Friday, April 12, 2013

DVD Review: Midsomer Murders: Tom Barnaby's Last Cases [Box Set]

John Nettles portrayed Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Barnaby in the British ITV Networks' Midsomer Murders television program from 1997 until 2011. He was there from the beginning, and his departure left fans wondering how, or if the show would continue. By casting Neil Dudgeon as Tom’s cousin John Barnaby, the producers found a way to move forward without too much disruption. In Nettles’ final show, “Fit For Murder,” Tom announces his retirement, and introduces John. The basic premise of Midsomer Murders remains unchanged, and the 16th series (season) is currently in production.

That basic premise of Midsomer Murders is a good one. The show is based on the novels of Caroline Graham, and takes place in the fictional English county of Midsomer. Midsomer County is a wealthy enclave, and the settings are often quite beautiful. It is against this idyllic backdrop that an inordinate number of murders occur, and the perpetrators are usually the least likely candidates.

The locations of the murders range all over Midsomer County, and we follow Tom from a golf course to a touristy model town, to an old village school, and some grand estates, among many other places. His final case, “Fit for Murder” happens at a weekend spa that he and his wife are visiting. There is no rest for the wicked it would seem.

While the settings are certainly attractive, the mysteries themselves are what keep us coming back. For some reason, it seems that the English have a knack for crafting great murder mysteries. Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby novel series upholds the long tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

The new 15-DVD, 15-episode box set Midsomer Murders: Tom Barnaby’s Last Cases contains all seven Midsomer Murders from series 12 (2009-10), and all eight from series 13 (2010-11). As the title indicates, these are the final 15 mysteries featuring John Nettles as DCI Tom Barnaby. While I have not as of yet had the opportunity to watch every episode of this long-running program, I can say that of the many I have seen, I have never been disappointed. This is certainly the case with the final 15 of Nettles’ run with the show.

Acorn Media has carved out a nice niche, releasing select British programs on DVD for the American market, and Midsomer Murders is one of them. I took a chance on one of the sets, and was very pleasantly surprised. Evidently, the DVD sets of Midsomer have done well, as these programs have already been previously released separately by Acorn. Having the two series packaged together in this manner is great for those who may not already them.

Midsomer Murders: Tom Barnaby’s Last Cases is housed in a four-volume box set, with a full DVD devoted to each mystery. The breakdown is as follows:

Series 12: Part One: “The Dogleg Murders” (100 minutes), “The Black Book” (100 minutes), “Secrets and Spies” (100 minutes), and “The Glitch” (100 minutes). Bonus materials include cast interviews and fact sheets. While Midsomer Murders is a television show, there is an advisory for “The Black Book” on the back cover to alert the viewer that it contains brief nudity and sexual themes. Previously released as Midsomer Murders: Set 17.

Series 12: Part Two contains: “Small Mercies” (100 minutes), “The Creeper” (100 minutes), and “The Great and the Good (100 minutes).” There is a 23-minute interview with Jason Hughes as a bonus on “The Great and the Good,” and “The Creeper“ contains brief nudity. Previously released as Midsomer Murders: Set 18

Series 13: Part One contains: “The Made-to-Measure Murders” (100 minutes), “The Sword of Guillaume” (100 minutes), “Blood on the Saddle” (100 minutes), and “The Silent Land” (100 minutes). “Blood on the Saddle” contains an interesting “Behind-the-scenes” photo gallery. Previously released as Midsomer Murders: Set 19

Series 13: Part Two contains: “Master Class” (93 minutes), “The Noble Art” (89 minutes), “Not in my Backyard” (89 minutes), and “Fit for Murder” (89 Minutes). John Nettles’ final starring appearance as Tom Barnaby comes in “Fit for Murder,” and the DVD also includes the bonus feature “Barnaby Through the Years” photo gallery and a “Saying Goodbye to Barnaby” essay. Previously released as Midsomer Murders: Set 20.

