TV Review: Miss Marple in the Library with the Candlestick

When you’re looking for a little Crime Scene Investigation, PBS isn’t always the first channel you turn to.

But the programming featured on PBS’s Mystery! in recent years has included some classy (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) and truly fantastic (Foyle’s War) detective shows. However, I’m sad to say that up to now the latest Marple series, which has been airing sporadically since 2004, hasn’t fit in either of those categories. Geraldine McEwan played the spinster sleuth with a mischievous twinkle, the production values were high, the early 20th-C. settings flashy, and many of Britain’s finest acting talents made cameo appearances, but one flaw tainted everything: the writing. Not content to stick to Agatha Christie’s beloved stories or even to freshen them up a bit, the writers chopped up plots, rejiggered motivations, and introduced elements presumably intended to be “sensational” (secret lesbian affairs, incest, and secret incestuous lesbian affairs) into every single episode — wildly departing from anything resembling classic Christie.

Hearing that McEwan had been replaced, however, and that new mysteries would be airing this month starring Julia McKenzie in the title role, I decided to tune in and see if the series had been revamped in other ways as well. The third of four new 90-minute episodes, “They Do It With Mirrors,” aired on PBS last night.

One minute into the program and you’ve got all the standard cozy mystery elements: a country house, a lightning storm, a sudden noise, the electricity cut, lighted candles, shrieks of terror. Then there’s the first crime — I’ll gloss over the details — followed by the obligatory scene where a dear old friend asks Miss Marple to investigate. (No one has as many dear old friends as Miss Marple.) In this case the friend is Joan Collins, with fabulous clothes and coiffure — which may be what she was thinking of when she invited Miss Marple to stay in her beloved sister’s home. I’ve never understood why anyone would invite Miss Marple (or Jessica Fletcher) to stay. How bad would your problems have to be for the mayhem, bloodshed, and betrayal that inevitably follow her coming to be considered an improvement?

What follows is a sequence of deaths and twists, and an ending I didn’t see coming, but which made a certain amount of sense. Julia McKenzie is a sweeter, more grandmotherly Jane Marple, which I think I prefer to McEwan’s friskiness; her evident arthritis doesn’t make her seem any the less clever. There are a few very good supporting performances, both from recognizable faces and newcomers. (I very much liked the Inspector, played by Alex Jennings. Young actors Emma Griffiths Malin and Tom Payne were interesting to watch. I didn’t even recognize Elliot Cowan, and I watched him as Mr. Darcy in Lost in Austen only two weeks ago!) Though the movie does feel like a retread of familiar elements, a sort of serious version of Clue — the secret passage, the murder committed in darkness, ropes cut and stage machinery falling from above — one reminds oneself that these elements are familiar because of Christie and her imitators. All in all, I’d rather have too much classic material than too little.

If you decide to check the series out, stand-alone episodes 2 and 3 are available to view for a limited time on the Mystery! website, and the final one — “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” — co-starring Harry Potter‘s Oliver Wood (Sean Biggerstaff), airs this coming Sunday 7/26. Check your listings.

In the case of “Evans” I have read the book (it’s great) and Miss Marple isn’t in it, so it should be interesting to see how they finagle that!

Personally, I’m waiting for the one where Miss Marple did it.

M is for Masters, Top Chef style

M here, and I just got through with watching the most recent installment of one of my favorite competition shows, Top Chef.  For those of you who have never seen it, in its previous seasons it has followed the typical competition show format set by Survivor 10 years ago…  a show starting with a large group of competitors, each getting kicked off the show one contestant per week until only one remains.  In the case of Top Chef, which is fairly well hidden on the hit-and-miss Bravo channel, it is a show of aspiring head chefs, some already fairly successful, competing in series of cooking challenges.  Now, in stark opposition to the utterly atrocious Hell’s Kitchen, which seems to only teach us that to be a successful chef you must be the biggest egotistical ass on the planet and belittle everyone you come in contact with, this is an intelligent competition that truly focuses on top of the line, high quality food.  The contestant kicked out in the first week of each season is 100 times the chef that any of the winners (or the star) of Hell’s Kitchen will ever be…. but I digress.

