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Posts in Category: Film Monthly

Private Collections (1979)

Viewers of Private Collections, an anthology of 1970s “erotica” from three “masters” of the medium (Just Jaeckin, Shuji Terayama, and Walerian Borowcyzk), might find the title Issues with Women: The Movie a bit more truthful. It’s obvious from the get-go that the bulk of pornography (past, present, and undoubtedly future), which is largely dominated by male “writer”/”directors,” is little more than a fount of negative views of women. The difference is, prior to and after the wave of semi-mainstream “legitimate” erotica, budget and time restrictions precluded frivolities like plot, characterization, or craftsmanship. The result? While most no-budget pornography contains endless examples of both bizarre misogyny and repressed homosexuality from its male “protagonists,” they manage not to come across nearly as sadistic or baffling as their “artistic” cousins from the erotica boom in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Perhaps this is why none of the three films that comprise Private Collections are particularly erotic. They all spend so much time hating women that it’s hard to work up the courage to find anything in these films titillating, despite ample nudity and vague, confusing attempts at “sexy” situations.

Just Jaeckin (clearly the real name of the director of Emmanuelle and The Story of O) has the first entry, “L’Ile Aux Sirenes,” in which a doughy French sailor gets thrown overboard and washes up in a deserted island—or is it?! No, it isn’t; it’s populated by a bevy of topless natives led by Laura Gemser (Black Emmanuelle). Despite the endless nudity and occasional sex scenes, this is portrayed almost as a thriller rather than an erotic film. The natives begin talking behind the sailor’s back; he doesn’t understand the language, but he keeps discovering not-entirely-subtle suggestions that that they have bigger plans for him than endless sex. Eventually, they turn on him—and try to eat him. Or at least chase and bite him and enjoy his blood. It has a “surprise twist” ending that doesn’t manage to undo the damage of misogyny.

The second entry, “Kusa Meika” by Japanese director Shuji Terayama (Fruits of Passion), left me baffled. I’m not great with experimental cinema to begin with; experimental erotica is a whole new level of strangeness. Maybe the abstract imagery and relentless symbolism makes sense to people smarter than me; perhaps something was lost in translation (the dialogue is in Japanese, with French dubbing/narration that are subtitled in English). Either way, the emphasis on women-as-abusers (the protagonist is essentially tortured by nymphomaniac sorcerors) combined with the overall strangeness will leave viewers either confused and frustrated or enlightened, but I doubt anybody will find it erotic. At all.

The final entry comes from Walerian Borowczyk, whose issues with women have already garnered an entire review from me. Although this time around he isn’t portraying victimized women as evil and immoral, he creates yet another film whose sole erotic moments seem like an afterthought. His film, “L’Armoir,” is really a misguided exploration of Sartrean philosophy more than anything else. In 19th-century France, a depressed man (who rambles endlessly in voiceovers) pays a dance-hall girl to have sex with him, then plays mind games with her for his own amusement. They spend the bulk of the film just talking and talking and talking, and we come to realize that Our Hero is thoroughly unpleasant; despite this, Borowczyk doesn’t really shift our sympathies over to the girl. It still feels as if we’re supposed to rally around the bored rich man who sees emotional torment of women as entertainment.

Maybe these films are trying to accomplish more than your average porno flick; it’s an admirable goal to put thought into using the art of cinema to titillate. Unfortunately, all of these films overreach to the point of failure. They suffer from the inherent misogyny that underscores depraved male sex fantasies.

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The Wedding Party [Die Bluthochzeit]

Hermann Walzer (Armin Rohde) is a man used to getting his way, often (we learn) by way of violence or temper tantrums. While at the reception for his son’s wedding, his new daughter-in-law (Lisa Maria Potthoff) complains that the shrimp cocktail appetizer seems to have gone bad. Hermann reacts first by shouting at the hotelier/restaurateur, Franz Berger (Uwe Ochsenknecht), then stalking off without paying the bill.

Unfortunately, in his rage and haste, Hermann leaves the bride and his own wife behind. Berger decides to hold them as hostages until Hermann pays the bill, locking the front gate to keep the Walzers out. What follows is a baffling—but hilarious—hybrid of comedy and war film, maintaining a tone as dark as midnight in a coal mine. It builds an uncomfortable tension as the level of violence escalates, heading toward a disturbing conclusion.

