Why The Post is an Odd Movie

Is it because of the acting?
No. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep deliver rather low-key performances but that isn't a bad thing; in fact, it is rather impressive. They allow the characters to swallow them up. Both actors can scene-chew with the best of them, but the script doesn't call for that; it calls for them to act ensemble, and they do--because Hanks and Streep can do just about anything.

Is it the approach?
No. I rather like the Spielberg/Eastwood approach to history: take a single person and use that person to distill a representative historical event or time period. I think this approach makes history and certain time periods far more comprehensible and "real." After all, historical moments are made up of people and people's interactions: that's the place to start.

With Spielberg's Lincoln, this works since Lincoln & the Slave Issue is kind of the point of Lincoln.

So, what's the problem?
Katharine Graham/The Washington Post & The Pentagon Papers is maybe the point of Graham/The Washington Post, but Watergate is much more the point of Graham/The Washington Post.

Maybe Spielberg was afraid of going up against All the President's Men.

The movie rather reminded me of Eastwood's J. Edgar which is about Hoover & the Lindbergh Case, which is weird because it should have been about Hoover & Communism.

The New York Times & The Pentagon Papers is a much closer link (which link was well-handled in the movie). However, McNamara & The Pentagon Papers would have been a far closer link.
The amazing Bruce Greenwood as McNamara

Is McNamara the most interesting person in the movie?


Could Spielberg have distilled McNamara down to 120 minutes?

Well, Fog of War didn't try, letting the documentary speak for itself, so I'm not sure.

Is The Post worth watching?

Yes. The story unwinds slowly (which I rather like); since Spielberg is the master of pacing, it pulls the audience in. The ensemble cast is excellent. The history carries the movie in a non-history-dump way. I learned more about Katharine Graham and The Pentagon Papers plus the movie made me want to watch All the President's Men. And, as another reviewer pointed out, it was cool to see people typing on typewriters and typesetting the newspaper copy sans a computer. Yes, kids, people used to do that!

Still . . . the sense of oddity remains . . .

Great Character Actor: Patrick Fischler

I love the diatribe about raccoons!
Patrick Fischler is one of my favorite guest stars. He is another one of those hardworking actors who appears in just about everything (or so it seems to me, since he does a lot of murder mystery shows).

He shows up in CSI ("Fur and Loathing" as Wolfie), Castle (as an assassin), Monk (as a Cobra fan), Bones . . .

My favorite is Bones, "The Boy in the Time Capsule."

In the shows I watch, Fischler's appearances last a total of five to ten minutes (Castle is an exception).  And yet, like Harriet Samson Harris, he endows even a three minute scene with pathos or humor or creepiness (whatever is called for). Without overacting, the guy has range!

In "The Boy in the Time Capsule," he manages to capture pain, guilt, and long-suppressed teenage bewilderment in only a few scenes. It is impressive without being excessive--as a Whedon director once pointed out in commentary, directors need their episode extras to act but not show off for the camera. Fischler is the perfect example of the guest star who knows exactly what to do for a scene and delivers. He isn't grabbing his chance in the sun; he is aiding the episode to be the best episode it can be.

Actors like Fischler are like parallelism in writing. If it isn't there, it's noticeable. When it is, everyone takes it for granted.

He's so good, you take him for granted. Kudos!

The Underlying Ideology of Blue Bloods: It's All About the Hard Work

The best way to understand Blue Bloods' mentality is the episode where Danny protects the Hollywood star (well-played by Marc Blucas, who has absolutely learned his range as a decent guest star) from a scandal that could hurt his career.

It seems like Danny, who is a hard-nosed, call-it-as-it-is pursuer of the truth, would pour scorn on the pathetic Hollywood star who can't be honest about his life. And that's sort of true. Here's the dialog that makes the difference:
Danny: Come on, Russell, I don't give a damn if you like men or women or cream-filled donuts, okay? It's 2013. Men marry each other all the time. They put it in the papers, for goodness' sake.
Russell: Well, in my world, it's 1913, and they don't hire fairies to star in the moving pictures, especially the kind I make. (my emphasis)
Even the dog is saved to do a job.
Danny agrees to keep Russell's mugging "secret" when Russell's livelihood is placed on the line.

This is the ideology that underscores not only Blue Bloods but Tom Selleck's own conservatism. It is, to be frank, old-fashioned liberalism (though not, unfortunately, always defended by liberals). A police commissioner (or a police investigator) has every right to badger people--right up until the matter becomes about their personal lives AND their ability to support themselves financially.

Whenever it seems like any of the Reagans are violating their own principles (which they rarely do), it is always for this reason: we should never make earning-a-living more difficult for people. Frank doesn't punish a precinct lieutenant who has been working extra jobs to pay for his wife's treatment because he recognizes (1) that the man is not sloughing off; he is trying to balance impossible pressures in his life; (2) the man's people have risen to the occasion to help him out.

