Monday, July 29, 2013

Trouble bubbling away under the surface


Midsomer Murders has become a beloved series all over the world due to the beautiful settings and interesting characters who make up the fictional county of Midsomer in England.  On July 29, sets 1-5 of the series will be released.  In Set 1, the five episodes that make up this new release are shown in their original UK broadcast order from 1998.

DCI Tom Barnaby has the misfortune to live in the lovely town of Causton, where bodies are forever turning up having been dispatched in all sorts of gruesome and imaginative ways.  Luckily, he likes nothing better than to get involved in solving a murder case.  He's also fortunate that every village seems to have more than its fair share of nosy residents who have nothing better to do than spy on their neighbors (some even take detailed notes on the various comings and goings).  Although he never seems to be in any danger from the assorted killers, he does take his life into his own hands on a daily basis, both by eating his wife's dubious cooking and by being driven around by his less-than-attentive Sergeant, Gavin Troy.

The episodes that make up this set are:

The Killings at Badger’s Drift -- An elderly woman is found dead at the foot of her staircase, her neck broken.  Was it an accident or murder?  Barnaby soon discovers a link to a mysterious "accidental" death a few years previously, and when new bodies start turning up, he has to work fast to connect all the deaths.


Written in Blood -- The Midsomer writer's group is thrilled to have the noted author Max Jennings speak at one of their meetings.  They do think it's odd that there seems to be some tension between Jennings and their host for the evening, Gerald Hadleigh.  When Gerald is found dead the next morning, secrets everyone has tried to keep hidden will eventually be uncovered.

Death of a Hollow Man -- Tom and Joyce Barnaby are involved in helping the local Causton theater group with their production of "Amadeus."  While the play is still in rehearsals, the body of a woman turns up in a local lake.  She happens to be the only living relative of the star of the show, the arrogant Esslyn Carmichael.  When a horrible event takes place on opening night, Barnaby must once again attempt to connect the dots and discover the culprit behind the murders.

Faithful Unto Death -- People in the village of Morton Fendle aren't very happy with George Hollingsworth.   He's convinced people to invest in his project to turn an old mill into an artists' center, but the project has gone bust and everyone has lost their money.  When George's wife Simone is kidnapped, Barnaby must try to figure out which disgruntled investor is behind the deed. 

Death in Disguise -- The Lodge of the Golden Windhorse is a commune where people come to escape the modern world and gain wisdom from "the master," Ian Cragie.  Barnaby is called in when one of the members ends up dead at the bottom of a staircase.  Was it an accident, or was he pushed?  The various members of the commune all have secrets, and sorting them out will eventually find the killer(s) -- yes, more than one person meets their demise!

The settings are always so gorgeous in Midsomer Murders that it's a shame the only people who seem
to live in the area are either murderers or murder victims!  I enjoy all the personal touches we get to see of Barnaby's home life, with Joyce's ever more outlandish recipes, their daughter Cully's boyfriends and trips abroad, and poor Sergeant Troy attempting to do his job in the shadow of his somewhat sarcastic boss.  This set also features a map of  Midsomer County , as well as interesting production notes.  I was astounded to read that it costs over $2 million to film each episode of Midsomer Murders.  And I thought they just found a gorgeous village and pressed "record!" 
 
Disclaimer: I received a copy of Midsomer Murders: Series 1 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Midsomer Murders: Series 1: Five Gherkins, for being an engrossing look at the murderous residents of a lovely part of England

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

It is not places that matter but people

The recent banking scandals that have rocked the world economy have at times seemed to be a battle between management and workers.  This is a problem that is also at the heart of the series North & South based on the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell.  This new DVD release features all 4 episodes of the series that was originally broadcast in 1975.

Young Margaret Hale, after years of living with her aunt in fashionable London society, returns home to the idyllic Hampshire countryside to live with her parents.  Margaret has become disillusioned with the vanity and shallowness of society, and expresses a desire to live a quiet life and associate only with "simple folk" such as laborers and farmers.  She expresses a disdain for those who are "in trade" and admires those who earn a living by hard work.  Her father, a vicar, soon shocks Margaret by announcing that he is giving up his post.  He cannot accept the 39 Articles that have become church dogma.  Since his housing is provided by the church, they will have to leave.  He asks Margaret to tell all this to her mother, putting her in an awkward position, but she does so. 

Margaret dressed for a walk in the woods with her father
Margaret's godfather, Mr. Bell, suggests that Mr. Hale become a private tutor, and even arranges his first pupil, a Mr. John Thornton (played by a young Patrick Stewart -- with hair!).  The only catch is that this pupil is in the northern industrial town of Milton.  The family moves north and Margaret is especially horrified by the grimy and dirty city, so different from the lovely countryside of her former home. 

Mr. Thornton proves to be an eager pupil.  He only attended school until age 15, when his father committed suicide and left John to support his mother and sister.  He feels his lack of education, even though he has become a successful textile manufacturer and employs many people in his mill.  Margaret, true to form, makes friends with some of the poorer people in town, including young Bessy Higgins.  Bessy is coughing away her life after working in Thornton's carding room at the mill, which meant that she inhaled small fibers that are now making it difficult for her to breathe.  This causes Margaret to become even more disillusioned with the powerful factory owners and their seemingly uncaring manner of dealing with their workers.