When guests at the inn notice Berger has kidnapped two women, they decide they want to leave. He reluctantly allows it, but they are caught by Hermann sneaking out of the back entrance and held hostage themselves. Hermann sets up a base of operations in the abandoned winter home of an American, where they find an arsenal of weapons to aid in what becomes a series of inept attempts to invade the inn.

Writer/director Dominique Deruddere (adapting a comic book by Jean Van Hamme) adds a variety of subplots stemming from this conflict, most of which subtly reenforce a theme questioning which is better: rational diplomacy or “cowboy” violence? There are quite a few characters, from wedding guests to hotel guests to employees, that Deruddere services ably, managing to bring them all together in the grim third act. His balancing of the myriad subplots and characters is impressive considering usually films (especially comedies) with an excess of either suffer for it. Deruddere also strikes a great balance between the comedy and drama; as the stakes are raised over and over again, the tone shifts, and by the end the comic elements are completely abandoned.

This attention to the tone keeps the suspense tightly wound, but it also allows me to forgive some of the schmaltzier moments. One of the more interesting subplots involves Hermann and his “weak” son, Mark (Arne Lenk). When Mark finally attacks his father physically, resolving the subplot by finally expressing his pent-up rage and winning his father’s respect, what could have been sappy sentimentality feels ingrained enough in the characters to satisfy.

The Wedding Party is an excellent combination of dark humor, suspense, and psychic angst. Unlike many recent American thrillers, it’s smart enough to know few situations have clear-cut heroes and villains. Most folks are a little of each.

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Some Film/TV Reviews

Ooh, professional!

The “Human” Factor

My Boys

The Wild Blue Yonder (this was a terrible, terrible movie)

A Perfect Day

Family Plan

Final Move

State’s Evidence

Gamerz

Bridge to Terabithia

Immoral Women

Private Collections

I thought since the reason I haven’t been blogging is because I’ve been doing other things, whenever I can’t think of something to rant about, I’ll just post some links to shit like this. A lot of these movies are pretty bad (The Wild Blue Yonder is by far the worst, but State’s Evidence and Final Move are also pretty crappy), so it’s sort of like getting several rants with a few pleasant surprises.

If you’re wondering about the wild fluctuations in genre, time period, and medium, it’s because I’m technically an “editor*,” not a “writer,” and so therefore I only do reviews once in awhile, and it’s usually the dregs nobody else wants to touch. I’m fine with it, because it lets me look at a wide variety of material that otherwise I’d never see (though in some case, I’d be better off not seeing it). So far I’ve only requested two films (Bridge to Terabithia and my upcoming review of The Motel), but I think I’ll stop. I requested those films because I thought they’d be good, and they were, but it’s way harder to explain why I think something’s good than it is to explain how something bad could be good.

* I put “editor” in quotation marks because yes, I put these articles into a shoddy, horribly coded GoLive HTML file, and yes, I upload them to the server, but I am not allowed to edit any of the content (which sucks, because some reviews are just awful) unless I happen to notice some spelling or grammar errors—I’m not even required to fix that, but I do if I notice it because it’s horrible not to.

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American Masters — Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built

When Ahmet Ertegun founded Atlantic Records in 1947 with the $10,000 investment of his dentist, he never guessed it would be a lifelong career. The son of a Turkish civil servant, Ertegun was so certain that his record label would be short-lived that he penned songs under the name “Nugetre” so that, when he followed in his father’s footsteps and entered a career of government service, nobody would know he had spent a few years writing “obscene” songs.

Atlantic began as a three-person operation, with Ertegun and co-founder Herb Abramson producing the music and doing the A&R and promotion work, and Abramson’s wife Miriam doing all of the office work. As its reputation grew, the label got slightly bigger but still operated as a small independent, amassing artists like Ray Charles, Ben E. King, Aretha Franklin, and Bobby Darin, along with the songwriting team of Leiber & Stoller and legendary producer Phil Spector. Atlantic managed to outlast the many other independents of the R&B and early rock era thanks to Ertegun’s sensible approach to running a record label: he signed artists he liked and hoped the world liked them just as much. Fortunately for him, they did.

