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By Daniel Lammin
4th January 2015

2014 is all wrapped-up, but there were still some pretty stellar Blu-ray releases in the last month of the year. We’ve cast our eye over a few, including some pleasant surprises worth checking out and one of the finest animated films ever made.

No director has a more ballsy and bizarre approach to action than French director Luc Besson. During the eighties and nineties, films like ‘The Big Blue’, ‘Leon The Professional’ and ‘The Fifth Element’ became established pop culture events, giving formally very American genres a distinctive European flavour. He’s mostly been producing of late (including the popular 'Taken' series), but with ‘Lucy’ he returns to the realm of science fiction with a refreshing take on an old idea.

American Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself in a nightmare situation whilst studying in Taiwan when she is kidnapped and forced into drug trafficking, the new illegal substance being surgically placed in her stomach. During an accident though, the pouch of drugs is ruptured and enters Lucy’s bloodstream, opening up the 90% of the brain human beings never use. Suddenly, she begins to transform into a sort of god, coming to grips with her insane and frightening new abilities with the help of Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) and becomes hell-bent on taking revenge on the smugglers. It’s a pretty familiar idea, and Besson’s screenplay doesn’t push any boundaries in terms of twists and turns, but it’s in his direction that the film really takes off. Along with editor Julien Rey, he gives the film a tumbling frantic pace that never lets up, cleverly cutting between Thierry Arbogast’s poppy cinematography and well-chosen stock footage. ‘Lucy’ is an insane and strange film, but refreshing in its approach, making it a step in the odd direction compared to most action films. It also helps that Johansson is just so goddamn good in the part, capping off a really stellar year for the actor. She transitions beautifully from the average and excitable Lucy to the higher being she eventually becomes, and perfectly encapsulates Besson’s crazy style. Freeman also seems to enjoy the change of pace. Professor Norman is a part he can do in his sleep, but he responds positively to the different energy the director brings.

‘Lucy’ might be a bit too strange to appeal to those used to Hollywood action fare, but tapping into that strangeness reaps many rewards. It’s a blast of a film, never slowing down enough for you to want to jump off the ride and held together by a terrific central performance. It might not be up to the standard of Luc Besson in his heyday, but it’s still one hell of a trip.

Universal’s transfer keeps up with the visual insanity of ‘Lucy’ with an excellent 1080p 2.40:1 transfer. Detail and clarity is excellent throughout, but where the transfer really pops is in its vibrant colour palette, especially in the Taiwan sequences. It’s an hallucinatory film, and looks terrific in high definition. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is also excellent, well-balanced between the thumping sound effects and score and the dialogue, which is often a problem with action films.

Only two featurettes are included, a short look at the making of the film and another on the science behind the idea of tapping into human potential. It’s all interesting stuff and slickly made, and everyone involved sounds very committed to the film and Besson’s vision. Not extraordinary, but still worth a watch regardless.

Click here to read our review of the theatrical release of ‘Lucy’.

When ‘Frozen’ won the Oscar for Best Animated Film last year, it wasn’t totally unexpected. After all, it’s a terrific film and a return to form for Disney Animation, and obviously has gone on to become a phenomenon. If you’d asked me who I would have given the award to though, I wouldn’t have stopped to think - nothing would come close to Hayao Miyazaki’s final masterpiece ‘The Wind Rises’.

Exploring the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical designer that created the jet fighters used to devastating effect by the Japanese during the Second World War, the film returns animation to the realm of adult entertainment but without losing any of the beauty and whimsy of Miyazaki’s best work. The artistry on display is absolutely staggering, Studio Ghibli one of the few animation studios who work with hand-drawn animation. Every frame sings with love and care, constructed with intricate emotional power. Jiro’s creations and their terrible fate are secondary to the human drama, of a man driven by his imagination and his drive to create machines of beauty. We also follow his relationship with Nahoko Satomi, whom he would marry and who would drive his imagination even further.

‘The Wind Rises’ is a final master work from a master filmmaker, as powerful an experience as ‘Princess Mononoke’ or ‘Spirited Away’. Studio Ghibli are still the finest studio at straddling the barrier of animation as art and animation as entertainment. ‘The Wind Rises’ packs one hell of a punch, and isn’t a film that’s easy to forget.