Top Chef, once we discovered it near the start of its third season, became an instant favorite for myself, my wife and kids.  It has enchanted my eldest daughter so much that one of her favorite things to do now is to “plate” our food, meaning that she arranges it on the dishes in an artistic (though once unknowingly a bit PG-13) manner.  One of my son’s favorite chefs, season 5’s Richard Blais, had a fauxhawk.  Thus began an obsession that has culminated a year and a half later in an actual mohawk.  So, you could say that the show has had an impact on our lives.

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In Which E Flails Her Tiny Ineffectual Fists at the Emmys

Emmy, why must you torment me so? Every once in a while you do some things that make me so happy, that are fresh and original and cool, but for the most part, you just nominate the same damn people over and over. You pick shows from “prestige” cable channels like HBO and ignore impressive series if they come from (yet again) a genre you’re not interested in. And you persist in ignoring my beloved Cat Deeley. What are you thinking?

I’m thrilled – thrilled – that you nominated Family Guy for Best Comedy series. I love that Little Dorrit is one of two (two? for real, people?) nominees for Best Miniseries, and that Tom Courtnay and Andy Serkis are nominated for their work therein. (I’ll sniffle alone over Claire Foy, Russell Tovey and Eddie Marsan; one can’t have everything, especially not obscure British actresses taking leading nods away from movie stars.) I’ll be happy as I always am for perpetual nominee Chandra Wilson, and pleased for M’s homeboy Jim Parsons. Not to mention everybody’s favorite former child star, Neil Patrick Harris! Hmm, I wonder how normal it is for the host to be nominated? And Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio have a co-hosting nod – woot! That’s terrific, anyway. And okay, in general the cast of Ugly Betty was snubbed, but at least the amazing Vanessa Williams got herself a nod – even if her partner in crime Michael Urie might just be best things about the show. But ensembles we love are never sufficiently honored, don’t you think?

There’s a weird trouble with giving awards for tv acting, especially. You get to honor the achievement of a year’s worth of work (even though technically the nominations are based on specific episodes or reels), and sustaining that high level of artistry is more impressive, in some ways, than making a great two hour film. BUT. These awards can get so boring, because they nominate, year after year, the same bloody people. I’m not saying that Kyra Sedgewick might not be fantastic in The Closer – I’m sure she is – and it’s hard to make a case that, if her work is just as good, she might not deserve a nod this year BECAUSE she got one last year. This turns into some sort of weird ghetto, though, where the same people get nominated and the same people win over and over. (Hello, Dolores Roberts, I’m talking to you!) Candace Bergin was so embarassed by this that she eventually refused to submit her name for a nomination, saying she’d been rewarded enough and it was high time they picked somebody else. Who, I believe it turned out, was Helen Hunt, starting a long run of Emmy and culminating in an Oscar and then her disappearance from the big and little screens, but I digress. Honestly, I loved her on ER, and I don’t want to pick on her, but why is it that Mariska Hargitay consistently nominated for the always serviceably acted Law and Order franchise? Well, maybe if I watched it more I’d understand, but still, does she really even have that much of a character arc? I don’t know, maybe she does, but don’t those shows tend to be way more about the cases than about the people presenting them? How many Emmys noms do Patricias Heaton and Richardson have for glaring at their dopey sitcom husbands? And anyway, isn’t it fair to let in a little new blood?

This year Emmy rejiggered it’s rules to make such a thing happen – instead of nominating committees everyone got to vote on the nominees. They opened up the number of nominees, too; many categories have 6 or 7 nods (much more reasonable, Oscar!) except the aforementioned miniseries award. And that’s good. New blood has arrived – and good old blood really ought to be rewarded.