American Masters presents a two-hour retrospective, mostly in chronological order, that both reveals Ertegun’s life story (told largely in the form of anecdotes told by Ertegun, his wife, and many Atlantic artists) while telling the history of the label, highlighting its big “gets” and detailing the adaptability that allowed the label to survive in the sea of major labels. While Ertegun passed away in December of last year, his interviews are spirited and entertaining—he’s obviously a man who’s young at heart, even into his 80s. It’s clear from the affection of legends like Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger that they all have tremendous respect and admiration for this man and the record label he built.

The piece drags a bit in certain spots, mostly when the chronicling relies on narration or third-party anecdotes rather than Ertegun’s own interviews. However, the classic jazz, R&B, and rock music and great archive footage of live performances more than make up for it. The last half hour is pretty bumpy, though, as the classics give way to contemporary acts that haven’t stood the test of time, and the narration gets repetitive as it winds down.

Overall, this is an entertaining look at a music icon who probably doesn’t get his due outside of the business because much of his work happened behind the scenes. By believing in himself and his artists, and being a music lover before a businessman, Ahmet Ertegun created a successful business and revolutionized the music industry.

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Gideon’s Trumpet (1980)

They don’t make TV movies like this anymore. Hell, they don’t make many TV movies at all, but these days few outside certain cable outlets would make a movie featuring a 12-minute scene containing nothing but lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court (and justices arguing back)—no background music, no flashy camera work or bizarre editing, nothing but impassioned oratory and incredible acting.

Gideon’s Trumpet, an excellent made-for-TV movie from 1980 that finally comes to DVD via Acorn Media, stars Henry Fonda as an elderly fellow who becomes a victim of both circumstance and shoddy law enforcement: he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and when the court refuses to appoint an attorney, Fonda stumbles through the trial in an attempt to defend himself. He’s a man of average intelligence, without any real idea of how to conduct himself in a court of law, and watching scene after scene of his awkward cross-examinations becomes heartbreaking. Fonda was the king of the “everyman,” able to elicit sympathy just by being there, shoulders hunched a bit, hands in his pockets, shifting his confused and humiliated gaze from the judge to the witness. It’s no surprise that he’s found guilty, but it is surprising that he’s given the maximum sentence—five years in the state pen.

The crime? Breaking into a pool hall to steal $25, some beer, some wine, and some Coca-Cola from a pool hall. Granted, the film takes place in the early 1960s, so $25 was a fair chunk of change, but is it worth five years in prison? Well, maybe it is—one of the nice things about Gideon’s Trumpet is its unwillingness to pull punches. Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon is not a bad person, but the film is very effective at painting his flaws as well as his heroism: he’s a drifter who’s been jailed four previous times for petty crimes. The judge’s stiff sentence serves to teach him a lesson, and while Gideon admits to the previous crimes, he’s outraged when the state convicts him of this theft.

While in prison, Gideon spends much of his time at the library teaching himself about the law. When he realizes he’s been unfairly—and illegally—treated by the state of Florida, he writes an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. How the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case feels a little simplified, on par with Schoolhouse Rock, but Gideon’s Trumpet is based on fact so the bottom line is, the Supreme Court got word of Gideon’s request for appeal.

A few justices’ opinions haven’t changed since a decision made 20 years earlier, Betts v. Brady, which ruled that courts are not required to appoint defense attorneys unless the defendant has “special circumstances” (illiteracy, race discrimination, mental problems, etc.). An unfair decision that doesn’t take into account the complexity of the law and the simple inability of men of “average intelligence” to properly defend themselves, many states had already rectified the decision in the intervening 20 years. Florida was not one of them. The Supreme Court sees this as an opportunity to overturn the decision at a federal level and, despite a few disagreeable justices, agrees to rehear the case.

After hearing the arguments from both sides, the Supreme Court rules unanimously in favor of Gideon—but like many others, he’s not off the hook right away. They’ll retry him with a lawyer, and if he’s found guilty a second time, that’s it. Gideon stubbornly argues that this is double jeopardy, not understanding that it qualifies as part of the appeals process. While an ACLU rep and lawyer try to explain this to him, Gideon flies off the handle and sends both of them away, insisting on being represented by local attorney Fred Turner (Lane Smith, from V and Lois & Clark, who blends a shabby Lionel Hutz appearance with Darrow-like passion). The film is bookended by the two trials: the first showing Gideon’s tragic incompetence, the second allowing Turner to easily poke holes into witness statements and circumstantial evidence, which not only reveal Gideon’s innocence—but the guilt of the key witness.

