Tag: positive review

Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice Season 1

Black Jack Justice was produced by Decoder Ring Theatre in Canada. Like the Red Panda, it’s a period series. Black Jack Justice is set after World War II and is a detective series in the style of hard-boiled detective shows like Philip Marlowe and That Hammer Guy.

Unlike most narrated private eye series, Black Jack Justice features two detectives and each takes turns narrating the story. The series stars Christopher Mott as Jack Justice and Andrea Lyons as Trixie Dixon: Girl Detective, his partner. Writer Gregg Taylor plays their recurring police foil Lieutenant Sabien.

The format of the series works well. Both characters are hard boiled, but their styles vary. Justice’s narration tends to be a bit more world-weary and sarcastic, while Dixon is lighter and more smart alecky in her approach. It makes for interesting narration and also good banter between the characters.

There’s definition friction between them, and lots of sniping back and forth. Still, there’s a great amount of professional respect as well as a shared sense of right and wrong.

The first season features twelve episodes, unlike future seasons which would included only six. The episode titles in this first season employed many puns on Justice’s name, such as, “Justice Served Cold,” “Justice Delayed,” “Justice be Done,” and “Hammer of Justice.”

Almost every episode has a good mystery plot. The stories are intellectually engaging and often offer surprising solutions. Most have a tone and style that would fit into the golden age of radio. On some issues, particularly the role of women and domestic violence, it feels a bit more modern, but it doesn’t go overboard.

The music is great, particularly what’s used during the narration. It establishes the mood well.

The only episode that left me a bit cold was the series finale, “Justice and the Happy Ending.” The mystery was not challenging and the plot ultimately came down to how Justice would handle a temptation. However, it was somewhat predictable the way it played out.

Still, the season is overall quite strong. If you love golden age detective shows, it’s definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Season 1 of Black Jack Justice is available on the Decoder Ring Theatre website.

DVD Review: Pie in the Sky, Series 2

Series One of Pie in the Sky was a good enough series with a likable lead that, despite some weaker stories, left me hungry for more. In Series Two, Pie in the Sky really hits its stride.

The basic set up of Pie in the Sky is that Police Inspector Henry Crabbe (Richard Griffins) is ready to retire and focus on running a restaurant. Due to a mishap and a crooked partner, Crabbe ends up in line for a murder wrap. Assistant Chief Constable Fisher (Malcolm Sinclair) knows Crabbe’s innocent but holds the threat of an inquiry over Crabbe’s head to keep him on call. Crabbe spends most of his time running the restaurant Pie in the Sky, but when Fisher calls he goes into action to solve a case.

Series 2 manages to expand and clarify much of Series 1. Including giving a clear understanding of Crabbe on a very fundamental level. It only took a single sentence, but in a conversation with newly promoted Detective Sergeant Sophia Cambridge (Bella Enaharo) about the importance he placed on doing police work as opposed to a police career. That defines the difference between Crabbe and Fisher, whose entire focus is on career advancement. For Crabbe, each case is a job that must be worked well and solved correctly. For Fisher, cases are important based on how the outcome will advance his long-term career goals. While In Series One, Crabbe’s problem with other policemen was  vague. In Series Two, it firmly nailed down that it’s officers who are more concerned about advancing their career rather than actually getting things right.

It also explains why Crabbe is so suited to being a chef. The focus on quality work and getting the job done right is at the core of that position. And whereas his lack of attention to career left him in a rut on a police force, the attention to detail serves him well in the kitchen.

Of course, this does lead to some conflicts with his accountant wife Margaret (Maggie Steed) who is the legal owner of the restaurant  to satisfy a British legal requirement that wouldn’t let Henry own the restaurant as a policeman. It doesn’t help that she has no real taste for fine food and only sees how the bottom line can be improved. She doesn’t meddle all the time, but most often her efforts to change the business to make it more profitable cut against Henry’s overall ethic and good restaurant practices such as when she decided to start double booking tables to maximize the profits.

