Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I'm not the bloody queen

Someone always has to be the first.  In this case, DCI Jane Tennison wants to be the first woman to head up a murder investigation squad for the Metropolitan Police.  She encounters many obstacles along the way, including opposition and hostility from male co-workers and complaints from family members as her energy is focused on catching a suspect.  Dame Helen Mirren does an outstanding job portraying DCI Tennison in the 7 episodes that make up the series Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection.

Jane Tennison has worked her way up the ranks of the police force, and now is eager to head up an investigation into serious crime. As the series begins, she gets her chance when the lead investigator dies of a heart attack soon after a girl is discovered in her flat.  Before his death, the investigator had identified the dead girl as Della Mornay, but once Jane is put on the case, she discovers that not only is the identification incorrect, but that the former chief, DCI Shefford, knew the supposedly murdered girl.  Tennison's job of discovering the murderer is made even more difficult by the fact that her subordinates resent that she has been put in charge.  Shefford's former partner, DS Bill Otley,
is openly hostile toward her and encourages disrespect among the other officers.  This makes Tennison even more determined to solve the case and get results quickly.  Her focus on her job causes rifts in her personal life, from missing important dinners with her partner to not participating in important family celebrations.  Throughout it all, though, Tennison remains calm, cool and determined -- at least on the outside!

In Episode One, Jane has to sort out why a dead girl of good character was found murdered in a prostitute's flat.  There is a suspect, but getting him nailed down won't be easy.  As a bonus in this episode, the dead girl's boyfriend is played by a very young, very pretty Ralph Fiennes!

Episode Two starts out with Jane getting friendly with a hunky young policeman on a training course out of town.  When workmen doing repairs in a back garden come across a body, Jane has to cut the training course short and return to London to head up the investigation.  Racial tensions are involved, since a young black girl went missing from that area several years previously.  A "token" black officer is brought in to work in the case, and it turns out to be the same policeman Jane recently had an affair with.  So she has to try to solve the case, as well as attempt to keep her private life private.

Jane has transferred to the Vice Squad at the start of Episode Three, so she's the one who's given the task of finding out who was responsible for the death of teen aged "rentboy" Colin Jenkins, who was found burned to death in the flat of a transsexual singer.  Again, Jane's personal life intervenes when a former lover, on a book tour, comes back into her life.

Episode Four has three separate stories, including one involving an abducted child, another about a murdered man with dodgy financial dealings, and a third in which killings similar to those in her first
case throw doubt on her earlier work.  Once again, she has to deal with obstructionist fellow police officers and a personal relationship that is tested.

Tennison has been transferred to Manchester in Episode Five, but soon gets a murder to investigate when a young drug dealer is found dead outside the flat.  A known drug lord, called The Street, becomes involved in the case and starts his own investigation.  The police seem to have an informer working with the drug dealers, and once again, Jane is involved in an ill-advised affair, this time with a superior officer.

The war in the Balkans has migrated to London, at least it seems that way when tensions between Bosnians and Serbs result in murder in Episode Six.  Jane's investigations ruffle enough feathers that she's under pressure to retire, but with her realization that her job is everything to her, she's determined to bring the guilty to justice.

In the final episode, a 14 year old girl doesn't return home after basketball practice.  Her family lives in an area overrun with troubled teenagers from a nearby shelter, so did she get mixed up with the wrong crowd?  Jane is due to retire quite soon and this, coupled with the ill health of her father, causes her to become increasingly dependent on alcohol.  Will that get in the way of her solving her final case?

The first series was filmed in 1991, and the final one in 2006, when Jane is working on her last case before retirement.  It is very interesting to see the evolution of the character -- from working hard to prove herself as "one of the guys" to becoming a respected leader to eventually becoming isolated and dependent on alcohol.  Throughout her career, though, her energy and determination are focused toward solving the crime and catching the guilty party, no matter what the personal costs might be.  The series also looks at some of the issues that were prevalent in society at the time, including sexism, racism, homophobia, and the abuse of children. 

The final disc also contains a very interesting bonus feature, "Behind the Scenes" of Prime Suspect.  Many of the cast and crew of the series give their impressions of working on the series, and how it changed the face of TV.  The female detective who was the main inspiration for Jane Tennison, Jackie Malton, discusses how she gave advice to Lynda La Plante, the creator of the series.  Ms. Malton was frequently called on to read the scripts and give her feedback, which resulted in the series being more realistic and Jane's character facing the same problems that real-life policewomen were dealing with at the time. It was also interesting to learn that the early episodes were actually filmed in Manchester, with vehicles such as double-decker buses and Evening Standard vans brought in to give atmospheric authenticity!

