Tag: review

Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: We’re Off to Kill the Wizard

While visiting her niece somewhere in the Midwest, Jessica is invited to the opening of the latest amusement park by mogul Horatio Baldwin (James Coco) Baldwin wants to open a grisly theme park based on Jessica’s books, an offer Jessica refuses. Later Baldwin is found dead with a gun in his hand behind his locked office door. When the coroner finds he was killed by a blow to the head before the shot, the local police ask for her help.

What Works:

James Coco is marvelous as Baldwin. The first big scene is at a ceremony for Baldwin’s latest theme park where he plays a monk being hanged in a scene that’s played with perfect hammyness. Later, we get to see Baldwin as he tries to negotiate with Jessica. He treats everyone horribly, something Jessica doesn’t miss. When Jessica refuses his initial offer, he presses a button that locks the door so she can’t leave. When she threatens to press charges, he lets her go and sets out to dig up blackmail on her.

Jessica plays marvelously off Baldwin. She knows exactly who she is and what she’s about. Baldwin makes a great target for her moral indignation as his park is seeking to present violent and gory material to children. I thought it would be fun to watch these two battle over the course of the episode, but alas Baldwin was the designated corpse.

Jessica may have the best fan relations of any author ever. She not only signed Baldwin’s secretary’s book, but helped with the investigation to help clear herself as she disappeared after the crime was committed.

I also like the police motive for inviting her in. They’re neither in, “This is a police investigation, stay out” mode or “Please, we are helpless, solve the mystery,” mode instead Captain Davis (John Schruck) concludes that since they have a locked room mystery, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask a mystery writer for her opinion.

While this episode doesn’t have golden age Hollywood legends, the episode contains actors who appeared in other mystery series including Christine Belford (Banacek) and James Stevens (The Father Dowling Mysteries.)

What Doesn’t Work:

The killer came up with an ingenuous plan involving altering the office phones. Jessica is only able to solve the mystery because the killer stupidly failed to fix the phones, which is an inconsistency.

Speaking of inconsistent, there’s a bizarre detail put in by the writers. She disguises a roll of film as microfilm containing blackmail information collected by Baldwin and then announces that it was film from her vacation the previous year to Spain. It was jarring. Why would she take an undeveloped role of film from a trip year ago on a flight to see someone else? Why not just say it was from this trip to see her niece.

Overall:

“We’re Off to Kill the Wizard” is a well-done episode. Yes, the mystery has flaws and the story is not as fun after Baldwin is killed, but it manages to have some nice scenes of Jessica sleuthing mixed in with a few moments of light gunplay to keep the story engaging.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Telefilm Review: Murder She Wrote: The Deadly Lady

In “The Deadly Lady,” some time has passed since The Murder of Sherlock Holmes as the episode shows Jessica has a proof copy of a new book and is working on yet another. Wealthy financier Stephen Earl is apparently killed in a storm on a boat with his daughters, who will each receive $25 million at his death. Sheriff Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley) suspects foul play and calls Jessica Fletcher in for her advice and he meets the man’s daughters, most of whom seem to have little love lost for him. At the same time, a drifter named Ralph (Howard Duff) comes to Jessica’s house seeking work and she gives him some work and befriends him.

Thanks to a local newspaperman, she sees a picture of the financier and realizes it’s the drifter, which means he didn’t die in the storm,  clearing one of his daughters who confessed to the “murder.” However when his body washes up on the beach, Jessica has to find out who killed him and why.

What Works:

The scenes between Howard Duff and Angela Lansbury were just superb.  Stephen Earl/Ralph is trying to sell Jessica a false story, several in fact, so that he can stay on the down low in Cabot Cove, though Jessica uses her deductive skills to see through most all of them. She’s still very kind and empathetic towards him and genuinely likes him, which gives her some added to motivation to solve his eventual murder.

We meet our first two Cabot Cove recurring characters. Tom Bosley (Happy Days, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home) would play Sheriff Tupper for the first four seasons on Murder She Wrote before leaving the role to become the lead in The Father Dowling Mysteries. In this episode, Tupper is a solid small-town lawman who does what needs to be done and refuses to alter his ways for high-powered, wealthy out-of-towners who descend on the town in the wake of news of Earl’s death. 

