Category: TV

Grove1

 

Hemlock Grove, an original Netflix series, is one weird-ass creative splash, and I loved every minute of it.  Let me rephrase that:  Hemlock Grove, an original Netflix series, is an acquired taste and a bit of a disappointment.

Sigh.  I hate reviewing shows like this one.

The plot:  Based on a novel by Brian McGreevy, Grove tells the tale of two high school boys, one a werewolf and the other a … something, who team up to hunt down a “vargulf,” a renegade lycanthrope (werewolf) that is killing young girls in the titular burg, which is located somewhere in Pennsylvania.  During the course of the Hardy Boys from Hell investigation, we meet strange townsfolk and strange, to put it mildly, relatives of the two boys (Bill Skarsgard and Landon Liboiron).

 

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What I Liked:

1)  The 13-episode series has a great look.  It was filmed in Ontario but reeks of rust-belt America … except when it doesn’t, such as the presence of a glass skyscraper, the “White Tower,” that looms incongruously over everything else in the otherwise smallish town.

2)  Some of the performances are a hoot.  Famke Janssen, as the mother of one of the intrepid boy heroes, overacts in a role that cries out for overacting.  As Olivia Godfrey, Janssen slinks, drinks, and purrs like an aristocratic Morticia Addams, manipulating everyone in her orbit with an accent that sounds part British and part, oh, I don’t know — Transylvanian?  Also mugging shamelessly is wild-eyed Joel de la Fuente as the town’s resident mad scientist.

3)  The plot keeps you guessing.  One problem with monster mythology is that it often leaves the screenwriter with two unappealing options:  Bore the audience by explaining everything (e.g., lycanthropes, upirs, and vargulfs), or leave the weirdness unexplained and risk putting the viewer into a head-scratching funk.  Hemlock Grove leaves a lot unexplained, which is sometimes frustrating, but more often just a tease.

 

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4)  There are lots of random, what-the-hell moments.  The female representative of law and order is not the usual cop or FBI agent; she hails from Fish & Wildlife Services, of all places.  And then there is that ominous skyscraper, home of biotech shenanigans as it towers over the high school, a country store, and beer joints, looking as out of place as a nuclear reactor in Mayberry.

 

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What You Might Not Like:

If you go into Hemlock Grove expecting logic, you won’t make it past episode two.  Perhaps all of the supernatural mumbo jumbo is better explained in McGreevy’s novel, but for series viewing, I advise switching off one segment of your brain and just soaking it all in.  Or not.  I hate reviewing shows like this one.     Grade:  B

 

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Cast:  Famke Janssen, Lili Taylor, Bill Skarsgard, Landon Liboiron, Penelope Mitchell, Freya Tingley, Dougray Scott, Joel de la Fuente, Aaron Douglas, Nicole Boivin, Kandyse McClure, Emily Piggford, Kaniehtiio Horn  Premiere:  2013

 

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Watch Trailer and Clip  (click here)

 

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Rectify1

 

Sundance Channel could use a better publicist.  If you browse entertainment Web sites, you’ll find story after story about new series launches by Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.  There is much excitement over the brave new world of scripted programming by and for the Internet.

Meanwhile, with little fanfare and a “buzz” only your dog could detect, Sundance is also venturing into series television, and it’s offering some shows worth crowing about.  On the heels of Top of the Lake, which concluded last week, Sundance on Monday premieres Rectify, a compelling, character-driven drama about an ex-con’s attempt to reassimilate into his Georgia hometown.

 

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Aden Young stars as Daniel Holden, a man convicted of murder whose sentence is “vacated” after DNA evidence calls his original conviction into question.  Holden has spent the better part of two decades on Death Row, and moving back into his mother’s house proves as difficult for him as it is for other residents of Paulie, Georgia — some of whom remain convinced of Holden’s guilt and won’t be satisfied until he’s returned to jail.

Rectify moves at a leisurely tempo, but it’s absorbing because what matters in this tale is character reaction:  How will Daniel’s younger brother, a regular teen who is into girls and movies, interact with an older sibling who is familiar with prison rape but has never seen a DVD?  Will the prosecutor-turned-politician who put Daniel behind bars let bygones be bygones?  Why does Daniel’s own mother seem so guarded in his presence?

