British Drama DVD Reviews
Life on Mars: Series 2, from Acorn Media, is the concluding season of the highly intelligent 2006 series about Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Sam Tyler who is involved in a hit and run and finds himself seemingly transported back to 1973 where he works for the Manchester CID under DCI Gene Hunt. Is he mad, in a coma, or has he actually traveled back in time?
As with the first series, this set of eight hour-long episodes (contained on four discs) gradually reveals more of the puzzle with the final episode providing a most satisfactory if somewhat enigmatic resolution. While each episode seems to relate in some way or other to Sam's past, they also ably stand alone as fine police procedurals, at least from the point of view of 1973's rough-and-ready techniques. Aside from the excellent writing by Mark Greig and Matthew Graham, the programs are strongly anchored by the excellent cast - from stars John Simm (Tyler) and Philip Glenister (Hunt) down to Dean Andrews and Marshall Lancaster as subordinate officers. The whole package, and especially with the enigmatic ending, makes for a series than can be re-watched with as much enjoyment as the first time. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is quite pleasing given the at-times drab colour palette used. Sharpness and image detail are both fine. There are a few instances of aliasing, but nothing really distracting. Both a stereo and 5.1 surround track are provided but there's little to choose between them. Either way, the sound is strongly centred and delivered clearly. The supplements are generous and include two fine documentaries on the return of the series and on the thinking behind its conclusion. Highly recommended.
Murphy's Law: Series 1, also from Acorn Media, provides the initial episodes from a series that debuted in 2003 and would continue for five seasons and a total of 23 episodes including the pilot.
The latter and the first season's four 90-minute episodes are included in this three-disc set. Murphy (James Nesbitt) is a Detective Sergeant who takes on undercover work for the London Metropolitan Police after leaving Northern Ireland when his young daughter was killed by the IRA. Nesbitt brings a blend of guile, toughness, and humanity to the role that makes Murphy a very appealing character. Each episode is a stand-alone story although there are continuing threads dealing with Murphy's relationship with his boss, DI Annie Guthrie (Claudia Harrison), and with his estranged wife. The plots are imaginative for the most part with an appealing blend of grit and some humour, although they do strain to fill 90 minutes at times. The best of the five in this first set is Electric Bill in which Murphy finds himself ensconced in prison where he hopes to wring a confession from the man believed to be the infamous kidnapper Bill. I've not seen episodes from the later seasons, but reportedly, they take on a grittier tone particularly during the last three seasons. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is similar in quality to that on the Life on Mars discs, offering good sharpness and detail although colour brightness is slightly better on the whole. The stereo sound is clear, but otherwise unremarkable. The only supplement is a short text bio for James Nesbitt. Recommended.
The Complete Inspector Lewis, from PBS, provides us with the pilot and complete 1st and 2nd series of this more traditional British police mystery. The Inspector Lewis of the title refers to the Lewis character who was the partner of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse (John Thaw).
Lewis (Kevin Whately) returns to Oxford five years after the death of his long-time partner and two years after the hit-and-run death of his wife, where he is immediately plunged into murder and has to prove himself to a new boss who would rather see him moved into a training position. As is typical of such series, the traditional and somewhat gut-instinct-driven Lewis is partnered with a younger, at-times distant, and more technologically savvy assistant, DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). Lewis has become a little Morse-like, but he is still recognizably the Lewis character of old, if somewhat sadder and more introspective. The combination of him and his new assistant is an effective one, with Hathaway's background as a theological student and Cambridge grad providing plenty of grist for contention and humour. The comparisons to the Inspector Morse mysteries are inevitable, but the new series takes them face on by alluding to past Morse cases at times. Most importantly, these new cases possess the same blend of intelligence, wit, and clever plot twists and turns, plus the always-delightful Oxford setting. Of the eleven 90-minute episodes presented on the 8-disc set, the pilot, Expiation, and Life Born of Fire were my three favourites. There are unfortunately several minor concerns with PBS's DVD release. Firstly, its title The Complete Inspector Lewis is inaccurate. The set is missing the final episode of the series' third season (Counter Culture Blues), and it fails to mention that four further episodes (season 4) have been produced and are scheduled to air in the U.K. early this year. More significantly, PBS presents the pilot episode in a 1.78:1 letterboxed format with no anamorphic encoding - an unacceptable omission in this day and age. The rest of the episode are anamorphically enhanced and look quite nice, though sharpness is marginally less consistent than on the Murphy's Law and Life on Mars sets. The stereo audio track is clear. There are no supplements. With the minor caveats noted, The Complete Inspector Lewis is recommended.
