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Acorn TV's Mystery Road is not quite on track, despite the estimable presence of Judy Davis

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Aaron Pedersen, Judy Davis clash/collaborate in Mystery Road. Australian Broadcasting Corp. photo

Premiering: All six episodes begin streaming Monday, Aug. 20th on Acorn TV
Starring: Judy Davis, Aaron Pedersen, Tasia Zalar, Madeleine Madden, Wayne Blair, Aaron McGrath, Colin Friels, John Waters, Tasma Walton, Aaron McGrath, Ernie Dingo, Connor Van Vuuren
Produced by: Ivan Sen, Sally Riley, Kym Goldsworthy, with all six episodes directed by Rachel Perkins

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Judy Davis’ Emmy Award-winning performance as Judy Garland in a 2001 ABC miniseries remains one of television’s greatest ever.

So where she goes next, I try to follow. And Davis was the main impetus for watching Mystery Road, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation whodunit that begins streaming Monday, Aug. 20th on Acorn TV. All six episodes will be offered at once, which is a departure from the outlet’s usual weekly rollouts.

Davis gets ample screen time as uniformed Sgt. Emma James, whose jurisdiction is the Australian outback town of Patterson. But Aaron Pedersen, as rough hewn detective Jay Swan, ends up being the series’ driving force after being called in to help investigate the disappearance of two young “jackaroos” employed by a cattle and sheep emporium known as Ballantyne Station. The place happens to be run by Emma’s brother, Tony (Colin Friels), who’s ready to sell for a princely price. Both Tony and Emma grew up there.

Some Australian critics have favorably compared Mystery Road to HBO’s True Detective (the first season, presumably) and FX’s Fargo. It would be pretty to think so. But this drama’s two investigators lack the punch and power of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson while also falling well short of the David Tennant/Olivia Colman duo in the BBC’s Broadchurch. Nor is Mystery Road nearly as eccentric or volatile as Fargo, although its sprawling, hard-baked vistas win on points over frozen tundras.

The racial dynamics of Patterson were more volatile in the past than in present-day. But there are still some simmering resentments between the towns whites and darker-skinned residents. Swan is perceived as “black,” although visually speaking, he looks far closer to nicely tanned. He’s been estranged from both his embittered wife, Mary (Tasma Walton), and their drug-abusing daughter, Crystal (Madeleine Madden). But both eventually arrive in Patterson to give Jay more headaches than the case at hand.

Mystery Road gets off to a promising start, as do the early stages of the Jay-Emma combo. “Can you ride a horse? That hat’s gotta be good for somethin’,” she jabs in Episode One.

As the story goes on, though, their relationship never quite comes together. He has better scenes with his ex-wife, particularly in Episode 4. And she has better dialogues with her brother after some secrets are uncovered about Ballantyne Station’s history and current state.

Mystery Road’s other important characters are ex-con Larry Dime (Wayne Blair) and bartender Shevorne Shields (Tasia Zalar). He spent 10 years in prison after being convicted of raping her when she was 13 years old. But Larry has long claimed to be innocent, which opens the door to a second whodunit beyond what happened to those two missing jackaroos, Marley Thompson (Aaron McGrath) and Reece Dale (Connor Van Vuuren).

In the end, Pedersen’s Jay Swan gets to do most of the dirty work, sleuthing and raging while Davis’ Emma James just doesn’t get to do enough. This is an actress who can emote with the best of them, as Davis proved beyond a doubt in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. But in Mystery Road, she’s not allowed to even get out of her cop suit, let alone really let loose with what might be boiling inside.

The eventual uncovering of the culprits isn’t as satisfying or surprising as it might have been while the demons that drive Jay and prompted him to leave his wife and daughter are passingly referenced without enough detail. So is Mystery Road worth your investment? More or less, yes. Just don’t expect to come away with any thoughts of just seeing a masterpiece or a signature performance from a proven master thespian. Davis comports herself well, and that’s pretty much the best that can be said.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

The Last Sharknado: It's About Time -- or more accurately, way past time

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Last call for Sharknado -- or at least that’s what they say. Syfy photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Jaws didn’t know when to stop either.

Three sequels to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 career-starter (none of which he had anything to do with) were spewed into theaters, with Jaws: The Revenge finally washing ashore in 1987 and ending this nonsense. It received seven Golden Raspberry awards but alas won just one, for Worst Visual Effects. This was a very competitive year, though, and Bill Cosby’s Leonard Part 6 emerged as a dominant force with three Razzie wins.

Syfy’s The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (Sunday, Aug. 19th at 7 p.m. central) is the duly dreadful sixth movie in this preposterous franchise. A review copy is affixed with the opening disclaimer, “All Spoilers Embargoed Until Air.” But it’s probably OK to say that airborne sharks again are key to the “story.”

