Category: Telefilm Review

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: The Last Free Man

Murder She Wrote: The Last Free Man was the third made for TV movie featuring Jessica Fletcher following the cancellation of the long-time hit TV mystery show. This is definitely not your typical Murder She Wrote story.

In the film, while in Virgina, Jessica (Angela Lansbury) strikes up a conversation with Cassandra Hawkins (Phylicia Rashad) who is looking into the case of one of her ancestors Samuel Pickney who was labeled a murderer in the waning days of the antebellum South. To add to the mystery, he has not one but two gravemarkers with two different dates of death. Jessica and Cassandra uncover accounts left behind by Jessica’s Great Great Aunt Sarah (also played by Lansbury) who was a slaveowner who owned Sam Pickney (Michael Jace) but considered him a friend.

Through the journal entries, the audience is transported back to the late 1850s and we witness the events leading up to the murder and see how Sarah tries to solve it while dealing with prejudice and tense politics of the era.

The telefilm can be divided into two parts: The framing story and the Antebellum story that takes up most of the movie.

The latter is very well done. The cinemotography is solid and captures the feel of the era quite nicely. Lansbury has a nice turn as the proper but determined Aunt Sarah. Jace has a great emotional performance as Sam. The mystery is an interesting puzzle. It’s not great, but certainly worth watching.

The framing story is far more problematic. There are four scenes in the twenty-first century around the three larger scenes in the 19th century and the first three scenes involve uncovering letters and journals written by Aunt Sarah that tell the story of the murder and its investigation. In no case is the search actually interesting. There’s no one trying to stop them from finding the information. Their search is simply finding a location, digging through boxes, and finding the documents for the next part of the main story. Where the final journal entry is found is not only easy to get to, it’s absurd to imagine that something of that nature would not have already been found in the location they had it in.

Unfortunately, the framing story serves mainly to offer some ham-fisted political commentary about the modern South (the film clumsily suggests a link between Civil War re-enactors and people who spray paint racially motivated graffiti on cars) and debates over the history of the Civil War.  In some ways, it feels like the purpose of the modern day scenes isn’t to tell a good story but to tell us how we should feel about the scenes from the 19th century, which is the definition of bad writing.

The historical portion with the antebellum mystery is enjoyable and evocative. but the weak writing on the modern day portions leads to wasted performances by Rashad, as well as David Ogden Stiers.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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TV Mini-Series Review: The Escape Artist

In the 2013 BBC Mini-series The Escape Artist, Will Burton (David Tennant), a British barrister who has never lost a case, takes on the task of defending Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), a man accused of a heinous crime. Burton is able to get Foyle off but soon finds his family in Foyle’s crossfire.

David Tennant turns in a fine performance as Will Burton. Burton is likable, earnest, and caring. He’s a man doing a job he’s a good at and you never feel he crosses a line. The mini-series is stylish enough and has good moments. Also, several members of the cast pull off their roles quite well including Toby Kebbell as Foyle.

The degree to which you enjoy this is largely the degree to which you can view the British Justice system as horribly broken and the minions of the law as hopelessly incompetent. The Crown manages to lose three murder cases through a sheer force of incompetence as they fail to check a computer history before going into court and accusing the defendant of being a consumer of revenge porn, failing to fill out the search warrant form properly, and failing to properly examine the body, all while running a crime lab that invites defense challenges. While Will Burton is supposed to be some sort of genius, we really don’t see it until Part 3 as the Police and prosecutors manage to defeat themselves quite nicely.

The character of fellow barrister Maggie Gardener (Sophie Okonedo) is hard to even get a handle on. Her defense in Foyle’s second murder trial is understandable despite her obvious distaste for the man. Her actions at the end of Part 3 are .simply inexplicable and only done so that one can uncover what actually happened. After all, what good is it having a clever protagonist if no one knows how clever he’s been?

Overall, if you can enjoy the music and Tennant’s performance and not focus on the plot holes, the Escape Artist is a decent but certainly not great British thriller.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

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Telefilm Review: Dead Man’s Folly

In the Series 13 film, Ariadne Oliver’s been hire to set up a “Murder Hunt” for a fête, which is a sort of  bazaar or carnival. However, Oliver is suspicious by some changes requested to her scenario and calls Poirot in for help.

Trouble starts with the actual murder of the Girl Guide who was to play the victim in the murder hunt. This is followed by the disappearance of the lady of the house.

This is a solid mystery that lives up to the highest standards of the Poirot series. I also preferred this over the Peter Ustinov version from the 1980s, if for no other reason than I really had trouble buying Jean Stapleton as Mrs. Oliver in the Ustinov version while Zoe Wanamaker carries the role off with style.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Telefilm Review: The Big Four

The Big Four was described by Mark Gatiss, the writer who was charged with adapting it for television as, an “almost unadaptable mess.” Massive restructuring was required and much of the book’s plot was cut for the telefilm, but what remained was a solid and enjoyable mystery.

Most of the story feels like a bit of political thriller as a series of strange deaths occur, and a muckraking reporter believe it’s tied in to an international conspiracy known as “The Big Four” which also appears connected to the Peace Party. The solution takes the story in a different direction and I didn’t enjoy the last twenty minutes as much as what came before. But even that had its moments. My favorite was when the killer through Poirot’s comments that the killer was “theatrical” right back at the Belgian detective who does one of his most theatrical denouements ever.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable story. It wasn’t one of the best, but with great acting and a solid script by Mark Gatiss, this is definitely worth watching.

Rating: 4.00 out of 5.00

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Telefilm Review: Three Act Tragedy

In Three Act Tragedy, Poirot attends a dinner party at the home of Sir Charles Cartwright where a harmless clergy men collapses and dies after cocktails. It’s thought just to be a natural death until a Doctor friend of Sir Charles dies in the same manner. Poirot and Sir Charles then team up to find out what’s the truth behind the deaths.

Overall, this is a beautiful production. It’s stocked with great characters, chief of which is Cartwright, who really plays a big role in the investigation. It doesn’t hurt that this is a simply marvelous story and the creative team were mostly faithful to it.

Comparing to the 1986 telefilm with Peter Ustinov and Tony Curtis, “Murder in Three Acts”, this one works better for being a faithful adaptation in the original time and setting of the book. However, I still have a warm place in my heart for the Ustinov version and what achieved in a modern setting and really taking advantage of lucious California landscapes. While Martin Shaw turns a good performance at Cartwright, it’s not near as strong as Curtis.

Overall 2010 telefilm is a great adaptation of one of Christie’s most interesting tales.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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