Category: DVD Review

DVD Review: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 1

The Murdoch Mysteries series is based on characters in novels by Maureen Jennings. The series stars Yannick Bisson as Detective William Murdoch. In early twentieth century Toronto, the detective’s innovative methods solve baffling crimes.
 
The first season featured thirteen episodes. The series features robust mysteries that don’t feature obvious solutions. Instead, the mysteries are complex with plenty of twists along the way. The first season features historical figures from the era. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Geraint Wyn Davies) appears as does Nicola Tesla. (Dmitri Chepovetsky)
 
The strong principal cast gels together in Season 1. Helene Joy plays pathologist Doctor Julie Ogden. Thomas Craig is Inspector Thomas Brackenridge. Finally, Johnny Harris is Constable George Crabtree. The Constable is wet behind the ears but enthusiastic.
 
The series includes many neat historical details that add credibility to the series. The gorgeous design and cinematography bring home the feel of the era.
 
The first season isn’t without its flaws. A couple times, modern sensibilities intrude into an era where they didn’t exist. This takes viewers out of the story. The show should’ve stuck to issues raised in the era. For example, the suffragettes, temperance, and freed American slaves. The series did best when exploring those sort of situations.
 
The series establishes Murdoch as a Catholic in the first episode. In the second, it establishes, at the time, he couldn’t get promoted because of his faith. From there, the series creates many situations to challenge Murdoch’s faith. Doing this once could be interesting and is fair game. Doing this repeatedly during the first season was repetitive. Further, the writers strained to give Murdoch personal stakes his cases. A ridiculous number of cases involve people Murdoch knows or his personal issues.
 
Overall, the Murdoch Mysteries first season got off to a promising start. It has good action, great production values, and well-crafted mysteries. Intrusive modern issues and a couple overdone plot lines did hamper the series. Still, if you can stomach those flaws, and you’re a Victorian-era mysteries fan, it’s worth watching.
 
Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: A Bone to Pick


A Bone to Pick is the first of the Aurora Teagarden Hallmark mysteries starring Candace Cameron-Bure. Aurora is a librarian and an active member in a local group for readers of true stories of unsolved crimes that likes to speculate on whodunit. A childless group member dies of old age and names Aurora as her sole heir. While going through her late friend’s effects at her friend’s home, Aurora discovers a hidden human skull. This leads her to try and prove her worth as an amateur detective and solve the case.

This TV movie checks some of the most important genre boxes. Aurora is a likable protagonist and the mystery is well thought-out. The mystery is two-fold as Aurora has to figure out who the victim was as well as who the murderer while refusing to report it to the police while she plays detective. The story is given an added sense of realism by having a best friend (Lexa Doig) who warns Aurora this is not a good idea. When the police do get involved, they don’t at all appreciate the amateur’s interference and threaten to arrest her. To make matters worse for Aurora, the police detective on the case is her ex-boyfriend’s new wife (Miranda Frigon) who is about nine months pregnant.

Several minutes are taken up with Aurora meeting and dating the Episcopal Priest Father Scott Aubrey (Stephen Huszar) The relationship goes nowhere, has nothing to do with the mystery, and he never appears in the series again. I also found the attempt to add peril to the denoument to be a bit silly and over-the-top.

But if I really had a “bone to pick” (ha) with the movies it is that there’s a missing sense of place. I’ve heard the books are set in Georgia. This makes sense. Aurora Teagarden the most Southern Belle name you’ll ever find. However, the movie is set in a generic small town and is filmed in Canada. This works fine most of the time, but a few details of the film would make a lot more sense if this story were set in Georgia, such as Aurora’s name and her mother’s attitude. Devoid of her cultural context, the proper patrician Southern lady becomes plain snooty.

Despite that, this was a fun movie. It’s a family-friendly mystery. with a likable actress playing the amateur detective. It’ll never win an Edgar but if you want to watch a cozy mystery with an amateur sleuth, this will do nicely.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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DVD Review: The Great Gildersleeve Movie Collection

Harold Peary originated the role of the Great Gildersleeve on the Fibber McGee and Molly radio program in 1939. The character was an antagonist for Fibber McGee and proved so popular that he got his own radio show starting in 1941. Peary played the role until 1950 when he left it for the ill-fated Harold Peary show.

Before that happened, the Great Gildersleeve went from radio to feature films, including four that were directly adapted from the characters in the radio. The Warner Archives Great Gildersleeve Movie features all four of these wartime movies plus the film Seven Days Leave in which Gildersleeve plays a much smaller part.