Into the Storm is a disappointing effort from HBO and the BBC. It is a belated follow-up to 2002's The Gathering Storm in which Albert Finney provided a memorable turn as Winston Churchill during the years leading up to World War II.
The problem with Into the Storm is not Finney's replacement as Churchill, Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson delivers an engrossing and dynamic portrayal that was appropriately Emmy-awarded and Golden Globe-nominated. The difficulties arise from trying to shoehorn all the ups and downs of the war years into 98 minutes. The approach is to bookend the film with scenes from Churchill on vacation in France while the 1945 general election looms, and then jump backward in time to various key events during the war. Unfortunately, the dramatization of those events has no depth and delivers no sense of their absolute or relative importance in the progress of the war. The film also attempts to elucidate the increasingly prickly relationship between Churchill and his wife Clementine (a fine performance also, by Janet McTeer), but again our appetites are whetted but never satisfied. Given HBO's track record of superior in-depth historical drama (John Adams and Band of Brothers to name but two), it's somewhat mystifying that a personage of Churchill's stature has been given such short shrift. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer at least is worthy of applause. Its sharpness and image detail is very good and it provides a very fine replication of the production design that is characterized by mainly muted colours with occasional splashes of brightness. The 5.1 surround sound is surprisingly dynamic. It's mainly rooted in the fronts, but some effective surround activity springs up in several action sequences. The main supplement is a rather good audio commentary by producer Frank Doelger and writer Hugh Whitemore. A rental at best in order to appreciate Gleeson's work.
In the early days of my film and film book interest, one of the bibles of the time was the annual compilation of information on films released theatrically in the U.S. known as "Screen World". Thoroughly illustrated, it included complete cast and crew information on the films with brief plot summaries on the main ones, biographical information on living film personalities, obituaries for the year, information on the major Academy Award winners, promising new faces, box office data, and a comprehensive index. It first appeared in 1950, edited by Daniel Blum, with John Willis taking over in the mid-1960s. Somewhere in the 1980s, I lost track of the publication and later assumed with the advent of the internet that it had succumbed much as many other similar hard-print initiatives. I was, however, wrong and I'm pleased to say that it has continued to appear annually.
"Screen World: Volume 60 - 2008" has just been published in December 2009 by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books (a division of Hal Leonard Publishing, Milwaukee and New York). John Willis's editorial mantle has now been assumed by Barry Monush (currently a researcher at the Paley Center for Media in New York City), but the content mix remains the same as it always has. It's an attractive, hardcover, 7½ x9" publication of 480 pages, well laid out, and packed with information. Many of the films listed in it may leave much to be desired, but their documentation is thorough without becoming exhaustive (unlike how watching on-screen credits usually leave us). Obviously, film fans whose interests are restricted to the classics will find nothing of interest here, but those whose tastes straddle both past and present and appreciate a hard copy resource will find this to be a handy and valuable reference as well as providing an entertaining browse.
Note that the new announcements database has been updated to include the announcements listed below.
AC Comics reports that it has two more 1950s science fiction titles available. They are The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957, with Forrest Tucker and Peter Cushing) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958, with Tom Tryon). AC Comics' releases are issued on DVD-R.
