TV on DVD 05/01/10 – Foyle returns, Life happens and Drop Dead Diva finds life after thin

Foyle’s War: Set 6 (Acorn) – Has there been a British TV mystery series (at least since Prime Suspect) with as passionate and loyal a following as Foyle’s War? In 19 episodes, the show gave us a unique perspective on the British homefront, from 1940 to the official end of hostilities, through the eyes of a World War veteran who, told he is too old serve, is coaxed into serving the civilian needs of his country as a Detective Chief Inspector solving domestic murders in rural towns of the southern coast of Britain. They were a fascinating look at a period not often plumbed for drama and stirred historical events into the fictional stories, giving smartly written British mysteries an injection of authenticity and a context that refracts the mysteries through a different social and political reality. And when it came to a very satisfying close with the end of the war, fans were disappointed that there would be no more Foyle’s War.

Michael Kitchen is Christopher Foyle

Mourn no more: DCS Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is coaxed back from retirement for a few brief months and a brief three-episode encore in these post-war mysteries, set in the upheaval and readjustment of the immediate post-war period. British soldiers are returning, American GIs are antsy as they transports back home lag, and political and social tensions are high. The first mystery, “The Russian House,” churns up a piece of political hypocrisy while Foyle clashes with former assistant Milner (Anthony Howell), when his new case crosses over with Milner’s first solo assignment, and with the military hierarchy when his murder mystery uncovers the military’s blind eye to an inhuman secret deal. Sam (Honeysuckle Weeks) is back too, and she just happens to be working for the victim. “Killing Time” tackles racism in American forces and the American efforts to keep the troops segregated on British soil, and the British accommodation to such “requests” despite the fact that segregation is illegal in Britain. “The Hide” gets into the murky world of double agents and traitors when a murder leads back to both a decades-old murder and the shameful history of the British Free Corps: British soldiers freed from German POW camps to fight for the German cause against the Russians. Foyle confronts this political hypocrisy, racism, classism and the vestiges of post-war intolerance of all kinds (in his suspects and his superior officers), with his uniquely soft-spoken strength and unwavering moral commitment to the truth. The mix of murder mystery conventions, historical situations and the complicated social reality of soldiers and civilians in 1945 England is as compelling as ever as they adjust to life after war. Creator Anthony Horowitz personally scripts the first and final feature length episodes of this set. And this time, it looks like this time Foyle is retired for good. No supplements.

Like the landmark 2007 natural history documentary series Planet Earth before it, Life (BBC) uses state-of-the-art high-definition cameras and lenses to get unprecedented footage of wildlife in its habit. But where “Planet Earth” gave us the big picture of animals in their landscape, the macro-view, “Life” get up close and intimate with each of the animals it studies, giving the viewer an unprecedented view of 130 unique creatures of the natural world (54 of them never before filmed, according the press notes), from insects to whales, from fish to foul, from plants to mammalian predators. As the title suggests, these are scenes from the life cycle of the creatures on Earth: hunting, feeding, hiding, procreating, giving birth to the next generation. The imagery is astounding and presented with unprecedented detail and clarity, with high-speed cameras slowing down the action to capture a lizard’s tongue shooting out to catch an insect and “flying” cameras following birds and butterflies.

A co-production between the BBC Natural History Unit and The Discovery Channel, it was shown in the U.S. with narration by Oprah Winfrey. The four-disc set features all ten episodes, plus the 42-minute documentary “The Making of Life” (the stories behind the scenes are as impressive as the shots themselves) and deleted scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is a collection of short “Life on Location” behind-the-scenes featurettes, one for each episode. The original BBC version with narration by David Attenborough (in his distinctively warm, professorial tones) is also available, via a separate edition, on both DVD and Blu-ray (with different menus and disc design, but without “The Making of Life” and deleted scenes of the American edition).