Aside from Fonda and Smith, the film is a veritable who’s-who of “Hey! It’s that guy”-type stars: John Houseman from The Paper Chase (who served as executive producer of this film) as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, José Ferrer (The Caine Mutiny, Cyrano de Bergerac), Fay Wray (King Kong), Sam Jaffe (The Asphalt Jungle), and dozens of veteran character actors like Dolph Sweet (best known as the chief from Gimme a Break!) and Gary Grubbs (most recently on The O.C.). The pseudo-vérité style the film sometimes employs succeeds despite the plethora of recognizable actors—they manage to blend in and, through the strength of their performances, lend more realism to the story.

Anybody looking for a dramatization of a landmark case we now take for granted—our right to a public defender—will find an exceptional story in Gideon’s Trumpet.

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Fall Pilots I Won’t Watch Spectacu-Jamboree

We’re just now coming down from one of the best cable summer seasons in history. We’ve seen the debuts of Mad Men, Damages, Burn Notice, and tremendous second seasons from Psych, The Business, and The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman. We’ve even seen a remarkable season of Monk, a series that has shown (and still shows) its age, but thanks to an apparent focus on quality mystery writing for the first time in the show’s history, it experienced a renaissance this summer.

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. The Dead Zone, once among my favorite shows, continues a heartbreaking downward spiral into Shit Town (though I’ll admit its last three episodes this season tried to turn things around, so maybe there’s still hope), and Rescue Me… I still love the show for its assured characterization and demented comedy, but did anything happen this season? Aside from a few existential crises at the beginning of the season, and a lot of petty squabbling, few coherent, compelling storylines surfaced. If this was by design—taking a few breaths after several seasons of insane, Shakespeare-on-acid dramatics—then perhaps it was a noble failure; otherwise, it was just kinda dull.

But now, we look ahead to… What, exactly? This is the most buzz-free season in several years; unfortunately for me, what little buzz exists revolves around shows in which I am patently uninterested. This column will mostly feature currently airing shows on a weekly basis, checking in to see how the stories and characters progress throughout the season—where things might go, and whether or not it’s working. I checked out a few new shows this week, and I’ll tune in to some other new ones as they air, but I will tell you right now which shows I won’t watch:

Gossip Girl (already premiered on the CW)—I never fell for The O.C. Sure, with that initial buzz from the abbreviated “summer season,” I felt compelled to check it out and found…nothing worth continuing to watch. So yes, my most active impulse (schadenfreude) allowed me to snicker and mock when everyone who watched it grew more and more disenchanted with the writers squandering the initial promise I never saw. Gossip Girl looks, sounds and smells like a remake. Even if I liked the first few episodes, I know the road ahead and don’t feel like getting on it.

Chuck (premieres 9/24, 8 p.m., on NBC)—It physically pains me to deny a show featuring Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Angel). I even watched the bizarre miniseries remake of The Poseidon Adventure for him and The Guttenberg, and neither disappointed. I can’t abide Chuck, however. It’s pretty rare to see as blatant a rip-off of a previously unsuccessful show as you have here. Four short years ago, Jake 2.0 took all 11 UPN viewers by storm with its combination of action, comedy, spy thriller and drama. After some good initial buzz, UPN committed to a full season, then canceled the show after 14 episodes (leaving two unaired until Sci-Fi Channel started playing reruns in 2006).

Let’s see how the two compare: geek gets into a far-fetched accident that leads a government agency to train him as a spy? Check. Surround him with competent agents who will prop him up as he geeks and mugs his way through exotic missions? Sounds about right. A superficial romance with another agent? Yeah, it looks like it’ll have that, too.

I loved Jake 2.0, so I feel the need to protest Chuck. It’s too bad, because I could grow to love it. I know that because I already did once. And yes, one could argue the same Josh Schwartz “lots of promise, little payoff” rule I applied to Gossip Girl will eventually apply to Chuck, as well, but I’m protesting, dammit!

The Big Bang Theory (premieres 9/24, 8:30 p.m., on CBS)—Former Roseanne collaborators Chuck Lorre and Johnny Galecki have forsaken me by involving themselves in this series. Here’s the premise: two nerds have a hot neighbor. Wait, let me check my notes, there has to be something more to it than—no, no, that’s it. I’ll strain myself in assuming they’re socially awkward and she’s not, so to learn the ropes of the female form, they need her guidance. Will Kaley Cuoco provide wacky hijinks by giving them horrible, skank-tested advice? Will the nerds humiliate themselves repeatedly and publicly? Now’s the time to let everyone know, upon watching the entire series run of Roseanne no fewer than 4,000 times in syndication, I’ve decided David moving into the Conner basement was the show’s ultimate “jump-the-shark” moment. There, I said it, and thanks to this show, I don’t feel bad.