High definition really brings out the best in hand-drawn animation, allowing us to revel in the care that went into making it. Madman’s transfer for ‘The Wind Rises’ is a beautiful 1080p 1.85:1 transfer that brings out the incredible detail in the animation, as well as the vibrant colour palette. It’s an accurate recreation of the work of the animation team. The same can be said of the LPCM 2.0 Japanese track. This might sound like a downgrade from the 5.1 or 7.1 we’re used to, but Miyazaki opted to release the film in mono, and this causes no loss in the quality of the remarkable sound design. It’s a great surprise just how important sound becomes in this film, and one of the best design elements in it. There’s also an excellent 1.0 English Dub featuring an all-star cast, as well as English subtitles for whichever version you chose to watch.

Madman continue to offer terrific releases of the Ghibli collection, not only with the superior audio and visual presentation, but with the features on offer. At first it seems a scant collection, but the hour-and-a-half long Film Completion Announcement is an excellent press conference with Miyazaki and other members of the team, where the filmmaker talks about his personal connection to the film. There’s also a short featurette on the English dub, a series of Japanese trailers and an option to watch the entire film with the storyboards as a Picture-In-Picture track. A great little package deserving of a modern classic.

Click here to read our review of the theatrical release of ‘The Wind Rises’.

As always seems to happen, one strange subject resulted in two unconnected films last year - the myth of Hercules, the Greek hero of divine descent. And as always seems to happen, both films wandered very far from the actual myth to tell the "true story" (you know, because the myths are based on fact, right…?) The first film, ‘The Legend of Hercules’, disappeared into the ether, but the second and larger film, Brett Ratner’s ‘Hercules’, got a bit more attention and made a bit more money. With Dwayne Johnson in the title role and a surprisingly good cast, this looked as if it might be, at the very least, a fun few hours of indulgence and ridiculousness.

And that’s certainly how it starts. Hercules (Johnson) is a mercenary whose nephew has perpetuated the idea that his uncle is descended from Zeus. Lord Cotys (John Hurt), the King of Thrace, recruits Hercules and his band to train his army in preparation for an invasion from a seemingly supernatural army. It’s a neat little idea, and to begin with the film has its tongue firmly in its cheek, promising it will probably be as fun as it looks. The problem is, what begins as a cool idea descends into mediocrity fast, as it becomes like every bad Greek or Roman epic since ‘Gladiator’ changed the game. The action sequences are all half-baked, the screenplay is as chewy as bad beef jerky, and the obvious talent and charisma of the cast can’t quite overcome the complete incompetence of Ratner’s direction. Really, that should have been the first bad sign, seeing his name in the credits.

But the biggest beef I had with this film is one I always have with these crappy reinterpretations of classic stories - why didn’t they just do the story as we knew it already? A modern film starring The Rock of Hercules completing the twelve gargantuan tasks whist being set upon by divine vengeance? I want to see that film. That’s not an argument for dismissing a film, and sometimes these reinterpretations can be a lot of fun, but when they turn out as mediocre as ‘Hercules’, it’s hard not to. It might start out as a lot of fun, but in the end ‘Hercules’ offers nothing more than countless films before it.

Paramount have given the film, as expected, an excellent 1080p 2.40:1 transfer that at least makes the best of the exciting production design of the film. It has a rough and ready quality to it, full of texture and detail, and certainly sets it apart from the Bay-hem shiny chrome look. We’re also given a DTS-HD MA 7.1 track that has a lot of kick to it, but tends to drown dialogue a bit much.

As well as an extended cut of the film (offering mostly extra beats of violence and inconsequential character stuff), there’s a commentary from Ratner and producer Beau Flynn and an extensive series of featurettes. The problem is, Ratner comes across as a bit of a twit, and I quickly became aggravated with his hyperbole and buckets of incorrect facts (you made up the story, so how is it the "true story"?) Johnson is far more intelligent and charismatic, and it’s interesting hearing himself and the cast talk about the training and preparation that went into making the film. If you were a fan of ‘Hercules’ there’s probably a lot here to enjoy, otherwise there’s not much of note.

Click here to read our review of the theatrical release of ‘Hercules’.