If you add it all up the run time would be approximately 24 hours. Although I would not necessarily recommend sitting down for one 24-hour marathon of Midsomer Murders, I would understand if you chose to do so. The series really is that addictive, and I believe it is one of the best British television shows going. For those who have yet to fall under the spell of Midsomer Murders, it is most definitely worth investigating.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

DVD Box Review: Foyle's War: The Home Front Files Sets 1 - 6

It is hard to explain why some British dramas catch on so strongly in the United States, and others go almost unknown. Foyle’s War is certainly one that I think should have gained a strong audience in America, but for one reason or another, has remained something of a cult item. Acorn Media have been releasing the series to DVD in America for a few years now, but their new Foyle's War: The Home Front Files Sets 1-6 collects all 22 episodes in one incredible package.

The initial run of the program was from 2002 to 2008, for a total of six seasons, or “series” as the Brits refer to it. Although it rarely works, in the case of Foyle’s War, the outcry of fans actually succeeded in reviving the show, and a seventh series ran in 2010, and reportedly there is an eighth scheduled for 2013. There were a total of 22 programs produced during the original run of the show, with each year seeing four, three and even just two individual 90-minute installments.

As mentioned, Acorn Media have previously released these as individual DVD sets, each with a single DVD devoted to what amounts to separate TV movies. The new Foyle’s War The Home Front Files Sets 1-6 contains all 22 DVDs in a box-set format, and it is a mighty impressive collection.

First of all, let me just say that using the backdrop of World War II to present murder mysteries was inspired. I have always been a fan of murder mysteries, be they English or American, but Foyle’s War is really something special. With the war raging in the background, there is a much deeper level to all of the stories, and the producers use that to excellent effect.

The titular character is Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), who is based in Sussex, England. The very first Foyle’s War episode is titled “The German Woman,” and is set in 1940. At this time, anyone of German extraction in England was immediately suspect, as the Germans were bombing the country. “The German Woman” refers to the brutal murder of the local magistrate’s wife, who was German. Among some of the townspeople of Hastings (in Sussex), there is kind of a feeling of “who cares” as she was German, but Foyle gets to the bottom of it, and the story is quite compelling.

This level of sophisticated story-telling continues with the remaining three episodes of the first season. They are “The White Feather,” “A Lesson in Murder,” and “Eagle Day.” All four are excellent, and I really enjoy the chronological format as well. This first season is set from May to August of 1940. The second season of Foyle's Warpicks up the story in September of 1940, with “Fifty Ships.” This second set also contains four DVDs/episodes, and ends in October 1940.

Set three is also a four-DVD collection, and takes place from February to June 1941. To this viewer, the third series of Foyle’s War was a real peak, maybe the finest of the six. Each of these mysteries does what Foyle’s War does best, presenting a fascinating mystery with the equally fascinating intrigues going on in civilian Sussex during 1941. “The French Drop” is a perfect example of this. In it, Foyle traces a murder back to the mysterious wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE), which is an undercover espionage-training group. The tensions between the SOE and the government in these early days are captivating to say the least.

For whatever reasons, Foyle’s War was off the air in 2005, and the series resumed in 2006, for its fourth season. This season only produced two episodes, although they were both quite good. “Invasion” sees the arrival of American troops in Hastings, who are not made to feel 100% welcome. We are in March, 1942 at this point, and the U.S. has just entered the war in a big way after Pearl Harbor. The other Foyle’s War program for the fourth season was “Bad Blood,” which has some early-21st century parallels thanks to the use of anthrax in biological warfare experimentation.

Season five was also a two-episode affair, and initially aired in 2007. These are two more excellent installments though, without question. "Bleak Midwinter" is appropriately titled, as the show takes place during December of 1942. In this case, Foyle finds himself investigating the mysterious murder of a munitions worker. "Casualties of War" moves the story into 1943, and is one of the more intriguing of the lot. The situation involves more investigation into top secret weapons research, which is always creepy. The show also focuses on domestic events in Foyle's life, as his god-daughter and her young son unexpectedly come to stay with him. In 2007, viewers must have thought the series was over, as Foyle retires at the end of "Casualties of War."

