mystery films

Roux the Day: A Gourmet Detective Mystery (2020)

It took three years for Hallmark to bring back the Gourmet Detective Mysteries, and folks, it was worth the wait. The series has always been a cut above, featuring sharp writing and a quick-witted cast. Each of the previous four movies offered something new without rehashing the same dynamic between its two leads, and this fifth pairing of Brooke Burns and Dylan Neal as a police detective and her sometimes chef boyfriend/crime-solving partner continues to bring a fresh perspective to the series. Roux the Day, again co-written by Neal, trusts its audience’s intelligence and features a layered mystery that’s more than just a crime and a list of suspects. It will have you working twice as hard to connect the dots on your mental pinboard, and even then, you might have trouble piecing together everything before the final reveal.

The case doesn’t start out as a particularly complex one though. Maggie (Burns) and Henry (Neal) come across a dead body while searching an antiques shop for a prized chef’s book, a restaurant’s bible containing all its secret recipes. This particular book holds the key to the success of Belvedere’s, a shuttered but once beloved San Francisco institution. Thought to be long lost, it suddenly comes up for auction and attracts the interest of a number of people who can’t wait to get their hands on it, either to borrow some recipes or just to set eyes on this important piece of culinary history. Before it even hits the auction block, however, the book is sold and then goes missing under mysterious circumstances, which includes the murder of the person who last handled it.

Maggie and Henry zero in on a few suspects right away. He has it out for Elsa (Jennifer Copping), a food critic with a poisonous pen and someone who was pretty upset about the cancelled auction. Maggie, meanwhile, senses something squishy about Leah (Myrasol Martinez), the owner of a relatively new Creole restaurant in town that could use a secret recipe or two to boost its sagging business. The pair also pay a visit to Nicholas Belvedere (Lane Edwards), heir to the family fortune and someone with no interest in the restaurant business, if you believe what he says. The deeper Maggie and Henry get into this case though, the more suspicious characters come out of the woodwork with everyone seeming to have a hand in this one way or other.

Unlike most other whodunnits in Hallmark’s lineup, this mystery will really stretch your coach potato sleuthing skills. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, some new clue worms its way into picture, prompting a reframe of the whole theory. The best thing about this movie though isn’t the case but the relationship between Maggie and Henry. I’ve become invested in the pair, who are different from most other crime solving couples. For once, Maggie takes the lead as the sharp-nosed detective while Henry plays her hapless sidekick, a role reversal done with some humor and humility. More importantly, neither feels the need to prove anything. They’ve reached a point in their relationship where both value the skills the other brings to the team, and though Henry can be sarcastic, his personality never feels overbearing like it did in the early going. Their respect and love for one another guide everything, leading to some unexpectedly touching moments in the middle of a murder investigation.

Highlight for spoilers: While he didn’t pull the trigger, Nicholas Belvedere is the top villain in all this. Nicholas had long known that the restaurant’s popularity was due to a secret ingredient – absinthe – which his family continued to use long after it was banned in food and drink. Josie, the woman in charge of the auction, got ahold of the chef’s book from Milo, the book binder, and decided to sell it, not knowing Belvedere’s dark past. When Nicholas found out, he needed to keep the book out of public view, lest people discover the truth and sue him out of his inheritance. He was in fact the one who anonymously hired Henry to bid on the book. BUT Josie found out about the whole absinthe business, and since Nicholas’s grandfather was her first love, she didn’t want anything to happen to Nicholas and so removed the book from auction. She also asked Milo to make a quick replica without the references to absinthe. MEANWHILE, Nicholas hired Daniel, the guy in the park, to steal the book from Richie, the guy killed in the opening scene. Daniel wanted to sell the book to pay off his gambling debts though, so Nicholas got Dominic to kill Daniel. HOWEVER, the book that these guys were chasing was the forged copy with the original still in Josie’s possession. ALSO and possibly the main reason Nicholas was so desperate to keep the book away from the public was because he was running his own shady operation on the side and didn’t want to invite further scrutiny. He and Dominic were childhood friends, and the latter set up a distillery with the backing of the former. Dominic was flogging this new Emerald Dream drink all around town and it was quickly becoming a hit because he was illegally spiking it with thujone, a derivative of absinthe and a byproduct of wormwood, which Nicholas supplied from his greenhouses.