 

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This kind of drama doesn’t work if the actors aren’t intriguing, but happily that’s not an issue with Rectify.  Young and Abigail Spencer, as Daniel’s combative sister Amantha, are especially good at balancing the story’s heavier elements with some choice, fish-out-of-water comedy.  And Rectify’s production design is more like what you find in theatrical films than on cable television.      Grade:  B+

 

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Cast:  Aden Young, Abigail Spencer, Michael O’Neill, Hal Holbrook, Clayne Crawford, Bruce McKinnon, J. Smith-Cameron, Adelaide Clemens, Luke Kirby  Premieres:  April 22, 2013

 

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                                   Watch Trailers and Clips  (click here)

 

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Lake1

 

I’m not sure why everything isn’t filmed in New Zealand.  Sure, Southern California has nice beaches and nearby mountains and a big city, but … New Zealand — have you looked at pictures of New Zealand?

Sundance Channel is airing a seven-part miniseries from director Jane Campion called Top of the Lake, a crime drama filmed in New Zealand.  Elisabeth Moss plays a young police detective who, while home visiting her cancer-stricken mother, gets drawn into the case of a missing 12-year-old girl who also happens to be five-months pregnant.

 

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The plot is a bit familiar (at least through the first three episodes):  Robin Griffin (Moss) is basically Clarice Starling, a conscientious cop trying to conduct serious business while battling male-chauvinist colleagues and her own personal demons.  When you’re telling an oft-told tale like this one, it helps if your supporting characters add luster.  And boy, do the supporting characters add luster to Top of the Lake.

Peter Mullan is rough, gruff, tough and — surprisingly — quite funny as the apparent villain, a drug lord named Matt Mitcham, father of the missing girl and several adult sons with biblical names, if not leanings.  Holly Hunter is also in the cast as the spiritual guru of a tribe of middle-aged women living in “Paradise,” a makeshift commune that is, unluckily, located on land that Mitcham considers family territory.

 

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(I’d like to add that David Wenham, as Griffin’s sort-of boss and potential romantic interest, also lends wonderful support to the drama.  I’d like to say that, but I have to be honest:  With his mumbling delivery and heavy New Zealand accent, I couldn’t understand a word that Wenham said.)

Campion, sharing directing duties with Garth Davis, lets the actors and story proceed at a leisurely pace, but don’t equate “leisurely” with tedious; this mystery takes unexpected turns and has a chilly, pervasive sense of doom.  But the real star of the production is New Zealand — the spectacular mountains, hills, and lakes.  These stunning vistas put Hollywood, California, to shame.      Grade:  A-

 

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Directors:  Jane Campion, Garth Davis   Cast:  Elisabeth Moss, Peter Mullan, Thomas M. Wright, Holly Hunter, David Wenham, Jacqueline Joe, Gavin Rutherford, Jay Ryan, Genevieve Lemon, Robyn Malcolm   Release:  2013

 

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                                       Watch the Trailer and Clips (click here)

 

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Girls1

 

Thoughts from a Middle-Aged Male About a Show Meant for …

Well, Not Him

 

Lena Dunham’s Girls attracts an awful lot of media attention for a show with modest ratings.  According to its critics, the HBO series:  fails the diversity test; celebrates as role models four young women living in New York City who are self-centered and do little but whine about their (privileged) lives; frequently foists upon the unsuspecting viewer the unwelcome spectacle of a naked Dunham, a big girl who has no business taking her clothes off.

The show’s champions, especially television critics, say Girls is groundbreaking TV and Dunham is a genius.

 

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Clearly, the world demands some impartial reflections from a middle-aged male, such as me.  My impressions after binge-viewing the first five episodes:

One:  At its core, there is nothing particularly new about the show’s themes.  Girls just want to find love … girls just want to have babies … girls just want R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

It’s the manner in which those themes are addressed that gives the show its bite.  Hannah (Dunham) and her roommate Marnie (Allison Williams) enjoy watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show … but it’s hard to imagine Mary and Rhoda cracking jokes at an abortion clinic, as Hannah and Marnie do, or engaging in kinky sex play to get their boyfriends off, as Hannah does.

Two:  Unlike Mary and Ted and Mr. Grant, the main characters on Girls are not overtly lovable.  I would call them “interesting.”  Hannah and company are reaping the rewards of feminism — but they are also abusing them.  Casual sex and potluck drugs are de rigueur for these gals (their boyfriends are no better).