Rules of Engagement (season premiere 9/24, 9:30 p.m., on CBS)—Wait… This isn’t a new show? It was on last season? H…uh. I do like Patrick Warburton, though.

Cane (premieres 9/25, 10 p.m., on CBS)—I like Jimmy Smits. I love Nestor Carbonell (BATMANUEL!), even though I’m bitter that he’ll no longer be on Lost. I just wish I could muster the energy to watch this show. I can’t. Sorry.

Private Practice (premieres 9/26, 9 p.m., on ABC)—I don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, so I won’t watch this. I will, however, shake my fist at ABC for botching Tim Daly’s Eyes and Taye Diggs’ Daybreak, then forcing them both to do this show because they’re under contract with the network.

Life (premieres 9/26, 10 p.m., on NBC)—I hadn’t even heard of this show before writing this article. That’s probably a bad sign, huh?

Big Shots (premieres 9/27, 10 p.m., on ABC)—I dunno, man. I’m liking this cast, but not liking the warmed-over American Manchild vibe, especially since Showtime is working on a proper American Manchild remake starring John Corbett, who is better than all four of these cast members combined. I still miss Titus, though, so I hope this show works out well for him.

Moonlight (premieres 9/28, 9 p.m., on CBS)—I was so into this show when they hired former Angel showrunner David Greenwalt (also runner of last year’s fantastic, unjustly canceled NBC series Kidnapped). Now that he’s quit and CBS has described it as a “companion piece” to The Ghost Whisperer, I don’t know how I feel, except “not interested in watching it.” Not even the late addition of Jason Dohring’s self-conscious, tortured bad-boy act will convince me to watch this. It had already worn out its welcome when Veronica Mars wound down last season. Wait! Kevin Weisman (Alias) is in it?! I may have to rethink this.

Life Is Wild (premieres 10/7, 8 p.m., on the CW)—In this remake of a popular BBC series, a family moves from the U.S. to South Africa. This has some interesting elements—filmed on location, will deal as much with the tumultuous political situation as the “nature” elements, solid premise—but I don’t think it’ll be my cup of tea. I have a sinking feeling the CW will somehow manage to turn it into a teen soap.

Women’s Murder Club (premieres 10/12, 8 p.m., on ABC)—A D.A., M.E., reporter and detective—all women, as the title suggests—band together to form an unstoppable crime-solving force. Apparently based on a series of novels by James Patterson, this could be another Bones (itself based on a series of novels by Kathy Reichs), which has snuck up on me as one of the better (hell, one of the only good) procedurals out there. Unfortunately, nothing about it appeals to me enough to give it a shot.

Viva Laughlin (special preview 10/18 at 10 p.m., premieres 10/18, 8 p.m., on CBS)—Cop Rock in Las Vegas. Even if it intrigued me (it doesn’t), it won’t last. At all. No kidding. Not even Hugh Jackman’s executive producer/recurring role status will keep this on the air.

The Next Great American Band (premieres 10/19, 8 p.m., on Fox)—American Idol with bands. I don’t do reality TV at all, and if the bands have as much “talent” as the top-12 American Idol contestants, we’re all in trouble.

Cashmere Mafia (special preview 11/27 at 10 p.m., premieres 12/4, 9 p.m., on ABC)—Sex and the City, only snottier and without nudity? Does the fun ever start?

That wraps up the Fall Pilots I Won’t Watch Spectacu-Jamboree. If you see a new show missing from this column (like Reaper or Journeyman), it means I’ll be watching it and will review it on a weekly basis (unless it really sucks), along with returning shows like House and Numb3rs.

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Cracker: A New Terror (2006)

Perhaps wanting to distance himself from international success as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies, Robbie Coltrane returns to his other famous role, Dr. Eddie Fitzgerald, an abusive, insecure, alcoholic forensic psychologist. A New Terror takes a “ripped-from-the-headlines” approach by drawing parallels between America’s War on Terror and the terrorist acts in Northern Ireland and England. I know some about this political situation, but not much, and that’s kind of the point.

