Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Perfect Mystery

I do love when a writer is able to draw on his expertise to come up with some insightful thoughts on a complicated subject. 
In this month’s featured excerpt from The DVD – Laser Disc Newsletter, Film critic Doug Pratt succinctly deconstructs the mystery genre before launching into his review of the latest entry in the JESSE STONE TV movie franchise. I promise you his insights about why certain movies work in this popular genre will be revealing for both professional screenwriters and fans of the genre.
Personally I have seen only the first three movies in the JESSE STONE series. I truly admired each of the movies I saw, but had to stop watching at three because of the nature of what the franchise filmmakers seek to capture with their Movie Series – an all-encompassing atmosphere of melancholy purposely designed to be the equal to the actual content of the story. The expert execution of their creative goal ended up being too much for me to endure beyond the third movie. My choice not to proceed should be interpreted as a testimonial to my hyper sensitivity, but also an endorsement of the creative accomplishment by the filmmakers who have worked on the franchise all these years. The fact that the movie series has consistently captured a large and loyal audience during a time when Network TV movies have all but disappeared is reason alone to take a serious and close look at the mystery genre. I urge you to take the time to read the excerpt from his Newsletter to discover why Doug Pratt believes there is no mystery to the popularity and creative success of the JESSE STONE TV movie franchise.


by Doug Pratt

Our favorite genres are westerns and murder mysteries.  We love westerns because they are simple.  They strip away the clutter of modernity, and yet are still modern enough to present recognizable dramatic conflicts, made raw without the distracted cooking of technology.  Ironically, they are actually set in the time when the greatest inventions all occurred, and in that sense they represent our collective childhood.  They are also about our own roots, about the America of our great and great-great grandfathers, and so the good and the bad that happen within westerns allows us to visualize our own moral foundations.  And yeah, we love them because we loved them as a child, and watching them allows us to hold onto our own youth and innocence.  As much as they are dramas, they are also action programs, and the excitements they present, largely unembellished by special effects, become a neverending confection of simple but delightful thrills.
Murder mysteries, on the other hand, are about coping with death. We all have loved ones who have died, and whether it was because of microbiology, or war, or the inebriation of an automobile driver, there is no real reason why people die, except that it is an intrinsic part, or conclusion, rather, to the process of life.  But in murder mysteries, there is a reason why people have died, and not only that, there is a hero, who searches on our behalf and then discovers, again on our behalf, why death happened.  Yet, just as life is the journey and not the destination, so, too, are murder mysteries not so much about the solution to the crime (although the entertainment is useless if the solution is flawed), but the atmosphere that is created along the way. Often, it is an atmosphere of danger, where fear for the lives of the characters are so effectively communicated that they become your own, safely experienced fears.  But other times, the mysteries allow the filmmakers to explore a specific, exotic (or, at least, otherwise unvisited) setting, with the ‘plot’ providing validation for wherever the filmmakers want to poke their camera.  The rich array of characters, ‘witnesses’ and ‘suspects,’ each have their moments to suggest their own personalities, their own histories and their own lives, as the hero crosses paths with them.  Thus a fabric of existence is woven, and, as an entertainment, savored.

We obtained two mysteries at the same time, from two TV programs that we have greatly enjoyed, the 2015 installment of the Tom Selleck series about a police chief in a small town in Cape Cod, Jesse Stone Lost in Paradise, a Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release (UPC#043396470279, $27), and the singular 2015 episode of the dazzling Benedict Cumberbatch series, Sherlock The Abominable Bride, a BBC Video release (UPC#883929488162, $23).  As revved up as we were to dive into the Cumberbatch program, however, our first choice was its diametric opposite, the exquisitely languorous and mostly uneventful Lost in Paradise.
As a title card explains, ‘Paradise’ is, “A place or condition of great happiness, where everything is exactly as you would like it to be.”  It’s also the name of the town where Selleck’s character is the chief of police, with about two people under him.  He has the town’s problems so subdued that he has become disabled by his own ennui, and starts working for the state police in his spare time, investigating cold cases.  The case he chooses is the horrendous murder of a prostitute.  A serial killer admitted to killing three others the same way, but insists that the fourth victim was not his, although everyone assumes that he was responsible for the crime. The more the hero digs into it, however, the more he is not so sure. As a ‘B’ story, he also befriends a thirteen-year old girl whose mother is going off the deep end. 

Like the previous entries in the series (there are now nine telefilms in all) the solution to the crime is somewhat obvious, and the climax, while exciting, is pretty much over in an instant.  Indeed, the entire program is over at the 85-minute mark, although extended credits bring the running time to 89 minutes.  And, the bit with the teenaged girl is about as sappy as you can get with a straight face.  But, taken as a whole, Lost in Paradise is absolute perfection. 

Shot in Nova Scotia, which is more Cape Cod than Cape Cod is, and during a season where there is limited vegetation, lots of overcast skies and even a decent amount of drizzle, the show’s sense of place is transcendent.  As with the entire series, Jeff Beal’s relaxed jazz musical score is utterly absorbing.  The mystery, as it plays out, does just what it has to do, which is to hold your curiosity enough that you follow the hero’s investigation without becoming impatient.  And indeed, as he sits in his isolated beach house at night, alone except for an accepting dog, nursing a drink and slowly flipping the pages of the case files, with the music drowning out the sound of the rain on the roof, there is nowhere in the world you would rather be than looking over his shoulder from the comfort of your own couch, while basking in the same music and solitude. It is a true paradise. 
The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1.  The color transfer is great, and the cinematography is excellent, with a strong sense of design.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is more problematic, in that at a couple of points, the dialog surges on the right for no apparent reason (it’s kind of like the sound engineer wanted to give the impression that it was coming from over there, but he pushed the knob too hard and then had to pull it back some). The music, however, as we mentioned, is sublime, so for the most part, the sound is quite satisfying.  There are optional English and French subtitles.