Created by author Henning Mankell, Kurt Wallander is not your typical police detective. He’s dirty, he smells, he’s a bad family man, he’s practically suicidal at times…and he looks awful all the time. But, he is good at what he does…it is by far what he does best…solve crimes. The crimes nag at him, infest his person, enter his soul and will not leave until they are solved. To say he takes things personally is a true understatement. Sure, Frost and Morse are both grumpy, unkempt at times and lacking in social skills, but compared to Wallander, Morse/Frost would be your favorite cuddly grandpa. And, these BBC/PBS productions are so skillfully done, they really get into the mind of Wallander. We can almost feel his pain and his angst. We are right along with this daughter as she pleads with him to eat and sleep. Branagh is perfectly cast as Wallander…he is not afraid, here, to let anything show…he is completely exposed. Most actors wouldn’t be able to do this…even if they could. The stories are your average crime fare. What makes the series as great as it is is the character Wallander and Branagh’s portrayal.
To be honest, I’m not a Dickens fan. His stories are too dark and his characters get weighed down with a lot of murky dialogue and subplots. So, when I heard about all of the attention the 2005 BBC version of Bleak House was getting, I was apprehensive. After it was nominated for a slew of Emmys, I decided to give it a try. And, I sure was surprised…pleasantly so. At over seven hours total (each of the three discs contains five, half-hour (or so) episodes), I started out being daunted by the time commitment alone. But, the episodes flew by as I became more and more entrenched in the world Dickens’ created in 19th Century England. In this case, though, Mr. Dickens probably deserves only a share (a large one) of the credit. The filmmakers of this production do a superlative job of keeping the storylines straight and making sure we know all of the characters, from their dispositions to their importance in the story, right from the start. It’s also shot so we can spot a place where “bad” things are destined to happen…places filled with little light and black, gray backgrounds are filled with evil characters doing evil deeds. For example, the law offices of Mr. Tulkinghorn are shown often during the day but there is a somber, grayish tint, matching the dastardly ways of the man who works there. The story is pretty simple (though that is usual for a Dickens novel)…two “wards” from a family which has been long embroiled in a messy, complicated court battle head to the country house of their guardian, along with a companion. Ok, there is more to it than just this case, but everything in the story…every character, every revelation, every death…stems from the this lawsuit. Trust me, once you start watching, you will be riveted and feel compelled to give Dickens (his novels, that is) another try. Don’t blame me when you do!
Rupert Everett adds his name to the lengthy list of men who have played the Arthur Conan Doyle classic detective. Here, Sherlock Holmes starts off this case on a sour note with a look into his habitual and problematic drug use. Watson, his pal and partner-in-crime (played here by British actor Ian Hart), tries his best to pull Holmes out of the addiction but when it comes right down to it, what gets Holmes clean is the work. The work of crime and investigating and putting all the investigating together to solve the case. The case, in this instance, is the murder of a series of young women, all from affluent families, who are found with different clothes on and a silk stocking lodged in their throats. Holmes and Watson begin on the trail of plodding and prodding until they find their man or woman. The relationship of the two men is key here, as it always was in the Doyle books and the subsequent many, many movies based on the character of Holmes. Without convincing chemistry between Holmes and Watson, the story is almost guaranteed not to work. Thankfully, here it does work.
Another Newman/Richard Russo collaboration stems, this time, from Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a dying Maine town and its sad, depressed townspeople. Set in a former mill town, once the mill closed, the people of Empire Falls had nothing to do but be unemployed and desperate. Ed Harris plays main character Miles Roby, who is one of the stronger citizens of Empire Falls, considering he runs the local Empire Grill. But, this life is far from idyllic. Filled, like the novel, with an array of fun, colorful characters, this mini-series is not from one of Russo’s best works, in my opinion, but it still is a strong story that lends itself flawlessly to the screen.
Unlike Goldfinger which makes a valid attempt at solid, strong filmmaking, You Only Live Twice is just plain fun. It is not to best in the series, nor is it the best of the Connery Bond’s. It’s just a truly guilty pleasure…gadgets, action, romance and super spies…what could be better! The pretty inconsequential plot revolves around Blofeld (again) and his continued drive for world domination. This time, Blofeld is capturing spaceships…in space! First, a Russian one, then a British one…so who is doing this. The Russians, of course, think it is the British. And the British, of course, this it is the Russians. Enter James Bond to save the day and clear everything up for everyone (not!). Along the way he fakes being Japanese (don’t ask!), fakes getting married, and fakes being dead. Too bad he spends all of that time faking and doesn’t get around to taking care of Blofeld for good. Instead, the one-eyed villain comes back for two of the next films…plus a great intro in For Your Eyes Only. Basically, this is not the finest piece of filmmaking ever but, after all, do you watch a Bond movie for purely aesthetic reasons? Probably not. So, this one will satisfy your spy thriller craving.
People had been telling me to stay clear of this one but to my complete surprise (and to the surprise of those who warned me to stay away), I liked this one. I mean, it’s not something I think I would buy for my personal collection but I would definitely watch it again, mostly because so much happens in each frame I’m sure I missed a lot of action. Yes, it is violent, but like the Kill Bill movies, the violence seems “unreal.” The type of violence I just cannot stomach is “real” violence like Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart. I mean, those violent incidents happened (something quite similar if not what is actually on the screen). The violence in Sin City is unbelievable and so far-fetched though it’s still not “rehearsed” like one of my least favorite films of all time, A Clockwork Orange. In that Kubrick film, the violence is choreographed to music…almost like a ballet. I don’t mean that kind of “unreality” when talking about Sin City. It’s more like “comic” violence…which is not just a coincidence since this film is based on a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller (who also co-directed the film). OK—moving on from the violence…the structure of the film is unique. Three story lines all get their own screen time, only to merge in the end. The first story shows an aging, ill cop who needs to save one last victim from the clutches of a ruthless, evil criminal. The next story revolves Marv, a harsh, mean thug with a heavy heart of a hooker who died in his arms. (No, I’m not joking.) The final story deals with a good guy who’s trying to save the woman he loves from the bad guys, all while saving the world at the same time. Shot in black and white, this film is like a modern day film noir movie on speed. It’s faster and sharper than any classic noir but keeps that same “femme fatale” feeling of the films of the 1950s. Visually, this is a creative and stunning film…something you might not ever see again. Story-wise, it’s also sharp and innovative.