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

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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

Lego: City (2011)

Lego: City makes no sense. It’s also really funny. A collection of six shorts bundled under one title, this series is one wacky cops and robbers chase after another. It follows three thieves as they break out of jail, steal some money, and get caught. Two of the shorts, “Money Tree” and “Gold Run,” are about a pair of old-timey crooks who do the same thing, except their thievery takes them outside the city limits.

What makes these mini-episodes so enjoyable is their goofy premise. No one talks; they just grunt and point. Apparently that’s enough to plan elaborate heists involving heavy machinery. It seems to hinder police work, however, as the officers can’t stop the bad guys from breaking out of their cell every damn day. They also never have a plan in place to catch the thieves nor are there any laws to make sure repeat offenders are securely locked away and separated from their co-conspirators.

Incompetency leads to some surprisingly elaborate Lego gags though. The possibilities are endless when your whole city is made of snappable bricks. My favorite short is “Rocket Cash” for its absurdity. The nameless thieves break out of their jail cell by strapping themselves to rockets they’ve hidden in the wall. When they’re finally cornered by the police, they make the most sensible getaway they can, via rocket into space. This leads the good men, and they’re all men, of law enforcement to gear up and blast off in their own rocket in pursuit. The one-time aerospace engineering major in me balks at the disregard for the laws of physics, but one-time film major in me delights in the visual playfulness.

I have to hand it to Lego for pulling off a great marketing campaign. They don’t need a feature length movie to push product. A few five minute shorts that show off their City sets is more than enough to make me want to throw some money in their direction. I’m definitely eyeing the Space Center, but since I’m short a couple hundred dollars (and it’s retired), I may go with something smaller from the Fire Brigade collection or the beach party set. Oddly, part of Lego’s City series include sets that you wouldn’t find in an actual city, hence the shorts that take place in the sticks. I’ve never found nature and plastic blocks to be all that compatible, and the non-city shorts aren’t as funny or creative, just straightforward narratives of pursuit on logging and mining equipment. But don’t be surprised if you still want to go out and buy a cartoony mine drill.

“Hot Chase”:

“Cash Splash”:

“Crooks Everywhere”:

Released: 2011
Dir: Peder Pederson
Cast: Lego people
Time: 26 min (“Hot Chase,” “Rocket Cash,” “Cash Splash,” “Crooks Everywhere,” “Money Tree,” “Gold Run”)
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010)

The first Nanny McPhee was a delightful outing, far more whimsical than its source material, the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand. As magical as that adventure was though, the sequel is even more appealing, a family classic that you’ll want to revisit again and again. Set some eighty years after the Brown children have stopped terrorizing their household, this story finds another family on the edge of chaos.

It’s wartime Britain, and Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is at her wit’s end caring for the family farm while her husband is away fighting. Unsure whether she can afford tractor repairs in time for the barley harvest, she considers her brother-in-law’s suggestion to sell the place. What she doesn’t know is that Phil (Rhys Ifans), who owns half the property, is more interested in paying off his gambling debts than in her financial well-being. Not helping matters are Isabel’s three rambunctious children who are at odds with their city cousins, sent to the countryside ostensibly for their safety.

Star Emma Thompson’s script is full of wonder and humor. She’s created a world rooted in a real time and place but where wandering baby elephants and flying pigs don’t feel one bit out of place. It’s the sort of quiet country village where characters like Maggie Smith’s Mrs. Doherty, a slightly confused shop owner, will on occasion find herself buried under a mound of flour. The fantastical Nanny McPhee (Thompson) fits right in. A stern and odd-looking disciplinarian who commands respect with a sharp glance, she isn’t beyond using her magical walking stick to help things along, or to transform into the comely Ms. Thompson once the children have learned their five lessons.

As important as Nanny McPhee is, however, this film really isn’t about her. Instead, Thompson’s script centers on the Green family, and it is their troubles that give the story life. The war intrudes cruelly on their idyllic existence, and tragedy is never far away. Isabel’s worries are written on her face despite her best efforts to lighten the mood, and even the children are wise to the misfortunes that could upend their lives. They know that the family could be changed forever by events they can’t control, and that makes this story far more moving and consequential than the first Nanny McPhee.

The rustic setting does a lot to set the tone. There’s a sense of peace that allows the characters’ frustrations to mellow rather than to build into something more chaotic and claustrophobic. A lot of credit goes to the actors too for navigating the emotional terrain. This is an ensemble cast without a weak link. The veterans, that is to say all the adults, are flawless, but we’d expect nothing less from the likes of Thompson, Gyllenhaal, or Ralph Fiennes, who pops in for a scene as Isabel’s officious brother-in-law.

It’s the kids who deserve most recognition though. Asa Butterfield often portrays boys with a bewildered stillness about them. Here, he plays Norman, the eldest of the Green siblings and a child whose quiet disposition puts him at immediate odds with his arrogant, shouty cousins. Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Riston, for their parts, are superb as the arrogant, shouty cousins, Cyril and Celia. You couldn’t find two more entitled, smug brats if you went looking for them at the Insufferably Posh Kids Garden Party. Vlahos and Taylor-Ritson aren’t just here to sneer, however. Cyril and Celia have their own family troubles, and it’s not that they’re horrified at the thought of living with their auntie’s pigs so much as they are hurt that they’ve been sent away. They win everyone over by their tremendous capacity for compassion, which is a message this film delivers with success.

Alt Title: Nanny McPhee Returns
Released: 2010
Prod: Lindsay Doran, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Dir: Susanna White
Writer: Emma Thompson
Cast: Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Oscar Steer, Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Maggie Smith, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Sam Kelly, Sinead Matthews, Katy Brand, Bill Bailey, Nonso Anozie, Daniel Mays
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018