This episode features Claude Akins’ first episode as fishing boat Captain Ethan Clagg, an irascible character who enjoys taking good-natured shots at his friends in Cabot Cove. Akins makes the character work which is a challenge because that type of character can easily become annoying.

Dack Rambo does a nice-turn as the sleazy, money-grubbing husband of one of the daughters. He’s one of those characters you love to hate and Rambo’s quite good at making the character come to life.

What You Just Have to Accept:

Cabot Cove is supposed to be a small town in Maine, but this introductory episode is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of feeling like it’s set there.  The actors attempt New England rural accents with varying degrees of success, and some exteriors shots look passable, although the eagle eye will notice several dead giveaways that this was shot in Mendocino, California. 

It’s the type of production issue that’s fair to acknowledge, but not fair to hold against the show. It was good enough for its time. I just needed to bring my own imagination and suspension of disbelief to buy this location as being in Maine.

What Doesn’t Work:

Sherriff Tupper calls Jessica in when he thinks there might be a murder, but then when he finds an important crime scene, the story implies he told a deputy to not tell her where he was. The deputy then takes a phone call right in front of Jessica,  revealing the location and Jessica goes out there, with Sheriff Tupper none to happy to see her.

The whole sequence is a bit of pointless padding that goes against Tupper’s character as we’d seen it in the episode.

While Murder She Wrote is sometimes criticized for having plots resolved with Jessica finding the solution but the audience isn’t let on until she gives the solution to others, this particular episode has the opposite problem. The clues and overall solution are too simple and easy.  Though that may not be  the worst thing for the first hour-long episode.

Overall Thoughts:

A murderer who crosses Jessica Fletcher’s path is in serious trouble, but it’s pretty much hopeless for the murderer who decides that Cabot Cover is a good place to commit a killing.  The murderer caught in this episode won’t be the last one to try that fool’s errand and suffer the consequences.

While the mystery is a simple affair, Angela Lansbury carries it often with style, helped by a great guest performance by Howard Duff. This story gets the regular run of hour-long Murder She Wrote episodes off to a fine start.

Rating:4.0 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: The Prisoner, Series One

The classic British Sci-Fi series, the Prisoner,  comes to audio in a series of four episodes produced by Big Finish as Number 6 tries to escape the Village. Here’s a break down of the episodes:

“Departure and Arrival” is a re-imagining of the first episode of the TV series which finds Number 6 arriving in the village after offering his resignation. The story does a good job establishing the dystopian world of the Village. Most of the cast performed well, though  it took star Mark Elstob maybe the first twenty minutes to feel right as Number 6, and John Standing was a little over-the-top cheery as the first number 2.

At 78 minutes in run time, the story does go on a little longer than necessary and could have been tighter. I chuckled at the idea that leaders of British Intelligence wait at home like fathers whose children are out late after a dance because they’re meeting with a contact. It introduces Cobb and gives us a sense of how he knows Cobb (as opposed to the TV series which just had number 6 asserting that he knew him.) Otherwise, much of the new material before Number 6 is sent to the Village doesn’t add much.

Other change may have been disorienting but did work. The idea of online payments and AIs being part of the village  seems out of place for a series set in the 1960s and it seems to suggest someone had all of this technology since the 1960s but didn’t release it. However, the technology and feel of the village served to wow and capture the imagination of the original audience and if the audio version is to work, the technology has to impress twenty-first-century listeners.

In, “The Schizoid Man,” after seeming to escape, Number 6 ends up back at the Village (of course) and discovers Number 9 can do mentalist card tricks. Number 6 wakes up the next day to find himself with a mustache and using the wrong hand. Number 2 informs him that he is Number 12 and he’s been sent here to discomfit Number 6 about his identity. Number 6 returns to what he believes is his house to find a doppelganger of himself there.

There’s a lot going for this episode. The music and sound design is among the best Big Finish ever turned out. The story is intriguing and manages to capture a different angle on the horror that Number 6 feels. It’s helped that the audience really has to pay close attention to tell the two apart. The acting is great. Elstob is improved over a mostly solid performance in the first episode. Celia Emrie steals the show as Number 2. In this performance, she outdoes every TV Number 2 except Leo McKern. She is clever, cunning and manipulative, she plays cat and mouse with Number 6 and Number 9 and knows exactly how far to let them go before bringing them back. She wants them to feel like they might get away before bringing down the hammer.

