See It/Flee It: Crimes Against Humanity

See It: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Everything about this seven-episode BBC series has been done to death – the friendly sleuth with a god-given talent for nabbing bad guys, a buttoned-up sidekick, burgeoning love interest and turbulent past. Except for the setting, that is. Like the Alexander McCall Smith novels it’s based on, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is set in Botswana, a country in Southern Africa. And the fact that it was also shot there gives the show its soul – for all of its lighthearted touches and lovable characters, it’s the stunningly beautiful backdrops and unique cultural/geographical elements that stick with you. In the middle of figuring out a mystery, main character Mma Ramotswe – played with down-to-earth vibrancy by Jill Scott – stops to watch a pair of giraffes roaming a few feet from her car. The culprit of a long-running mystery turns out to be a roving band of baboons. When Ramotswe trails the daughter of a wealthy client, she’s led through a bustling open-air market of kaleidoscopic colors. Not to say there’s nothing else to offer than the window dressing here. The mysteries are cleverly constructed, especially a classic poison-related whodunit, and it’s impossible not to root for Ramotswe – to get her business off the ground, solve every case that comes her way, and stand strong when a dark period of her past rears its ugly head. But as much as you’ll love this lady detective, her native country is the real star.

Flee It: The Lovely Bones

After spending a decade in the ether of massive CGI blockbuster-dom, director Peter Jackson and his loyal co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, must have thought it was time to scale things back a bit – hence their adaptation of The Lovely Bones, the Alice Sebold novel that got to the guts of the grieving process in such an engaging way. Unfortunately, the hopelessly trite, saccharine mess they made of Sebold’s work proves they should stick to the fantastical. Jackson’s film doesn’t get beyond a back-of-the-DVD-case synopsis of the story – 14-year-old Susie Salmon is brutally murdered by a neighbor, after which her spirit goes to “the in-between,” a place between earth and heaven that allows her to watch over the people she loves, as well as her murderer. Most of the novel is concerned with how Susie’s family and friends deal with their intense grief, each in their own way. Jackson chooses to either eliminate or gloss over 90% of this insightful human struggle, making it awfully hard to sympathize with these characters – which shouldn’t be a tall order for a story with this kind of dramatic heft. Part of the problem is Mark Wahlberg, whose sad, dopey take on Susie’s father is completely unwatchable. Everybody else is a composite – Jackson apparently deemed the mother’s character unworthy of attention; Susie’s egghead love interest Ray Singh becomes pointless eye candy; Ruth Connors, the artsy outcast obsessed with the spirits of murdered girls, is barely present. And for what? A pile of god-awful, candy-coated CGI sequences of Susie frolicking in “the in-between.” And one unforgivably flaky moment, nowhere to be found in the novel, that depicts Susie’s spirit making a dead flower blossom in her father’s hands. Scenes like these make Jackson’s intentions clear – his Lovely Bones is so enamored with the supernatural, it doesn’t bother to remind us how it feels to be alive.

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