Like A Touch of Frost, Cracker: A New Terror cuts between Fitz’s domestic woes (he’s come back to England from Australia, where he and his wife have lived for 12 years, for his daughters wedding) and getting roped into a murder investigation, and the life of the soon-to-be murderer, a former British soldier named Kenny Archer (Anthony Flanagan) who suffers from post-traumatic stress in the wake of his own involvement in quelling Northern Irish terrorist forces. He plays Russian roulette while on the phone with suicide hotlines, saying things to the social worker like, “If I don’t kill myself, it’ll be somebody else.”

True to his word, he kills an American stand-up comic who makes a series of obscene, on-the-nose jokes comparing al-Qaeda to the Northern Irish. Archer is, by coincidence (I assume?), in the same bar getting trashed, and he decides it’s an appropriate time for murder. But the plot thickens: Archer is a cop, and the stand-up comic is the son of a wealthy American businessman and his socialite wife. Let the commentary begin!

Yes, Cracker: A New Terror features an overwhelming amount of angst over American foreign policy: globalization, the War on Terror, our cultural ignorance about happenings abroad. It’s pretty harsh, and unfortunately pretty true, but let this serve as a warning for folks who might not take criticism of our country lying down: watching this won’t make you happy.

Archer’s actions excel, especially when he’s assigned to protect the wealthy American family. He kills the father, tries to make it look like a robbery, but it strikes Fitz as a little too suspicious. It’s perhaps inevitable that Fitz will get his man, which is why the writers pad the episode with trouble involving his wife. I’ve never seen the original Cracker series, but it appears his wife wanted Fitz to retire for a reason; she’s not pleased about him getting dragged back into the underworld of murder and depravity when he’s supposed to be spending time with his daughter and grandkids. The conclusion of the procedural aspects probably won’t surprise, but the ending of his domestic woes are a bit more shocking.

Fans of the Cracker series regard this as a mediocre-at-best “episode” of the series, but I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. If this is mediocrity, I look forward to checking out the original Cracker series.

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Chancer: Series 1 (1990)

For the first three episodes of Chancer, I listened to a great deal of high-finance jargon and dry British wit, witnessed obscene actions of manipulation and deceit, but if asked to explain the story I would have stammered and stumbled and given up. I had no clue what was happening or why. I had to plunge forward for the sake of the review, however, but if it had just been me, catching a marathon of reruns at 2 a.m. on BBC America, I would have shut it off in frustration.

I couldn’t tell you if the show made sense to British audiences in 1990; maybe the intrigue and confusion of the high-finance world appealed to that post-Wall Street era more than it does to a person living in the collapsed rubble of the e-Conomy bubble. But as the characters formulated and as the dust and debris of the machinations of the first three episodes settled, Chancer turns into an enjoyable epic of corporate corruption, city “ethics” versus country morality, and globalization.

The story begins with a fire at Douglas Motors, a small company that manufactures luxury Leopards (I assume this is a play on Jaguar) selling for ridiculous amounts of money. Each Leopard is hand-crafted, but decades of automation and decreasing car prices are leading Douglas to collapse. To the bank, the fire is the last straw. Robert Douglas (Benjamin Whitrow, giving perhaps the strongest performance on the show) refuses to let his company die like this. His son-in-law, Gavin (Matthew Marsh), offers to talk to his business consultant friend in London.

Enter Stephen Crane (Clive Owen), a manipulative risk-taker who somehow manages to come out on top, every time. Even after some light insider trading during the first few episodes, Crane joins up with Douglas Motors and offers himself a huge salary to consult without having anything like a business model, a strategy to cut the competition, or investors. Who needs them?

The first half of the series revolves around Stephen Crane’s brash, citified business anti-ethics getting in the way of Robert Douglas’s close-knit, family-operated motor company. When Douglas finally accepts that Crane has the best of intentions, the series shifts more to focus on how Crane will manage to keep the company afloat by doing fairly illegal things while trying to avoid getting caught. It’s especially difficult when business rival Piers Garfield-Ward (Simon Shepherd) and former boss Jimmy Blake (Leslie Phillips) are out for blood.