The original Sharknado premiered with little pre-publicity on the night of July 11, 2013. It provoked a spontaneous “Twitter storm” in times when President Trump didn’t trigger one nearly every day. Viewers by the hundreds of thousands, many joining Sharknado in progress, had a grand time goofing on a film that made Syfy’s early spring entry of that year, Chupacabra vs. The Alamo, seem like Homer’s The Iliad.

Sharknado provided career life rafts for Ian Ziering and Tara Reid, both of whom were well past their respective glory years of Beverly Hills, 90210 and American Pie. The only actor of any distinction, the late John Heard, had a few scenes as a bar fly named George, who rather quickly ended up satisfying a shark’s appetite.

The cameos then picked up considerably in caliber for Sharknado 2: The Second One and Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, both of which were sort of fun to watch. Traipsing through Sharknado 2 were the likes of Judd Hirsch(!) , Billy Ray Cyrus, Robert Klein, Kelly Ripa, Michael Strahan, Richard Kind, Robert Hays, Perez Hilton, Downtown Julie Brown, Matt Lauer and Al Roker. The latter two came back for more in Sharknado 3, which also folded in David Hasselhoff, Bill Engvall, Jerry Springer, Kathie Lee Gifford, Hoda Kotb, Savannah Guthrie, Lou Ferrigno, Lorenzo Lamas, Bo Derek, Frankie Muniz, Penn Jillette, Anthony Weiner, Jackie Collins, George R.R. Martin and the odd couple duo of Mark Cuban and Ann Coulter as the president and vice president of the U.S.

In comparison, Last Sharknado has the vapors, is on fumes and even verklempt in terms of cameos of note. Without revealing the historical characters they play (this one has a lot of time travel), keep an eye or two open for Darrell Hammond, Ben Stein, Tori Spelling, Dean McDermott, Gilbert Gottfried, Roker (gad, him again), Dee Snider, Christopher Knight, Bernie Kopell, Leslie Jordan (whom I at first hoped was the late Little Jimmy Dickens) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (whose performance is atrocious even by Sharknado standards). Two veterans of previous Sharknados, Bo Derek and Gary Busey (his name is incorrectly spelled “Busy” in the review copy’s closing credits), drop in for a climactic something or other. And if you look extra hard, you might spot Latoya Jackson and Kato Kaelin in s swirling, whirling sequence near the end.

Ziering and Reid, who have weathered all five previous films, remain instrumental as shark gladiators Fin Shepherd and April Wexler. As some might actually remember, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming ended with the Earth destroyed and Fin wandering alone through the wreckage. His last mission is to go back in time and prevent the very first sharknado in order to waylay all of the future ones.

The creatures populating Fin’s first stop in prehistoric times are to special effects what pork rinds are to fine dining. But no one’s ever anywhere for very long, with Fin and various familiar supporting characters hurtling incomprehensibly through space to fight flying sharks in medieval times, the Revolutionary War era, the Old West, 1997 San Francisco and the very distant future.

Ziering and Reid -- plus fellow Sharknado veterans Vivica A. Fox as Skye and Cassandra Scerbo as Nova -- gamely attempt semblances of performances amid goings-on that should have gone that away after the third film. Charitably speaking, Last Sharknado is about as much fun as watching Joey Chestnut eat his 55th hot dog or Chris Matthews interrupt another guest.

Assuming that Syfy keeps its word, this truly will be the end of the Sharknado line. But Ziering, Reid, Fox and Scerbo almost assuredly will be signing and posing at many a future fan convention. Good for them. Everybody’s gotta eat.

GRADE: F (which is a compliment)

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Season Two of Get Shorty improves on the first while again giving Epix a booster shot

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Chris O’Dowd/Ray Romano come up big in Get Shorty. Epix photo

By ED BARK
Two of last year’s very best first-year drama series, HBO’s The Deuce and Epix’s Get Shorty, received total bypasses from Emmy voters last month.

Not a single nomination came either show’s way. But now it’s payback time -- for appreciative viewers at least. Season 2 of The Deuce will launch on Sept. 9th, but the sophomore year of Get Shorty is nearly upon us. It restarts with back-to-back episodes on Sunday, Aug. 12th from 8 to 10 p.m. (central). And based on the first five episode made available for review, Get Shorty has upped its game from an already standout Season One.

Adapted from the same-named novel by the late, great Elmore Leonard (after a well-received 1995 movie), Epix’s first-rate version continues the travails of Ireland-bred hit man turned movie producer Miles Daly (Chris O’Dowd) and B-movie shlepper Rick Moreweather (Ray Romano). Their first collaboration, The Admiral’s Mistress, is now close to getting off the ground and possibly paying off a clandestine, money-laundering investment by drug-running boss lady Amara de Escalones (Lidia Porto).