Mr. Thornton, naturally, has fallen in love with Margaret, because he sees her as the epitome of a refined, cultured lady.  Margaret does not return his affection and things only get worse when the workers talk of staging a strike for better wages.  She tries to get Thornton to sympathize with the plight of the workers, but Thornton feels that if they don't like their wages, they don't have to work for him. He has a plan to ship in workers from Ireland if there is a strike, and he has the support of the military in case there is any unrest.

Margaret attempts to be a peacemaker between Thornton and the striking workers, and succeeds only in becoming the subject of gossip, as everyone assumes she his more fond of Thornton than she should be.  There are also other mistaken assumptions which cast Margaret in a bad light.  Mr. Thornton's dour mother is the first one to frown and gossip about Margaret's character.  As usual, when confronted with the "evidence" of her questionable behavior, rather than explaining, Margaret just says if people think so badly of her, well, she can't change their minds.  I can't see any modern heroine not setting the record straight -- probably at high volume and with nothing like the ladylike demeanor of Ms. Hale!

Mrs. Thornton disapproving as usual
Eventually, there are some changes of fortune for most characters that turn all preconceived notions around.  Will Margaret ever come to see Mr. Thornton as anything other than a selfish tyrant?  Will Mr. Thornton be able to convince Margaret that he loves her?  Will Mrs. Thornton ever manage a smile?  These questions area all answered in a very satisfactory manner by the end!

I enjoyed this adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel.  The only other work of hers I was familiar with was Cranford, so it's good to see the dramatizations of her works reaching modern viewers. 

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of North & South from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for North & South:   Three Gherkins, for being an interesting look at a love story set inside the industrial revolution

Monday, July 1, 2013

A dark look at the twisted side of a beautiful city

Set in the Spanish city of Seville, the new series Falcón features Marton Csokas as Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón.  The two full-length mysteries featured on this DVD are as much about the complicated personal life of Falcón as they are about the crimes he solves. 

The first mystery, "The Blind Man of Seville" begins on a gruesome note.  A man has been found dead in his house, bound to a chair and murdered.  The gruesome part is that he was obviously forced to watch a film before he died, and he was unable to look away because his eyelids had been removed.  Javier Falcón is put in charge of finding out what happened, but before he's able to solve the crime, more bodies will turn up.  Additionally, he will find out some unpleasant truths about his own family.  His father, the famed artist Francisco Falcón, is a world-renowned painter whose work is much sought after and the subject of a huge exhibition.  He recently passed away, and has left instructions that Javier destroy all the work remaining in his studio at the time of his death.  Javier has benefited from his father's celebrity by living in the family home, a large and beautiful house in a fashionable section of Seville.  Javier keeps having flashbacks to some hazy but unpleasant memories surrounding the death of his mother, which occurred when he was a young child.  After he discovers the truth about his family and the connection to the first dead body, nothing will ever be the same for him.

"The Silent and the Damned" is the title of the second mystery.  In this one, a wealthy construction magnate, Rafael Baena, has been found dead in his home.  Although the death could conceivably be a suicide, Falcón has his suspicions that the death might actually be murder.  This case, which happens three months after the events of the first story, is the first one Falcón is assigned to after returning to the police force after taking some time off.   Unfortunately, after solving the previous case, the press is more than interested in him, and so any attempts he makes to investigate the crime result in the media descending on him.  His boss decides that Falcón is too much of a distraction for such an important case, and so Falcón is given a seemingly less high-profile case to investigate:  the discovery of an unidentified body (thought to be a homeless person) in a field.  Falcón's co-worker, Jose Luis Ramirez, is only too eager to take over the investigation of the first case and make a name for himself away from the shadow of his more famous and flamboyant colleague.  The case will have far-reaching implications, however, as an American financial advisor, played by Rosie Perez, inserts herself into the investigation and proves to be more involved than she initially indicates.

Falcón himself is a conflicted character, even before he discovers the truth about his family history.  He is separated from his wife, although they are still in contact with each other.  She comments to him that he "has no heart" and asks if he "still walks the streets at night."  We do see him wandering the streets, and he is continually buying and using some sort of powdered drug, although this doesn't seem to affect his personality or abilities at all.  He seems to be the same person both before and after taking the drug, and in some instances even contemplates taking the drug before putting it away unused and continuing with his day.  He begins a new relationship with the lovely widow from the first case, Consuelo, but always keeps her at a distance.

The city of Seville is also an important character in this series.  In the first film, we only see beautiful and vibrant parts of the city. In the second film, after Falcón's perceptions of his own life are altered, we visit many more gritty and dangerous parts of town.  It still looks like a beautiful city!  There are some interesting extras, including some interviews with the author of the books that this series is based on, Robert Wilson.  He gives some insight into why he chose Seville as the setting for his books, and describes his shock at finally getting a glimpse inside the house he used as the Falcón family home -- it was nothing like he had imagined, but I'm sure the mental picture he painted was an improvement on reality!

I really enjoyed seeing the conflicted character of Falcón, even if the flashback sequences were a bit confusing (to me, anyway) at times.  The city of Seville is also gorgeous and seems to have no end to beautiful settings to choose from!  I hope to get to see more mysteries featuring Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, and to find out if he and Consuelo were able to have a relationship in the end, or if his demons were just too great to overcome.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Falcón from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Falcón: Four Gherkins, for being a look at what goes on behind the beautiful facade of Seville and how one man tries to get to the truth, no matter what it costs him