A title previously available from MGM, The Fugitive Kind (1959, with Marlon Brando) has been announced by Criterion for release on April 27th. It will appear as a two-disc edition with supplements including a new video interview with Sidney Lumet; a new documentary featuring Tennessee Williams scholar Robert Bray and film historian R. Barton Palmer discussing Williams's work in Hollywood and The Fugitive Kind; Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, an hour-long television presentation of three one-act plays by Williams, directed by Lumet in 1958; and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Thomson. Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie (1962) is coming on April 20th on both DVD and Blu-ray, including audio commentary and a selection of new and archival featurettes. Essential Art House: Volume 5, coming on April 13th, will include Brief Encounter (1945), 8 ½ (1963), Floating Weeds (1959), Jules and Jim (1962), Kapo (1959), and Loves of a Blonde (1965). Availability is either a six-disc box set or individually by title. Criterion has also acquired the US distribution rights to the Charlie Chaplin films managed by MK2 on behalf of the Chaplin estate. These rights were previously held by WB. There's no word on when this new arrangement will bear fruit in terms of new DVD or Blu-ray versions.
Disney has revealed that the Sleeping Beauty: 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition Blu-ray will return to the Disney Vault on January 30th, and thereafter no additional copies will be produced. Those who still wish to acquire the title should do so within the next month, or risk not being able to obtain a copy until its next release in 2015.
Flicker Alley, in association with Film Preservation Associates' Blackhawk Films Collection, will be releasing George Méliès Encore on February 16th. This will be a single disc collection of 26 films produced by Méliès between 1896 and 1911. The release can be considered a complement to Flicker Alley's five-disc set Georges Méliès, First Wizard of the Cinema that came out last year. The new release will present the 26 films in chronological order with brand new music, and as a bonus there will be two films long identified as being Méliès' own work but actually done in the Méliès style by Segundo de Chomon.
Grapevine Video has its usual slate of silent and sound releases for January. The four silents are: Burning Soil (1922, directed by F.W. Murnau), Drop Kick (1927, with Richard Barthelmess), The Return of Grey Wolf (1926, featuring Leader the Dog), and Up in Mabel's Room (1926, with Marie Prevost). The three sound ones are: a Richard Talmadge double feature of Fighting Pilot (1935) and On Your Guard (1933), a 1931 double feature of U67 (aka Sea Ghost) and Law of the Sea, and Scream in the Night (1935, a rare Lon Chaney Jr. film thought to have been lost).
Paramount has finally announced that The African Queen (1951, with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn) is coming to both DVD and Blu-ray in Region 1 on March 23rd. Fully restored from the original three-strip negative, the film will be offered in both a single disc version and a Commemorative Limited Edition box set for both Blu-ray and standard DVD. Featured on the single disc releases is a new documentary entitled Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen, which includes new interviews with contemporary film experts such as Martin Scorsese and incorporates home movies, archival images, and more. The Commemorative box sets add an audio disc with a recording of the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of The African Queen, a reproduction of Katharine Hepburn's out-of-print memoir "The Making of The African Queen or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind"; a Senitype film frame collectible reproduction; and postcards featuring reproductions of images related to the film. April 20th will bring Perry Mason: Season 5, Volume 1. And on April 27th, we'll get I Love Lucy: The Movie and Other Great Rarities. This is a separate release of the bonus material that was previously exclusive to the I Love Lucy: Complete Series set from three years ago.
According to tvshowsondvd.com, Shout! Factory is preparing a June 15th release of Leave It to Beaver: Season 3, a six-DVD set that will contain all 39 episodes of the 1959-60 season. Also planned for the same date is Leave It to Beaver: The Complete Series, a 37-disc box set containing all six seasons including the first two already released by Universal. It's not clear exactly what all that means for separate season sets for seasons 4 to 6.
The latest news from Sony, as reported in the Home Theater Forum, suggests that three anticipated classic sets are still in the plans. The Rita Hayworth Collection is likely to appear in the second half of 2010; it is currently delayed due to normal schedule changes and additional work on the set. Columbia Film Noir: Vol. 2 will be released in 2010 as well as the two Bad Girls of Film Noir sets (already set for February 9th). The Three Stooges Collection: Volume 8 should appear in mid 2010. Meanwhile the studio has announced a release date of April 6th for The Icons of Suspense Collection Presents Hammer Films. It will include six films as originally anticipated along with the theatrical trailers: Stop Me Before I Kill (1961), Cash on Demand (1961), Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960), Maniac (1962), The Snorkel (1958), and These Are the Damned (1962). Through its Columbia Classics blog site, Sony is giving fans the opportunity to select the final cover art for this set from three options. Voting continues until January 26th.
