Month: May 2018

Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie (2017)

Combing through Netflix originals to find something quality is like digging through the bargain bin at Walmart for some obscure 90s movie you, and only you, really liked. There’s just so much shit you have to get past before you find what you’re looking for, and in this case, it’s not Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie. The film, the offspring of comedian Jeff Garlin, is a pseudo-experiment in the murder mystery genre. Actor Steven Weber pops up before the opening credits to announce that he is playing the murderer. You don’t know whether to believe him or dismiss him, which is part of the appeal. Writer-director Garlin has you sniffing out two aspects of the case in parallel – the veracity of Weber’s admission and, if true, his motivation.

It’s a gruesome case. The dismembered body of a young woman is found on actor Talbert Bacorn’s (Weber) front lawn, her various body parts scattered into the shape of a Star of David. Detective Gene Handsome (Garlin) recognizes the deceased as his neighbor’s babysitter, and that leads to a web of connections and clues that include a fireworks salesperson, high-end lotion and cream, and Hollywood parties. The novelty of this unconventional whodunit wears off quickly, and the oddities of the case are soon overtaken by those of the players.

Fans of Garlin’s other work, notably Curb Your Enthusiasm which he produces, may take to the bone dry humor. I’ve never seen an episode of the show, so I can’t compare. The movie is filled to the brim with offbeat characters and dialogue, few of whom you’d want to meet in real life though some of whom you’d recognize anyway. Talbert is a preening jackass, and Weber is delightfully smug in this role. Christine Woods is not so preening but still a variety of a jackass as Nora, the neighbor with the murdered babysitter. Nora is in a custody battle with her ex, Lloyd (Tim Sharp), a mouthbreather who somehow exists in a plane between clueless and kind of clever.

There’s also Handsome’s office, the biggest nuthouse. His partner is Fleur Scozzari (Natasha Lyonne), a woman who definitely needs HR training at least once a month on how to maintain appropriate workplace boundaries. Come to think of it, so does his gabby, lusting superior, Lieutenant Tucker (Amy Sedaris). The rest of his squad are incompetent apprentices in need of career counseling.

There’s no sense of normalcy. Handsome is the straightest arrow of the lot and is actually relatable in a way. He carries the weight of a person who is so embedded in a world of wackos that he decides doesn’t have the energy to fight it. Garlin delights in this display of the awkward and uncomfortable. At about 80 minutes, the movie is either too much or not enough depending on your tolerance for this sort of stuff. Every shot, every line of dialogue is in service to this brand of sardonic humor. There’s the busload of Japanese Jewish tourists that pass by the crime scene and the understaffed burger joint where kids take orders in person at the drive through. When Talbert suggests the murder was PETA’s revenge for him wearing suede pants to a premiere, Handsome demurs that it’s not their style.

I did enjoy one scene between Handsome and Nora because it seemed naturally awkward and not deliberately so. He invites her into his house and plays Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” hoping to talk about something, anything meaningful. As they talk about the song, she starts to cry and opens up to him about wanting to escape her miserable job as an L.A. dental assistant. For a moment, both of them are of a different world, one where their idiosyncrasies are rooted in real experiences. Christine Woods crackles in this scene. As one of the ten people who watched her in the shortlived television series FlashForward, I love how she knows what to hold back, giving the audience just what we need to really see into her character.

Released: 2017
Prod: Brad Morris, Andrew Secunda
Dir: Jeff Garlin
Writer: Jeff Garlin, Andrea Seigel
Cast: Jeff Garlin, Natasha Lyonne, Amy Sedaris, Christine Woods, Steven Weber, Timm Sharp
Time: 81 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

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Hailey Dean Mystery: Deadly Estate (2017)

Of all the Hallmark murder mysteries, Hailey Dean is the darkest, as in it literally takes place at night, at least many of the scenes do. But the material is also somber because Hailey (Kellie Martin) is trying to come to terms with a shooting that killed her fiancé, making every case a little more personal. Though she’s changed careers from assistant DA to therapist, her instincts for criminal prosecution keep pulling her back. That and circumstance.