When Frank helps the mayor's illegitimate daughter who got arrested at a demonstration, he does so to keep her future job options open (and to help a man he admires). When he helps the dead bigamous cop's "other" family, it is in acknowledgement that (1) this was the man's private life; (2) the cop supported both families through his work; (3) the "other" family is not to blame.

And when he chaperones his grandson's field trip, he goes out of his way to make clear that the grandson's young friend could be a doctor AND a park ranger. There's nothing wrong with trying out and doing more than one thing. It's up to the individual.

None of the Reagans tolerate what Danny refers to when he tells Baez that there IS one reason his family would stop talking to him: "If I were on the take."

But hard work--hard work on one's own time--hard work to support one's own family--is the ultimate good and the ultimate reason to protect a city.

Historical Principle: Be Wary of the Narrative Arc.

In a series of prior posts, I discussed Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time mystery novel in terms of the historical principles/research problems that it raises.

These second series of posts are those posts reposted and edited with supplemental material about research and history in general.

In Daughter of Time, policeman Grant discusses the type of history told in tidy, compartmentalized stories:
This, after all, was the history that every adult remembered. This was what remained in their minds when tonnage and poundage, and ship money, and Laud's Liturgy, and the Rye House Plot, and the Triennial Acts, and all the long muddle of schism and shindy, treaty and treason, had faded from their consciousness (p.25). 
Grant is referring to how "we" (meaning me and other people) remember something like the American Revolution in terms of Paul Revere. The Boston Tea Party. Crossing the Delaware.  Discrete, compartmentalized events.

And I defend this--after all, people should have some idea of the order of history, some starting point. I even point out that sometimes the streamlined "easy" story turns out to be kind of true. Yes, more people than Paul Revere headed out to warn colonists that the "British are coming!" But modern scholarship reveals that Paul Revere's efforts had greater impact and spread the message to more people than either Dr. Prescott's or William Dawes' (see Gladwell's The Tipping Point). Longfellow's choice of hero carries a core of truth.

I also complain about well-educated adults who confuse the Middle Ages with the 1700s (I'm not kidding). Or don't realize that people were emigrating West before the Civil War (and after). So knowing the order of events in history can be useful.

However, in this revised post, I want to focus on the need to question the narrative arc, whether conservative or progressive. It is surprisingly difficult to convince adult people that a narrative like, "Women wanted the vote but men tried to stop them" is far too simplistic. In truth, many women wanted the vote and many men helped them. And a large number of women opposed the suffrage movement and although they were linked to men, the anti-suffragists were surprisingly independent from men (though they used men when convenient).

A good example of my own experience with narrative arcs being upended is Rosie the Riveter and WWII. The narrative arc I learned growing up is that women didn't work before WWII. Then the war came and women went to work.

Actually, no. The war came and women were able to get well-paying manufacturing jobs.

Women were already working. The suburban homemaker of the two-parent/one-income family is fairly exclusive to an extremely small portion of American women and to, well, all of history (taking into consideration that for much of history, men and women worked out of the same location--and yes, they were both bringing in income; check out Martha Ballard).

The nature of work changed over the years, but again, many of the women who went to work in the factories were women who were already working outside the home. They liked the jobs because they paid well, they paid for schooling, and the women often mastered them very quickly. When the war ended and soldiers came back, the propaganda machine said, "Okay, women, go back to your children." But these were women who already belonged to two-income households or were the sole breadwinners of one-income families. They didn't go back home. They went looking for another job.

Conclusion: Be careful of the narrative that insists that once upon a time, EVERYBODY was like THIS.

It's Nice When the Guest Stars AREN'T the Bad Guys

One problem with murder mystery shows is that the bad guy can't be a member of the Scooby Gang (cause eventually there would be no one left, like murder mystery shows set in English villages).

Unfortunately, this means that the moment the guest star shows up, well, There's the villain.

I never watch murder mystery shows to "guess," yet even I get tired of the guest being the bad guy.

One solution is the Timothy Hutton Nero Wolfe approach in which the "players" alternate between bad guys, good guys, detectives, cops, and auxiliary characters.

Most Hollywood shows aren't that highly developed (although the same people do tend to show up on Law & Order).

Colin Hanks gets to play a frenemy.
So I am always impressed when guest stars aren't the bad guys. Numb3rs was surprisingly adept at this. It would bring on decent guest stars, including Jay Baruchel, Lou Diamond Phillips, Joshua Malina, as experts in a particular field. They were there to help the team, not be exposed as the evil henchman to the evil big bad (or even the big bad).

Yes, there were the bad guy guest stars such as David Gallagher, but we knew he was a bad guy from the beginning. No surprises.

Compare this to NCIS where guest stars--even those trusted by the team (though never by Gibbs)--might as well wear tags labeled "DANGER DANGER DANGER!" from Day 1.

Nemesis-but-not-bad-guy-Kelly-Peterson: "Of course, if
we were face to face, I'd have to stand up on that desk."
Though I admit to being amused by the NCIS writers' willingness to spoof their own "surprises"--anyone who works in Abby's lab other than Abby? Yeah, a bad guy.

