Category: DVD Review

Telefilm Review: Casebusters

In Casebusters, an elderly ex-cop turned security company owner (Pat Hingle) who sometimes acts like he’s a cop sometimes has his two grandkids come to spend the Summer and they get involved in solving crimes.

This Wes Craven directed short film appeared on the Wonderful World of Disney back in 1986 and given its 45 minute length it feels like a backdoor pilot for a TV series. Growing up, I watched a lot of the Wonderful World of Disney, but didn’t have any memory of this unlike other films from the era such as Little Spies or Earth Star Voyager.

Casebusters does a lot of things that kids movies of the 1980s and 1990s did: kids get involved mysteries, thwart hapless bad guys, and save the day. It’s big problem is it doesn’t do much of it well. The sister (Virginia Keehne) is into mysteries into a superficial way but, we don’t get to know much about the siblings and their characterization is inconsistent times.

The villains aren’t all that interesting. Many kids films of this era would have broad and colorful villains who provide a lot of humor, but this couple is just kind of there.

Nor do we get any zany action or over the top chase scenes, or a real sense that the kids are in serious danger but escape at the last moment. I know kids films of the era and this one didn’t check any of the boxes you’d expect or provide anything interesting instead.

The best part of the film is Hingle, who is likable enough as the grandfather and Ski (Gary Riley), who showed a little potential to develop into an interesting character if the show had been picked up as a series.

Other than that, Casebusters was a disappointing viewing experience. I’d hoped to find a forgotten Disney classic from the era of my childhood that, like the best Disney live action films of the era, still held some appeal for adults. Instead, Casebusters is a film written for kids, and written down to them. The result is one of the most lifeless productions I’ve ever seen from Disney. The only fascinating part of the film is why it was made in the first place. Hopefully, Disney brings back better quality productions from the era.

Rating: 1.25 out of 5

TV Series Review: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

In 2008 Alexander McCall Smith’s book series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency came to television with a pilot movie produced by the BBC in cooperation with HBO.

The series follows Mma Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) as a woman who starts the first female-led private detective agency in Botswana. She hires young secretary Grace Makutsi (Aniki Noni Rose) and wins the affections of local JLB Matekoni (Lucian Msamati.)

The series premiered with a feature length telefilm that tracked closely with the first book in the series in 2008 and in 2009 followed up with a six episode series.

The acting is solid and the characters mostly work. The series was shot on location in Botswana with unique and beautiful cinematography and gives it the sort of authenticity that a series like this needs to work.

The writing on the show was mixed and some of this goes back to the original novels. After the first novel, the books became cozy. There were less serious crimes or no crimes in whatever investigations were going on.

Potential problems and challenges would be raised for our heroine and friends, but they would be resolved sometimes with little to no action by any character in the book. They’d thought about it, worried a little, went on with their life, and the problem went away on its own. That may occur in life, but it doesn’t make for particularly gripping drama.

Doing a straight adaptation of the books would never work on television, so what we get are a mix of stories based on incidents in various books that were changed as well as original story ideas, and even an element or two to make the series more politically correct, as well as reflecting the reality of then-modern Day Botswana.

This had mixed effects. Some of their changes worked well. They did a good job with how they developed the relationship with Mma Ramostwe and JLB Matekoni. The first book contains both of Matekoni’s proposals, the first which Mma Ramotswe refuses and the second which she encourages and accepts. One change the pilot film made was that she does become engaged to him by the end of the film. The series explores both reasons why she’s reluctant and also his feelings.

Msamati’s performance as JLB Matekone helps the production stay true to who he was in the book. Matekone would never go up and have a big conversation with someone else about his feelings, but he still feels deeply. Msamati’s facial expressions and body language can convey that a situation is killing him on the inside without saying a word.

In the books, Matekoni comes down with depression for medical reasons that are irrational. This was intended to illustrate how depression can often come into play in people’s lives. Here, the storyline of him needing to leave unexpectedly is used to better dramatic effect as he’s trying to sort out his relationship with Mma Ramotswe.