The show did return in 2008 however, for its sixth season. The three episodes that comprise season six take place from April 1944 to May 1945. At first, it certainly appears that Foyle's decision was final, as we are introduced to his replacement. But things get mighty dicey in this one, and Foyle winds up solving not one but two murders. At the end of the show he has decided to put off his retirement until the end of the war.

"Broken Souls" finds Foyle in the middle of a strange situation with a former POW and a psychiatrist at a mental health institution. "All Clear" refers to the end of the war, VE Day, but that joyful event is marred by another murder.

Thankfully, the end of the war did not spell the end of Foyle's War. The three-episode seventh season takes place in the immediate post-war period of June to August 1945. It was originally transmitted during 2010. "The Russian House," "Killing Time," and "The Hide" continue the excellent, theatrical film level quality of the show in fine fashion.

Michael Kitchen does a marvelous job as Christopher Foyle throughout the series, and he gets wonderful support from his co-stars as well. Acorn has not skimped on the bonus features here either, as the set includes interview segments with the creator of the show, Anthony Horowitz and actors Anthony Howell and Honeysuckle Weeks. The making of pieces are also top notch.

Each of these "shows" are really individual movies, and are just the perfect thing for fans of British mysteries. Foyle's War is one of the finest shows of its kind, and Acorn have made this all-inclusive set available at a very reasonable price. I recommend this one without reservation.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Black Sabbath to Release Their First Album with Ozzy in 35 Years

