- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

The Deal (Weinstein/Genius Products, $22.95) — Peter Morgan has carved out a nice little niche for himself as the foremost fictionalizer of the recent past.

He received an Oscar nomination for writing “The Queen,” which critiqued the way Elizabeth II handled the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The same year Helen Mirren won an Oscar for that, Forest Whitaker won one for playing Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” which Mr. Morgan also co-wrote. His play “Frost/Nixon” was just filmed by Ron Howard.

Mr. Morgan, in fact, first made his name with just this sort of film. “The Deal” aired on British television in 2003 and finally made it to the United States, via HBO, in the fall.

The drama details the political friendship and rivalry of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and current PM Gordon Brown. As with “The Queen,” to which this film is being billed as a prequel, there’s no way to know just how many of the specifics are true. There’s no question, though, that it’s a smart and shrewd look at how politics really works.

Michael Sheen plays Tony Blair (as he did in “The Queen”) and David Morrissey is Gordon Brown. The two first meet in 1983, when the new members of Parliament are forced to share a small, dungeonlike office. They don’t seem to have much in common: Mr. Brown’s an intellectual with a few books under his belt, while Mr. Blair got his seat by being well-connected.

They quickly bond, though, when they realize they share a desire to overhaul and modernize the Labour Party, marginalized by Margaret Thatcher’s long domination of British politics.

For years, it looks as if Mr. Brown eventually will become leader, with Mr. Blair his deputy. “I dreamt up my first speech as leader of the Labour Party when I was 15. And I’ve been revising it ever since,” the earnest Mr. Brown says.

Not everyone is so certain a Scot could be elected to Britain’s highest post. When party leader John Smith dies, the two friends, now rivals, eventually agree that Mr. Blair will become leader, to step down one day in favor of Mr. Brown. As anyone who follows British politics knows, Mr. Blair took quite a while to do so.

Mr. Sheen will play Mr. Blair once more; Mr. Morgan is writing a third act, focusing on the prime minister’s relationships with Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. The actor already had the role down pat in “The Deal.” You watch him turn from a green, overeager reformist to a slick politico over the course of the film.

Extras on this disc include a conversation with director Stephen Frears and an audio commentary with Mr. Morgan.

A History of Britain: The Complete Collection (A&E, $39.95) — For a wide-ranging look at the whole of British history before the Blair years, this DVD set is a great bargain. A&E Home Video is rereleasing this 2000 BBC series in sleeker packaging at a lower price.

In 15 episodes on five DVDs, historian and best-selling author Simon Schama gives an overview of Britannia from the beginning of its civilization to the middle of the 20th century. The images, especially early on, aren’t always much to look at. Mr. Schama, though, more than makes up for any visual shortcomings with a forceful and enthusiastic delivery. He has a lot of ground to cover, but his transitions are seamless, even when he’s jumping from Queen Victoria’s bedroom life to the soot-black industrial city of Manchester.

Phineas and Ferb: The Fast and the Phineas (Disney, $19.99) — It should come as no surprise that this lighthearted Disney Channel animated show is as amusing to adults as it is to children. Its two creators worked on the adult animated series “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”

The title characters are stepbrothers who make every day of their summer vacation count, whether it’s building a backyard beach or tricking out their mother’s car for the racetrack. Their big sister Candace (voiced by Ashley Tisdale of “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”) tries every time to get them punished for their hijinks but never seems to succeed. (“Mom, Phineas and Ferb are making a title sequence,” she cries at the beginning of the show.) The 4-year-old fan I know says what she likes best about the show is that the two boys never get in trouble.

The show does play on ethnic stereotypes a bit too much. (Their Indian friend’s greatest fear is a failed math test, while neighbor Mrs. Garcia-Shapiro says things like “Oy vey” in a Mexican accent.) That’s a small quibble with a pretty inspiring show.

This disc has five episodes from the first season, including a never-before-seen two-parter .

Shine a Light (Paramount, $19.99 for DVD, $29.99 for Blu-ray) — Everyone knows this concert documentary features a legendary pairing — Martin Scorsese and the Rolling Stones. You might not realize those aren’t the only legends involved in making the film.

The group of cinematographers who captured the band’s October 2006 concerts at New York City’s Beacon Theatre have a bunch of Oscars among them. The Oscar winners include Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”), Robert Richardson (“The Aviator”), Andrew Lesnie (“Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”) and John Toll (“Legends of the Fall”).

Speaking by telephone earlier this year, fresh off his Oscar win for “Blood,” Mr. Elswit said the group was assembled by Mr. Richardson. “We were really working as camera operators, which is unusual for us. We’re usually responsible for more than that,” he said. “It was fun. There was no pressure — the pressure was on Bob and Marty. For us, it was more of a social event.” He notes that more camaraderie exists among cinematographers than any other of the film craftsmen, and the group closed out a local bar every night of the shoot.

Mick Jagger joked that this may be the only Martin Scorsese film that doesn’t feature the Stones track “Gimme Shelter.” (The director of “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” has used the song in three of his films.) But the extras on this disc do include four bonus songs not seen in theaters, including “Paint It Black,” and on the Blu-ray disc they’re in high-definition, too, along with the behind-the-scenes featurette.

— Kelly Jane Torrance



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