My criticism centers around the ending. The original TV episode left some questions open, including  where did the “other” Number 6 come from and how did the woman in the TV episode gain this power of being able to see the card that Number 6 was holding away from her. Instead of leaving these as mysteries, this production decides to answer the questions. However, the answers are  stock sci-fi cliches and anti-climatic. It seems like an attempt to make the show less scientifically impossible. But one of these tired answers is more absurd and far-fetched than if it was left as a mystery.

Still Celia Emrie’s performance really does carry the day, and other than the attempted explanations, the story is still solid.

“Your Beautiful Village” finds Number 6 and Number 9  plunging into the midst of a horrific situation where all of their senses are challenged and for once, you begin to wonder if the Village is actually behind this.

This is a well-done episode and a necessary one. On television, the Prisoner was such a visual program, writing an episode that could only be done over audio was a must. The result is brilliant. You do have to focus hard on this, but the difficulty in the audio quality brings you to Number 6’s world where everything is spiraling out of control and his senses are coming and going rapidly, including his sense of time.

Sara Powell and Romon Tikaram are great as Number 9 and Number 2. Tikraram is particularly good at making subtle changes throughout the performance. However, Mark Elstob has to carry most of the weight of this performance, and he is masterful.

If I did have any complaint, it was that Number 6 has been made a slightly weaker character than the character on the TV show. The situation comes close to breaking him. Left to his own devices, he would have crumbled. If this method came that close, then there are  many interrogations methods that would have worked.

Still, despite a few conceptual problems, this is entertaining and does a good job of establishing the potential of the Prisoner in an audio format.

In the “Chimes of Big Ben,” Number 6 tries to help the Village’s newest arrival, a Lithuanian woman designated as Number Eight. He comes up with a bold plan by which they both can escape the Village.

Of the three adapted stories, this feels closest to the original episode with tweaks being added that improve the story, but otherwise it captures the same feel as the original.

While the entire cast performed well and Elstob was at his best, the highlight of the episode was Michael Cochrane’s Number 2 who begins the story exuding a lot of joviality which masks some far more sinister aspects.

Overall, this is a good set. I didn’t love every change made, but the changes didn’t objectively hurt the franchise. While the audio drama is different than the TV series, it’s not different in a bad way.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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TV Episode Review: Magnum, PI: I Saw the Sunrise

Before reviewing this episode, let me get one thing out of the way. In no way is a reboot of Magnum, PI necessary. This is the case with most television and film updates. There are limited cases where it can work. For example, if you have a television show that had some good elements but was hampered by flaws, a new creative team may find an entirely different way to take it. It can also be appropriate to bring an old series forward to a new time, think Star Trek: The Next Generation or the revived Doctor Who. And when you’re dealing with a literary character that originates from books, you can always make another screen interpretation.

The original Magnum, PI is a critically acclaimed, beloved series that’s still on the air in more than one hundred countries. It was both well-written and featured award-winning acting. In short, there’s no reason to remake it. The best a remake will ever achieve is being the second-best version of Magnum, PI.

That said, despite being unnecessary, the end product can vary from being a horrible betrayal of the original series to a pale imitation of the original series, to something that would be fun in its own right.

“I Saw the Sunrise” is the first episode of the new series and introduced the main characters including Magnum (Jay Hernandez), Rick (Zack Knighton)and T.C. (Stephen Hill.) The three were Navy Seals together and Robin Masters was an embedded reporter whose life they saved. He promised to hook them up if he became rich and famous. He wrote a novel series that became a best-seller and acquired a spare mansion in Hawaii and a supply of Ferraris. (Not the typical outcome of a writing career.) Masters has hired Juliett Higgins (Perdita Weeks) as his caretaker.

From a production standpoint, the series manages not to mess up the show. As I was a little boy in the 1980s, I got a nostalgic thrill from seeing the Ferraris and T.C.’s glorious helicopter. The series uses the same theme, although in keeping with modern pacing standards, the opening lasts twenty seconds as opposed to a full minute for the classic series. The location shots are gorgeous. The action scenes are well-shot and exciting.

