River: British Television and Brilliance in Six Episodes

Available on American Netflix at the moment, this BBC One drama shows off the best of British television and is sheer brilliance contained in six one hour episodes. River, starring Stellan Skarsgård, Nicola Walker and Lesley Manville follows Detective Inspector John River, a Swedish born copper who has a “Sixth Sense” connection with victims and a dead serial killer who plagues him.

River BBC 1, Netflix,

Available on American Netflix at the moment, this BBC One drama shows off the best of British television and is sheer brilliance contained in six one hour episodes. River, starring Stellan Skarsgård,  Nicola Walker and Lesley Manville follows Detective Inspector John River, a Swedish born copper who has a “Sixth Sense” connection with victims and a dead serial killer who plagues him.

Loosely based upon the Jeff Goldblum 2007 American television series Raines (at least according to IMDb) this six parter is addictive viewing from the very first episode.  Throughout the pilot, right up until River chases a drug dealer to his death, John (Skarsgård) and his female partner “Stevie” (Walker) talk, laugh, joke, and chase the suspect, although she is behind River in the pursuit. After the lad leaps off the high rise balcony, Stevie turns around and faces away from the camera and we learn that  the back of her head is a gaping gunshot wound.

The shock of seeing that the detective has been interacting  with a dead woman immediately fires up the imagination and makes Stellan’s performance something to be in awe of.  Walker’s portrayal of the dead copper is also noteworthy, these two are beyond brilliant together. The storyline, where River tries to catch his partner’s killer, keeps the viewer guessing.

River has three different directors, who helm two episodes apiece and is written by Abi Morgan.  The directors, Richard LaxtonTim Fywell and Jessica Hobbs all move the action and the story along adeptly and the entire experience is compelling to the extreme. 

Skarsgård is infinitely watchable as the detective who “hears voices” and the actor is believable as a cop, from his purposeful stride to the looks of thunder that cross his countenance when angered.  The actor has played a broad range of characters in his career thus far. (He made an excellent villain in The Glass House (2001) where he was actually very impressive as the non-benevolent foster parent.)

Stollen’s performance is captivating and riveting. As is his “dead” co-star Walker. As Stevie, she is funny, irreverent, addictive, puzzling and heart achingly candid.  All of the main characters are touching, in their own ways.

Lesley Manville, as River’s boss Read, is a 50 something career woman who is driven to extremes by her “odd” detective. Owen Teale, as the commander of the precinct, Marcus,  is snarky and annoying, yet still is able to be more human than irritant, although not all the time. 

Marcus’  romantic interest, the unit psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich) is another multi-level character with shades and nuances that keep her interesting, even before she and River clash repeatedly.

Eddie Marsan (who literally seems to be in everything at the moment) plays the serial killer Dr. Thomas Cream, who haunts DI River throughout the six episodes. A Victorian poisoner, Cream murdered prostitutes with various concoctions, the killer attempts to dredge up the detective’s baser instincts.

The cop not only sees each murder victim, but he also speaks with “live” suspects, as manifestations. Initially, it appears that River has some sort of supernatural connection with the victims, later is is revealed that the cop interjects his own “reality” to each vision he interacts with…or does he?

River is a brilliant bit of detective fiction that borders on the supernatural yet firmly entrenches itself in the psychosis of those who hear voices.  Is it a coincidence that each time the detective sees and hears a “manifestation” the fluorescent lights flicker and buzz?  It is never discussed, by Rosa or anyone else in the show, but the running theme is that River is mentally troubled.

Stevie, in one long diatribe with her former partner, runs down a long list of euphemisms that all stand for insanity;  barking, nutty-nut, March hare and so on. All of Stevie’s family also maintain that River is crazy.

As the episodes head toward a conclusion, one where the detective finds his partner’s killer, it would seem to be a special sort of madness. One that enables the investigator to see things differently and through the eyes, and mind, of the victims help to find the dead some closure.

There are several surrealistic moments, Karaoke, disco songs and a dance in the street with a corpse are just some of the scenes which stick out in this brilliant BBC One offering. River is streaming on American Netflix at the moment and I defy anyone to watch just one episode and not be immediately compelled to watch the six episode season to its finish.

If any complaint could be levied against the series, perhaps the pristine condition of the trains used in the show are a tad unrealistic. After repeatedly using the rail system, including the Underground, I have personally never seen carriages or platforms look that clean or freshly painted and decorated.

Tourist board complaints aside,  River, on Netflix, offers six hours of addictive story telling with characters that are compelling and memorable.  Miss this and miss out on great television.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014): Simply Sublime

Still from trailer for Hector and the Search for Happiness

Despite having worked as a “film critic” and being a member of the Nevada Film Critics Society, I am not jaded enough to find the 2014 film Hector and the Search for Happiness anything other than simply sublime. Reading various reviews and finding that the film opened to mixed and negative reviews surprises and disappoints. Simon Pegg is truly wonderful as are his co-stars in the film and Rosamund Pike works brilliantly in this far removed from Gone Girl role.