I also thought that in the later episodes, they did a good job giving Mma Ramotswe personal stuff to work through. In the books, a male detective establishes a competing agency, the Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency and at another point, her abusive ex-husband comes to town. In the first instance, the detective is a potential problem that is easily foiled, never becomes a threat to her agency, and leaves town after one book. In the books, she also meets her abusive ex-husband with no real problems. In the TV show though, the competing detective isn’t so easily dispatched and is kind of menacing. The ex-husband returns and poses a huge challenge to Mma Ramotswe and brings her to a point of crisis. The finale of the season is very good for that reason.

While the series is on target with its character development. Some of the plot ideas don’t work. It’s not necessarily that the writers didn’t have good ideas but that they didn’t have a good idea for this show. For example, they take a story from the book but have the denouement end in a way that’s absolutely absurd. It was funny, but not in a way that fit the tone of the show. In another episode, a solution of a case was changed from a simple domestic problem to actual attempted murder so that Ma Ramotswe could gather all the suspects around the table like Hercule Poirot and tell what happened. That doesn’t fit her, plus while the writers made that big change to the plot, they didn’t make enough little changes to set the situation up or to change the consequences or to provide any foundation for why the consequences didn’t change. It really was a mess.

There were also a few cases where elements were added and changes to make the show a little more edgy or a little more cynical than in the book, but with little rhyme or reason. Perhaps, it’s one of the hazards of having HBO in on the production, but to me it didn’t work.

Overall, despite a few wrinkles in its execution of its mystery plots, the series is a solid adaptation of the story of the novels. If you’re a fan of the novels, it’s worth watching. If you’re not a fan of the novels, it’s worth seeing for the characters and location work. But if you’re looking for a truly great mystery series, you may want to look elsewhere.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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DVD Review: Fast Company/Fast and Loose/ Fast and Furious Triple Feature

This DVD features three films from 1938 and 1939 following a rare book seller and amateur sleuth Joel Sloane and his wife Gerda. The series began after the first two Thin Man movies were released and this series was definitely in that same vein.

Each of the three films featured a different pair as the two leads which made it hard for the series to gain traction.

The first film Fast Company is the best. It stars Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice. It features a solid mystery with a lot of twists and turns. While I’d never heard of Douglas or Rice, they had great on-screen chemistry.

The second film Fast and Loose is also pretty good and has the best known leads in Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. The mystery was still pretty enjoyable.

The third film Fast and Furious is the most mediocre of the three. Ann Sothern, who’d be best known for the Maisie films, does a good job with the material given her, but the overall plot is not as interesting. Franchot Tone as Joel is adequate as a detective but doesn’t have that the same chemistry with Sothern. It’s not a bad film, but it’s the weakest of the lot.

Despite having the name “fast” in the titles, these films move at a cozy, leisurely pace. While many B pictures were around an hour, these films were 73-75 minutes in length which leaves plenty of time for investigations, questioning suspects, romancing, and a few good gags.

Overall, if you enjoyed the first few Thin Man sequels, these are worth checking out. Their quality could be better, but still they make for three fun evenings of viewing for fans of 1930s detectives.

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TV Episode Review: The Hardy Boys: Welcome to Your Life

The new series of the Hardy Boys kicks off with the episode, “Welcome to Your Life.”

The series makes a lot of changes to the Hardy Boys formula and characters. For those who have never read the books, the Hardy Boys were two teenage boys: Frank (age 18) and Joe (age 17) living in the upstate New York town of Bayport. Their father is Fenton, a private detective, and their mother is Laura, a librarian.

Frank and Joe are not complex characters in the book. They are distinct. Both are smart and physically capable, however Frank is more of a geek and more cautious, and Joe is more physically capable and more given to making rash, impulsive decisions.

The TV series takes things in a different direction. It looks to be set in the late 1980s where Frank and Joe (Rohan Campbell and Alexander Elliott) live with their parents in “the city.” Frank is sixteen and Joe is twelve. Frank is a nerd, but he’s also a good baseball player. We spend the first few minutes of the series seeing the boys interact with their mom who is then killed in what appears to be an auto accident. On top of that, their father Fenton (James Tupper) decides to move them back to their mother’s hometown of Bridgeport for the summer. At first blush, this seems incredibly insensitive, but its for their own safety due to information it’s implied he’s hiding.