So how do the films hold up? Let’s take a look at each one:

The Great Gildersleeve (1942)

This film is probably the truest to the radio program. The plot has a lot of gags and bits, but the central point is that a woman mistakenly thinks Gildersleeve has proposed to her. Unfortunately for Gildersleeve, the woman is the unmarried sister of Judge Hooker. And Judge Hooker is questioning Gildersleeve’s fitness to be guardian to his niece and nephew. His goal throughout the movie is to prove he’s fit and to stop Judge Hooker from revoking his custody.

This a good film. It’s well-balanced. A lot of goofiness comes out of Gildersleeve’s quest, but his goals make you want to cheer for him. The heart of the Great Gildersleeve series is that he does care for his family. It’s a fun movie with a lot of great twists and well-worth watching.

Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)

Gildersleeve has jury duty for a gangster who’s on trial for a bank robbery. Unbeknownst to him, he’s been identified by the gangster’s mob as the one man who could persuade the jury to acquit their guilty boss. Unbeknownst to them, he’s already decided to push for acquittal on his own.

This one is decent and has some madcap hilarious scenes, including a great chase involving Gildersleeve at the end. However, there are a few elements that come off as dumb rather than funny. Still, not a bad watch overall.

Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)

Gildersleeve’s niece Marjorie fears that her beau who is in New York is not being faithful to her, so Gily catches a train to find out what the score is. He’s traveling with Mr. Peavy, the town pharmacist who fears a wealthy woman’s decision which could spell doom for his drug store.

This is probably the most funny of the films. The movie keeps a quick pace as the situation continues to spiral out of Gildersleeve’s control. It’s delightfully over the top fun. Its only flaw is that it ends far too abruptly.

Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)

Based on the radio series, someone decided that what the gentle, domestic comedy of the Great Gildersleeve called for was a comedy horror movie. The plot begins when two ghosts of Gildersleeve’s ancestors decide to help him win an election for Police Commissioner by hypnotizing a gorilla of a mad scientist so that Gildersleeve can discover an invisible woman. That sure sounds like a typical Gildersleeve plot.

This one has some funny moments, but it was a really flawed film. For one thing, there’s not enough plot for an hour film, so they keep doing the same gags over and over again, such as mistaken identity around the gorilla being there and someone in gorilla suit. Mr. Peavey says, “I wouldn’t say that,” about a dozen times.

Nick Stewart gets a lot of screen time as Chauncey, a chauffeur written as the racist “cowardly Negro” stereotype. It’s not just a minor point, it’s a big part of the second half of the film. Stewart was a good actor who deserved better than this role.   Stewart did eventually get better roles as he’d voice Brer Bear in Song of the South and play Lightnin’ on the Amos and Andy TV show, before founding the Ebony showcase, the first Black-owned theater, where Black Actors could play way better parts than the one he got in this film.

The one thing I do like is the title sequence. It looks spooky and shows a lot of labor went into it. The film itself is padded and at times, unpleasant to watch. This one was understandably a franchise killer.

Seven Days Leave (1942)

Johnny Gray (Victor Mature) learns he is heir to $100,000 through the radio program, The Court of Missing Heirs. He borrows from every member of his company to have a time with his fiancée before he goes to meet the lawyer in charge of this estate, the Great Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve advises the money was left by the descendant of a Union Civil War general and will only be willed to him if he marries the descendant of a particular Confederate general who was his friend. The descendant in question is Terry Havalok-Allen (Lucille Ball) who is also already engaged to someone else.

The movie is a musical with beautifully performed numbers. Gildersleeve even gets in on one of them. There are also great orchestras in the film, including Les Brown’s with Brown playing himself, Ginny Simms shows up to sing a song, and there’s a talented dance trio. The film looks expensive and looks mostly made before the crunch of wartime cost-cutting hit Hollywood.

The movie is a treat for radio fans. First, we get to see Gildersleeve, albeit his characterization is much more like on Fibber McGee than on his own program. We also get a look at two rare radio programs. The Court of Missing Heirs was an actual radio program, with no full episodes in circulation. In addition, the film has Grey and Terry attend a taping of Truth or Consequences and get involved in a game. The earliest available radio episode of Truth or Consequences is from 1945, so this gives insight into how the show looked and sounded in its earliest days.