Yet, despite their differences or perhaps because of them, the Crabbes make a lovely middle-aged couple, balancing each other out. Both can be kind. While Henry’s heart of gold and decency is much more obvious, Margaret also shines in the series and the way they play off each other is fun to watch.

We do get some insight on Fisher. In the episode, “The Policeman’s Daughter,” Fisher has Crabbe look for his daughter who has fled to an enclave of drifters. We learn all Fisher really has is his career and that his wife cheats on him regularly and he has lost the respect of his daughter. Crabbe does his best to bring some sort of peace.

Cambridge received a promotion after the first series and this one focuses on the challenges of it. In one scene, another department tries to get her and Fisher fights the head of the other department over her and it becomes apparent she’s merely being used as a way for them to beef up their rankings for racial diversity. This contributes to the fact there are several instances where she doesn’t get respect for her achievements or rank that are due. It’s all done in an understated way though. She’s a still a very good character, but both she and Fisher are in this series less than in the first.

The staff of the restaurant was used more creatively. In the first series, Pie in the Sky was Crabbe’s refuge from trouble. Yet, in a bit of realism, the restaurant itself began to present some genuine problems, particularly when Crabbe had to step away to solve a case. He’d be in and out while his restaurant was in the hands of his twenty-something assistant chef and waitstaff and problems would develop that he would eventually have to solve. My favorite example of this is when they decided to switch out the classical musical Crabbe plays in the chicken coop for heavy metal music in order to get the chickens to lay more eggs. It actually works but with a side effect.

There’s also tension between the assistant chef Steve (Joe Duttine) and the head waiter John (Ashley Russell) as the former is an ex-con and the later is an experienced waiter from many highly regarded establishments. The rivalry mainly serves to show Crabbe’s sense of diplomacy.

The episodes are well-written. Each has a mystery at the core that’s well-crafted, but not so complex it doesn’t leave time for the comedy and drama of the episode. Some of the better ones include, “The One That Got Away,” where Crabbe has to stop a friend from being railroaded from the murder of his fiancee by an ambition Detective Inspector. In “Black Pudding,” Crabbe meets up with an elderly woman whose cookbooks he admires and finds her relatives are after her steamy memoirs. The “Mild Ones” finds Crabbe in pursuit of two elderly con-women who rip off people for thousands but leave behind an amazing recipe for bread pudding. In the “Mystery of Pikey,” some locals pressure Fisher to get Crabbe to investigate a series of minor local crimes. He gets results, but not what they would hope for.

The only weak episode of the series is the series finale, “Lemon Twist” that has Crabbe, Fisher, and Cambridge attending a management training conference. The premise is problematic as its hard to see why Fisher would send Crabbe as Crabbe is only working part time and has no interest in managing for the police or a long-term police career. The mystery is weak and there’s some humor around Crabbe that requires him to act out of character. The episode is not that bad, though. The restaurant plot has some genuinely funny moments after they earn a five star review from a nationally known food critic.

So, the worst episode of this series was but mediocre. The rest of the Series is pure gold. The stories are fun cozy mysteries with a lovable lead doing his best to bring peace and order in the kitchen and to whatever case he’s called to investigate.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Line Up


The Line Up is a noir film based on the 1954-60 TV series of the same name (later syndicated as San Francisco Beat.) The film begins with an exciting scene where a cabbie flees police and drives erratically until he’s shot. Lieutenant Guthrie (Warner Anderson) and the police discover a smuggling ring which smuggles heroin through the baggage of innocent people and then retrieves the heroin from them.

There are two basic reasons to see this film:

The first are the stars are not the police but the villains. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is a psychopathic gangster and is assisted by his wiser mentor Julian (Robert Keith) in collecting the drugs and disposing of those who know too much which turns out to be most people.

Unlike in an earlier era where these two would walk around sounding dopey, Dancer and Julian are constantly well-spoken, polite, even friendly when the job calls for it. However, in an instant, they turn deadly. Julian sums up Dancer well, “There’s never been a guy like Dancer. He’s a wonderful, pure pathological study. He’s a psychopath with no inhibitions.” Wallach makes the character very believable and menacing.