The complete collection is available on Blu-Ray and DVD, and you can also watch the individual episodes on demand on Acorn's website.

Disclaimer, I received a copy of Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection Four Gherkins, for being a realistic view of a pioneering female detective

Friday, August 9, 2013

Online premiere!

Jack Irish is an Australian lawyer whose life has fallen apart.  A disgruntled client kills Jack's wife, and after that, Jack (played by Guy Pearce) no longer has the will or desire to continue with his career.  Instead, he fills his time with jobs that don't require a lot of thought or concentration -- collecting outstanding debts, betting on horses to manipulate the odds at the racetrack, and woodworking.  He also spends his free time in a pub with a less than youthful clientele.  In fact, he's done a pretty good job at leaving his old life behind.  Then he gets a call from a former client who subsequently ends up dead and Jack finds himself being drawn back into the world he thought was firmly in his past. 

This is how the first Jack Irish episode, "Bad Debts."  The DVD set won't be available in the U.S. until October, but it's already available to watch online from our good friends at Acorn Media!  It's super easy to access:

Just go to Acorn TV at http://www.acorn.tv

You can sign up for a free 30 day trial and access Jack Irish and plenty of other great programs!  If you decide you're hooked after the 30 days, you can subscribe for just $2.99 per month or $29.99 for an entire year.  Yep, for less than the cost of one DVD series, you can have online access to loads of great programs!  Your Acorn TV subscription will also allow you to view the programs through Roku, iPhones, iPads, Apple TV, Google TV, etc.  So really, if you are a fan of great programming you can't see anywhere else, this is a great service!  I tried it out on my computer, and I can verify that the process to access the programs is easy and the picture quality is perfect.  There were also no problems what-so-ever with the streaming process (although this will likely depend on your Internet service provider and connection).  If you're able to stream through a device already, you'll have absolutely no problem with Acorn TV.

"Bad Debts" not only draws Jack Irish back into his old life, when he was a practicing attorney, it also jolts him back into a relationship.  In the course of investigating the death of his former client, who had recently been released from prison for a hit-and-run accident, Jack contacts Linda Hillier, a local reporter who covered the original story.  They begin to suspect that Jack's client might not have been responsible for the accident.  Their digging into the story leads to some very powerful individuals who would prefer that the story not be revived. 

The second episode that is available online is called "Black Tide."  In this episode, an old friend of Jack's father asks for help in tracking down his missing son.  The son, Gary, has stolen a great deal of money from his father but has good reasons for having gone missing.  Jack and Linda are still trying to continue their relationship, although Linda is now off working in Sydney, and their long-distance relationship runs into some snags.  Once again, powerful people aren't pleased when Jack comes snooping around.

Disclaimer:  I received online access to Jack Irish from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Jack Irish Four Gherkins, for being a thrilling look at criminal investigations down under

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

It is the task of history to change people

While the somewhat nefarious doings of national spy agencies have been much in the news lately, the spy working to gather secret information for his government has long been a favorite topic of writers (and readers of thrillers).  One of the great masters of the spy thriller genre is John Le Carré.  His somewhat meek, unassuming spy George Smiley was the unlikely hero of several novels spanning height of the cold war between the east and the west.  On August 6, a Blu-ray edition of Smiley's People, featuring the bespectacled retired spy, was released by Acorn Media.

George Smiley has retired from the service (or the Circus, as those who are current or former employees refer to it), but he has never given up the hunt for his Soviet counterpart, a man known by the codename of Karla.  Smiley is drawn back into the world of espionage when one of his old operatives, "Gregory" contacts the agency and asks for an urgent meeting with "Max" -- Smiley's code name.  Before Smiley can be contacted, "Gregory" is found murdered in the woods on Hampstead Heath. 
 
 Smiley is called back by the current crop of intelligence officers to find out more about "Gregory" and what he knew.  Smiley is dismayed to learn that things in the spy business have changed a bit since he's been gone.  There's now a Steering Committee which stands between the intelligence officers and the government.  This committee, called the Wise Men, has to be informed of all activities undertaken by the intelligence service.  They are hoping that Smiley can tell them what Gregory (a former Soviet general called Vladimir) knew and if he had passed this knowledge on to others.  Smiley finds out that when he attempted to arrange the meeting, Vladimir had mentioned that it concerned the Sandman, the shadowy Soviet spy that Smiley also knows as Karla.
 