The Complete Steve Canyon on TV: Volume 3 is planned for release on DVD in March from the Milton Caniff estate via stevecanyondvd.blogspot.com. It will contain the final 10 episodes of the series (#25-34). Supplements will include episode commentary tracks and the original pilot version of the very first episode.
TCM/Universal's joint release of Cary Grant: The Early Years has slipped a few weeks from January 26th to February 25th. As a reminder, the set will contain The Eagle and the Hawk, The Devil and the Deep, and The Last Outpost. There's no indication whether this release will contain pressed discs or the first of the DVD-Rs in the series. There's also news about the next offering in this series, currently set for April 27th. It'll be the TCM Universal Deanna Durbin Collection - a five disc set that will include: Mad About Music (1938), That Certain Age (1938), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), Because of Him (1946), and For the Love of Mary (1948). The titles are also available separately and do not duplicate any of those on Universal's sole earlier Region 1 Durbin release - the Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack.
Best of the Loretta Young Show: Seasons 3 & 4 will be forthcoming from the Timeless Media Group on February 16th. It will be a 3-disc set containing 31 episodes from the two seasons.
Universal appears to have joined the burn-on-demand approach of the Warner Archive and at the same price-point of $20 a disc. The studio is now offering a number of titles on DVD-R via Amazon.com (as Amazon exclusives), as part of a Universal Vault series, including: 40 Pounds of Trouble (1963, Tony Curtis), The Black Shield of Falworth (1954, Tony Curtis), The Brass Bottle (1964, Tony Randall), The Chalk Garden (1964, Deborah Kerr), Death Takes a Holiday (1934, Fredric March), Dragnet (1954, Jack Webb), Gambit (1966, Michael Caine), The House of the Seven Gables (1940, George Sanders), Kitten with a Whip (1964, Ann-Margret), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963, George C. Scott), The Perfect Furlough (1958, Tony Curtis), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, Charles Laughton), Spawn of the North (1938, George Raft), Shoot Out (1971, Gregory Peck), and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969, Robert Redford). One wonders who makes decisions at Universal on what titles get DVD-R treatment vs. pressed disc? The incredible Ruggles of Red Gap goes to DVD-R, yet the static Alice in Wonderland gets a proper pressed disc release (and I don't care that there's a tie-in to Tim Burton's new theatrical Alice in Wonderland film)?
VCI has four releases planned for March 30th. The first two are spaghetti western double features (A Bullet for Sandoval/Any Gun Can Play and Strangers Gundown/Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die - all from 1967-1970). The others are Sea Devils (1953, with Rock Hudson) and a Sabu double feature of Savage Drums (1951) and Jungle Hell (1956). The company has also announced that it is delaying its release of No Orchids for Miss Blandish in order to partner with TCM on promoting the release. The new date is June 1st and the extra time will also allow for the creation of a brand new video transfer master (with work to be done in London at the BBC) which will then allow VCI to further digitally restore the film to a high standard. VCI is also working with producer Richard Gordon to develop a video interview and commentary for the DVD.
