I never imagined Basil Rathbone would ever be surpassed when it came to playing Sherlock Holmes. But surely now Jeremy Brett is the definitive detective. For some, Margaret Rutherford holds the same place of honor when it comes to Miss Marple, the deceptively sweet and mild-mannered little old lady with a keen eye for clues. Others give TV's Joan Hickson first place of honor. But we can all agree the recent relaunch of Miss Marple with the excellent actress Geraldine McEwan was a flop. Miss Marple with a long-lost love? One shudders. They've started from scratch (again) because they know mystery buffs will line up and watch anything with stately homes, British accents...and murder.
But surely they're pushing it with the desultory batch of episodes in Agatha Christie Marple Series 4 ($59.99; Acorn). The new Miss Marple is Julia McKenzie, of the delightful miniseries Cranford. (Well worth renting, that one.) Her Jane Marple is certainly a little more Marple-ish than McEwan's but still not spot-on for my taste. This Marple actually seems a bit overwhelmed and flustered at times, even rather confused. (Very mildly, of course.) Yes, she gently prods the local police towards the proper clues but there isn't as much fun made of this as there might be.
I might be reading too much into a banal reaction shot, but one touch I did like was a hint of passion for Marple: when her predictions come true and another person is murdered, a close-up of Marple reveals the barest hint of a thrill of delight coursing through her. At another point, she's asked if she would ever consider heading to a mansion where murder is feared and the close-up shows Marple pretending to weigh the idea when of course wild bulls couldn't keep her away.
But no Marple could overcome the rote nature of these productions. We're offered 4 complete mysteries, each about 90 minutes in length. The first ("A Pocket Full Of Rye") takes a beastly half an hour to involve Marple properly in the goings-on and is unfortunately rather broadly comic in tone. In the last, she takes a bit of a back seat to young people investigating their first crime (Sean Biggerstaff of Harry Potter is the main one).
Yes, all four include the usual array of top-notch British talent: Brian Cox, Rupert Graves, Shirley Henderson, Matthew Macfayden, Jemma Redgrave, Prunella Scales, Samantha Bond, Alex Jennigns and even Joan Collins are all on hand. But every episode contains a clutch of lesser performers who are genuinely bad and overact in the extreme, to the point of provoking laughter. (Blood...will...out!" sputters one young woman in "They Do It With Mirrors," rather hilariously.) And the casting of big names, as so often happens, provides the most obvious clues of all. If I ranked the episodes, I would be choosing which one was the least weak. So the biggest crime here is the one committed against Agatha Christie.
Also Out This Week:
Ballerina ($24.95; First Run) -- It took me a few weeks to catch up with this documentary about five dancers in the Russian Kirov (aka Mariinsky). The five women range in age and disciplines, but their talent and extreme hard work link them completely. You see rehearsals and exercise and pain and talk with them while preparing for performances of crowd-pleasers like Swan Lake and Romeo & Juliet. But even those warhorses are incredibly demanding. Obviously, dance lovers will love this, but it's a testament to the sweat that goes into any artistic endeavor worth the name and anyone can appreciate it. Also out is the charming Carmen & Geoffrey ($24.95; First Run), which captures the remarkable love story and artistic accomplishments of dancers Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder. You'll appreciate my ignorance of the world of dance when I tell you I only knew Holder as the guy from those 7-Up ads and the James Bond film Live and Let Die.