But here’s the thing that’s really under my skin. What does a thrilling, critically acclaimed well written, brilliantly acted by Oscar nominated actors cable series have to do to get nominated if it has the misfortune of also being a sci fi series? Yes, that’s right. Battlestar Galactica snubbed again. Big surprise. Why should I care, you ask? Because it was a frakkin great show. Because lots of amazing work went into it. Because it’s over and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences won’t get a chance now to make it right. I’m shaking my fist at you, Emmy, for your short-sightedness and your inability to see the brilliance of Mary McDonnell as the steely, dying president, or Edward James Olmos as the brutal and tender admiral. And I’m stamping my feet over the transformations you clearly didn’t see James Callis and Michael Hogan undergo – not to mention the sheer number of personalities that Grace Park and Tricia Helfter have played through war, famine, motherhood, loss, rape, battle and every other kind of disaster. I’m shaking my fists at you, Emmy, you big idiot. Anyone who watches this show knows it’s unusually good stuff. So all I can conclude is that you don’t really pay attention because you don’t think truth can be spoken on the deck of a space ship. And that’s where you really show your lunacy, because if there was anything more timely on tv – what do we do with democracy, with morality, when under seige? What gets tossed to the way side when your way off life is under attack? what is it that makes us human – is it intrinsic, or is it in the way we choose to behave? – it was probably Frontline on PBS.

Excuse me while I go off and growl at something other than my computer screen.  Maybe I’ll cry over Adam Baldwin and everyone else involved with Chuck being ruthlessly ignored.  Yes, perhaps that would be best.

A list of all the nominees here. You had no idea there were so many, did you? Insane, isn’t it? Like me. I’m sure I’ll calm down once I’ve had a chance to absorb this. Probably.

TV Reviews: So You Think You Don’t Want To Watch This Show?

E here.

If you’re not watching So You Think You Can Dance, today is a brilliant time to start. The top twenty dancers have been winnowed down to the top ten. The first five performance shows featured dancers in preset pairs – tonight, the dancers draw new partners for each dance, and new styles of dancing. To see how well rounded they can be, the dancers perform routines from ballroom (lots of different smoldering sorts), classical and contemporary ballet to krump, jazz, Bollywood and even Russian folk dancing. The ten dancers left are wonderful; I’m constantly in awe of that level of talent. A dancer’s art is so exposed – as a dancer friend of mine was fond of repeating, their bodies are their instruments. Yes, of course, they’re pretty (some swoonably so), and they have appealing personalities. This show, and these dancers, are about so much more than your average reality show cast.  They’re not there to stir up drama, or to be outrageous. They’re here because they love an art which requires extreme dedication, a field with a brief professional window, very little chance of making money, and much greater chance of injuring oneself.  There’s no American Idol-style stardom awaiting them at the end of this process.  They’re there because they have passion, because they love what beyond hope of great financial reward or lasting fame or job security.  They’re there because they makes beautiful lines in the air. Because they can make you feel things, just by moving around to music.

That music, by the way, can be fantastic. That’s another joy of this show. Check out this amazing dance and the song that accompanies it, Koop Island Blues ; I’d never heard of Koop or Ane Brun, and now I know to look for them. I had heard of Sara Bareilles, of course, but not this song, Gravity. Then there was a performance to one of my favorite songs of this entire decade, Falling Slowly by The Frames. (If you don’t know the fantastic movie Once – well, you should go rent it – you may recognize the song from American Idol; Kris Allen performed it on movie soundtrack night.)

