Category: DVD Review

DVD/Streaming Review: The Last Detective, Series Four

After three series of Detective Constable “Dangerous” Davies (Peter Davison)  solving difficult crimes while being disrespected by his colleagues, and having life continue to throw one indignity after another at him, most notably his estranged wife (Emma Amos) finds new ways to emasculate him and take advantage of him.

In the first three series, his relationship with his boss (Rod Spendlove) improved considerably, and in the third series, he built up the courage to have an honest and direct conversation with his wife that seemed to point towards a reconciliation.

In the fourth series, Dangerous has moved back in with his wife and the two are doing quite well. There are mysteries to be solved and the fourth series give us five cases each weighing in at a little over an hour. The mysteries are each ingeniously plotted, and the episodes are impeccably cast with a variety of both serious and comic characters. The series kicks off with the investigation of the murder of a popular mobster, the second episode turns to a pornographer killed in a case involving a snuff film, the third episode is about the murder of an elderly comedian, the fourth episode features the murder of a limousine driver, and the final episode features the murder of a member of a secret society.

I don’t think there’s a weak mystery among the five, although the fourth episode was my favorite. There were so many angles to the case and it took a lot of surprising turns. Given this turned out to be the final series, I wish that it had the episode had turned out to be the finale rather than the actual finale.

The series’ big challenge is that the Last Detective reached a dead-end in character development. Dangerous had a compelling character arch in the first three series as he became a bit more assertive and showed his strength as a detective and to at last stand up for himself with his wife. In series four, he’s pretty much arrived. He’s peaked at work. While his boss has some more respect for him, their personalities are bound to clash. In series four, he’s a relatively old detective constable. Davies age was never stated in the TV series, but Davison was fifty-five years old when he filmed these episodes and his character is often still mocked and put down by younger, less mature but higher-ranking officers, though a little less frequently. Mostly, in terms of Series Four, we kind of get to see the guy we followed in the first three series get a happy ending. The final episode gives us a little cause for doubt, but not much.

The series’ best attempt to introduce conflict involves Davies’ friend Mod (Sean Turner.)  who becomes a bit of a fly in the ointment for the Davies’ as a long-term houseguest. The problem with Mod is that he provides some nice comic relief but it’s hard to take anything about him seriously.

How much this change impacts your enjoyment will vary. For me, I loved the mysteries and it was nice to see that Davies got a happy ending. However, the existence of the fourth series violated the way modern television programs are typically made when they center around a particular character’s journey. Making the fourth series of The Last Detective, is akin to making the ninth season of Monk after the episode, Mister Monk and the End resolved all his major issues. You just don’t carry on with a series after your main character’s big problems are resolved unless you can come up with some new challenge that’s as big if not bigger than the problems resolved. So even while I was enjoying the series, I knew why there weren’t any further episodes made.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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DVD Review: Cannon: The Complete Collection

CBS/Paramount stopped releasing the 1970s private detective series Cannon after doing a DVD-R release of Season 3 in 2013. VEI took over the project in 2015 and brought the full collection, all 122 episodes plus the pilot TV movie and the revival movie The Return of Frank Cannon. 

TV Series Overview

Cannon was released during a golden age of television detective programs  It ran from 1971-76. The show’s tenure overlapped partially with Columbo and NBC’s Mystery Wheel movies, along with Kojak, Ironside, Mannix, and the Rockford Files, among others. Many well-made detective programs that got produced during this era couldn’t get renewed due to the sheer competition for people’s eyeballs. In such a world, Cannon‘s endurance for five seasons is a testament to its quality.

The series stood out for a few reasons. First was its lack of an ongoing supporting cast. Recurring characters were a rarity. In season one, a young Martin Sheen played Jerry Watson, an ex-cop with a disability, and was Cannon’s assistant for two episodes. And that’s it for any significant recurring roles throughout the series. If you look at the Cannon IMDB page, you’ll see a few actors appeared multiple times but most appeared as different characters. The show’s guest cast was a combination of future stars (Sheen, Mark Hamill, and Nick Nolte), recognizable talents like Stephanie Powers and Dick Van Patten, well-known veteran actors like Anne Baxter and Keenan Wynn, and obscure actors.

The series leaned a bit towards suspense rather than typical whodunit plots, particularly in the program’s early episodes. The villains would be known to the audience, and it would be a question of whether Cannon would thwart the villains. The series leaned heavily in the direction of action. If you like car chases, fistfights, and explosions, then Cannon has got you covered. Despite his size, Cannon is more than able to handle himself, not only with guns but also with his fists.

Cannon isn’t just a pudgy fighter. He shows many sides to his character in the course of the series. He was a Korean War Vet and and a widowed ex-cop turned high-priced private investigator. In the first episode, Cannon is portrayed with a nice apartment and an assistant, but in this series itself, this was scaled back. Cannon’s apartment in the series could be best described as comfortable. He wears decent suits, but more often than not, conducts his investigations in a windbreaker and clothes that we’d consider business casual. His Lincoln Continental was a luxury car but has been mentioned at least twice on lists of most ugly television cars.