Three:  There really isn’t all that much nudity — at least not in the first five episodes — contrary to the sniggering comments found at some Web sites.

 

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Four:  The girls don’t strike me as all that spoiled or that privileged.  If you’re going to criticize their characters, it would be for their immaturity — something I certainly never experienced.  Did you?

Five:  There are no minorities in major roles.  Big deal.

Six:  There is a lot of crude behavior and language.  Not a good thing, but last time I checked out the real world, there is a lot of crude behavior and language.

Bottom (middle-aged) Line:  I like the show.  It’s not the work of brilliance that some critics maintain, but it is well-written, funny, and unpredictable.     Grade:  B+

 

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Creator:  Lena Dunham  Cast:  Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky  Premiere:  2012

 

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                                           Watch the Trailer or Episodes  (click here)

 

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Holmes1 

 

No Shit, Sherlock

 

When this modern-day retelling of the venerable Sherlock Holmes stories debuted two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised.  My powers of deduction had warned me that text messaging, computer hard drives, and Internet blogs would be a poor substitute for Arthur Conan Doyle’s 19th-century cobblestone, London fog, and horse-drawn carriages.  And I thought that the young actors cast to play Holmes and Dr. Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, were too green and baby-faced to convincingly battle the lords of London’s underworld.

OK, so I was wrong.  If anything, Sherlock is getting better. The second season’s opening episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” is a delight on several levels:

1)  The pace is breakneck — almost as fast as Holmes’s crime-detecting intellect and his rapid-fire dialogue.  In fact, it’s not a bad idea to watch the first episode twice, because if you blink you might miss important clues.

 

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2)  If solving the mystery is too much of a chore for you, you can simply sit back and enjoy the real draw of the series:  the amusing interplay amongst what can only be described as the queerest “family” ever to break bread on Baker Street — Holmes, Watson, and the irrepressible Mrs. Hudson.  Unlike the 1980s-’90s Jeremy Brett take on Holmes (also superb), humor and warmth permeate Sherlock.  Just when the rat-a-tat pace and complex plot begin to make your head spin, some bit of comic business between Watson and Holmes reminds us that it’s their relationship that holds everything together.

3)  “Belgravia” is an especially good episode because Holmes is pitted against his greatest challenge:  his own human feelings.  There is a Christmas scene in which Holmes is compelled to socialize (awkwardly) with his small circle of friends.  And then there is a secondary foe, the formidable Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), an upscale dominatrix who handles kingmakers with aplomb but who meets her match in the peculiar Holmes.  To Sherlock, Adler is simply “the woman.”  To Adler, Holmes is “the virgin.”

 

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All of this is done tongue-in-cheek, and with energy and visual flair.  The only downside to the start of a new season of Sherlock is the unfortunate fact that there are just three new episodes.  Sunday’s entry promises to provide a showcase for Freeman (The Office) because, if the script adheres to Conan Doyle’s original story, The Hounds of Baskerville will feature more Watson than Holmes.     Grade:  A-

 

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Cast:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves, Loo Brealey, Mark Gatiss, Andrew Scott, Lara Pulver  Premiere:  2010  Sundays on PBS

 

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        Watch Clips or Episodes  (click here)

 

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Downton

 

The downside of any great TV series is that, at some point, it will run out of creative gas.  You’re not likely to hear anyone proclaim:  “I just watched season six of The West Wing, and the show just keeps getting better and better!”

Eventually, actors leave series for other roles, writers run out of fresh ideas, and shows decline.  Although there are some exceptions, generally the first two or three years of classic series are the best.  My point is this:  Now is the best time to catch Downton Abbey, entering its second year on PBS, and Homeland, which just wrapped its inaugural season on Showtime.

 

Episode 111

 

Homeland

 

Claire Danes is a trip in this psychological thriller about an Iraq war hero who, after eight years as a prisoner of war, returns home to glory and fanfare.  Danes, as a pill-popping, manic-depressive CIA agent, suspects that Sgt. Brody (Damian Lewis) has been “turned” by al-Qaeda and might be involved in a terrorist plot on American soil.

There are some trite elements in Homeland:  an obstinate, preening boss who places obstacles in the heroine’s path; her loyal but ineffectual sidekick, mostly on hand for comic relief.  But Danes’s wild-eyed intelligence operative, Carrie Mathison, is endlessly watchable, and Homeland’s plot has multiple hooks — it’s a whodunit (is Brody a turncoat and, if not, then who is?), a thriller (agents race to prevent an unknown attack on an unknown date), and a romance.  It’s also an effective reminder of how terrorism affects the people who actually fight it.