The choreographers and judges are some of the most famous faces in dance – Ron Montez, Jean-Marc and France Genereux, Toni Basil, Adam Shankman, Tony Meredith and Melanie LePatten, and Desmond Richardson. And don’t even get me started on the show’s adorable host, Cat Deeley. I have such a girl-crush on her. She’s truly the best in the business. She’s poised and gorgeous, taller than all but the very tallest of the male dancers, but instead of being an unapproachable amazon, she’s a warm and down to earth, and completely goofy. (The crooked nose humanizes her a bit, too; otherwise she might be too perfect.) She’s a clothes horse with a uncommon(not to say brave) sense of style: one day she’s dressed in a slim pantsuit, and the next, a crazy Egyptian-inspired number. If you look back at the last few weeks you can see sublte homages paid to Michael Jackson (in a short spangly silver dress) and Farrah Fawcett (a printed, seventies-era jumpsuit). And her accent is unique in American television; between the way she says “jidges” to her emphasis on particular sylLABles, she is adorably different. No contestant is too sweaty for her to hug. She coos over them, and It makes all the sense on the world that she used to be a children’s tv presenter in England. This girl is game like nothing you’ve seen. Check out this fantastic solo and the interaction after; I ask you, would Tom Bergeron or Jeff Probst do this?

Tonight at 8 on Fox – you owe it to yourself. Great music, good looking people, and it’s Art. What’s not to love?

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Fortress of Snoggitude

C: Last night I attended a midnight screening of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  As it’s one of my favorites among the books, and as I loved the slick feel of the fifth movie (for which David Yates, director of that one and this, surely deserves at least partial credit), I was cautiously optimistic about this film.

The crowd was excited too.  I had on my Weird Sisters t-shirt, but there were much more motivated fans in the theater; I saw a few cloaks, several Hogwarts uniforms, and one boy who appeared to be dressed as that very fey angel in X-Men 3.  I love opening night crowds.

When the movie got out, it was 2:45am.  I had a few leftover tears in my eyes and an overall feeling of contentment.  Once again, the Harry Potter franchise has turned out an abridgment of the novel which does an admirable job of winning your emotional involvement, giving you likable heroes to root for, and creating an atmosphere of magic.  This installment is also particularly funny.  It’s not without it’s problem areas, however…

If you’d rather not know anything about the movie, don’t click below.  I’ll give further warnings before any major plot spoilers, though. Continue reading

Music by Her & the Other Guy

C: When well-known actors sing, it can be beautiful, hilarious, or plain bizarre.  When actors try to sing pop music rather than showtunes, the failure rate skyrockets.

The other day I was browsing “doodle videos” created by a Youtube user and came across a song called “Sentimental Heart” by a duo I’d never heard of, She & Him.  The song had a distinctly old-fashioned feel, like it should be on an LP.  I didn’t fall in love, but I liked it enough to look for more by the same artist.  Several of their songs have something of a twang, like “Change is Hard,” but the lyrics are interesting and sometimes clever.  “Thought I Saw Your Face Today” is a cute ballad and “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here” (the first single from their 2008 debut album “Volume One”) is jaunty and fun.

Visiting the group’s artistically nifty website, though, I also made an unexpected discovery.  The lead singer of She & Him is actress Zooey Deschanel, known for, among other things, a singing turn in the film Elf.  (Some may also know her as the sister of Emily Deschanel, aka Bones from Bones.)  The “He” in the duo is M. Ward, a producer and recording artist.  Evidently he worked on a movie she was in, she showed him a bunch of songs she’d written, and he decided to collaborate with her in producing them.

Zooey is an actress I’ve enjoyed in many things since her teen appearance in Mumford, and I was impressed by her rendering of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in Elf.  So it’s neat to see her branching out in this direction, though this style of music is not one of my favorites.  I’m speculating that E might be into it, though.

What do you all think?  Is it a good enough voice to sell records?  Are there other celebrities, known as actors first, whose forays into popular music you prefer?

TV Review: 10 Things I Hate About You

1. I adore the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, and also the source material (Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) so that makes me very excited about the idea of this series. And also, it makes me more critical. I love seeing Larry Miller return as the overprotective obstetrician dad, though. Bonus right from the start.