In addition, Lucille Ball is good in this. She has great lines and good moments when her character is rebuffing Grey’s advances. In addition, Marcy McGuire is a lot of fun as Terry’s sixteen-year-old sister. In a rarity for these films, she was actually sixteen and not only was funny, but her musical numbers were great.

Everything works about this film except the lead character. Johnny Grey is not likable at all. He’s written as a greedy narcissist and none too bright. After all, he’s stringing his own fiancee along while he sets out to break up someone else’s engagement so that he can get big money. While the movie tells us he changes, we don’t see much evidence or growth. Grey sets out to win Terry over by being as obnoxious, intrusive and irritating as possible. My favorite scenes in the movie are the ones where he’s put in his place. The only reason he wins are genre conventions.

If you find Johnnie irritating and unlikable as I did, the question becomes whether that ruins the movie for you. For me, the good stuff in it out-weighs the bad, but your mileage may vary. In a scene my wife found disturbing, Johnny crosses a serious line by kissing Terry by force. My wife found some parts of the film very disturbing, including one where Grey forcibly kissed Terry. Looking at it through modern eyes, Johnnie Grey’s behavior is really predatory and the movie’s message that seems to affirm the behavior illustrates that even with the Hayes code, Hollywood films could have some creepy ideas about sex in them. This is not one I’d say is definitely not for kids.

Overall Thoughts:

The Gildersleeve films came before the TV sitcom was invented and often feel more like TV episodes than actual movies. The first three films managed to expand enough to tell a passable story but Gildersleeve’s Ghost only had enough good material for a half-hour TV episode and then repeated stuff to fill up the run-time. Seven Days Leave is fun for those willing to overlook Johnny Grey’s general sleaziness. Taken together, it is an eclectic set of wartime comedy.

If you’re a fan of old-time radio and the Great Gildersleeve, the set is worth checking out for all of the highlights, unless the lowlights are deal-breakers for you.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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TV Series Review: Banacek

A version of this review appeared five years ago

More than a decade prior to becoming universally associated with the character of Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, George Peppard played Thomas Banacek, a Boston-based, Polish proverb-spouting insurance investigator. He made a comfortable living solving cases the insurance company couldn’t crack and collecting ten percent of the insurance company’s savings.

The series aired from 1972-74 and it focused on classic impossible mysteries. How does a football player on the field disappear in front of thousands of fans? How does a million dollars in cash vanish from behind a locked display case? How does $23 million in paintings vanish from a truck transporting it?

Banacek takes no case where the missing item is less than a million dollars in value. While a murder usually happens in the course of the investigation, it’s not guaranteed. The focus is on the big property crime, not on violence.

Banacek was part of NBC’s Mystery wheel, so its original running time with commercials was 90 minutes, with the shows themselves running a shade over 70 minutes in length. This allows for plenty of development, particularly in the early episodes, without a lot of fluff. A grand total of thirteen episodes were released.

Throughout the series, Peppard was supported by Ralph Manza who provided the comic relief as Banacek’s chauffeur and erstwhile sidekick. Manza’s character would occasionally take a crack at the solution that would be invariably offbase. Murray Mattheson played Felix Mulhol, a bookstore store owner that seemed to know everything about everything.

Banacek was portrayed as God’s gift to women, at least those who weren’t looking for a serious relationship. Among the Banacek women was future Lois Lane Margo Kidder. However, scenes in bed were avoided throughout the series, as mere verbal hints were all that would be allowed.

The second season did see some changes. In the first season, the insurance company was more than happy to hand over six-digit checks in order to avoid seven-digit losses. However, in the second season, an insurance company exec tried to thwart Banacek with the help one of his own investigator Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford) who tried to maintain an on-again, off-again romance with Banacek while trying to beat him out of his exorbitant fees.

This was a bad move, as it tampered with the show’s dynamic, slowed down the stories, and didn’t add anything to the plot. Kirkland wasn’t particularly likable. In one story, she wormed her way into an investigation, asking to learn from Banacek while on a leave of absence from the company and then tried to sell him out to her insurance company. The character didn’t appear in the last two episodes of the second season since the episodes were set outside of Boston.

The second season disc for Banacek contains the original pilot which shows a bit of the original conception. In the original conception, Banacek only worked cold cases that hadn’t been solved in sixty days and the executive commented on how much money the insurance company has squandered on investigators’ pay and expenses searching for millions of dollars in gold. Perhaps this is why the producers went with a format where Banacek came on with a promise of reward soon after the items were stolen. It made more economic sense. In the case in the pilot, they ended up out all the money they paid the investigators plus the reward.