 

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Homeland resolves its whodunit about two-thirds into the season, and as a result the show is drained of some suspense.  But the cat-and-mouse relationship between borderline-psychotic Carrie and the intense, enigmatic Brody is riveting.  Carrie is no traditional heroine;  self-absorbed, high-strung, often annoying, she’s not above using sex to get what she wants.  Brody is prickly, paranoid, sexually screwed up, and quite possibly dangerous.  In other words, these two are made for each other — right?      Grade:  A-

 

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Cast:  Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Morena Baccarin, David Harewood,  Diego Klattenhoff, Morgan Saylor, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Hargreaves, Brianna Brown, Melissa Benoist  Premiere:  2011

 

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*****

 

 

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Downton Abbey

 

The term “soap opera” gets a bad rap.  You could describe much of Shakespeare as “soap opera,” considering all of The Bard’s melodramatic musings on young love, family strife, jealousies, and societal oppression.  Romeo and Juliet, Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, Casablanca — they all have ingredients of  soap opera.  Good soap opera. Which brings me to Downton Abbey, which is superb, polished soap.

 

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As an unpolished Yank, my initial reaction to this world of British aristocrats and their servants was a strong desire to see the various maids and butlers creep upstairs in the middle of the night to slaughter their upper-crust “superiors,” and then serve their hoity-toity kidneys on silver platters in the elegant dining room.  But the genius of series creator Julian Fellowes is a knack for sucking viewers into this stodgy universe.  I wound up caring as much about a pampered rich girl’s marital prospects as I did about a young soldier’s ordeal in the trenches of World War I.

Fellowes overpowered my inner populist by illustrating that all of us — rich and poor — are to some extent powerless in the face of the larger society in which we live.  Or, as a renowned soap-opera writer put it a long time ago, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

For the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, both upstairs and downstairs, appearances are everything.  Says the indomitable Maggie Smith, who plays the indomitable Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: “The truth is neither here nor there; it’s the look of the thing that matters.”  Packed with wit, subtlety, and soap, Downton Abbey does more than look fabulous.  It is fabulous.       Grade:  A

 

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Cast:  Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Phyllis Logan, Laura Carmichael, Dan Stevens  Premiere:  2010

 

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      Watch Trailers and Clips:  Homeland (click here); Downton Abbey (click here)

 

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STATE OF PLAY

 

If you read enough Agatha Christie or watch a lot of whodunits, you tend to get pretty good at deciphering clues.  Often, you can predict who, exactly, done it.  (Unless — heaven forbid — the story cheats.)  To lure in the savvy mystery fan, a smart TV crime series comes equipped with two extra weapons:  atmosphere, and great characters.  Advantage:  Brits. 

Here is my take on three British mysteries now airing on BBC America.

 

State of Play —  Everything is messy in this political thriller, including a marriage, old friendships, journalistic ethics, and police-press relations.  But the direction, acting, and script are crisp and compelling.  This might be the best “reporter drama” since All the President’s Men.  Bill Nighy, as a crusty newspaper editor, has the juiciest lines. 

p.s.  Don’t confuse this 2003 miniseries with its 2009 Hollywood remake starring Russell Crowe (not bad, itself).        Grade:  A

 

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Cast:  John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Bill Nighy, David Morrissey, Polly Walker  Premiere:  2003

 

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**

 

Chapel1

 

Whitechapel — Jack the Ripper, the original serial killer, never gets old.  Jack is just one of the legendary murderers resurrected in Whitechapel, which seems to prove that violent death is an eternal side effect of living in London’s East End. 