Blue Bloods is somewhere between Numb3rs and NCIS. Sometimes the guest star is a guest expert; sometimes the guest star is--surprise! surprise!--the bad guy.

I always wonder: do the guest stars get to pick? Hey, every time I'm on one of these shows, I kill someone. Could I be the victim this time? 

Good Psychology: Branagh's Cinderella

So Murder on the Orient Express may not have been Branagh's finest 2 hours (although it is still worth watching). Cinderella is impressively fine.

*Slight Spoilers*

I may simply have been relieved that I didn't have to watch mice sing. (I did love the pissed-off cat.)

Actually, the impressive thing about Branagh's Cinderella (Disney's version without songs) is the subtle way the script, the directing, and the actors/actresses insert psychology into a classic tale.

One of my favorite aspects of re-told fairytales is this filling-in-the-blanks effort. Why does Cinderella's father remarry? Why is the stepmother so horrible? Why does Cinderella put up with it all?

Historical knowledge answers a number of these questions. As numerous fairy tales analyses have pointed out, remarriage was a custom in the Middle Ages, specifically men remarrying since women were more likely to die in childbirth than from any other cause. Stepmothers were understandably more invested in their immediate offspring--although there were nice stepmothers as well. And women had limited options, especially an upperclass woman who couldn't--without massive social disapproval--become a laundress, wife of a shopkeeper, or prostitute. An upperclass woman of the nineteenth century could, as the Bronte sisters unhappily discovered, work as a governess. And a little later, circa Florence Nightingale, they could possibly work as nurses (with the burden of nobody treating them with a great deal of respect).

But Cinderella truly has few options, not if she wants to eat.

Whoever wrote the script for Branagh's Cinderella was clearly well-versed in historical explanations (even if princes refusing to hunt down stags isn't a historical norm). The stepmother's partying as a member of the demimonde explains the lack of affection between husband and wife. The debt caused by the father's death (a merchant, his capital would reside in the next shipment) explains the lack of funds for servants.

However, for a modern audience, psychology also needs to be present, and the psychology in this case is very clever:

Cinderella's deep curtsy to the king isn't female
capitulation. It is savvy statesmanship.
1. Why does Cinderella acquiesce?

She doesn't. By putting the kingdom's needs first at the end of the movie, she acknowledges that she is not only tough enough to survive (and she knows it), she is savvy enough to correctly diagnose her stepmother's petty ambitions. And she'll make a fairly stellar queen since she has enough inherent pride to overrule others' weaker wills.

She's well-played by Lily James who combines sweetness with a stubborn chin.

2. Why is the stepmother so horrible?

She's magnificently played by Cate Blanchett, who can invest even the flimsiest dialog with meaning. The quietly nasty way by which she slowly diminishes Ella's position in the household is chillingly effective.

In this case, the script provides more than flimsy dialog, giving the stepmother a monologue of degraded hopes. She's a desperate widow who wanted to get more out of life than life allowed her to get. This is Disney and she's a bad mom, so she suffers. I treated this type a little more kindly in Persuadable--with a little help from Austen. Austen didn't much care for this type either, but she understood it. If all that stands between a woman and poverty is an unhappy marriage . . .

Austen chose comparative poverty. She understood women who didn't.

Prince Kit confronting the conniving archduke.
3. What's up with the shoe search?

The psychology behind the shoe search (shoot, Kit knows what Cinderella looks like!) is extremely clever and totally unspoken. The prince pushes the trying-on-shoe thing, and it does initially seem like a massive waste of resources. But the overriding impression is that he is using the hunt to test the loyalty of his closest advisor. Weed out the bad apples!

And it works!!

Still, I was left with the strong feeling that the marriage and the kingdom would survive because Cinderella is something of a financial and political powerhouse. And the prince is smart enough to recognize that fact.

As is the fairy godmother--another stellar performance by Helena Bonham Carter by the way.

All in all, a respectable well-told fairy tale.

Ralph Waite and Dick O'Neill: THE Dads of Tough Guys

Ralph Waite plays the grandfather of Booth, tough FBI agent, and the father of ultimate-tough-guy-never-to-be-contested Gibbs of NCIS.

Dick O'Neill was the father of "hotdog" Cagney (of Cagney & Lacey) and father-figure shop teacher to accident-prone Tim Taylor.

They don't really look a like . . . except they totally do. What is it about these guys that screams DADS? Or, rather, DADS TO THE TOUGHEST?

Image result for dick o'neillOkay, Dick O'Neill did play Dad to Cheers' non-tough Cliff Clavin.

Still . . . 

A-Z List, Part 4

Actually, it would be more accurate to call this the 000-999 List.

Yup, it's time for non-fiction, and I'm using the Dewey Decimal System!

I'm passably familiar with the Library of Congress System. By the time I left college (both times) I could more or less find the sections for topics like "Religion" and "Science." Unfortunately, at this point, I only remember that "P" is "Humanities."