The acting is solid. Hernandez is no Tom Selleck. Nevertheless, he’s got a good bit of charisma and warmth that made me like his character. Perdita Weeks had a difficult challenge, taking on a role associated with Emmy Winner John Hillerman and managed to make the role her own. Like Hillerman, she could be snarky towards Magnum but never is mean or denigrating to the hero as happens with some attempts to inject “strong female characters” into long-running franchises. Knighton and Hill manage to be almost perfect replacements for their 1980s counterparts.

The plot of the story is straightforward. An old Navy buddy of Magnum’s is killed before Magnum can meet with him and Magnum sets out to find the killers.

The writing of this episode is of variable quality. The best thing about the script is it gives Magnum and friends a good motive to solve the case because the murdered man was their fallen comrade. Magnum has good moments with the victim’s young son, showing a kinder side which contrasts with all the fights involved in the episode.

Other changes are adequate. The case isn’t amazing but in a modern series, its understandable to make the mystery simpler so you can introduce your character. There were some tweaks to the original series. Throughout the original series, there was a bit of a sense of mystery around Robin Masters and Higgins, with hints being dropped that the two men were the same man. This is dispensed within the first episode as we learn that Higgins isn’t Robin right off the bat. It’s one of the few changes that indicate a willingness for the series to do something fresh.

This pilot has a few plot holes and issues. Given it’s a series that’s supposed to be fast-paced, it has one pointless scene where he meets with a client in the middle of the episode that has no connection to the episode and serves no purpose. In addition, Higgins is keeping a major secret which Magnum has found out for reasons that are never justified except with, “Hey, I’m a detective and I can figure out stuff!” Higgins admits to what Magnum says on the basis of the same flimsy argument and gives Magnum access to a satellite to track the villains of the week.

Overall, this wasn’t a bad episode and it doesn’t look like a bad series, but it’s not a great one either. With good action and decent performances, it’s okay for mindless inoffensive entertainment, but it’s a far cry from the original.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Audio Drama Review: The Red Panda Adventures, Season Three

The twelve episode 2007-2008 season of the Red Panda manages to do two things at once. Most episodes represent good standalone stories. However, several built towards long-term arcs and thematic points as well as developing the relationship between the Red Panda (Gregg Taylor) and Flying Squirrel (Clarissa Der Nederlanden Taylor) as they continued their adventures in 1930s Toronto..

Among the series highlights, “Tis the Season” is a fine Christmas special, writer/star Gregg Taylor made clear he wanted to match the tone and feel of Will Eisner’s Spirit Christmas stories and this story hits the spot nicely. In “the Callahan Mob,” Toronto is besieged by a new protection racket and there’s only one way to stop them and that’s to beat them at their own game. Easily the funniest episode of the season. “The Empty Box” is a great Shadowesque story with a series of creepy, unexplained murders of a jury who was promised revenge by a killer.

Two stories teased what’s to come in the rise of evil forces and the Nazi threat in “The Opening Gambit,” and the series finale, “The Field Trip.”

“The Field Trip” is probably my favorite episode of the season as the Red Panda went to New York City and found local superheroes having formed a bureaucratic organization that he has to go around to fight a dangerous Nazi scientist. This episode moves the relationship between Rad Panda and the Flying Squirrel in a new direction. It works really well because it laid the foundation throughout the season.

There were a couple episodes that didn’t work for me. The idea of “Now, the News,” was to offer three shorter adventures of the Red Panda that would have been features in newsreels. It’s not a bad idea, but the three stories weren’t connected and none were compelling on their own. “The Red Squirrel” finds the “Flying Squirrel” wondering who’s been impersonating her with seemingly superior technology. I won’t reveal the person’s identity, but she really is a bit of a Mary Sue in this story and for her to appear in this way needs more justification than we get.

Overall, this was another solid season. It managed to continue to offer new adventures in the style we’ve been accustomed to while advancing character arcs and continuing ongoing plots in a way that makes me ready for Season 4.

Overall rating: 4 out of 5.

Season 3 of the Red Panda Adventures is available to listen to for free online here.

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