Released: 2020
Dir: Mark Jean
Writer: Becky Southwell, Dylan Neal
Cast: Dylan Neal, Brooke Burns, Bruce Boxleitner, Ali Skovbye, Samantha Ferris, Lane Edwards, Jennifer Copping, Myrasol Martinez,Noel Johansen, Alex Barima
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2019

Ruby Herring Mysteries: Her Last Breath (2019)

Hallmark Movies and Mysteries debuted six new mystery series in 2019, which turns out to be about three too many. They should probably cull some in the new year, starting with Ruby Herring Mysteries. While the first movie was weak, the second one is even worse. At least Silent Witness featured a case with actual suspects; Her Last Breath, by contrast, will put you to sleep. It concentrates most of its attention on one potential killer without bothering to build a web of viable suspects and motives, nor does it feature any subplots, not a single, solitary one. I wouldn’t mind a dull mystery if the people investigating it had a bit more personality, but they lack even that.

Ruby (Taylor Cole) and Jake (Stephen Huszar) are just not who I want to spend time with. Both are great at keeping their distance, though they do it in their own way. Ruby, a TV reporter who investigates consumer goods, seems nice enough, but I can’t imagine much more than a superficial dinner party chat with her. After two episodes, she still feels like a stranger. I know she likes yoga and drives a Mercedes and sometimes she has a burger at the diner with her dad, but that’s all I’ve got. Jake, a police detective, has a bit more of a personality, just not one I like. He comes across as smug and a bit insufferable, instinctively smirking at Ruby’s every suggestion or scoop. I want to be on his side, but Huszar doesn’t give me enough reason to care for him.

Come to think of it, the most developed and sympathetic character in this movie might be Roger (Andrew Francis), the suspect in Ruby and Jake’s latest case. Ruby once again strong arms her way into police business when her interview subject dies after driving off a cliff. Further investigation reveals that Natalie, the owner of a popular natural foods and lifestyle brand, was poisoned in the week leading up to her death, possibly by smoothie. Suspicion falls on Roger, the resident smoothie guy, and for some reason, he becomes the focus for a good half of the film. We end up knowing more about his background and temperament than that of anyone else. Only later does the story zero in on others, like Natalie’s sister and boyfriend, who may have benefited from her death and her sizeable fortune.

The lopsided storytelling throws everything off-balance. The pacing detracts from the mystery since it takes too long to build up any suspense, and by the time the pieces start coming together, no one’s interested. On top of all this, there’s nothing to break the monotony of the case. An easy subplot would be the workplace rivalry between Ruby and the sleazy reporter who seems willing to cut corners for an exclusive, a guy the news director wants to pair her with, but that never gets off the ground. We don’t even get a wacky bear cam story, and we deserve at least that for sitting through this movie. The one trade-off is a casting change that has Ruby’s father looking age appropriate and not like her older brother.

Highlight for spoilers: If you guessed Amanda from the jump because she’s closest to Natalie and seemingly the most innocent, then you were right. As Natalie’s COO, she funneled millions from Oceans Aware into her own shell company. Either because Natalie found out or she changed her will or maybe some other reason – sorry, the movie got to boring and I didn’t get the specifics, also I watched it at 2 a.m. and turned the volume way down so as not to wake the house – Amanda poisoned Natalie with the foxglove she was growing in her garden. She then painted her SUV white to throw off police and planted evidence on Roger because they had just broken up and why not set up your talentless ex?

