and Prey.

Grade: A.

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-.