The story builds to massive payoffs in the last three episodes. Each is constructed as a nearly standalone thriller as Stephen Crane’s past misdeeds catch up to him, and he has to deftly maneuver to stay ahead of businessmen who share his craft and cunning but have the added emotional investment of crushing Crane, and by extension Douglas Motors. The angst boils over until the series froths to its depressing, existential conclusion.

Once the show lays down its business ground rules and gives the impression of what it will be about, Chancer is a wildly entertaining, unpredictable series. However, it has the occasional misstep in the form of soap-opera subplots that go nowhere. Perhaps this is what audiences went for at the time (maybe it’s what audiences still go for now, if the popularity of Grey’s Anatomy is any indication), but it mars an otherwise complex, interesting show. We have the mysterious story of the prodigal son, Jamie Douglas (Sean Pertwee, giving an alternately bizarre and irritating performance), returning to the family for the first time since his mother’s death four years earlier. Other than giving Benjamin Whitrow some great material to work with, it doesn’t add up to much, and Jamie’s pretty much forgotten by the writers a few episodes after he leaves.

There is a similar preoccupation with romantic entanglements. Gavin cheats on his wife with a store clerk in town (among others); Stephen Crane dumps kindred spirit Joanna Franklyn (Susannah Harker) for Robert Douglas’s tedious, egotistical daughter Victoria (Lynsey Baxter). Joanna gets involved with Crane’s rival, Piers. At best, these tacked-on stories reveal new insights into the characters. I still wish they’d done more to justify their existence, considering the way many of them peter out without satisfactory conclusions. Victoria simply waltzes off to a new job in America and Crane forgets her almost immediately. Gavin’s story leads to a lot of melodrama and goofiness.

Joanna’s relationships with both Piers and Crane are probably the most interesting, nuanced, and necessary romantic stories. Her father is a tycoon investing in Douglas Motors whose role grows more and more prominent as the show progresses. Joanna is also a co-conspirator in Crane’s insider trading early in the series. She shares a chemistry with Stephen Crane unmatched by Victoria, who wants to while away the hours arguing with Crane while a “look how cute I think I am” smile creases her face. I’d rather have the histrionics of selfish Gavin shouting at his wife Penny (Caroline Langrishe) than that.

Still, these subplots can’t keep Chancer down. They pad the proceedings a bit, but in the end it’s a series well worth watching, especially for Clive Owen fans. Although Benjamin Whitrow’s Robert Douglas has King Lear-esque shades of depth and vulnerability, the show belongs to Owen. He starts the series as an unabashedly unpleasant grifter, but by the end, audiences will find themselves cheering for him and his misanthropic actions. That’s no small feat.

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A Touch of Frost: Seasons 11 & 12 (2003-2006)

The one and only CSI: Original Recipe episode I watched all the way through featured a series of serial killings of women in restrooms. The killer would paint messages in blood on the stall doors, and the big third act twist had Gil Grissom (William Petersen) figure out some important facts: all the stall doors came from the same manufacturer, because they were from the same chain of department stores in the Southwestern United States, meaning (somehow) the killer was a trucker who delivered to these stores. But how could he figure out who the trucker was? They needed to find his route, but how? Then Gil gets that steely, studly look on his face, and with a flourish of editing and awful music he whirls around all the stall doors into geographical order—and there’s the route, complete with a superimposed map of I-15. This is portrayed as utterly mind-blowing brilliance on the part of Gil Grissom, even as the brains of every single audience member repeat, “Duh, duh, duh,” the tragic mantra of moronic American police procedurals.

I’d never seen A Touch of Frost before receiving my review copy. David Jason’s performance struck me like an embittered barfly after a Cubs loss, all surprising toughness and intense focus. The remarkable thing about Jason as Detective Inspector Jack Frost is the apparent personal derision he has for the perpetrators of crimes. Sure, plenty of cop shows feature men and women who want to stop murderers, kidnappers, and thieves—but Frost isn’t angry about the crimes, isn’t mad about the victims. David Jason plays Frost who is personally offended that someone would commit a crime and try to cover it up. He wants to solve the crimes not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of saying, “You’ll never get one over on me.” He delivers most of his lines with a sort of exasperation and disappointment that sloppy criminals think they can get away with anything. They always make mistakes, and Frost will always be waiting in the wings until it’s his turn to uncover the mistakes and pounce.