Her friend, Pam (Michelle Harrison), goes missing soon after she decides to sell her parents’ house. It’s not too alarming initially. Pam’s parents are recently deceased, and she hasn’t had much time to grieve while she’s been getting the estate in order. She could use a quick getaway, say to Aruba, a trip her new boyfriend, Ryan (Jim Thorburn), arranges for the two of them. But Hailey grows suspicious when she gets a call from Pam, who has decided to lay low in Hawai’i instead. At least that’s what she claims. Hailey thinks her friend has actually been kidnapped and is calling under duress.

Like the other Hallmark sleuths, Hailey decides to poke around on her own, except she actually has experience and knows a thing or two about law and criminal behavior. I like this change of pace, and I think we all benefit when our protagonist isn’t being treated as if she’s a kid on some adventure. For once, she’s the expert who has to protect her boyfriend, Jonas the cutie coroner (Matthew MacCaull), when they sneak into Pam’s house. She doesn’t do a great job though, and they both get arrested in a scene played for laughs because – oh my gosh that would never happen if either character was black. Well, Jonas doesn’t like it either, though he lives to tell about it, and the budding romance is put on ice.

A couple crazy things then go down in quick succession – someone is hit by a car, another person is poisoned, someone from Pam’s past makes an appearance. It’s all very contained and there are no stray characters or plot strands. What attention isn’t given to the case is given to Hailey’s struggle with the past. It’s not pleasant, and we have to relive her fiancé’s murder with her as she experiences one awful flashback after another. However, this trauma sets the series apart from others. It’s not Scandinavian noir, but it’s looking in that direction.

Hallmark is going to have a Hailey Dean blitz in another month or so, and the new episodes could go in some dark directions. This movie ends with a revelation about the murder that could profoundly change some characters. That would shape the series into something with more gravity than we’re used to with the one and done cases. Then again, maybe nothing new will happen. Whatever the it may be, I hope at least two of the supporting characters, the fiancé’s brother (Giacomo Baessato) and Hailey’s black best friend (Viv Leacock), continue to get substantial screen time. Both emphasize her talents and call her out on her faults without talking down to her.

Highlight for spoilers: Whenever you see Jim Thorburn, he is the murderer! I think he’s hit every Hallmark Movies and Mysteries series by now, and sure enough, he’s unleashing more nastiness in Hailey Dean-land. But it’s not just Ryan this time. His accomplice, rather the mastermind, is his mother, the loopy estate sale agent. She and her son have hopped around the country apparently targeting single women with dead parents who need to sell a house and all its belongings. They kidnap the women and keep them alive long enough to sign the deed before killing them. It seems like a very research intensive crime that isn’t worth the trouble, but okay. Pam makes it out alive, thanks to Hailey’s tenacity. The movie ends with Hailey’s realization that her fiancé’s murderer was targeting her; it was not a random mugging.

Released: 2017
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Jonathan Greene
Cast: Kellie Martin, Giacomo Baessato, Viv Leacock, Matthew MacCaull, Jim Thorburn, Michelle Harrison, Peter Bryant, Gwynyth Walsh, Emily Holmes, Joshua Hinkson
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

Darrow & Darrow: In the Key of Murder (2018)

I’m still nursing hurt feelings over the cancellation of the Flower Shop Mystery series, which had a very capable lead in Brooke Shields. She upped the game on Hallmark’s amateur sleuths, insomuch as they can be, by creating a character who was sharp and a little silly while also dealing with weightier issues of love and tragedy, and murder. Darrow & Darrow slides in to replace that show and brings its own talented cast. So far, the team of Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Wendie Malick, and Tom Cavanaugh have shown strong outings, even if their movies have been less consistent.

In the Key of Murder improves on the first film with a high stakes case and a story that doesn’t have to meander around it for the sake of establishing new characters. There’s still a lot of traffic, but this time the subplots don’t drag the action too far from the main case, which is the murder of a verbally abusive music producer. The movie opens with him berating everyone in the recording studio, from his aspiring star to the backup singers to the sound mixer. It’s clear this guy is not long for the world, and sure enough, he’s dead by midnight. He manages to call his wife before his untimely exit and is heard shouting the name of the singer, Phoebe (MacKenzie Porter). She becomes the primary suspect.

This normally wouldn’t be a case for Claire Darrow (Williams-Paisley), who deals with less lethal matters, but Phoebe happens to be the sister of her friend and the assistant DA, Miles (Cavanaugh). It doesn’t look promising for either of them when all the evidence points in Phoebe’s direction. Not only is she heard on the phone call, but she threatened the deceased and is less than forthcoming about her relationship with her new producer. Miles adds fuel to the fire with his own suspicions about his sister.

