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By Joe Bendel. East Yorkshire DCI Alan Banks is an avid jazz listener. From this we can deduce he is a man of principle, used to doing things the hard way. His Detective Sergeant respects and is frustrated by that (the principles, not the music). He might be tightly wound, but in the words of a superior officer, he “is the least worst man for the job.” Based on Peter Robinson’s novels, BBC Worldwide’s DCI Banks enters into syndication on PBS stations across the country this month, reaching an impressive 77% market clearance.

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DCI Banks starts with an apparent ending. In The Aftermath, two patrol officers responding to a domestic disturbance discover a serial killer’s chamber of horrors. One of the officers is killed in the ensuing struggle and the murderer is comatose. For acting DCI Banks this is no happy ending. After fruitless months of investigation, one young woman is still missing. The big question is what role did his battered wife play in her husband’s crimes? Already stretched to the breaking point, he is in no mood for the internal investigation headed by the ambitious DS Annie Cabbot.

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After an involuntary vacation and an unexpected promotion to full DCI, Banks returns for a standard but well executed game of cat-and-mouse in Playing with Fire. Despite their rocky start, Banks and the freshly transferred Cabbot have developed a strong working relationship. Yet her questionable romantic involvement with a figure involved in the case threatens to undo everything.

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Technically the second episode of the first full season, Friend of the Devil is easily the best of Banks’ first two full seasons. Returning to a notorious scene from the pilot Aftermath, Friend of the Devil delves into some dark, painful psychological recesses. It is a case that hits close to home for the force and keeps on hitting. In fact, there will be considerable turnover in the Yorkshire CID over the course of the series.

Likewise, Cold is the Grave entangles Banks in a messy intersection of police and family business when his high-handed superintendant asks Banks to unofficially find his runaway daughter and bring her home. It turns out that the London vice lord she had shacked up with may somehow be involved in an armed robbery-turned cold blooded murder back home. Although it would seem like it would take a lot of elbow grease to force these strands together, Robert Murphy’s adaptation of Robinson’s novel does so rather neatly and orderly.

The shoe is on Banks’ foot in Strange Affair when his estranged brother is ensnared in a murder case. With a suddenly pregnant Cabbot on the verge of a leave of absence, Banks meets his new DI, Helen Morton, under slightly embarrassing circumstances. He is the prime witness in her first case. Socially awkward, even compared to Banks, their professional chemistry will develop slowly. However, they synch-up quite nicely in Dry Bones that Dream and Innocent Dreams, two traditional procedurals that both have nicely turned third act twists, at least by television standards.

For British mystery fans, DCI Banks might be closest in tone to the Inspector Lynley Mysteries – but its best episodes, like Aftermath and Friend of the Devil, approach Wire in the Blood’s murky psychological terrain. TV veteran Stephen Tompkinson’s Banks is somewhat like Inspector Lewis, but with more edge. (Evidently Yorkshire crimes are more brutal than those in Oxford.) Airing as either 45 minute two-parters or in ninety minute blocks, the entire series is consistently tight and tense. Notable directors include James Hawes (Aftermath), who helmed Masterpiece’s entertaining 39 Steps and Marek Losey (Cold is the Grave), grandson of Joseph.

Driven by Topkinson’s intense middle-aged rectitude, DCI Banks episodes are produced with above average intelligence and are addictive like popcorn. A worthy addition to the ranks of favorite PBS-BBC detectives, DCI Banks is easily recommended for mystery fans as it begins its syndicated run on many PBS outlets (including WLIW), so check those local listings.


Posted on January 14th, 2012 at 12:38pm.

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By Joe Bendel. It is late 1944, several years before the declaration of the State of Israel – which means that the generous Israeli social welfare system has also yet to be established. A remote desert orphanage is the only refuge for a group of cast-off girls and their damaged caretakers. However, secrets from the director’s past raise doubts for the institution’s future in Dina Zvi Riklis’s The Fifth Heaven, which screens during the 2013 New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Maya’s father never was much, but he sinks even lower when he delivers her to Dr. Markovski’s orphanage. The director, who apparently has some ambiguous history with the family, understandably protests – since Maya is not, strictly speaking, an orphan. Yet the father has evidently fixed matters with Markovski’s tight-fisted patron. We quickly deduce Markovski once had an affair with Maya’s mother, who has long since deserted her family, running off to America. Maya is a bit slower on the up-take.

Markovski’s history with Maya causes friction with his demur colleague and potential lover, Frida. The orphanage’s new cleaning woman, Berta, the disowned daughter of an Orthodox family scandalously carrying on with a British officer, further destabilizes the staff. Yet it is the cache of arms stashed on the roof by Duce, a staff-member’s Italian lover deeply involved in the underground liberation movement, that represents greater danger for the institution. Maya discovers his secret, but she has fallen for his inappropriate charm offensive.

From "The Fifth Heaven."

Fifth nicely captures the strange duality experienced by Jewish residents of the British Mandate. On the one hand, they bitterly resented their colonialist rulers – while also raptly following the British war efforts against the National Socialists. Like many films set in isolated private schools, there is a whole lot of repressed sexual tension in the orphanage (almost entirely of the straight variety, though). Yet the big revelations are almost entirely given away in the opening scenes.

There are small flashes of devastating power in Fifth. In contrast, the big confrontation scenes are almost entirely drained of passion. Never melodramatic, Riklis’s restraint is something of a double-edged sword. Nonetheless, Yehezkel Lazarov’s understated but deeply humanistic portrayal of Markovski perfectly suits her approach. Rotem Zisman-Cohen also stands out as Berta, getting the film’s one big episode of acting-out. Oddly, the lead is rather icily stand-offish, while the rest of the young ensemble is largely indistinguishable.

A finely crafted period production, Fifth is sensitively underscored by the original themes and classical piano interpretations of Josef Bardanashvili. It might be a mixed bag, but it has its moments. Recommended for patrons of Israeli cinema, Fifth Heaven screens this Thursday (1/17) and Sunday (1/20) as part of this year’s NYJFF, now underway at the Walter Reade Theater.


Posted on January 14th, 2012 at 12:35pm.

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