The writing of the series operates in a similar fashion, cutting between Frost’s criminal investigations and subplots with never-before-seen average Joes. You know they’re up to something, you know it has to connect with the crimes—but it takes quite awhile to put together the relationship. Even when the relationships and motives are dredged up early, one of the nice things A Touch of Frost portrays that very few American cop shows won’t, is more frustration: Frost knows who did it, the audience knows who did it, we all know why they did it—but the evidence just isn’t there. If Frost arrested them, they’d go free. He has to spend more time uncovering dirt just to prove what he already knows through instinct and/or circumstantial evidence.

A Touch of Frost shows a nice balance of character development, showing Frost’s life as a humdrum cop, spending more time filling out paperwork and yelling at subordinates than investigating. In fact, sometimes his personal life even helps him solve the case, as when he uses a lollipop to tie several clues together and discover a motive. It also makes us sympathize a bit with the guilty by showing us their lives, their motives, what they’d gain by committing the crime and what they’d lose by getting caught. This is the kind of thing Americans, right now, can only get on HBO’s The Wire. Others have attempted, with varying success, to show the criminal perspective—NBC’s Boomtown and Homicide: Life on the Street, for instance—but it’s a rare thing. Maybe it’s rare in the UK, as well, and maybe that’s why A Touch of Frost is (according to the packaging) their #1 detective series.

The writing is satisfactorily twisting, David Jason’s performance is top-notch, and every supporting character (cops and criminals) gives it their all. Did anything about this DVD set disappoint me? Only this: it only contains three episodes. It did, however, encourage me to load up seasons 1-10 on my Netflix queue.

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Poirot: The Classic Collection 2 (1992-1996)

But fundamentally it is the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the “Bell Song” from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests; the same ingénue in fur-trimmed pajamas screaming in the night to make the company pop in and out of doors and ball up the timetable; the same moody silence next day as they sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other, while the flatfeet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with their derby hats on.—Raymond Chandler

Like the late Mr. Chandler, I take serious issue with the inconceivable, deus ex machina resolutions to many classic English detective stories. This is not a reflection on Agatha Christie specifically (although she was, in her apparent quest to write no fewer 40,000 books per year, at least occasionally guilty) or on the English in general; after all, the story that arguably invented the “goofy, inconceivable detective story solved by a man with OCD and way too much time on his hands” genre was written by an American, Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” where the genius Dupin solves the improbable murder by identifying orangutan hair on sight.

My bias against this type of story prepared me to dislike Poirot. However, it surprised me to discover how many movies on this Poirot set had complex storylines with satisfying—but not baffling or inconceivable—conclusions. True, there’s the occasional “he created a fake pattern of serial killing, killed three extra people and would have kept going if he hadn’t been caught, tried to pin it on someone else, all so he could inherit an estate from his brother” solution, but many of the mysteries rely on complicated relationships and motives rather than convoluted schemes with thin motives. I’ve read some of Agatha Christie’s short stories and novels, though I am not familiar with the sources of any of these particular mysteries. I don’t know if the adaptations are revisionist tales that differ wildly from the source to fit the post-hardboiled world, or if the more famous Christie stories are famous solely because of their preposterousness. While it at least seems Christie told the same story over and over again (nearly every mystery revolves around self-absorbed rich people killing over inheritance), the level of quality and satisfaction in the resolutions vary wildly from story to story.

The success, even in the goofier mysteries, likely comes from the grounded performances of the usual supporting cast—David Suchet, of course, as M. Hercule Poirot; Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings; Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp; and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon. Suchet, in particular, has a knack for playing Poirot as fastidious and uptight—but not arrogant and condescending (in contrast to his portrayal in many of Christie’s stories). With one exception—Murder at End House, where Poirot spends much of his time mocking Hastings’s lack of instincts, intelligence, and refinement—he plays Poirot as a pleasant fellow fascinated by a good unsolved crime and obsessed with finding the culprit. The cast members have a great rapport with one another, and each uses his or her skills to contribute to the ultimate solution of the case. Oftentimes, the strange cases take a backseat to entertaining subplots involving the characters (such as Japp staying with Poirot while his wife is away).

The Classic Collection 2 contains nine feature-length movies based on Agatha Christie novels (Classic Collection 1 features 36 50-minute episodes), each of which shares a strong attention to detail in evoking 1930s London. If you like Agatha Christie or the character of Poirot, this DVD set won’t disappoint. If you, like me, have some reservations about the qualities of the mysteries, the movies featured on this set will surprise you.

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