TV Picks: 'Brakeless,' 'Mr. Dynamite,' 'Death Comes to 'Pemberley'

TV Picks: 'Brakeless,' 'Mr. Dynamite,' 'Death Comes to 'Pemberley'
An employee of Japan's West JR railway undergoes training in a scene from "Brakeless," Kyoko Miyake's film about the price of speed, airing Monday on PBS. (Brakeless / Bungalow Town)

"Brakeless" (PBS, Monday). Kiyoko Miyake's oddly beautiful, philosophical documentary about the 2005 crash of a commuter train: Traveling too fast into a curve as the driver tried to stay on a schedule reckoned in seconds, the train derailed and ran into the side of an apartment building; 107 people died. A mix of historical reportage, social criticism and personal struggle -- Miyake sits with the survivors and the bereaved -- it is also a film full of soft light and pastel colors, with almost whimsical animations and graphics, as if to say at once that everything is all right and everything is all wrong. It's on the one hand a portrait of a society ruled by speed, garroted by contracting timetables, organized by bullying from above and fear from below; but it's also a picture of people who choose to live outside that system, to criticize "the Japanese disease," as the Japanese call it. Indeed, one of the things "Brakeless" teaches, as we can never be taught too much, is that we know less than we think we do about how other people live. (At the same time, a world in which time, being money, becomes a luxury -- sometimes deemed an unaffordable luxury -- will be familiar as well to American salarymen and salarywomen.) Memories of the fatal moment have an arresting specificity ("I was listening to Led Zeppelin," "I was wearing a dark blue suit and slingback stilettos") and at times a kind of poetry: "I could see the houses sliding away until only blue sky was left," "I bounced around the carriage like a ball inside a washing machine." One survivor's post-crash account has the shape of a fairy tale: "I thought that if I had a lasting, scar," one young woman remembers, "I would never forget the accident. After the accident, a pin was put in my shoulder. When the doctors wanted to remove it, I refused. After seven years I finally felt ready to take it out. But by then the pin had become grafted to my bones. So, I am still carrying the pin inside me, just as I wished."

"Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown" (HBO, Monday); "Foo-Fighters: Sonic Highways" (HBO, Fridays). So now, ladies and gentleman, it is star time. Are you ready for star time? Well, ready or not -- and you're ready, whether you know it or not -- here he comes. Like the recent big-screen James Brown biopic "Get On Up," the documentary "Mr. Dynamite" was co-produced by Mick Jagger, almost, one might say, as a supplemental corrective to the insult that even loving dramatizations do to a real life. The most uncanny impersonation is, after all, an approximation, an interpretation, a shadow of, a substitute for, someone else's own irreplaceable greatness -- a greatness that is all over "Mr. Dynamite," from downbeat to fade out. (The film fades out long before Brown did.) Though neither naive nor mum about its subject's destructive complications and contradictions, Alex Gibney's film gets through the biographical material quickly, the better to concentrate on the music and the performance -- that is, on Brown as a musician, a boss of musicians and as a public, political person. Even so, many telling tales are told here, alongside some elegant, eloquent musicological analysis. (Talking for the camera are Bobby Byrd; drummers Clyde Stubblefield, John "Jabo" Starks and Melvin Parker; singer Martha High; saxophonists Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis; trombone player Fred Wesley; and bassist Bootsy Collins, among others.) What Gibney shows you, again and again, is the reason we talk about James Brown in the first place. Was he the hardest working man in show business? Watching him go, it's hard to imagine anyone working harder.

Also on HBO this week and for the following six, is Dave Grohl's continuing documentary series about people and places and music, framed as a film about the multi-city recording of the latest Foo Fighters album. (It is so much more; see my last week's rave.) This week's episode, pulls into Washington, D.C., more or less teenage Grohl's home scene, and gives us the punk and the funk -- the Trouble Funk, namely, and the Go-Go scene of the late '70s and beyond. (It came up alongside hip-hop but didn't get quite so far.) I was going to write that it owed a debt to James Brown, but we all owe a debt to James Brown, who, after all, shaped the world as we hear it as much as any musician before or since. Anyway, I love this series even more after repeat viewings and just wanted to tell you again.

"Death Comes to Pemberly" (PBS, Sundays). Jane Austen by way of P.D. James; this dark and sprightly, two-part adaptation of the crime-writer's sequel to "Pride and Prejudice," published a mere two centuries after the original, takes a different sort of spin around the estate, mixing old friends like Mr. Darcy (Matthew Rhys) and Lizzie Bennett (Anna Maxwell Martin) and their beloved and/or troublesome kin in a murder mystery. It's both a thought exercise and an involving genre piece -- not so much rom-com as we were accustomed to get from Jane herself -- that bears all the hallmarks of quality British costume drama, from the perfectly cast performances (nearly every player impresses as the essence of her or his well known part) to the perfectly lush, leafy countryside. Presented by "Masterpiece Mystery," most appropriately.