An edited version of this article was first published as Music News: Black Sabbath to Release Their First Album with Ozzy in 35 Years on Blogcritics.
With their first album, Black Sabbath invented heavy metal. Hailing from Birmingham, England, Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass), and Bill Ward (drums) created a sound that was unlike anything that had come before. The original lineup released eight albums between 1970-1978, but the band sacked Ozzy after Never Say Die! in 1978. The reunion album is titled 13, and was produced by Rick Rubin. It is scheduled to be released in June, with a summer tour likely to follow. So what makes Sabbath the original metal band? With all due respect to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, and even Dave Davies’ guitar riff on The Kinks‘ “You Really Got Me,” the Black Sabbath album set the template. The cover alone scared the hell out of me, let alone the music. From the opening tritone sequence of Iommi’s guitar, to Ozzy’s frightening intonation of the words “What is this that stands before me,” and the pure doom that infused the whole of “Black Sabbath,” this song was unrelenting. And that was only the first track. Other standout cuts included “The Wizard,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” and the monstrous "Warning." As if Black Sabbath were not enough, they managed to release a second long-player just seven months later. Paranoid was more than a worthy follow-up, and many fans (myself included) consider it to be their best. Besides the title tune, Paranoid also boasted “War Pigs,” “Iron Man,” and “Hand of Doom,” among other classics. Sabbath were as far from the hippie delights of CSN and the gentle singer-songwriters of the period as could be imagined. Black Sabbath and Paranoid heralded a new era in music, and the critics were not happy. Even Lester Bangs missed the boat. His review of Black Sabbath in Rolling Stone described it as "discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitized speedfreaks all over each other's musical perimeters yet never quite finding synch." In the 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide, Ken Tucker summed up the Ozzy years with this pithy statement: “These would-be Kings of English Heavy Metal are eternally foiled by their own stupidity.” 1970 was the band’s watershed year, and they consolidated their early ‘70s supremacy with Master of Reality (1971), Volume 4 (1972), Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), and Sabotage (1975). They were the English Kings of Heavy Metal, critics be damned. These albums contained a plethora of brilliant songs, including such essentials as “Sweet Leaf,” “Children of the Grave,” “Wheels of Confusion,” “Supernaut,” “Killing Yourself to Live,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Hole in the Sky,” and “Symptom of the Universe.” As the title of “Snowblind” from Volume 4 hints at though, the troubles that would eventually destroy them had already surfaced by 1972. Butler explained the situation to Guitar World magazine in 2001: "The cocaine had set in. We went out to L.A. and got into a totally different lifestyle. Half the budget went on the coke and the other half went to seeing how long we could stay in the studio.” The cover of Sabotage was a clear indicator of trouble in paradise. Look at those guys! Good Lord, what the hell were they thinking? My favorite has to be Bill Ward and his white tights. The music inside still rocked though. Technical Ecstasy would be the first album in which the cover art was the most notable element of the set. I do not know what drew the famed Hipgnosis art-crew to the Sabbs, but the robot-fucking cover art was a beaut. It just did not fit with the music at all though. The robots would have been perfect for a Krautrock album, but Sabbath got it, and it is one of my all time favorites. As for Never Say Die! the less said the better. There was a weird optimism to the title song, with a chorus of "Don't ever, never say die!" which was bizarre. They even performed the song on Top of the Pops. When a band puts the word "die" in the album title, it is usually the kiss of death. Just ask Grand Funk Railroad, after their Born to Die LP. There was a primal brilliance to the songs of Black Sabbath and Paranoid, which were almost punk in their primitivism. By the time of Never Say Die!, this had been replaced by a bland competence. They sold their souls for rock and roll? No, they just got boring. I will never forget the Never Say Die! tour. It was my first opportunity to see Black Sabbath, and I was kind of excited. But it was the opening band, Van Halen that my high school buddies and I were really there for. Van Halen were the worst possible opening act Sabbath could have chosen at that time, because they absolutely blew the headliners off the stage. That was a very long time ago though, and the big question today is, what will 13 sound like? A clue emerged at the November 2011 announcement of the reunion, which was hosted by Henry Rollins at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood. All four original members were there, and Butler said that the new material “has the old Sabbath style and sound." Since that announcement, Ward has dropped out. Although the details have been kept under wraps, there has been a new contract drawn up regarding the brand name “Black Sabbath.” Ward calls the document he was presented with “unsignable,“ and is not participating in the reunion. 13 will feature Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine’s on the drums. With all due respect to the rest of the band, it has always been the guitar of Iommi which has defined the group. He has been the only member to appear on every one of the 18 studio albums released under the name Black Sabbath. Most of the later records were basically Iommi solo albums though, with a revolving door of back-up musicians. This is pure speculation, but some clues to what 13 might sound like may be in The Devil You Know, released under the moniker Heaven and Hell in 2009. Because of the Black Sabbath agreement, Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler, and (drummer) Vinny Appice were forced to call themselves Heaven and Hell, even though it was in essence a reunion of the Dio-fronted version of Sabbath. The Devil You Know contains the most recent examples of Iommi’s guitar playing, which could indicate the direction of the new material. It should be noted that Iommi’s style with Dio was quite a bit different from what it was with Osbourne. Whether this reflects his style of playing with different vocalists, or simply the way his approach has evolved is difficult to say. I guess we will find out in June. In any case, 13 is a recording that Sabbath fans have been anticipating for many years. The album will be released on the Vertigo label worldwide, and Vertigo/Republic in the U.S. Interestingly enough, the 1970 Black Sabbath LP was issued on Vertigo as well. Another bit of trivia tying the two records together was the release date of that first album. It was on Friday, February 13, 1970. The one song title that has been leaked is “God is Dead.“ I am looking forward to hearing what Ozzy fan and born-again Christian George W. Bush has to say about that one. It really sucks that Ward is not going to be a part of this. I can only imagine that it was the hand of Sharon Osbourne behind this maneuver. Iommi basically owned the name, and had to have been convinced to "share" it, I guess. Look, all four of these guys were there at the beginning, and they should all be equal partners. No matter how well the record does, you know that the reunion tour will be massive. To cut Ward out seems incredibly petty at this late date. I am very curious to hear this record though, and my hope is that Rubin will be able to get them to go back to the primitive, yet timeless music they created in the early '70s.