The personal connections pushes the case to the forefront, unlike in the first movie where legal matters were an afterthought. Malick, who plays Claire’s mother and the other titular Darrow, continues to exert a strong presence even though she’s not involved in the main story. Her character, Joanna, earned my sympathy despite being a corporate lawyer with a taste for the high life. She wasn’t going to let her sanctimonious daughter blame her for having ambition and an understanding of life’s grittier realities. (Good on sanctimonious daughter for having the most diverse office in all of Hallmarkland though.) But Joanna’s mellowed out and is getting on board with the socially minded ethos of her deceased husband’s law firm. This time, she’s assigned to mediate between a little girl running a lemonade stand and a sourpuss who loves zoning laws, and she discovers that pro bono work has its perks.

I’m optimistic about this series and hope it has a longer life than Flower Shop Mystery. The relationship between the Darrow women is far more exciting to watch than a predictable one between plucky female sleuth and her lover, and their dynamic pushes the story in directions that we don’t see in Hallmark’s other series. One subplot involves Claire’s daughter, Lou (Lilah Fitzgerald), who’s determined to keep her spot on the all-boys baseball team. The writing is clunky and the resolution doesn’t make a lot of sense, but at least we get to see three generations of women pushing their way past the patriarchy. If anything, the show could make better use of its male star. Cavanaugh is too good to be sidelined, but the creators have yet to define his role. Miles looks to be moving towards love interest territory but hasn’t quite gotten there and is kind of milling around holding lots of cups of coffee for now.

Highlight for spoilers: The big, blindingly obvious clue was the motor oil, which gave a false positive on the gun residue, which means the couple in the garage did it, i.e. the backup singer and her husband, the sound guy. No idea what their names are and also got confused with backup singer and the lookalike wife of the deceased. But the short is, she was jealous of Phoebe and thought she could kill her way into becoming the star. Her husband used his sound mixing skills to frame Phoebe; the phone call was fake and just a recording. Claire confronts the couple in court instead of in an abandoned warehouse because she ain’t no dummy and girl’s got skills.

Release: 2018
Dir: Mel Damski
Writer: Phoef Sutton
Cast: Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Wendie Malick, Tom Cavanaugh, Lilah Fitzgerald, Barclay Hope, MacKenzie Porter, Paul McGillion, David Paetkau
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

The Royals (2014)

I’m still caught in the royal wedding weekend afterglow, which means non-stop Britishness from now until the next celebrity bauble comes my way. That’s how I ended up revisiting The Royals, a documentary series on Netflix that plays like a supermarket tabloid in televised form. It purportedly offers a glimpse into the life and times of (mostly) the Windsor clan, with a Hanover here and even a Tudor there, and it gives some insight into lesser known aspects of royal life. Royal pets, for example, get a full 45 minute episode, an unexpected but welcome change from your average BBC documentary about the monarchy. On the whole, however, The Royals is an uneven production that veers from the reputable to the kind of trashy.

The series consists of six episodes presented in no particular order. First up are royal weddings with the then-recent nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton kicking things off. Much is made of Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles, though after three decades there is not a lot of new ground to cover. The celebratory atmosphere of this episode contrasts with the second one about royal funerals. Again, Diana’s death takes center stage while stories about the deaths of actual monarchs orbit hers. Come to think of it, you can call this the Diana show. The fourth episode about royal scandals deceptively begins with jolly Edward VII before picking apart the Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Simpson, but all this is just prelude to the scandaliest scandal – Diana, Charles, and the paparazzi. A gentler fifth episode about royal babies follows, I think to cushion the earlier bad behavior.

If you’re a casual observer of the royal family, the series can be an informative binge, particularly if you know little about earlier generations of privileged people. The emphasis on Diana, Charles, and their sons though means that a lot of the material has already been floating around the internets and the covers of People magazine for ages. Anyone who subsists on a steady diet of well sourced documentaries or with a distaste for sensationalism, on the other hand, should stay well away. Also folks who have watched The Crown, a veritable newsreel compared to this.