Rupert Penry-Jones stars as a rookie detective inspector who does battle with his own insecurities and a host of copycat killers whose murderous role models include ripping Jack and the notorious Kray twins.  When the show focuses on life at the police station the material is a bit clichéd, but once the action moves to the foggy, seedy streets of the Whitechapel district … watch out.     Grade:  B

 

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Cast:  Rupert Penry-Jones, Philip Davis, Steve Pemberton, Alex Jennings  Premiere:  2009

 

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**

 

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The Hour — Imagine the love triangle in Broadcast News.  Now subtract the comedy, add a plot involving Cold War spies, and you have The Hour, an arresting mix of suspense, romance and, sadly, a distracting dose of political correctness.  As it depicts the story of three young Brits striving to produce a current-affairs TV show, The Hour tends to clobber us over the head with “you go girl” feminism and topics including the death penalty and civil rights — worthy dramatic material, certainly, but hot-button issues in 1956?  But the period settings and costumes are a hoot, the lead actors are engaging and, as is customary with BBC productions, everything is  oh-so smart.     Grade:  B+

 

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Cast:  Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Dominic West, Anna Chancellor  Premiere:  2011

 

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Warning for American Viewers:  All three of these shows feature at least a few characters with heavy British accents.  It can be a challenge for the viewer (at least for this viewer) to follow a complex plot without frequently reaching for the rewind button — or resorting to subtitles.

Another Warning:  It appears that these programs have been edited, i.e., censored, for content, including language.

 

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Poirot1    Brett

 

The persnickety little man is back — and not a moment too soon.

I’m referring to Hercule Poirot, as personified by British thespian David Suchet, the actor who has been absolutely nailing Agatha Christie’s fictional detective for 22 years.  PBS will broadcast the first of three new Poirot mysteries, “Three Act Tragedy,” this Sunday.

New episodes of almost any British detective show are always welcome.  I think that’s because in America we are fed a steady diet of car chases, gunfights, explosions, and special effects.  In Britain, the TV-crime aficionado is fed “little grey cells.”

All of these great shows from “across the pond” have this in common:  They are based on popular books that feature quirky, flawed, and brilliant protagonists.  Sure, in America we have our oddball sleuths, our Monks and Houses and Columbos.  But none of them have the literary pedigree of a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes.

 

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And so we have a new Poirot this week.  I have just one complaint.  Since 2002, Poirot has dispensed with a trio of supporting actors who lent much-appreciated humor to the series:  (above, clockwise from top right) Hugh Fraser (Hastings), Pauline Moran (Miss Lemon), and Philip Jackson (Chief Inspector Japp).

I’ve missed out on some of these delightful British imports, including the acclaimed Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren, but here’s a rundown of my favorites:

 

Morse

 

Inspector Morse    I love this cantankerous old coot.  Maybe that’s because Morse and I have so much in common:  same age, a weakness for beer, a bachelor lifestyle, a love of opera and poetry — well, maybe not that last.  Morse, as played by John Thaw, is forever irritable, forever single, and forever perplexed by the modern world.  But the bad guys don’t fool him, and he’s at home while prowling the halls of Oxford, where he and sidekick Sgt. Lewis (Kevin Whately) bump heads with stuffy professors, insecure students — and murder on a regular basis.

 

Branagh

 

Wallander    Technically, this is a British series that isn’t all that British.  It’s based on a series of Swedish novels set in Sweden.  But Wallander meets most British mystery requirements:  a flawed, interesting hero; clever plotting; moody atmosphere; and a first-rate actor (Kenneth Branagh) in the lead role.  Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been grabbing a lot of attention lately, but author Henning Mankell’s protagonist, the glum, middle-aged Inspector Wallander, is a more nuanced character than anyone found in Larsson’s Girl trilogy.

 

Sherlock

 

Sherlock     When this update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation premiered last year, my expectations were low.  Contemporizing the 19th-century stories had been done before, with decidedly mixed results.  And who the hell were these upstart actors playing Holmes and Watson?  Not to worry.  Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) have traded in gaslight and The Times for computers and texting, but the magic is still there.

 

Baker

 

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes    If you mention Sherlock Holmes, I tend to visualize actor Basil Rathbone, pipe in hand, prowling the artificial mists of what passed for London on a Universal Studios back lot in the 1940s.  But ask me which actor has given us the definitive Holmes, and I have to go with Jeremy Brett, who starred as the iconic cocaine addict in 41 television episodes from 1984 to 1994.

 

Midsomer

 

Midsomer Murders    Midsomer is a fictional English county, home to charming villages and nice families like that of DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), a pleasant man who shares a close bond with his wife and his daughter.  Midsomer would seem idyllic were it not for one nagging little problem:  It seems to be the murder capital of the world.

 

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To see the Masterpiece Mystery! schedule, click here.