Race To Witch Mountain ($39.99 Special Edition and $44.99 BluRay; Disney) -- Okay, before I bemoan the changes made to Escape To Witch Mountain (what, kids think the word "escape" is too dull so they changed it to "race") not to mention the inclusion of The Rock, let's be clear. I had fond thoughts for the original Seventies kid flick but it was pretty tame, even at the time. So Race To Witch Mountain doesn't soil a beloved classic, it just takes a high concept idea and revamps it for today. No harm, no foul. But no good movie, either. The BluRay costs $5 more than the Special Edition but only $3 more on sale at Amazon ($25.99 versus $22.99). But the single disc edition costs only $15.99 on sale, which is a very substantial difference. It's nice to see BluRay and Special Edition DVDs coming closer in price, but until they're regularly under $20, fans won't bother with either. The BluRay does contain a regular DVD along with the digital copy that also comes with the Special Edition. Is all that confusing? For $26 instead of $16, you can get a lot of flexibility (a copy for the BluRay player, a regular DVD for the kid's room and road trips and a digital copy to carry on a laptop or other device). But that's a lot of money for a little convenience. Kudos to them for releasing all three versions at the same time, but cut out all the bonus features or keep them and lower the price and drop the stripped down one-disc version and send those only to video stores and Netflix. The array of choices is confusing and wasteful and tiresome and BluRay is about to go under for good if it hasn't already as an option.
Flight of the Conchords Second Season ($29.98; HBO) -- During the first season of this show about a New Zealand duo looking for pop success in the US, I often fast-forwarded to the always delightful musical numbers. But slowly the show is growing on me or the guys are just finding their rhythm. In either case, it's become a quiet charmer...even when they're not singing.
The Soloist ($29.98; DreamWorks) -- Oscar bait, but no one was nibbling. The TV movie-ready story of a down on his luck newspaper reporter (Robert Downey Jr) helping out a talented homeless man (Jamie Foxx) with a gift for classical music) is pure mawkishness that two fine actors can't overcome.
The Shape of the World ($59.99; Athena) -- This six-part PBS miniseries turns the science of cartography -- map-making -- into an exploration of the globe. Narrated by Patrick Stewart, it does have the air of a lecture, but a very good lecture indeed. Teens might think they won't be interested, but they will be. It's often damning with faint praise to say a series can inform and educate you, but that surely was the goal here and they achieved it.
Project Runway Season 5 ($27.95; Genius) -- The most star-studded PR yet, with guests like Sandra Bernhard, LL Cool J, Brooke Shields and Natalie Portman popping in alongside Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum. The men were completely shut out of the female-dominated final three and rightly so. And while a reality series might be the wrong place to make this argument, why do they wait till right before the beginning of the new season to release a show on DVD? In the UK, they release shows on DVD as soon as the series ends (sometimes, even while it's still airing) and that piggybacking on all the reviews and publicity seems smart to me. Anyone who wants to catch up before the new season only has a blink of an eye to do it here. (That's really a pain when it comes to 24, for example.) Get it out as soon as the show ends; don't hold onto it until right before the new season begins.
The Tigger Movie: 10th Anniversary Edition ($29.99; Disney) -- I don't like endless spin-offs of Disney characters. I really don't like the direct-to-DVD mush (though this one was released theatrically) and I don't think a character like Tigger -- a classic supporting role if ever there was one -- should be front and center, any more than I want to see a Peanuts film focusing on Snoopy. So sue me, I was wrong. The Tigger Movie is the exception, thanks to songs by the legendary Sherman Brothers, great voice work and a better than average script. Gentle fare that can hold its head high. And if it leads you to reading the A.A. Milne books aloud to your kids, all the better. Extras include two new Tigger shorts.
The Love Boat Season 2 Volume 2 ($36.98; Paramount) -- How in God's name did I sit and watch this series every Saturday night as a kid? It is almost embarrassingly predictable and trite, with the least sexy crew-members on a cruise ship ever. (And where are the gay cruise ship employees?) Heartily condemned by critics at the time and now I'm old enough to know they were right. Not that this stopped me from skipping ahead to the episode starring Charo and you may feel compelled to search out the ones with Sonny Bono, Corey Feldman, Reggie Jackson, Minnie Pearl and the like, depending on your taste or age range. Sure, regular folk had Social Security. But aging celebs had The Love Boat. (Now, I guess they have Dancing With The Stars.)