In Bridgeport, they meet their grandmother (Linda Thorson) who is glad to see them and eager to go about the business of micromanaging their lives. They also meet the townsfolk who are mostly friendly, even though we’re given some hints of something suspicious a few times. And both a flashback prologue and a couple moments later on hint at the ongoing mystery the Hardy boys are eventually going to resolve to solve.

This first episode doesn’t do a lot for me. There’s definitely room to flesh out the Hardys and make them more three dimensional. However, the writers seemed to have approached this using the most cliched methods of modern storytelling. Killing off a parent as a plot point and in order to make the characters more relatable is the most overused tool of modern writers. And here it’s handled in such an uninspired way that it feels obligatory.

At the same time, the change in ages also changes the dynamic in ways that don’t work well. In the book, Joe and Frank were peers. Plus they’ve made Frank not only a genius nerd but a talented athlete, leaving Joe’s defining characteristic as “the younger one.” Which is a bit of a step back from the balance in the books, not a step forward.

Probably, the biggest problem with this first episode is its length. It’s over forty minutes and feels padded. It ends on a strong note, but in order to get to that note, it has a lot of time where it’s dragging through its runtime to get to the punchline. This particular episode would have been better at 20-22 minutes, which is more typical for a kid-centric TV series. Based on this episode, I’m also skeptical that the writers have enough mystery and enough twists to justify the thirteen-episode, season-long plot arc.

That said, no performances were bad. The interesting clues left me a bit curious to see what will happen next. I’ll watch at least one more episode to see if the series picks up its pace and moves beyond all the set up in this first episode. This may turn out to be a good series when it’s all said and done, but this first episode was rough.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Streaming Review: The Inner Circle


The Inner Circle is a 1946 film inspired by the 1944 radio series Results Incorporated. Private Investigator Johnny Strange (Warren Doughlas) is on the phone placing an ad for a new secretary when a young woman named Gerry (Adele Mera) who seems perfect for the job walks in and practically hires herself. Johnny agrees as she seems to be perfect for the job. The scene is almost verbatim what happened in the first radio episode. But that’s where the plot diverges.

Before she can properly settle in, Gerri takes a call and tells Johnny it was from a woman wanting to hire him. Johnny goes to meet the woman who turns out to be a mysterious woman in a dark veil, speaking with an exotic accent. Johnny and the woman stumble on a dead body. The woman knocks Johnny out and then we learn she’s actually Gerry. Gerry than pretends to have followed Johnny and tells the police a false story that exonerates Johnny, but Johnny is determined to find the truth before the police figure out the self-defense story Gerri told was false.

There was a lot like about this film. The B-movie detecitve stories could follow into the trap of being formulaic. The twist on this story makes it a nice break for that. Throughout I was really intrigued by what Gerri’s role in the murder, and there’s some great tension as she is trying to throw Johnny off her trail. The lead actors and supporting players all performed well, even though there was only one actor that is recognizable to a significant number of viewers-William Frawley (aka Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy who played Johnny’s police foil. Although big fans of 1930s films might appreciate the appearance of Ricardo Cortez.

The one thing I didn’t like was the denoument scene where Johnny arranges with a police Lieutenant to expose the murderer on the air. While I appreciate the nod to the age of radio drama. The scene was convulted, awkward, and lacked logic, even by B-movie detective standards. Still, that scene doesn’t spoil a really intriguing film that moves at a nice pace and tells a good story.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

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DVD Review: Pie in the Sky, Series Three

The Third Series of Pie in the Sky sees Richard Griffin return as Chief Inspector/Restaurant Chef Henry Crabbe. Unlike the first two ten-episode series, this series and the next only featured six episodes.

I’d describe this particular series as mellow compared to the two that came before. From its gentle theme song to its stories which leave plenty of room for character development and light human drama to its lovely small town setting, the show was a series that’s unafraid to walk on the mild side. Only one homicide occurs in the six episodes.

The series kicks off with a shake-up in the first episode as the criminal who has been key to Crabbe being blackmailed by his superior Assistant Chief Chief Constable Freddy Fisher (Malcolm Sinclair). This had been the only reason Crabbe remained on the force while also working at the restaurant. However, a new complication is added in that policies have changed and he can’t take early full retirement and has to wait three more years to do so. This is not nearly as interesting of a hook and the thing I least liked.