But the Dewey Decimal System and I are old pals. I will be reviewing a book from each set of 100. (See list above).

For 000-099, I chose Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero (001.944). The book refutes the existence of famous cryptids, such as Big Foot and Loch Ness, while also explaining how myths about these creatures came to be. Loxton and Prothero write separate chapters (Loxton covers Bigfoot and Loch Ness, for example, while Prothero tackles Yeti and the Congo Dinosaur).

The book is quite readable, Loxton's portions slightly more than Prothero's, and beautifully illustrated.

The theme: It isn't science if you can't test it.

Show me a million so-called samples of Bigfoot's fur (which inevitably turn out to be bear or human). If I have nothing to compare it against, so what?

Wishing doesn't make something so. And the human capacity to wish is tremendous.

Loxton, who writes with a sweet-natured glint in the eye, is more tolerant of the desire to find big monsters (despite the fact that a real pleiosaurus like Nessie would have long ago eaten up all the loch's food sources). As a lover of cryptids in childhood, he understands the fascination with the unknown--after all, in the late nineteenth century, Great White Sharks were considered something of a myth! Sometimes, the capacity to wish reveals astonishing truths and inventions.

In comparison, Prothero gets downright testy about the insistence on the existence of certain cryptids. It is possible that he uses a tetchy tone as a deliberate contrast to Loxton's friendlier one. But the difference in tone may also be innate. In the last chapter, the two authors present their differing opinions regarding the pursuit of cryptids, Loxton maintaining that it is harmless and can lead to an interest in the natural world; Prothero arguing that it is harmful to real science.

I mostly agree with Loxton, but I must admit that when I recently saw a non-fiction children's book in the library that presented Bigfoot as a given, I was appalled at the publisher.

Oh, well, part of a free society is learning to distinguish good information from bad.

The most consistent facts that emerge from the creation of these myths is that humans love to hoax! (which is why science requires testing). Any hint of any big thing lurking in the shadows appears to bring out the junior high boy in a truly astonishing number of people (who sometimes recant, then change their minds when they start earning bucks).

As Loxton writes, "There seems little need to conjure a central conspiracy when good humor, expectation, and simple human error could so easily provide ample fuel to spark a monster myth" (141).

(Through there is a very funny Dharma & Greg episode where Greg tries to convince the alien conspiracy theorists that they have been taken in by a conspiracy to defraud them of money. They shake their heads at the poor, deluded fool.)

Ultimately, although I highly recommend the book, I doubt it is read by many "true" believers (excluding the ones who like to hunt for one tiny mistake in a text, then say, "See! I knew they were wrong!").

However, also ultimately, Loxton and Prothero are right: if it can't be tested and it relies on the argument "Everyone else is lying!" then it's a hobby, not a scientific discovery.

* * *
Loxton, Daniel and Donald R. Prothero. Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. Columbia: 2013.

Hollywood's Obsession with Psychics

Re-post: With the publication of Coin, I decided to repost the below 2013 post.

Anthony Andrews as the devious "psychic" in Columbo.
The main character of Coin, Donna, is an investigator with paranormal abilities. She is not--as she repeatedly attempts to explain--a psychic. Also, unlike so many literary and television psychics, she does not assume people should accept her "evidence" as empirical. The below post explains why.
* * *
I love mystery shows. Unfortunately, this means that I have to endure many many "detective meets psychic" episodes. Nearly every mystery show has one or more of these episodes (I use the word "nearly" to cover myself, but really they all do).

Even Numb3rs--Numb3rs!--caved and had a couple. 

It is very annoying, Red John annoying. Inevitably, the episode will be about how the tough detective/math instructor/profiler should accept that there is something else out there (cue religious or scary music).

Part of Scully's dream: her father
My problem is not believing in a supernatural/outside-our-ken mover & shaker. I've seen a number of detective-meets-Catholic-priest episodes that have this same theme or lesson. Shoot, the entire show X-Files is based on this theme and it doesn't bother me.

The difference is this: usually, in a detective show (and X-Files) when the tough detective meets the priest/guru, the point is, "Okay, we solved the case, but maybe we don't fully understand the workings of the human mind or of the universe, etc."

That's a very intelligent point whether one is talking religion or science: there may be stuff we don't know. In Numb3rs, this is almost always Larry's role--to remind Charles that his equations may not be able to capture the ineffable.

But in episodes where the tough detective meets the psychic, the point is (almost always) that the detective should be open-minded enough to let the psychic help.

Are you kidding me?

I am not debating the possibility of stuff like ESP. I am doubting the use of the equivalent of interpretive dance to guide an investigation.

Again and again and again, psychics in real life and on television/film inform us that psychics can't  produce information willy-nilly. They have to be in the mood: their visions come and go; they can't promise definite answers; they can only interpret what they see or feel.

I read a book awhile back in which the author whined that the military gave up on ESP research because those awful rigid bureaucrats didn't understand all this stuff about moods and the haphazard nature of visions and interpretation.