Smiley begins his investigation into the death by moving among the Russian expatriate community attempting to re-trace the recent movements of Vladimir and discover what it was he wanted to tell him.  In the course of investigating, he comes across a film negative containing some compromising information.  This leads Smiley to different European locations as he attempts to track down the elusive Karla. 
 
The series was first shown in 1982, so there are no high-tech gadgets.  It would be interesting to hear what a young person would think about the equipment shown, such as rotary telephones, "dumb" computer terminals, Polaroid cameras and film negatives.  Still, George Smiley is definitely a man who relies on tried and true methods (physically visiting places and questioning people) rather than letting technology do the hard work.  It's very interesting to see all the secrecy and heightened tensions that were so apparent during the Cold War. 

This set also includes deleted scenes from all 6 episodes, production notes, and an insert with a glossary of main characters and terms.  There's also an interview with John le Carré from 2002 in which he discusses both his career as a writer and his involvement in the making of this series.  He had worked in the foreign service himself, but didn't visit Russia until 1989, during the waning days of the Soviet Union. It was quite interesting to learn that he had intended for the George Smiley character to be central to many books, but after the character became so identified with Alec Guinness, he decided to give Smiley a much shorter career! 
 
Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Smiley's People from Acorn Media in exchange for this review 
 
Final Verdict for Smiley's People Three Gherkins, for being a fascinating look at the work of a spy during the height of the Cold War

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Better an empty house than a bad tennant

It was certainly not easy for Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby to come to Causton to take over the reigns from his cousin, DCI Tom Barnaby.  After all, the county of Midsomer, while undeniably charming, seems to have more than its fair share of violent deaths.  Luckily, DCI Barnaby is ably assisted by DS Ben Jones, as they investigate the dark doings in the surrounding villages in Set 22 of Midsomer Murders

The four episodes which compose Set 22 are:

The Sleeper Under the Hill -- a farmer is discovered disemboweled on the Stonehenge-like rock formation on his property.  The local New Dawn Druid community had recently expressed outrage at his plan to cut off access to the stones, but were they angry enough to commit murder? 
 
The Night of the Stag -- DCI Barnaby and DS Jones are enjoying a cool drink at the local Cider Fayre
when Barnaby suddenly becomes violently ill.  No wonder, as the body of Customs Officer Peter Slim is discovered in the cider vat.  Slim had been on the trail of some illicit alcohol, so the detectives attempt to track down the source of the brew, known as "the Beast," too.  But then there's that odd temperance preacher Reverend Grigor and some strange ancient rites that also need investigating.

A Sacred Trust -- At the Midsomer Priory, where only four nuns now reside, vandals break the stained glass window.  The nuns don't want police involvement, but they can't refuse police assistance when one of them turns up strangled in the chicken coop.  Soon after,  £60,000 worth of silver is discovered to be missing from the safe.  Who would want to murder and steal from nuns?  It's up to Barnaby to keep their numbers from dwindling further.
 
A Rare Bird -- the fiercely competitive world of birdwatchers is the setting as the president of the Midsomer-in-the-Marsh Ornithological Society is found murdered.  There was the big dust-up that happened at their most recent meeting, when one member swore he'd seen the rare Blue Crested Hoopoe, which had never been sighted in England before.  Harsh words were exchanged, but was that enough to cause the murder?
 
As always, there was plenty of lovely scenery to be glimpsed amongst all the corpses and blood!  This series also introduced the new medical examiner, Dr. Kate Wilding (played by Lily Allen's real-life stepmother, Tamzin Malleson).  She's amazingly able to pinpoint time and manner of death without too much trouble, which makes Barnaby's job considerably easier, as he's able to sort out his suspects based on alibis for the time of death!   DCI Barnaby and his wife are shadowed in all their activities by their very active and inquisitive dog, Sykes, whose photo even takes a prominent place in the living room.
 
I was interested in how this series looked at some of the more negative aspects of village life (well, aside from all the murders and spying on your neighbors which seem to be par for the course!).  For instance, in one episode there was a character referred to as "The French" because his family had only moved to the village in Norman times (that is, around the year 1066).  Obviously, all these "in-comers" are unwelcome in Midsomer!  This set also features an interesting bonus feature titled, "Midsomer in Conversation" where the principle actors talk about their careers and their work on the series.  These episodes originally aired in 2011-12.
 
Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Midsomer Murders: Set 22 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review
 
Final Verdict for Midsomer Murders: Set 22 Five Gherkins, for being a beautiful, if unsettling, look at life in a picturesque English county