 

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Killing

 

I am finally ready to kiss and make up with AMC.  We dissolved our relationship about ten years ago – mostly due to AMC’s unfaithfulness – but the network has done a lot of growing up, and I dislike holding a grudge.  But first, some history:

In the 1980s and 1990s – long before TCM was even a twinkle in Ted Turner’s eye – American Movie Classics was a cinephile’s delight, an oasis of uncut, unedited, commercial-free movies from Hollywood’s “golden age.”  On no other channel could you find 1944’s The Uninvited, blessedly free of interruptions for vitamin sales, or Ilsa’s dramatic parting from Rick, sans “a brief pause for a word from our sponsor.”  I was in love with AMC.

And then in 2002 AMC did the unthinkable, dumping its subscriber-based format and leaping into the ad-fueled TV cesspool.  At first, like a suspicious lipstick stain on its collar, just a few commercials appeared on AMC.  But then there were more, and more, and more ….

AMC began airing what it called “classics” from the 1990s and 2000s.  All of them were hacked to pieces and censored for content.  In other words, AMC was feeding us the same ad-driven drivel that we got on every other channel.  This was a betrayal of film buffs, an unforgivable sin.  I had to leave AMC.

So when the cable channel’s Mad Men began to generate buzz several years ago, I ignored it.  I was pouting, playing hard-to-get.  I did watch the first season of Breaking Bad and, grudgingly, I had to admit it was a pretty good show.  But now, with the recent additions of Rubicon (already cancelled; but hey, relationship recovery always has a few bumps), The Walking Dead, and The Killing … all is, at long last, forgiven.  Give us a kiss, AMC. 

 

Rubicon

 

Rubicon:  This was an intelligent, well-acted puzzler about analysts at a CIA-like think tank.  The short-lived series eschewed car chases, shoot-‘em-ups, and sex.  So need I explain why it tanked in the ratings?  It’s too bad, though, because James Badge Dale was an intriguing leading man, and the supporting cast – especially Michael Cristofer as the sputtering, truculent head of the think tank – was superb.  But there were too many scenes set around a table in a conference room, and not much comic relief.  Who wants to be reminded of work?     Grade:  B+

 

Walking

 

The Walking Dead:  Of AMC’s new series, this one is the least mainstream and the most likely to be sustained by a “cult” following.  I mean, it’s a show about zombies, for crying out loud.  And yet, often it isn’t about the crumbling cadavers.  Blood, gore and ghoulish gallopers are mostly in the background, an ominous ambience to the real drama, which is about a group of bickering, bantering, all-too-human survivors.  Grade:  B

 

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The Killing:  The jury is still out on this most-recent AMC series, but I like what I’ve seen in the first three episodes.  Seattle, of all places, has never seemed so atmospheric, bringing to mind 1940s film noir as cops Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman try to solve the murder of a teenage girl.  As with Rubicon and The Walking Dead, this series draws you in because – imagine it! – someone at AMC must really believe in the network’s slogan: “story matters.”     Grade:  B+

 

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Disclaimer 1:  I have not seen all of the films generating Oscar buzz.  Two films in particular – 127 Hours and Waiting for “Superman” – have given me the slip, so I reserve the right to change certain predictions and preferences after I see them.  But I have seen the majority of 2010 movies that give critics like Roger Ebert a 2 a.m. stiffy.

Disclaimer 2:  Unlike some critics, I don’t pretend to have in-depth knowledge of the technical categories.  I liked the look of The Book of Eli, but I have no clue if those super-cool visuals came courtesy of the art director, cinematographer, production designer, director – or some combination of the preceding.  Similarly, I can’t tell you if the bathtub scene in Black Swan is so effective because of great editing, sound effects, or the guiding hand of director Darren Aronofsky.  So I am copping out of all predictions and preferences in the technical categories.  On the other hand, I feel I am as qualified as the next joker to tell you which movie I thought was best, and which performance, and which story.

Best Picture:

Will Win:  The Social Network

Should Win:  The Social Network

A boring pick, I know.  I think a lot of people could have made this prediction before the film was even released.  The Social Network was clearly a matter of the right people tackling the right subject at the right time.  Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher, and a film about Facebook – how could it lose?  It won’t.