"Roshomama": Grissom's version
Whatever: if I were the military, I'd have dropped them too. I can just see some general standing on a field somewhere, missiles incoming, the enemy on the horizon, the H-Bomb minutes away from exploding, going, "Sorry, soldiers, we gotta give the psychic time to center himself."

As for interpretation, as the waitress says in the non-psychic CSI episode "Rashomama,"

"Weddings are Roscharch tests."

Likewise, psychic interpretations can be interpreted just about any way people want.

There are a few decent mystery episodes that deal with psychics:
  • CSI's "Stalker"--the psychic is used to tell the story, not solve the case. Although he helps Nick in the end, he also complicates matters and even, possibly, pushed the victim to return home when she should have stayed in the hotel. He is a decent, well-meaning character. Confused and burdened by his "gift", he relates information not to change people's minds but because he feels compelled.
  • Monk's "Monk and the Psychic"--the psychic is a fraud! She is also hilariously played by Linda Kash.
  • Columbo's "Columbo Goes to the Guillotine"--the psychic is not only a fraud but a clever murderer played by the ever-clever-and-urbane Anthony Andrews (see above).
  • Psych naturally cause it's just fun:
Burton 'Gus' Guster:You named your fake detective agency "Psych"? Why not just call it "Hey, We're Fooling You and the Police Department, Hope We Don't Make a Mistake and Someone Dies Because of It"?
Shawn Spencer: First of all, Gus, that name is entirely too long. It would never fit on the window. And secondly, the best way to convince people you're not lying to them is to tell them you are.
That's just about it. The psychic episodes on Numb3rs--in which the psychic is played by the disturbing John Glover--are completely annoying and take the show out of reputable-if-occasionally-misapplied-logic territory to total silliness.

The psychic episodes on The Mentalist would have been far more interesting if they hadn't been used to undermine Jane's credibility.

The psychic episode on Criminal Minds was hilariously stupid (despite Cybill Shepherd), being of the "I sense water; the body must be near . . . a rain gutter!" variety.

And there's more--there have been psychics on Murder, She Wrote; Diagnosis Murder . . . you name a mystery show, I can (almost) guarantee that a psychic has shown up at some point.

I know Hollywood runs out of story ideas, but really people, give it a rest!
* * *
Back to 2018: Donna of Coin isn't a psychic; she can't predict the future. And she doesn't rely on feelings or intuition to "prove" a case. That's lazy and as the ministers surrounding the Salem Witch Trials began to point out: in a case built on hearsay, anybody's version could be true.

Instead, Donna uses her abilities to locate clues that can lead to empirical evidence--and if sometimes, there's a gap between knowledge and evidence, that's where an ethical person has to take a good hard look at herself.  

New Publication: A Murder Mystery!

My newest publication, Coin: A Donna Howard Mystery is now available on Kindle and in paperback!

This is my first murder mystery. Writing Coin was a fun exploration of red herrings and of life in the 1990s. Remember the 1990s? Using a 1995 setting took me back before DVD and even gmail!

The paranormal gifts of my main character meant I also ended up exploring decades of Portland, Maine history. I've lived here twenty years and never knew how much I didn't know.

The official blurb:
It's 1995 and Donna Howard is living an ordinary life in Portland, Maine. She works as a hairdresser, has a boring boyfriend plus two opinionated brothers and two exhaustively energetic parents. As far as she's concerned, she's an ordinary person and is proud of it.

Except she can see the past. Walk down any street in the old part of the city and four centuries of its inhabitants walk right along with her. She can observe them, hear them, smell them. And she'd rather not. She'd prefer to leave the past in the past.

Until a customer "accidentally" leaves an ancient Roman coin at the hair salon. A coin worth an awful lot of money. Then the woman appraising the coin for the Portland Museum of Art "accidentally" ends up dead. And now the past won't leave Donna alone.

Not even the man whose visage was molded into the metal 2000 years ago, a man who wreaked mayhem then and may have witnessed murder now. Quite unwittingly, Donna uncovers family secrets, confronts historical controversies, and closes in on a very contemporary crime.
Thanks to Eugene, my editor, who is also responsible for the Art Deco cover!

Murder on the Orient Express (2017): A Review

Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express is worth watching.

It isn't very good. But it's worth watching.

If anything, the movie illustrates the basic visual problem with the plot's structure. Christie herself never attempted to turn the book into a play, and there's a reason for that. The middle part is Poirot talking to various individuals in an enclosed space.

That's it. "Hi, I'm Poirot. Tell me your story while we sit on a non-moving train."(Like Keen Eddie--"Hi, I'm Eddie. How do you like me so far?"--except Eddie gets to run around London and break up bar fights.)

The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express handles this problem through sheer exhaustive and demanding inside-a-small-space camera work--and the tremendous energy of Albert Finney. The pacing demands attention.

Branagh's version, oddly enough, suffers from too much variety. Slow scenes. Fast scenes. Inside shots. Outside shots. Branagh is a skilled director, so customarily this would work.