Drop Dead Diva: Season One (Sony) – Brooke Elliott plays a vapid model whose spirit lands in the body of a plus-sized plain Jane attorney with self-confidence issues in this Lifetime original series. Imagine an L.A. branch of Boston Legal by way of Legally Blonde and Touched By a Angel, with a message of image, body issues and identity under the jokes. It’s lightweight but kind of fun, thanks to Elliot’s characterization of a dizzy blonde in the body of an overweight genius and Margaret Cho as her exceedingly organized (and strangely understanding) assistant, plus a roster of guest stars that includes Liza Minnelli and Delta Burke (as psychic sisters), Sharon Lawrence, Kathy Najimy and Nia Vardalos. Rosie O’Donnell has a recurring role as an acerbic judge (and former mentor to the old Jane), and Tim Gunn and Paula Abdul are just a couple of the reality TV celebrities who appear as themselves in her dream sequences. 13 episodes on three discs in a box set of two thinpak cases, along with the usual self-congratulatory series overview featurette, three bonus “Dreamisodes” (running about 2 minutes in total) and seven deleted scenes among its supplements.

The title of The Eastwood Factor: Extended Version (Warner) is a little misleading. The “Extended” part of the title means merely that it is the complete, full-length version of the documentary previously released in digest form in a DVD box set. Written and directed by critic and film historian Richard Schickel, an Eastwood biographer, booster and friend, this is less as a portrait of the artist or a critical look at his work than a genial tour through Eastwood’s career (specifically his work at Warner Bros.), organized around a set of relaxed interviews with a reflective Eastwood. It rushes through his early career to get to Dirty Harry and the iconographic persona that Eastwood established through the sequels, but really settles in with The Outlaw Josey Wales. Though his fourth film as a director, it was his first directorial effort for Warner and, according to the documentary, the first film to define his ongoing theme of outcast individuals and communities, as seen in such subsequent films as Bronco Billy, Pale Rider, Tightrope, Honkytonk Man, Bird, Unforgiven and A Perfect World. The balance of the documentary focuses on the most significant films of his late career: The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima (but not the Paramount-distributed Flags of Our Father), Gran Torino and Invictus. “I keep working because there are always new stories,” says Eastwood, which is as deep as he gets when discussing his drive to direct. “As long as people want me to tell them, I’ll be there doing it.” It’s an enjoyable visit but frustratingly slim as a documentary, with no real insights to the artist or his working methods. It arrives on DVD a day after its debut on Turner Classic Movies. No supplements. Anyone who purchased the box set “Clint Eastwood: 35 Films, 35 Years at Warner Bros. will be able to trade their 22-minute documentary in for this new feature-length version at no cost by visiting http://www.wbshop.com/Eastwood.

A Waste of Shame (BFS) – Rupert Graves plays William Shakespeare in this 2005 BBC production that speculates on the story behind the “fair youth” and “dark lady” that Shakespeare addressed in the 154 sonnets he wrote between 1596 and 1609, during the trouble middle years where he lived like a bachelor in London, separated from his wife and grieving over the death of his son. Written by novelist and screenwriter William Boyd, it’s a small scale piece with a philandering Shakespeare whose passions are restrained in person but pour out in verse, and the telefilm contrasts Shakespeare’s16th century grubby, lusty, peasant London of inns and theaters and whorehouses with the trappings of the landed gentry that Shakespeare visits but is never part of. Tom Sturridge is the handsome young lord who becomes a sometime companion to Will and Indira Varma is the exotic French-Arab prostitute who passes in and out of Will’s life (and bed). No supplements.

Also new this week: Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume 7 (Warner), which features the show’s sole live-action episode, Burn Notice: Season Three (Fox), which I confess is one of my favorite summer shows, thanks largely to the cast chemistry, clever scripting (my favorite use of voice-over on TV) and cleanly-executed cable-budget action scenes, The Cleaner: The Final Season (Paramount) with Benjamin Bratt, and the British comic drama Hope Springs (Acorn) with Alex Kingston as a crook on the lam with three buddies who get stuck in a small Scottish town.

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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