Warner Bros.' first announcement of the new year of a pressed release is, wait for it - Gone with the Wind: The Making of a Legend, coming on April 13th. I guess it's good to have this available as a separate DVD release, but most people interested in it will already have it as a supplement on the last two Gone with the Wind releases. March 2nd will bring three 60s Collections. No. 1 will contain Lolita, Blow-Up, and Bonnie and Clyde; No. 2 will include Bullitt, Cool Hand Luke, and Ocean's 11; and No. 3 will offer a Blu-ray triple of Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt, and Cool Hand Luke. There's nothing new here for classic fans, but at least the prices are reasonably attractive - $20 for the DVD triples and $30 for the Blu-ray combo. Coming on April 27th are two single-disc collections of classic Warner cartoons - Bugs Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire and Daffy Duck: Frustrated Fowl. These are the first in a series of DVD collections celebrating Looney Tunes stars. Each disc will contain 15 cartoons never before on DVD with each title being remastered from restored film elements. These follow very much in the mold of the defunct Golden Collection sets, as they are being advertised as being for adult collectors and not suitable for children. More such releases are planned for later this year apparently. A 45th anniversary Blu-ray digibook release of Doctor Zhivago (1965) is set for May 4th (a DVD version will also be available). Both versions include a new documentary on the film; a commentary with Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Lady Sandra Lean (wife of David Lean); an introduction by Sharif; a making-of featurette; 11 vintage featurettes; and several other featurettes. The Blu-ray will also have a 44-page booklet of essays, cast photos, historical film facts and a CD with eight songs from the film's Oscar-winning soundtrack. May 4th will also bring the promised release of No Time for Sergeants (1958, with Andy Griffith) plus Wave 6 of the TCM Greatest Classic Films. This time we get TCM Greatest Classic Films: War (Battle of the Bulge, The Dawn Patrol, Gunga Din, Operation Pacific) and TCM Greatest Classic Films: Westerns (Chisum, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Stalking Moon, Ride the High Country).
As of January 12th, the Warner Archive has added the following new classic releases: Beauty and the Boss (1932, with Warren William), Captain Salvation (1927, with Lars Hanson), The Flying Fleet (1929, with Ramon Novarro), La Boheme (1926, with Lillian Gish), Operation Heartbeat (1969, with Edward G. Robinson - Medical Center pilot), Split Second (1953, with Dick Powell), Sunny (1930, with Marilyn Miller), They Met in Bombay (1941, with Clark Gable), Tide of Empire (1929, with Renee Adoree), Under Eighteen (1932, with Marian Marsh), White Shadows in the South Seas (1928, with Monte Blue), and Wild Oranges (1924, with Frank Mayo). January 19th has brought the second wave of January Archive releases. It includes: An American Romance (1944, with Brian Donlevy), Cry Havoc (1943, with Margaret Sullavan), Fifth Avenue Girl (1939, with Ginger Rogers), It's a Wonderful World (1939, with Claudette Colbert), Kismet (1944, with Ronald Colman), Lady of the Night (1925, with Norma Shearer), The Pagan (1929, with Ramon Novarro), and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944, with Irene Dunne). The initial Archive releases for February include The Last Flight (1931, with Richard Barthelmess), God Is My Co-Pilot (1945, with Dennis Morgan), Fighter Squadron (1948, with Robert Stack), Breakthrough (1950, with David Brian), Force of Arms (1951, with William Holden), The Tanks Are Coming (1951, with Steve Cochran), Operation Secret (1952, with Cornel Wilde), Ensign Pulver (1964, with Robert Walker Jr.), and First to Fight (1967, with Chad Everett).
Non-Region 1 Announcements:
January 25: Lubitsch in Berlin - from Eureka Masters of Cinema (UK)
February 1: Barbary Coast (1935, with Edward G. Robinson) - from Cornerstone Media (UK); It's All Over Town (1963, with Lance Percival) - from Optimum (UK)
February 8: For Love or Money (1963, with Kirk Douglas) - from Freemantle (UK); The Bicycle Thieves (1948) - from Arrow Films (UK) in Blu-ray
February 15: The Durant Affair (1962, with Nigel Green), The Court Martial of Major Keller (1961, with Laurence Payne) - from Pegasus (UK); The Siege of Pinchgut (1960, with Aldo Ray), Raising the Wind (1961, with James Robertson Justice) - from Optimum (UK)
February 22: There's Always Tomorrow (1956, with Barbara Stanwyck) - from Eureka Masters of Cinema (UK); Seven Days to Noon (1950, with Barry Jones) - from Optimum
Well, once again, that's it for now. I'll return again soon.