It doesn't. The change of pace for the interviews--which allow Branagh's considerable talent to shine (he isn't Poirot to me, but he's Branagh, so he's worth watching)--forces the story of interviewing-people to fall apart. What's happening now? The quick pace in the denouement--which ought to work wonders--brushes over the most heartrending parts of the visual story, such as Hardiman and Michel's reaction to the picture of the French maid; Mrs. Hubbard's quiet, drawling revelations.

Bergman's Third Oscar
Before anyone claims that "movies back then" were "so much better"--the truth is, the 1974 version was something of a fluke (check out other mystery movies of that era and earlier if you doubt me; even The Thin Man sequels drag). The 1974 version really shouldn't have worked and only did for a variety of overlapping reasons, including cameo monologues, audience interest in murder movies (thank Hitchcock for that one), and, as mentioned above, the hectic pace.

Branagh's movie has all the right elements. There are no individual false notes. The cast is excellent if underused. Patrick Doyle's music is, of course, spot on. The scenery is gorgeous. The movie isn't dull, even if weirdly paced. And Branagh, of course, is as good as he is in any movie where Branagh plays someone. The movie is clearly a tribute by Branagh to the 1974 version, so the element of "due tribute" is even there (James Bond doesn't suddenly appear, wielding bombs--like Schwarzenegger at Elsinore in Last Action Hero; yes, I realize some people would prefer that).

Unfortunately, as a million fantasy writers have discovered, you can't simply put a bunch of elements into a bag (elves, swords, wizards, sarcastic people), shake them up, and get a masterpiece.

However, here's an ultimate reason to watch the movie (other than Branagh, Agatha Christie, and hey-it's-only-2-hours!):

Johnny Depp is mind-blowing.


Johnny Depp as a thug was the one "huh" casting choice I questioned. I forgot what a profoundly good actor he can be. As Ratchett, he is phenomenal. Watch it just for him.

Shakespeare, Alun Armstrong, and Accents

Totally fascinating video about how Shakespeare originally sounded.

For your Alun Armstrong fans, this video explains why Brian Lane's Shakespeare monologue in New Tricks' "Final Curtain"--in his broad North East Londoner accent--is so fantastic!

Alun Armstrong is in fact a renowned Shakespearean actor AND he played Thénardier in Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Concert.

Holmes as Voyeur

In "The Crooked Man," Holmes and Watson
solve the mystery for their own benefit--not in
order to apprehend a criminal.
Watching Jeremy Brett's Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I've been reminded all over again that these are action/adventures tales rather than detective stories. What is astonishing about the series' episodes, which are quite faithful to the original tales, is how often Holmes and Watson don't prevent the crimes. They arrive after people have been hung or kidnapped, attacked in their homes, even murdered.

Again, this is largely due to Doyle wanting to write action/suspense stories (as opposed to forensic examinations). Also, however, detection for the Victorians/Edwardians was not the same as it is for us. Historians of the murder mystery point out that detective stories increased by a tremendous degree in Victorianism's later years, specifically with (1) the advent of the "private" home; (2) the inception of the police.

That is, when society became more private--when the "family" moved indoors outside of the public gaze--obsession with what WAS going on behind closed doors grew. The policeman or detective (female and male) who crept inside was both an abhorrent and coveted figure: how awful that she/he would transgress family privacy; how wonderful that she/he can figure out what is really going on.

The point of the Doyle stories isn't so much that crime has been stopped or the criminal punished (contemporary concerns) but that the privacy of the home has been stripped away, the truth of the family revealed.

It's voyeurism--and maybe, in essence, all detective fiction is.

You think The National Enquirer is bad . . .

Cagney & Lacey: First Time Viewer

Cagney & Lacey is another of "those" shows that I never saw growing up (although I grew up in a home without a permanent TV, that's not a good enough excuse--I am familiar with a surprising number of Brady Bunch episodes).

Like with Columbo, I've been pleasantly surprised. It is naturally dated, not in the painful way of "vintage" shows--such as Simon & Simon--but in a charming nostalgic way--such as  Barney Miller and early Law & Order.

In fact, watching Cagney & Lacey is rather like watching a Barney Miller/early Law & Order reunion. I keep saying, "Wow, there's another early cop-show guest star!"

It resembles both shows in the quick dialog and (usually) not too heavy-handed balance of "tough" subjects and character development. There are, naturally, the "serious" episodes that touch on controversial issues (is porn a victimless crime? should cops go out on strike?). I didn't appreciate until Cagney & Lacey how far Law & Order had been anticipated re: its "pulled from the headlines" approach.

The marriage of Mary Beth Lacey and Harvey Lacey also anticipates Linda and Danny of Blue Bloods

Last but not least, the non-spick & span police station is anticipated by dozens of cop shows in the twentieth century. I have a soft spot for dirty, linoleum police stations. Truth: I've never fully accepted the sleek, clean settings of shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I totally understand why Tom Paris of ST: Voyager started building space shuttles with blinking buzzers and lights--it just seems more authentic.