To say that The Royals is based on rigorous research is laughable. There are some actual historians and other commentators of note, including authors and journalists, but the series scrapes the barrel when it comes to royal experts. I’m all for expanding expertise beyond academia and stuffy white dudes nestled in institutions of power, but I’m not going to take things seriously when one of your talking heads is a 21 year old geography student whose sole qualification is running a fab Prince Harry fansite, especially when she’s being interviewed via Skype. There’s an unusual number of website founders, in fact, as well as self-proclaimed “Diana fans” and memorabilia enthusiasts. I threw my hands up, however, when a psychic appeared and did her bit about aligning star signs.

The gossipy tone of this production is off-putting, and you don’t even have to watch the whole thing to come away feeling like you’ve been party to some cheap hit job. In the first episode, someone’s already making snide remarks about, in her opinion, the Queen Mother’s hideous wedding dress. Another expert makes known her distaste for Eton and still others feel the need to comment on Princes William and Harry’s poor fashion sense. No royal escapes condemnation; Kate Middleton is chastised for going topless, as if it is her fault for getting caught by the paps, and Prince Charles and Camilla are ridiculed for an intimate if awkward phone conversation that resulted in something known as the tampon scandal.

With such distasteful commentators, it’s hard not to come away feeling sympathy for the royal family, and that’s the last thing they need or deserve. The whole of the third episode reveals just how degrading that lot can be, the ones who regularly traffic in gossip and get off on others’ misfortunes. Part three is about royal teens, particularly about their bad behavior and rebelliousness, and it really serves no purpose except to judge. Prince Harry gets quite the beating. We know now that he was acting out in part because he was under a constant spotlight when his mother died and didn’t have space to mourn. Also he was just a kid. But you don’t get to shame teens for being teens when you’re one of their problems. There’s no sense of self-awareness, a quality that’s kind of necessary when it comes to documentaries.

Released: 2014
Network: Channel 5
Dir: Laura Linton, Marco De Luca
Writer: Jonathan Callan, James Krieg
Time: 270 min (45 min x 6 episodes)
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

Lego Jurassic World: The Indominus Escape (2016)

Lego Jurassic World’s silly premise is one that I can get behind. A hot dog loving dinosaur is on the loose, and things quickly spiral out of control when the park runs out of mystery meat. This sounds like fun, a good alternative for kids who might be too scared to watch actual Jurassic World, and in fact, mini people will probably like this vaguely disguised marketing ploy. If you’re hoping for anything approximating Chris Pratt’s other Lego adventure, however, you’ll want to avoid this lazy leftover. It lacks the humor and creativity of other Lego projects, including the ubiquitous online shorts.

As a hot dog lover, I was disappointed that hot dogs had little bearing on the plot. Our hungry little dinosaur might as well have been slobbering after wheels of cheese or steamed broccoli. (Can we get a Lego cheese board though?) What did catch my attention were the ethical implications of creating said dinosaur. I haven’t seen Jurassic World, and I don’t think that matters here, but toying with dino DNA just doesn’t seem like a good idea according to this and every other Jurassic Park movie.

Hot dog dino is the brainchild of park director Claire, who’s forced to clean up some show-off’s mess when he wrecks the aviary. She commissions a new attraction, and instead of a reptile roller coaster or something similarly benign, she goes for the Scariest Dinosaur Ever. As you can guess, shit happens, the dinosaur goes on a hot dog tear, and lives are lost. But the worst of it is, Claire, unable to bring her Creature under control even with the help of dinosaur whisperer Owen, orders her troops to zap the monster. When that doesn’t work, Owen corrals all the other dinosaurs and attempts to drive it into a deep pit.

I’m all for indicting science and tech run amok and wouldn’t mind that commentary in Lego form. This short delivers that but it’s also so perfunctory, as if the priority was whipping up a DVD extra and Lego set tie-in rather than making an actual mini-movie. Its inability to take advantage of all its Lego-y parts means there’s not much to distinguish it from your average low budget cartoon. The same goes for its failed attempts at humor. If your comedic high point is a park mascot in a hot dog suit, then you need new writers.

Released: 2016
Dir: Michael D. Black
Writer: Jonathan Callan, James Krieg
Cast: Jake Johnson, Zachary Levi, A.J. LoCascio, BD Wong, Lauren Lapkus, Sendhil Ramamurthy
Time: 24 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018