Peppard played Banacek differently in the pilot. He was a quieter, less flip character. He spent a good fifteen minutes straight on screen at one point saying nothing. He spoke with conviction, explaining why he didn’t change his last name to something less obviously Polish.

Jay and Carlie were also in the pilot. Jay was quite different. He owned a limo rental business based in Dallas rather than being Banacek’s employee and simply drove him around. He also pulled a classic doublecross when he bribed the operator to listen in to Banacek’s phone call and overheard a key clue which he used in hopes of collecting the reward. Definitely a different conception than the loyal, albeit dimwitted character who’d appear in the rest of the series.

Overall thoughts:

Banacek is certainly not an essential mystery series. Unlike Columbo, Poirot, or Monk, Banacek is one of those shows you can take or leave.

Peppard is at his best as the wise-cracking detective who stays one step ahead of cops and official insurance investigators while hunting down items of unbelievable value.

The first season is a well-performed series with great mysteries, solid plots, and great solutions. The second season has too much airtime taken up by Carlie Kirkland and that drags down the stories. Still, even that season has the great entry, “If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn’t He Tell Us Where He Is?” as well as the fairly good, “Rocket to Oblivion.”

Overall, I’d give the series three 3.5 stars out of 5.0 with Season 1 getting 4 stars and season 2 getting a 3.

In terms of availability, Banacek is a hard series to lay your hands on. The season sets are out of print. Last time, I recommended a bargain best of Banacek DVD with six episodes on it and that’s also gone out of print. I watched it originally through Netflix’s DVD rental service. but Netflix no longer carries it. If your local library doesn’t own it, viewing the series may come at a premium that could price it out for anyone but diehard fans until a new printing is done.

 

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TV Series Review: The Indian Detective

In 2017’s CTV/Netflix series Russell Peters stars as Toronto Police Constable Doug D’Mello. D’Mello stops a truck at the border that he’s been led to believe contains drugs. When it turns out not to be the case, D’Mello becomes a viral video joke. He is suspended for a month and demoted to Constable Fourth Class. When he receives a report that his Indian father is ill, D’Mello catches a flight to Mumbai, India. There he ends up staying with his father, who is in the habit of telling people Doug is a detective. This sets Doug up to be involved in multiple mysteries that end up tying into a case far closer to home.

In the first three episodes, the mystery works quite well. The first two episodes are seemingly disconnected cases but do end up tying together. Our overall mystery isn’t a whodunit. It’s trying to understand what their plot is and how our hero is going to stop them. The main villain, Indian drug lord
Gopal Chandekar (Hamza Haq) uses Doug’s investigations in the early episodes to forward his own ends. The actual method of resolving the case is not as strong as it could be, but it’s not stupid or unbelievable.

The supporting cast has some solid performances. Hamza Haq not only plays Gopal Chandekar, he also plays his American twin brother and does a good job making them feel like separate characters. Doug’s father Stanley D’Mello is one of the more likable characters in the story. He and Doug share regret over him never being around, and he’s trying to rekindle the relationship. He and Doug don’t get far but there’s room left open for a second series at the end of this one. Priya Seagal (Mishqah Parthiephal) is a young Indian attorney fighting for poor clients in the slum. She serves as Doug’s conscience and he also starts to fall for her. Canadian acting legend William Shatner plays David Marlowe, an overleveraged, ultra-rich developer looking to strike a deal with the Chandekar brothers for some property. He’s fun whenever he’s on screen.

I have more mixed feelings on Peters’ performance. His character reminds me of Paul Blart, Mall Cop, only less likable. Peters’ character can be obnoxious, particularly in India. It’s as if someone decided the stereotype of Canadians being polite was harmful and used Peters’ character to remedy that. He is rude and condescending to Indians. Thankfully, it’s not all the time, but it’s still off-putting. However, he’s more complex than his worst moments and I give the character credit for correcting his father’s mischaracterization of his job. He volunteers that he wasn’t a detective in Canada in the first episode rather than having it drug out or revealed in a bit of forced comedy.

The series is advertised as a comedy, but it’s not funny. Few scenes amused me and nothing made me laugh. I found the ending for Doug’s character too pat. Things happened to him that couldn’t be justified on the basis of the story.

The series is no classic, but it’s not bad either. It has some charming characters and a pretty solid plot and it managed to hold my interest throughout its runtime.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5