Johnny Dollar star Bob Bailey has one scene in this film as a finger man telling Dancer who the drugs had been smuggled in with. It’s a decent performance.

Also, though he only appeared in one scene where he barely spoke, Vaughn Taylor turns in a memorable performance as the drug kingpin, “The Man.” It’s practically an acting clinic on how much can be communicated using only facial expressions.

The second big reason to see this is San Francisco. So much of the movie is shot on location in the City by the Bay. The locations aren’t only good looking but they’re used in some innovative ways in the story. It really makes for a unique look.

The film’s biggest issue is the police characters. The film’s intent was to rope in the 30 million fans of the TV series, “The Line Up,” which is why stars of that series were brought in. However, these scenes are the least interesting in the film. Not bad per se, just obligatory. Policework can be interesting in a Noir film (see: He Walked by Night) but it doesn’t happen here.

In addition to the trailer, the DVD release includes a kind of interesting special feature with Dark Knight Director Christopher Nolan discussing how the NOIR genre influenced him. I was surprised that this film had a commentary track, but listening to it, I found it a bit unpleasant as one of the commentators was just randomly foul-mouthed rather than insightful or funny.

Overall, The Line-Up is a solid film and there’s much to recommend it to those who love Noir films, San Francisco, or Bob Bailey. Ironically, the only thing you won’t get out of it is a sense what the classic radio series the Line Up looked like on film.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Hawkins: The Complete TV Movie Collection


A recognizable and beloved Hollywood actor from Hollywood’s yesteryear playing a sharp and folksy lawyer who solves mysteries? That description will make people think of Matlock starring Andy Griffith. However, more than a decade before Andy Griffith played the hot-dog loving, Southern lawyer, Jimmy Stewart brought the concept to the small screen as Billy Jim Hawkins, a homespun West Virginia lawyer with a penchant for getting to the truth and winning tough cases.

The Warner Archives DVD set includes all eight Hawkins telefilms that aired in 1973 and 1974. The first film is ninety minutes long. The other seven are seventy-five minutes long as this film was aired along with another mystery series to compete with the popular NBC Mystery Wheel.

In each case, after a sensational murder has been committed, Hawkins is called in to defend the accused, who generally has a massive amount of circumstantial evidence pointing towards their guilt. Hawkins’ seeks to clear them with the help of his assistants. Hawkins usually has to win his client’s trust, inserts himself into his client’s world, and seeks to get to the bottom case with the help of his assistants.

Like Matlock and Perry Mason, every movie ends with a climactic courtroom scene where Hawkins reveals the true killer. There are a few more nods to legal procedure in this series than in either of those better known series. In particular, the series acknowledges that as Hawkins hasn’t been licensed to practice law in every state, in order to appear in those states, he needs to be working under a local attorney who will serve as the Attorney of Record for the defense even though he’s not actually arguing in court.

The Supporting Cast

In each episode, Hawkins is helped by one or more assistants. One of the key points of Hawkins’ backstory was that Hawkins had an enormous extended family of more than 100 people. In different episodes, different members of that family show up to assist. Most frequently, it’s R.J. Hawkins (Strother Martin) but Jeremiah Stocker (Mayf Nutter) and Earl Coleman (James Hampton) took turns as well. Stewart had the best chemistry with Strother Martin and R.J. Hawkins was the most interesting character, which is probably why R.J. Hawkins was in the final three films without any other assistants after only appearing in two of the first five.

The guest stars were generally quite competent. There’s an early performance by Tyne Daly, as well as appearance by golden age of Hollywood notables like Lew Ayers and Teresa Wright, along with character actress extraordinaire Jeanette Nolan. One of the more interesting guest appearances is James Best playing a serious role as a sheriff in the episode, “Blood Feud.” In a few years, he would take on the role of the ultimate comic sheriff as Rosco Coltrane.