Helmed by award winning English director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity, Shall We Dance) from a script adapted from the French book of the same name by François Lelord, the film follows the journey of Hector, a psychiatrist who is fed up with his relationship, his job and his life. He undertakes a trip to discover just what happiness is and how to get it.

In many ways the movie is like an exotic travelogue. Pegg’s character visits Singapore, Africa and America in his journey. Like a modern day Phileas Fogg, just without the balloon, Passepartout or indeed the wager that gets the whole thing started, Hector travels to several different countries meeting new people and old friends in his search.

Hector and the Search for Happiness also has a bit of an Alan Whicker or Michael Palin (the old Monty Python member who traded in his comedy chops for travel documentaries) feel, where the main figure learns of other cultures and how they see the world. Even before finding out that the film is based on a French novel, one can tell by the structure of the film and its plot that this could very easily have been a film from that country.

The use of cardboard cutouts in the plane scene, the flashbacks to childhood and the feeling of the film is one of arthouse chic. This combined with the simplicity of its message must have put off the more serious minded critics who reviewed the movie at the cinema.

Leaving such pretentious prattling behind and looking at the cast, the film delivers brilliantly. Stellan Skarsgård drops his Norwegian accent, and leaves the world of the Avengers behind, to become Edward; a richer than rich businessman who insists that one can buy happiness. Jean Reno leaves his badge and assassins tools at home to play an African drug lord who trusts no one but loves his wife completely.

Christopher Plummer uses his dulcet tones to narrate and play the small cameo of a professor who uses a machine that looks like an old fashioned hair dryer to track emotions in the human brain. Toni Collette plays Hector’s former flame with perfection.

The end of the film moved me to schmaltzy tears as Pegg discovers a few home truths. (I’ll not say what they are, no spoilers here.) His journey may not be life shattering over all, although at one point it looks as though Hector may not survive, but it is interesting enough to keep the viewer watching.

*On a side note, I did notice that just as in real life, all airport terminals do indeed look the same no matter where they are.*

Sure, some of the signposts are a bit stereo-graphical in nature but that does not spoil the message of the film or take away our delight when Hector finishes his search. Despite what other reviewers have said about this particular offering my verdict is a full 5 stars. Any film that can make me cry in Burger King in front of strangers, without the darkness of a cinema to hide my blushes, gets full marks. Hector and the Search for Happiness is streaming on US Netflix now. Watch this one and enjoy, unless you are too sophisticated for it.

The Glass House (2001): Teen Troubles

Cover of "The Glass House"
Cover of The Glass House

Teenager Ruby Baker is out on the town and past her curfew. As she says goodbye to her friend and explains that she is going to be in trouble again for being late she hurriedly leaves. While this is going on, her parents are in a car crash and both of them die. She arrives home to find two policemen in her home. When they try to tell her about her parents, she faints.

The beginning of this film leaps into action. Before the first reel has been changed over by the projectionist, Ruby and her younger brother Rhett have been orphaned and now must live with their old neighbours acting as their guardians. The ‘best friends’ have moved to a huge glass house in an exclusive area. This will be their new home.

Once the two children move into the glass mansion, things  start getting strange and it seems the ‘old friends’ have changed from the nice people that used to live next door.

While not anywhere near blockbuster territory, The Glass House delivers very well. For a start Tom Hanks‘s missus Rita Wilson is in an uncredited cameo that must surely classify as the smallest in the world. Ms Wilson plays Ruby and Rhett’s mother and dies roughly about ten minutes into the film with her husband Michael O’Keefe the other candidate for the worlds smallest cameo award. Both Wilson and O’Keefe are seen later in the film when their daughter Ruby visualises their death, over and over.

Ruby is played by the very capable Leelee Sobieski a young actress that make me think of a young Helen Hunt. With two awards under her belt and quite a few more nominations this young lady is not lightweight. She had no trouble convincing me that her character was grieving, confused, and finally suspicious about this couple that she and her brother were wards of. When she takes action, it does not jar or stretch belief.

Diane Lane attending the premiere of True Grit...
Diane Lane attending the premiere of True Grit at the Berlin Film Festival 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Glass couple that take over as the children’s guardians are played by Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgård. My only complaint about the film has to do with the fact that I felt that Ms Lane was not used enough. That is most likely my problem only as I have been a huge fan of this talented lady’s work for years. Stellan Skarsgård does a great job as the devious and slight scary Mr Glass. Glass, it seems, can only afford the grand lifestyle he and his wife have by less than legal means.

English: Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård.

The nicest thing about the film was seeing Bruce Dern as  Ruby’s family lawyer. Dern has been acting since grass was green it seems and the old boy has still got the chops. Although it was a change to see him playing a ‘normal’ good guy part instead of the usual eccentric parts he is famous for.

Bruce Dern at Super-Con 2009 in San Jose, Cali...
Bruce Dern at Super-Con 2009 in San Jose, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All in all a film worth watching. Released in 2001 it is recent enough that it doesn’t suffer from being too outdated. Add the fact that the film is easily available via Netflix and other streaming film sites, it won’t cost you the earth to give it a look.