He generally approaches the question of whether to accept any given case with professional detachment. However, his high prices to the wealthy often allowed him to take on the cases of people in need but without means for free or at a reduced rate. He’s naturally friendly and particularly kind to young people in distress as they seem to bring out his fatherly instincts and he jumps in to help. However, he accepts no nonsense and if you start a fight with him, he will finish it.

The writing on the series was solid. With the series not committed to any particular formula, this gave the writers a lot of freedom to put Cannon into different situations that could range from suspenseful adventures to more typical mysteries. Some story ideas reoccurred, such as the small southwestern towns where law enforcement was crooked or some dirty secret was kept and Cannon had to bust heads to set things right. But that also left room for interesting ideas like the time Cannon helped a political prisoner from another country flee only to discover he’d been conned and had to get the prisoner back or the episode where Cannon had to investigate a murder that appeared to be committed by a being from outer space, or the last episode where Cannon had to save a friend who had gone mad after some military experiments. And then there were a lot of plots around the mafia and underworld class that knew of Cannon from his years as an honest cop.

Cannon never jumped the shark. In fact, Cannon’s last season was probably its best written. It started out with “Nightmare,” the best episode of the series that dug deep into Cannon’s past and how his wife died. (Review here) and also the crossover with the Buddy Ebsen-led series Barnaby Jones, “The Deadly Conspiracy” (reviewed here). The series end was not a case of the show going bad or losing its edge but of the public’s interest going elsewhere.

The DVD also includes The Return of Frank Cannon, a TV movie released four and a half years after the series ended. It finds Cannon having retired and bought a restaurant. However, Cannon comes out of retirement to help the widow (Diana Muldaur) of an old friend, who was also an old flame. Cannon’s friend’s death is tied up in a some cloak and dagger stuff and the local area’s unusually high number of retired intelligence officers.

The Return of Frank Cannons feels like a long episode but a good one. The romance between Cannon and the widow is played up more than any other romantic angle in the TV series. The romance is wistful and sweet. The movie does feel padded at times. Reportedly there were talks of doing a few more Cannon TV movies, but they only ended up doing one which leads to some scenes which in retrospect become unnecessary. That doesn’t stop the Return of Frank Cannon being a nice curtain call for a remarkable TV series.

In my view, Cannon is underappreciated. In its time, the series received several awards nominations including Emmy and Gold Globe nominations for Conrad, and was well-beloved overseas and recognized with awards in West Germany and Spain. But until recently, it’s not received near the same amount of play in TV syndication or on streaming services as many other 1970s programs.

While Cannon isn’t as good as Columbo and The Rockford Files, it’s a well-made series and better than some shows from the era that have been more widely distributed. It’s a superb series and a highlight of a great decade for TV private eyes.

DVD Release Review

This is a no-frills collection. They even dumped the pre-show teasers that CBS included in their releases. Other than some production slides with the theme music playing in the background, you have no real extras. The episodes are essentially provided exactly as aired with no remastering or retouching.

To be fair, Cannon isn’t a series where you expect high definition remastering or featurettes about the making of the series. VEI released a set that’s sure to make fans say, “Finally, the whole series is available on DVD.” And for that, I’m glad.

The DVD Covers are all basic, as is the disc art with William Conrad framed in a picture and a different color for each of the five seasons of the show. I do like the disc art, which does show a sort of elegant simplicity. Each season also has an episode guide with the date the episode aired and a generally accurate synopsis of the plot.

My only complaint with the presentation comes back to how they handled the release of “The Deadly Conspiracy.” Originally, it aired as a two-parter with part one being an episode of Cannon and part two continuing on Barnaby Jones. On this collection, “The Deadly Conspiracy” is shortened to a single episode that hardly justifies the title with a different ending. To get the story as it originally aired, you have to purchase Barnaby Jones, Season Four. VEI was only following the syndication strategy that Cannon had used. (While Barnaby Jones syndicated both episodes as originally aired.) However, it does seem like they could have included the full version of “The Deadly Conspiracy” particularly since Cannon Season Five included an extra disk that would have easily accommodated it.

Overall Thoughts

Cannon is a personal favorite. William Conrad is a delight in this, and if you’re a fan of old school private detectives, this is a real gem of a series. As of this time of this writing, the entire collection is available for $33.99, which comes out to twenty-eight cents per episode. A true bargain by my measurement.

Rating 4.0 out of 5

Note; If you’re curious about Cannon but not ready to buy it, you can check out an episode or so for free. It’s currently airing on the nostalgia-themed network ME-TV. It’s currently in the 2 a.m. time slot, so unless you’re an insomniac or work the late shift, you may want to plan on setting the DVR to record it.