Dir: Fred Gerber
Writer: Andrea Canning, Lynn Keller
Cast: Taylor Cole, Stephen Huszar, John Wesley Shipp, Christina Cox, Chelsea Hobbs, Ryan Rosery, Karen Holness, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Andrew Francis, Mig Macario, James Kot, Chenier Hundal,Rachel Hayward, Kehli O’Byrne, Maria Turner
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2020

Crossword Mysteries: Proposing Murder (2019)

There’s nothing like an unexpected opening scene to hook in a viewer, and Proposing Murder makes quite the first impression. Some poor guy meets his end when he opens his front door and is greeted by a dramatic white-blue glow, which is not the way things usually go down in a Hallmark mystery. My first thought was death by nuclear blast or maybe alien invasion, but no, dude was just stabbed with a kitchen knife. Not that that’s trivial because it’s horrible. It’s also no small matter to Tess (Lacey Chabert), our crossword puzzle-making, crime solving hero and friend of the deceased.

Lyle (Kyle Buchanan), the victim, seemed to have everything going for him when he met with Tess days before his murder. A recently tenured history professor, he was getting ready to propose to his girlfriend, Abby, via crossword puzzle when he came in deadly contact with a ceramic knife. Suspicion turns to her because she’s a chef and has whole sets of cutlery with which to kill people. The situation looks even sketchier after she’s seen sharing a tender moment with Clayton, Lyle’s TA. When the gruff coed starts asking more questions than he’s willing to answer, he also gets thrown into the suspect pool, along with the ex-girlfriend who sends threatening notes, the colleague passed up for tenure, and the antique book lady who likes to freeze stuff. I’d add Tess’s new crossword intern into the mix too – because you never know.

She doesn’t need the reminder though and can solve all the crimes with or without police detective Logan (Brennan Elliott) hounding her to stay the hell away. Tess, who feels definite chemistry with the good detective even though it’s been a few, sasses her way around his protestations and goes snooping for information anyway. He eventually gives in because girl is tenacious and consistently brings in twice as much evidence as all the dum-dums in that office. Logan’s chiding bothers me as a rule; I can’t stand an overprotective detective. But he also acknowledges that Tess got skills, and he’s not so arrogant as to try to solve a case without her.

This is the movie where I finally get onboard this Chabert-Elliott train. I still think he looks way older despite a reasonable seven year age difference, but that’s details when every other part of their relationship feels so natural. They make this pairing look effortless, and their comfort with one another comes through in Tess and Logan’s playful jibes. Their chemistry gives the film a real boost and keeps things from lagging. Despite a mystery that’s both easy to solve and mildly suspenseful at best, the movie brims with personality.

I’m still wary about how this series will proceed overall. Unlike the first film in which a crossword puzzle figured prominently in the crime, future cases will be probably be crossword-adjacent. The mystery in Proposing Murder, for example, coincides with the codebreaking theme in Tess’s puzzle, which takes a ton of research if this movie is anything to go by (it’s the only thing I’m going by). This may allow for broader possibilities, but it also kind of takes away from what makes this series special. Tess could have any job and we’d still end up with the same basic story.

Highlight for spoilers: The most innocent one is usually the most guilty, and that’s Christina, who plotted her crime along with Emory. Christina felt she was owed some money from the sale of the jewels since Lyle’s success was due at least in part to her research assistance and acquisition of rare books. When Lyle refused, she decided to confront him and killed him in a fit of passion and then tried to pin the crime on his ex, Bethany. Emory gladly got in on this plan after he was passed over for tenure. Clayton and Abby were not in fact having an affair. He just helped Lyle as a thank you to the professor for getting him back on the right track and into college. He also promised Lyle that he would take care of Abby if anything happened.

Dir: Don McCutcheon
Writer: Gregg Rossen, Brian Sawyer
Cast: Lacey Chabert, Brennan Elliott, John Kapelos, Barbara Niven, Genevieve Kang, Romaine Waite, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Alex Paxton-Beesley,
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2020