But nothing comes easy for anybody in Get Shorty. And by the halfway point of Season Two’s 10 episodes, there are enough crazy-quilt further complications to fuel all kinds of possibilities.

A key addition to the new season’s cast is Felicity Huffman as FBI agent Clara Dillard. She’s a cajoling and at times sweet-talking manipulator who has Rick on the leash as a wired informant who late in Season One developed a very personal relationship with the lethal but needy Amara. Meanwhile, Miles is striving to be a good father to daughter Emma (Carolyn Dodd), who’s caught in the middle of dad’s up-and-down custody fight with his estranged wife, Katie (Lucy Walters). The scenes between Miles and Emma are some of this dramedy’s best.

Miles’ partner, Louis Darnell (Sean Bridgers), is still worse for wear in the early going after being shot multiple times last season. He remains both comedic and ruthless, but there’s also a soft spot in play via his growingly intimate relationship with Rick’s assistant, Gladys (Sarah Stiles).

O’Dowd’s performance as Miles again is eminently Emmy worthy, with Episode 3 further spotlighting his talents after a mishap prompts a personal awakening while he’s recuperating in a cheap, out-of-the-way motel. Miles is first and foremost dedicated to making a movie of true artistic merit, which Admiral’s Mistress decidedly isn’t. But strong-armed deals are his only means to this end. So Miles alternately exudes both charm and a lethal determination to make things happen for him.

Season 2 also drops in Steven Weber as a powerful and amoral film producer named Lawrence Budd, whose getting-ready-in-the-morning ritual is not to be missed. And Peter Stormare returns, briefly so far, as vainglorious director Hafdis Snaejornsson, whose cut of Admiral’s Mistress sends all who see it into shock.

Porto’s Amara is seen in some new lights, both as an affectionate dispenser of gifts to Rick and as a vulnerable drug-runner who’s being strong-armed herself after a big shipment gets waylaid. Romano’s Rick is forever harried, and in Episode 5, terrorized. The former star of Everybody Loves Raymond continues to impress in roles one wouldn’t have envisioned for him.

In short, Get Shorty is superbly entertaining, both dramatically and comedically, and buoyed by performances that still lack official recognition from various trophy dispensers. They need to get with it -- and now have a second chance.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

WGN America's imported Carter gives Jerry O'Connell something to do

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Caught in the middle: Jerry O’Connell in Carter. WGN America photo

Premiering: Tuesday, August 7th at 9 p.m. (central) on WGN America
Starring: Jerry O’Connell, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Kristian Bruun, Varun Saranga, Joanne Boland, John Bourgeois, Brenda Kamino, Denis Akiyama, Matt Baram
Produced by: Garry Campbell, Teza Lawrence, Scott Smith, Michael Souther, John Tinker

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Dripping with likability but yet to land The Big One, Jerry O’Connell takes the work where he can get it.

Lately this has meant voice-overs and guest-hosting five episodes of The Wendy Williams Show. By those standards, the Canadian import Carter is something of a mega-event for him. O’Connell’s the title character, and WGN America is the U.S. carrier, beginning on Tuesday, August 7th.

He could do worse, and has. You could do worse, and have. Carter, derivative of Fox’s well-reviewed but short-lived The Grinder, is a semi-passable detective dramedy in which O’Connell plays actor Harley Carter, otherwise known on the small screen as ace sleuth Charlie Carter. But a scandalous brawl on an awards show red carpet sends Harley into “hiatus” mode and back to his native burg of Bishop, Canada while his Hollywood future on Call Carter hangs in the balance.

WGN America made all 10 Season One episodes available for review, but watching the first three was more than enough to pass judgment. Carter is basically a crime caper of the week, with Harley acting as “consulting detective” via a mayoral appointment after he more or less lucks into solving the opening night’s murder mystery. His reluctant partner in crime solving is childhood friend turned detective Sam Shaw (Sydney Tamiia Poitier). Another old pal, bearded Dave Leigh (Kristian Bruun), is also deployed while grouchy police chief Angus Pershing (John Bourgeois) huffs and puffs to no avail.

The premiere hour also introduces the Asian couple that raised young Harley after his mother Anne went missing -- and remains so. Dot Yasuda (Brenda Kamino) enjoys firing her shotgun rather aimlessly while husband Koji (Denis Akiyama) shockingly has confessed to killing someone named Albert Childress.

“If I can look at this like it’s my TV show, maybe we can figure this out,” Harley reasons while Sam becomes exasperated for the first of many times.