Overall,  even though the mysteries were not homicide, they were generally interesting and well-written. My favorite mystery was  in the episode, “The Other Eden” where Crabbe was tasked with solving the mystery of several stolen gardens and had to deal with a national department that was trying to claim jurisdiction.

Beyond that, the character work in the series was pretty good. Crabbe and his wife Margaret (Maggie Steed) do have some clashes. She technically owns the restaurant (due to regulations that forbid him from owning it as long as he’s still a policeman) and they have a bit of a battle of wills over her desire to save money by cutting corners on the ingredients. They also have to deal with a super strict health inspector threatening to close down  their restaurant and a bank manager who’s not too certain about giving them another extension of credit. It makes for interesting viewing since we’re invested in the characters and we get to see the way that Margaret and Crabbe approach problems differently.

The second episode, “Game Pie” sees some nice character moments for Fisher. Through the first two series, Fisher had been portrayed as the  ambitious police officer who was more concerned about his career and looking good with his superiors than with doing the right thing. However, when he’s implicated in an apparent accidental death, many of his fellow senior officers take steps to protect the department and put him at a distance, this brings out a different aspect to him.

There were some changes as well in the kitchen staff with Nicholas Lamont joining the cast as the new assistant chef and ex-con Gary Palmer who replaced the old chef Steve Turner.  Other than having a bit of a chip on his shoulder, I didn’t get much of a feel for Gary as a character. Though, it should be noted the kitchen staff characters, while having some distinct characteristics, were much more functional than anything else.

Overall, this series is a likable bit of television with solid acting, particularly with the leads, good stories, and makes for easy viewing.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

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A Look at the First Two Episodes of T and T

T and T was a 1988-91 syndicated television series starring Mr. T as T.S. Turner, a former boxer who was wrongfully convicted of a crime until attorney Amanda Taylor (Alexandra Amini) clears him. He becomes a private detective and teams up with her to help the wrongfully accused.

As a kid, I loved Mister T and but never got to watch more than a  few minutes of the show as at that age, I never had control of the television. So I was curious to find out what I missed when I found it streaming on Tubi.

T and T was from an era where Canadian-produced first-run syndication series were quite popular and this was a half hour program which could come in handy for local TV stations looking to fill a block of programming. The budget for the show is modest and the show definitely looks of its era.

The child actors and supporting actors on this series range from competent and professional to either monotone or over the top. Ms. Amini comes off a bit flat in the first episode, but in the second, I think she’s much better.

Mister T. carries the show in these first two episodes. Mr. T’s charisma and warmth make Turner an endearing character. Turner isn’t quite the larger than life character of Mr. T’s most famous roles, Clubber Lang and B.A. Baracus. He’s slightly more down to earth. He’s a professional who cares about people, does his job, and carries himself with style. In these first couple episodes, Turner spends a lot of time wearing nice suits and the look really works for Mr. T.

The first two episodes are, “Extortion in Chinatown” and “Mug Shot.” The first involves Turner and Taylor trying to help a shopkeeper and his son in Chinatown. “Mug Shot” finds Turner and Taylor trying to help out a teenage boy who was duped into delivering crack.

These are pretty boilerplate detective show plots and the story plays out in a typical manner. The storytelling is workmanlike and not all that surprising. Like a lot of Mr. T projects during this era, T and T is concerned about teaching good morals, with the high popularity of Mr. T among 1980s youth. These episodes weren’t too preachy, but there were a few pieces of dialogue that were a bit off. (Though it could have been the acting.)

The show was hurt by its half hour length. By nature of the format, both Turner and Taylor were working together and operating in very different worlds. I don’t think there’s enough time to do this properly in the half hour runtime. I did find that there was a four part story (originally a TV movie) and I might check that out in the future.

Overall, T&T is an okay show. If you like Mister T and are intrigued by the idea of him as a 1980s private detective and are willing to overlook a few production quality issues, this is a fun show to watch, and the half hour length makes it a quick fast-paced watch.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

T and T is available for streaming on Tubi for free with ads.