My top five films of the year (alphabetical):  Blue Valentine, The Ghost Writer, The King’s Speech, Never Let Me Go, The Social Network

Best Actress:

Will Win:  Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Should Win:  Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)

Bening made me forget I was watching a politically correct movie about an “unconventional” family.  Instead, I simply appreciated her fleshed-out, highly amusing character.  Portman’s emotional arc in Black Swan ranged from concerned expression to worried expression to very-uptight expression.  Portman does, however, masturbate in one scene and engage in oral sex in another.  That’s the kind of thing, I have read, that impresses Oscar voters as a display of “guts and determination.”  Reminds me of 2001, when Halle Berry had to get naked and simulate sex with Billy Bob Thornton for Monster’s Balltalk about guts and determination.  Bening does not have sex in The Kids Are All Right, and she does not have the advantage of 500 close-ups, as does Portman in Swan.  But “guts and determination” will carry the day.

Best Actor:

Will Win:  Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)

Should Win:  Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)

Firth’s main competition is Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network.  Eisenberg was superb – but was he portraying the real Mark Zuckerberg, or Zuckerberg as imagined by writer Aaron Sorkin?  I’ve seen Zuckerberg in televised interviews, and he seems nothing like the hostile, antisocial young man played by Eisenberg in the film.  But should that even matter?  Eisenberg’s intense portrayal was riveting, fact-based or not.  But Firth has at least two things going for him:  He lost to Jeff Bridges last year (sympathy factor), and he absolutely nailed an acting challenge in The King’s Speech:  a convincing stutter.

Best Supporting Actress:

Will Win:  Melissa Leo (The Fighter)

Should Win:  Melissa Leo (The Fighter)

I don’t see any performance out there strong enough to top Leo’s scary mother hen in The Fighter.  Amy Adams?  She was good, but I doubt that I was the only one watching her and thinking:  “That’s Amy Adams acting with a Boston accent.”  Leo wins, but I think this is a weak category.

Best Supporting Actor:

Will Win:  Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech)

Should Win:  Christian Bale (The Fighter)

This is a tough call.  I won’t be unhappy if either of them wins.

 

Worst

 

Best Documentary:

Will Win:  Waiting for “Superman”

Should Win:  Best Worst Movie

If I had to put a label on 2010, I’d call it The Year of the Documentary.  There was a period when nearly every week saw the opening of another first-class nonfiction film.  These docs fell into two general categories:  old-fashioned, “just the facts, ma’am” films (Countdown to Zero, Client 9, Joan Rivers), and a new breed that blurs the line between fact and fancy (Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop, I’m Still Here).  Most of these movies had serious subject matter.  My favorite documentary of the year, however, had ridiculous subject matter:  the filmmakers and fans behind Troll 2, reputedly the worst movie ever made.  Best Worst Movie is my pick because it has that most elusive of all qualities:  charm.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Will Win:  The Social Network

Should Win:  The Social Network

Ten years ago, Sorkin was reinventing TV dialogue with his rat-a-tat exchanges in the superb The West Wing.  He hasn’t lost his touch.

Best Original Screenplay:

Will Win:  The King’s Speech

Should Win:  Blue Valentine

I have nothing against The King’s Speech; as a crowd-pleaser it excels.  It was Rocky with royalty.  Blue Valentine had a tougher assignment:  It made depressing material compulsively watchable.

Best Director:

Will Win:  David Fincher (The Social Network)

Should Win:  Roman Polanski (The Ghost Writer)

Polanski has absolutely no chance of winning, and might not even be nominated.  That doesn’t bother me much because I’m a Fincher fan.  The Ghost Writer, Polanski’s polished political thriller, has a pair of formidable obstacles.  First, it was released nearly a year ago, and Oscar voters have notoriously short memories.  Second, it was directed by Polanski, whom some people regard as a child molester.  But it was smart, smooth, and seething with low-key suspense.

Annual Snub Award:

Inception:   I was enjoying this blockbuster until it suddenly turned into a routine shoot ‘em up, resembling nothing so much as an episode of Mannix, circa 1968, and at which point it began to bore the crap out of me.  Give this movie a nomination for screenplay, give it an Oscar for special effects, and then give it the brush-off.

Newcomer of the Year:

Noomi Rapace of Sweden’s Dragon Tattoo series gave us the most original female character of the year.  If she were nominated for Best Actress, I’d take her over Portman and Bening.

 

Secret4


Best Movie I Saw in 2010:

The best movie I saw in 2010 won’t be winning any Oscars this year, because it already has one.  Produced in 2009  but not released in the U.S. until the spring of 2010, Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes was easily the film of the year.

 

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