2. Minus from the start – the idea of the Stratford family having moved into a new school. I can see why they did it, but it feels like the easy way out. New kids navigating the waters of a new school. Blah.

3. Another minus – any non-Larry Miller adults. In the film version, the principal is played by a loopy and thoroughly inappropriate Allison Janney, and the soccer coach by the ever smarmy and hilarious David Leisure. They were idiots, but charming idiots. No such appeal here.

3. Second bonus – Dana Davis! I have loved Dana Davis since The Nine, and been so pleased to see her on Heroes and Bones. The girl just glows. This role, though? She plays Chastity (in the film Bianca’s bff/second fiddle, played by Gabrielle Union) as a Mean Girl; head cheerleader, most popular girl in school, cartoon evil. She’s committed to the role’s unpleasantness, I’ll give her that, but I’m not in love with the direction of the character.

4. I don’t love it, in large part, because it requires a whiney, servile, desperate Bianca constantly sucking up to Chastity. She’s not merely vapid, she’s determined to be vapid. I suppose it gives Bianca something to do other than being pined for by various boys, but ick. The movie did a surprising job of making her character likable despite her aggressive shallowness, but the series? It’s set up a major roadblock here. We’re supposed to view her willingness to demean herself as pluckiness and grit? No, not so much. A big reason not to like the whole “new at school” thing.

5. Lindsey Shaw as Kat – well, the jury is still out. There’s something pleasantly confident in the set of her jaw. She’s not as – hmm, how to say this – outsized or aggressive a personality as Julia Stiles’ Kat. She lacks the layers of irony and the biting wit (although this is probably because the writers lack biting wit). And she’s much more unsettled and intrigued by Patrick Verona than she is irritated, a different choice from the film and one I don’t know how to feel about. And I didn’t believe for one second that she could stare him into leaving. I’ve a little bit of experience at that (having spent my teen years shielding my insecurities with chilly reserve) and I just wasn’t buying it.

6. Ethan Peck (grandson of Gregory) is so not trying to be Heath Ledger. Which is probably a good thing. I have big starry hearts for Ledger in that role – roguish, rough around the edges, essentially honorable, confident, and in every way Kat’s equal. Peck seems too pretty, off the bat, and tremendously zen, mysterious rather than dangerous. Was this deliberate, to make the show more accessible to younger viewers? And either way, if she’s already this interested in him, what will that do to the whole baroque plot of him being paid to court her?

7. Which brings us to – Cameron. Oh God. Nicholas Braun is no Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Not even close. I can see they were aiming for the puppy dog eyes, but what they got is a soulless dope. A HUGE disappointment. The character was the impetus for most of film’s plot, but I can’t imagine him moving anything here. He seems very Disney sitcom to me, and not in a good way. I suppose it could at least be said that he does seem like he’s the right age.

8. Joey Donner. So far, he seems to be Bianca’s soulmate in utter shallowness. Absolutely led around on a short leash by girlfriend Chastity. The only thing he has in common with the film character, as far as I can tell, is his name and modeling ambitions. Andrew Keegan was a vivid and enjoyable villain. This Joey seems – neutered. The show has traded the complexities of his various entanglements with both Stratford sisters for what at least seems initially to be the more straight forward bitchiness of Chastity. I suppose anyone who watches will have to let me know whether that was worth it.

9. Then we have the hangers-on. I can’t decide whether Mandela as thuglike vandalist is weird or cool, or whether artistic and threatening will trump waiflike and snarky, but you do feel immediately that if Kat would take to her immediately, she’d be just as drawn to Verona. And I think we want that to be a little less obvious, no? Finally, the tiny dude in the David Krumholtz role is perfectly fine, I suppose, if you can get over the fact that he’s not actually funny.

10. There’s enough in this story that could have made for a good show down, a lengthy and epic battle of the sexes, but I don’t think this show is going to be it. If anything, the Chastity/Kat rivalry seems more potent than any romantic possibilities. A less than inspiring start.