The Lead

Ultimately, while the scripts were decent and the supporting cast is competent, it’s Jimmy Stewart that makes the series worth watching. While watching the first few minutes of the opening film, I thought Stewart had overplayed the folksiness, but once he settled into the role, he made Hawkins special. Hawkins is a country boy, and he doesn’t put on airs. Everyone who meets him is urged to call him Billy Jim.

Yet, at the same time, Hawkins has a keen mind and is aware of how the world works. Like many of the characters Stewart played over the years, Hawkins lives by a code.  His life is dedicated to the core principle that everyone’s entitled to a defense. Hawkins has a great way of connecting with and gaining the confidence of clients who’ve been unwilling to act in their own defense before.

In the courtroom scenes, Stewart is superb, building a level of rapport and using subtle humor to undercut the prosecution and then delivering an innocent “aw shucks, I’m just a country lawyer” type of comment to deflect  objections from the prosecution. The scenes where he confronts the genuine murderer are incredibly compelling. Hawkins was one of the more credible TV lawyers to be featured in this sort of program. In many ways, he seems true to life to other nationally known trial attorneys such as Gerry Spence as opposed to a character someone made up.

Stewart’s acting netted him a well-deserved Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.

Why It Only Lasted One Season

In addition to Stewart’s win, the series was nominated for a Golden Globe as was Strother Martin for best supporting actor. However, despite critical recognition, the series went away after a single season. Why?

CBS created the series as a counter to NBC’s rotating mystery programs and CBS didn’t quite seem to understand a big part of why NBC enjoyed success. NBC rotated Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan & Wife.  The beauty of the mystery wheel was that these programs all appealed to the same audience and if you liked one, there was a good chance you liked them all, and NBC could count on you to watch their mystery movie every Sunday night.

CBS on the other hand rotated Hawkins with the TV series Shaft based on the Blacksploitation film series of  the early 1970s. The two series drew two very different audiences and there was little crossover in audiences between the two shows and as a result both got cancelled.  Hawkins could have lasted longer if not for the network’s scheduling mistake.

Is This Series For You?

If you love the classic lawyer series, these films are for you. Stewart’s Hawkins is at least as good as Perry Mason or Matlock. If you’re a fan of Jimmy Stewart’s later work, this is also a must as this was arguably Stewart’s last great role before his career went on the downswing and hearing loss drove him to semi-retirement in the early 1980s.

Overall, I found Hawkins to be an enjoyable series that stands up well when compared to most of its 70s peers.

 

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Private Practice of Michael Shayne


The Michael Shayne that appeared in his first book, Dividend on Death has little resemblance to the character as he’d come to be known in film, television, and future books. In the second book, The Private Private Practice of Michael Shayne, the later character begins to emerge.

The book features the close friendship and partnership between Shayne and reporter Tim Rourke, which was a hallmark of the series. In addition, Shayne shows a bit of character and humanity in trying to ward off an ambitious young lawyer from an unethical deal. The barely grown Phyllis Brighton returns from the first book and Shayne steps in (against her wishes) to save her from crooked gamblers. There’s a bit of reluctant romance that begins to develop between Shayne and Phyllis and it’s handled nicely and believably.

To be clear, he’s not Philip Marlowe, certainly not as mopey and world-weary. The character is plenty of fun and has a lighter, comedic flare. The plot of this book was used as one of the major inspirations for the first Shayne movie starring Lloyd Nolan, Michael Shayne, Private Detective, and the movie and book track pretty well. The result is a Michael Shayne who manages to be comical but not foolish, and tough without being abrasive.

The story is well-plotted, even if it’s not particularly innovative. The humor works a couple twists including Shayne finding a way to get himself out of a murder charge but later outsmarts himself when he tries to mess around with the murder gun. Given all the evidence tampering both in this book and the previous one, it was satisfying to see a consequence to it for Shayne.

This still isn’t quite the Michael Shayne of later books, but it’s a huge step forward for the character.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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