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Telefilm Review: The Magician

The Magician was a 1973 pilot film for a TV series starring Bill Bixby (The Incredible Hulk, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.) Bixby plays a stage magician who solves mysteries. The pilot has a 70-minute runtime as opposed to most later pilots that opt for either a forty-five-minute regular pilot episode of a series or a TV Movie length. This was aired over NBC which was doing the “Mystery Wheel” format at the time with rotating 90-minute mystery movies being aired, so that’s the reason for the odd length.

Tony Dorian*(Bixby) is sought out by a mother who’s daughter supposedly died in a plane wreck after a man who had been on the plane (and also was supposed to have died) has a spontaneous heart attack at Dorian’s performance. Dorian has to find out what happened to the woman’s daughter and thwart the very dangerous and powerful people who want to stop him.

The 1970s was a golden age for the TV Detective. The Magician has a lot of gimmicks that make it stand out from its contemporaries.. The wealthy playboy aspect of Dorian’s character is somewhat reminiscent of Banacek but Dorian’s different style plus the fact he cared not one whit for money makes that comparison strained. From this movie, the best comparison I could make is that Dorian is the Saint, if the Saint were a magician.

Bixby’s performance is good. He was superb at playing characters with a kindly nature. At the same time, he manages to play the mystery and the ultimate coolness of his character in a way that’s relatable and pleasing to watch.

With a name like The Magician, the series promises magic and spectacle and delivers. We get the same magic trick twice, but it’s an impressive and fun illusion to watch. 1970s was also a great era for chase scenes in detective shows and this featured one of the best-filmed and most-fun ones to watch (even if the logic of why the chase is done is a bit elusive.)

The series also cast a solid actor to play the first guest villain in Hollywood veteran Barry Sullivan. Sullivan could still really bring a sense of menace to his character and he made a great foil for Bixby.

The theme tune is a solid fit for the era and a good listen, with some real complexities in the composition. It’s great to listen to, though I doubt it’s an earworm that sticks with you unless you grew up with it.

The plot of the episode was a bit convoluted and had a couple holes such as the puzzling actions of the security team pursuing our hero in the final act.

The movie’s biggest fault is it may try a little too hard. We learn our hero lives on a plane piloted by Jerry (Julian Christopher) and is also friends with a sophisticated but unconventional columnist named Max (Keene Curtis) who lives with his wife and computer genius wheelchair-bound son Dennis (Todd Crespy.)  We also get quick exposition explaining that Tony’s life is a real-life version of the Count of Monte Cristo. 

Some of this may have benefitted by a feature-length pilot episode, but there’s too much going on for a series like this which is always going to focus mostly on Tony investigating the case on his own. When that’s going on, the film is a lot of fun to watch. At other times, it just feels like we have too many characters on-screen that we hardly know anything about.

If you like Bill Bixby’s acting, or enjoy a 1970s detective series with a little bit more flash, this film is worth watching.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

The telefilm is included on the Complete Series disk for The Magician. 

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DVD Review: Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple – Movie Collection

The four 1960s Miss Marple films starred Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. For purist fans of Agatha Christie’s spinster detective, these films don’t offer much. Only one of the four was based on a Miss Marple book while two others were based on Poirot stories and one of the four was an original story. Some have compared these films to Peter Ustinov’s Poirot films in the 1970s and 80s, but to me that misses the mark. Ustinov’s Poirot films were at least nearly recognizable as the same character and stories despite the changes.

The only way to enjoy these four films is on their own merits and by that measure they do work. Miss Marple finds herself in one murder mystery after another. It begins with Murder She Said, when she sees a murder through a window while riding a train and is disbelieved by the local Detective Inspector (Bud Tingwell) and she’s assisted in solving it by her friend, the local librarian Stringer (played by Rutherford’s real-life husband Stringer Davis.) The formula of her getting involved in murder and having the Inspector treat her like she’s a meddling amateur and her being vindicated in the end is the way all three films go that see her investigate murders at stables, at a rooming house, and at sea. And she also generally gets an unexpected marriage proposal.

The series gets a little goofier, though mostly in a good way, as it goes along with a lot of tongue and cheek humor. I might compare it in some days to a somewhat more restrained version of the approach to the 1966 Batman TV series with a bit more of a British pantomime take to its comedy, as there are very broad characters who are well-played.

The writing is decent, although the last film Murder Ahoy (the only original story) was a bit weaker than the rest of the series. However, the weaknesses in the script are made up for by the performance of Lionel Jeffries gives as the ship’s captain as he helps sell the dodgier aspects of this story.

The music is light, with a cheery upbeat tune that wouldn’t fit most productions based on Agatha Christie’s writing, but fits this one like a glove.

This is one of the coziest mystery movie series you’ll find. If you like that sort of film and can tolerate its deviation from its source material, this is a delightful romp that’s worth viewing.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

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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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