Cagney & Lacey is helped by decent acting. I had no idea that Tyne Daly (whom I'd only seen in a Columbo episode prior to watching Cagney & Lacey) was that good. Cagney & Lacey actors are the kind that definitely fit the profile of "working actors." Harvey Atkin, for instance, seems to have been everywhere, performing in everything. These are actors who will do voice work, live action, movies, films. It's a job. Of course, it's a job.

Rowan Atkinson's Best Role

I love Rowan Atkinson in just about anything. I adore him in The Thin Blue Line.

In The Thin Blue Line, Rowan Atkinson as Detective Inspector Fowler gets to use his excellent physical skills, as when he acts like an alien (to instruct his constables on tolerance), attempts to fight a tree hugger and dances badly at a disco.

He also gets to show his sarcastic side. Fowler is smarter than everyone else in the police station (other than Habib, who is the only one who can keep up with him intellectually) and, perhaps more importantly, more endowed with commonsense. He rolls his eyes at Detective Inspector Grim's obsession with (to name a few) Scotland Yard slang, secret societies, the supposed end of civilization (due to whatever Grim is upset with that week).

Not that Fowler doesn't have his weak spots (like the Mayoress and chocolate hob-nobs), but his weak spots only serve to endear him to his subordinates.

Fowler's supposed weakest spot is his intense middle-class, bourgeois conservatism. He thinks highly of the Queen and actually buys her a present--as befitting a civil servant. He tut-tuts at Habib's "modern" sarcasm. He insists on using terms like "fair play." He is a fan of the dull and boring. When Habib points out that watching sport (European soccer) is wet and boring, he replies, "Yes, it is," going on to argue that this is part of its "British" appeal.

Fowler's self-mocking yet entirely serious conservatism is very British and only matched in America by Tim Allen's Mike Baxter.

The Gasworth team isn't very good. However, "not being very good is what we British are good at," states Fowler with utter goodwill. Showing up and being disappointed is the British way.

Ultimately, it is Fowler's goodwill that makes him so appealing (and far more lovable than the excellent Black Adder). He is sweet, kind, gentle, honest, brave, and easy-tempered.

Fowler is an excellent leader--he has no trouble keeping his
constables in line, yet he encourages creativity, even argument.
The "role playing" skits (see above) are some of my favorites.
My favorite example of Fowler's kindness is when Habib gets into trouble for helping her sister at a rave. Habib takes her sister's marijuana to prevent her getting arrested. When Habib is discovered, Grim and Doyle threatened to charge her. Fowler pleads for mercy--he doesn't debate the basic wrongness of what Habib did or even pretend for a moment that Grim and Doyle don't have the rights of the situation. Rather, he finds a way to force Grim to trade his own vaguely unethical behavior for Habib's far more comprehensible mistake.

While speaking to Habib, Fowler cries, "You fool, constable. What madness possessed you?"

It is almost impossible to convey how Atkinson says that final line. It is gentle, pained. Habib is left in no doubt that he is entirely on her side. As her superior officer, he will do his best to protect her even if he is disappointed in her.

All great comedians are great dramatic actors. Atkinson is no exception. 

An Actor In Search of a Role

Some actors can fall into any role. Other actors need to find their role.

Sabrina Lloyd doesn't quite work as Don's ex-girlfriend in the first season of Numb3rs. She also isn't quite right as Wade in Sliders, a problem I write about here. However, she shines in the comedy Sports Night opposite the endearing Joshua Malina.

On the other hand, Joss Whedon alumnus Amy Acker slides effortlessly into nearly every role.

Granted, Amy Acker is something of a marvel but the issue here isn't acting ability but how various roles seem to suit actors or actresses best.

T.J. Thyne had a healthy and respectable career as a minor-guest-character-with-clever-lines for years before he landed Bones. His prior roles were truthfully all variations on a theme. This doesn't mean T.J. Thyne isn't a good actor; it means he plays a particular role exceptionally well.

Yup, that's TJ Thyne on Friends
Elsewhere, I mention that Joan Fontaine was less than perfect as Jane Eyre. Hitchcock, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do with her. She was nominated for her role in Rebecca and won for her role in Suspicion.

Do casting directors get awards for picking the right person for the right role? Because they should. 

Another interesting point about casting directors is that many of them tend to pick similar-looking actors for guest spots. I'm sure there's a kind of underground rumor mill in Hollywood: "Hey, that show on CBS is looking for a guest star right now, and the casting director always picks rangy blonds of about 5'10"--you should try out!"

In any case, this is one more reminder to me of how much, for these actors, their roles are jobs. Which is why I always feel bad when an actor loses a role, even if that actor wasn't very good. It's a living, people!

Finding the right niche is part of making a good living.

The Emotional Intelligence of Castle

One of my favorite aspects of Castle, of Castle, is his emotional intelligence. Although he comes across initially as an irresponsible playboy (explaining why Beckett would be so cautious about forming a romantic attachment), that reputation is immediately undermined by his behavior towards his daughter and mother. In fact, Alexis and Martha are two of the smartest psychological story choices in Castle. Even before Beckett falls in love with Castle, his homelife offers her relationships that she lost when her mother was killed.