Rob Lowe went much the same route in The Grinder as the star of a long-running, but recently canceled legal drama who thought it would be easy enough to be a real-life attorney. This greatly vexed his brother (played by Fred Savage), who had been toiling with limited success in various courtrooms. Lowe’s celebrity status oftentimes impressed the local yokels, and O’Connell’s character is likewise lionized by some of the townies.

He finds all of this rather intoxicating while brushing off reports that his TV show might get along without him. “The studio’s bluffing,” he assures hapless agent Vijay Gill (Varun Saranga). “Jimmy Smits? He’s like 80.”

The cases arousing Harley’s interest are at best moderately involving. In Episode 2, a troubled young man insists that his mother was murdered before being incinerated in a paint factory fire. Episode 3 centers on a farmhand who’s found dead and mutilated in what purportedly is a tractor accident.

O’Connell makes for an amiable amateur gumshoe who knows when to push and realizes when he’s shoved. “You don’t talk about my dark years and I don’t talk about that hip hop album you dropped,” sidekick Dave warns him. Point taken.

Tamiia Poitier, daughter of Sidney Poitier, is OK as Harley’s balky enabler while Bourgeois has a few amusing moments as the easily riled chief. Viewers choosing to go along for these rides won’t encounter anything too penetrating. Carter goes no deeper than its title character acting rather pleased with himself. “Twist ending. Called it,” he crows in Episode 1. No worries, though. There’s nothing here that will tie you in knots.

GRADE: C

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Frontline puts names to faces in Documenting Hate: Charlottesville

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Some of the violent supremacists in Charlottesville are tracked down by a dogged reporter who very much likes his face time. PBS photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Charlottesville, VA, former home of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, may never again be primarily known for that.

The violent events of Aug. 12, 2017 -- and President Trump’s “blame on both sides” reaction to them -- are still seared into the public consciousness. Frontline’s latest one-hour investigative report, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville (Tues., Aug. 7 at 9 p.m. central on PBS), has a reporter on the trail of several notably violent participants in a “Unite the Right” rally that left one woman dead and a number of others injured.

The driver who allegedly hit and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer while she was crossing the street, has been indicted and is facing charges on 30 counts. For the record, his name is James Alex Fields, Jr.

But other free-swinging white supremacists have been roaming free without much apparent interest from federal and local police.

“If Charlottesville was a crime scene, then most of the criminals had gotten away,” says reporter A.C. Thompson, whose efforts to track some of them down are in partnership with ProPublica, which describes itself as an “independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force.”

Thompson finds that three of the men shown committing violent acts on videotape have histories with various white supremacist groups. He confronts one of them, Michael Miselis, face-to-face, and another, Vasillios Pistolis, by telephone. The third alleged perpetrator, Robert Rundo, is said to be somewhere in Europe.

Pistolis was still on active duty with the U.S. Marines when he very actively participated in the Unite the Right rally and the previous night’s chilling “torch march.” He eventually was court-martialed and discharged. While talking to Thompson and still with the Marines, Pistolis says, “I’ve literally left that shit behind.” He also offers to later help Thompson with his career if “none of this comes out.” Thompson surely has bigger ambitions than ProPublica, Pistolis reasons.

Miselis had been a graduate student at UCLA and was employed by the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which required him to have a U.S. government security clearance.

“Hey, do Northrup and UCLA know you’re involved with the Rise Above Movement?” Thompson asks before Miselis drives off. On the following day, according to Thompson, the defense contractor announced that Miselis had been dismissed.

Fingering these alleged culprits -- and also getting some results -- is no small thing. And the reporter shows true grit in staying on the case. But Thompson’s pervasive on-camera presence becomes an irritant. He passingly resembles Michael Avenatti, and seems determined to get as much face time as Stormy Daniels’ ubiquitous attorney. Documenting Hate even has a lengthy -- and wholly superfluous -- shot of Thompson walking down the street during a snowstorm. It seems that no more than 10 seconds ever go by without a closeup or wide shot of the reporter doing his job. In the closing scene, he’s shown driving off to nowhere in particular while telling viewers, “One thing seems clear. The story is far from over.”

The dogged detective work in Documenting Hate isn’t devalued by Thompson’s omnipresence. But it would be more viewer-friendly if he could show the same determination to keep himself out of the picture a whole lot more than he does. Seeing how the sausage is made is of some value. Constantly seeing Thompson -- whether he’s gazing at nothing in particular, on the phone or doing an interview -- detracts from the sobering business at hand. We get it. You’re the lead reporter. Now give us a break from you.

Frontline plans to present more investigations of a resurgent white supremacist movement, likewise in league with ProPublica. This one is primarily satisfying in its successful track-downs of individuals who otherwise may have gotten off without any retribution. Watching two of these “tough guys” shrink into fraidy cats proves to be quite a payoff.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net