In addition, Castle is surprisingly mature. When Beckett's ex-boyfriend shows up in Season 1 and tries to mock Castle, Castle is unfazed. When, in the same episode, Beckett asks him to go home, he does, returning only when he figures out a clue.

Castle also looks out for Alexis's friends: the young model, the drunk Paige, and the sister of the rock star. He perceives his responsibility as going beyond "not getting upset." Rather, he goes out of his way to provide a safe haven for the model, call the drunk Paige's parents, and track down the sister of the rock star.

Oddly enough, however, my favorite example of Castle's emotional intelligence is not when he is behaving parental but in the episode "The Late Shaft." He sleeps with an actress who turns out to be using him to get the lead in the Nikki Heat movies. When she shows up to apologize, rather than acting hurt and thwarted and "how dare you!" Castle recognizes that she was playing a game that he willingly participated in and even should have foreseen. His pride may have been dented, but that's no reason to take it out on her:
Thanks. I'm headed back to LA, and I just wanted to say sorry.
Thanks. But the truth is, I've never had so much fun being used. You feel free to have at me anytime.
Well, I guess you'll rescind your recommendation of me to your producers, and that is the least I deserve.
No. Tony thinks you are great for it. And so do I. You are a better actress than I thought when I recommended you.
Well, you should know I wasn't acting the whole time.
Me neither.
Thanks, Rick. Take care.
You, too.
Castle's ability to take Ellie in stride reminds me of an Agatha Christie quote from Murder in Mesopotamia. Dr. Reilly states, "Men aren't little boys to be shielded and protected. They've got to meet cat women--and faithful spaniel, yours-till-death adoring women, and henpecking nagging bird women--and all the rest of it!"

Nathan Fillion sells the role of a guy who comes across (partly on purpose) as a fly-by-night, shallow narcissist but is in fact, as his mother points out, a truly good and mature man. Great character!

Barney Miller: Still Great Television

I now own the 6th Season of Barney Miller. I went through all the seasons a few years ago. Rewatching Season 6 reminded me all over again what great television it is--how impressively well-written Barney Miller was in the years before television really had a ton of money (proving that sometimes love outweighs cash).  

There are so many reasons Barney Miller is excellent, including the impressive cast: Hal Linden, Ron Glass (1945-2016, may he rest in peace), Abe Vigoda, Max Gail, Steven Landesberg, Jack Soo, Ron Carey, James Gregory . . . and a set of back benchers (as detectives, criminals, locals) with serious credentials (Roscoe Lee Browne and James Cromwell to name a few).

Hal Linden and the excessively dry
Steve Landesberg
Without the impressive acting, the show wouldn't be quite so good; in the long-run though, all the acting in the world can't make up for poor writing. And the writing on Barney Miller is as impressive as the comedic specialists who deliver the lines.

Barney Miller, in truth, skirts the line of moralistic television. This is different from episodes with a moral--moralistic television involves what I call "after-school special" writing. The moral in the former is an underlying thread or even joke. The moral in the latter is Something the Audience Should Learn.

Generally speaking, I don't like the latter in my fiction. Give me a moral perspective. Give me moral problems that the characters debate. Don't try to make me a better person (see the moralistic and cloying Rent as compared to the hilarious, ribald, and far superior Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Like other shows of the time period (see Star Trek), Barney Miller is grappling with heavy ideas: the definition of rape, cults, reminders of Vietnam, corrupt police, religious doubts, race issues, broken marriages, treatment of the elderly, treatment of gays . . .

It just avoids becoming moralistic and preachy, partly, again, because of the actors, but mostly, in this case, because the writers never forget the other side. The diatribes and excuses of the "bad" characters are often played for laughs, but they are never played easily. When Harris and Dietrich debate the Vietnam War with Wojo, Wojo is allowed to speak his piece. When various government officials show up in the precinct, their personal failings and desires, their little idiosyncratic dreams, are allowed expression. When Harris is shot at by fellow police officers, the fallout affects all the members of the 12th, who express a variety of hurt feelings and confusion at Harris's anger.

This is George Murdock NOT as Scanlon--but yes, he was
on Star Trek.
Scanlon is an excellent example of a thoroughly nasty character--he is the Internal Affairs officer who is always trying to find dirt in Barney's precinct--who manages to come across as more complex than a two-dimensional strawman, despite only twelve episodes.

He isn't merely a "Big Bad"--he has reasons for his behavior. At one point, he argues that Barney and his officers couldn't possibly be as clean and upstanding as they are because it isn't "natural." On several occasions, his efforts to expose other people's "criminal" attitudes highlight his own foibles. He comes across as more desirous of applause and affection, despite his slimy nature, than even he realizes.

It is clever writing and clever acting. And never fails to raise a laugh.

Barney Miller earned its Primetime Emmys.