In 2013, Stephen King’s magnificent novel ‘Under The Dome’ was adapted into a major event series by CBS, a tantalising prospect considering the rich material in the novel about a town cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious dome. As it turned out, the series started as middling at best before descending into an absolute mess, not only because it left aside the social commentary of the novel but what it replaced it with was clichéd and incomprehensible by any standards. It was successful enough to warrant a second season however, but even after leaving the book behind in its sophomore year, the quality of the series hasn’t improved at all.

It’s hard to follow where the series is going, moving with the swift abandon of a daytime soap. Characters change allegiances constantly, to the point where you could place bets on whether ‘Big Jim’ Rennie (a totally lost Dean Norris) and his weirdo son Junior (pretty but shallow Alexander Koch) will be the heroes or the villains this week. The supernatural elements of the series have increased in frequency and weirdness, as well as offering us a glimpse of the outside world. The cast are doing their best with the turgid writing and situations that might kill them off any minute, but even they can’t shake the feeling that this series is making it up as they go along, and not in the ambitious and intelligent way ‘Lost’ did. Perhaps it would have been best as a mini-series as it was originally conceived. There’s only so long we can be patient watching the people of Chester’s Mill trapped under this dome, especially when no-one seems to concerned about what happens when their resources run out.

Leaving the source material behind could have saved ‘Under The Dome’ and made it an intriguing sci-fi series, but what it’s been replaced with doesn’t inspire any kind of confidence as it enters its third season. People seem to be watching and enjoying it to warrant a return, but with so much remarkable television pushes boundaries left, right and centre, ‘Under The Dome’ can’t help but seem inconsequential.

The show isn’t the best-looking either, with half-baked visual effects and clunky cinematography, but Paramount have still given it an excellent transition to Blu-ray, with a sharp and clean 1080p 1.85:1 transfer. The image doesn’t pop with the same vibrancy of a HBO series, but that probably has more to do with the source material rather than the transfer itself. It’s complemented by an excellent DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that keeps dialogue clear and gives sound effect a good kick.

As with the release of the first season, the special features on this set turn out to be far more interesting than the series itself, covering all aspects of the development and production of the season, including encouraging words from Stephen King himself. The dedication to the show is impressive, and at points even makes you reassess your opinion of the series, but all the dedication shown in the hours of featurettes on the three discs doesn’t wash the bad taste away.

It seemed inevitable that television would turn its eyes towards the swashbuckling world of pirates, and first in port is Starz’s lavish ‘Black Sails’. The cable network had had much success with the preposterously silly and sex-soaked ‘Spartacus’, and ‘Black Sails’ falls nor far from that tree, with some healthy doses of ‘Game of Thrones’ intrigue thrown in for good measure.

Creators Jonathan E. Sternberg and Robert Levine have turned to the most famous of pirate adventures, Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’, and have fashioned the series as a prequel set twenty years prior. War is imminent between the British Navy and the various pirate colonies. Captain James Flint (Toby Stephens) has a major prize in sight, a Spanish treasure ship with enough gold to rally the pirates together and prepare them for the war. The problem is, the final piece of the puzzle as to the location of the ship lies in the hands of John Silver (Luke Arnold), a no-hoper ladies man who finds himself thrown head-first into pirate politics and feuds.

It’s familiar yet rich material, and for the most part, ‘Black Sails’ takes full advantage of this. The first season is far more fun and far more intriguing than it has any right to be, held together by a charismatic (and mostly Australian) cast. Luke Arnold in particular is a real delight, always keeping his tongue firmly in his cheek. It’s driven by a complex narrative full of twists, turns and changing allegiances, though ends up spending more time on land than at sea. The only really significant misstep is in the unnecessary amount of sex in the series that even exceeds HBO standards. Very little of it is based in narrative or character and just seems to be there for the same of it. That and the generally poor CGI are mostly forgivable amidst the excellent production design and genuine entertainment of the series. ‘Black Sails’ may not have made that big a splash on its debut, but it has a lot to offer for those that want to revel in the world of pirates. It’ll be great to see where this series is headed.

Anchor Bay have given the eight episode series a handsome 1080p 1.78:1 transfer. The photography in the show is a tad over-exposed and glossy, and looks great in high definition, especially when showing off the production design. We also have a True-HD 7.1 track, which might seem a little excessive for a TV series, but the show makes good use of it. Dialogue can occasionally get lost amongst the sound design, but never too drastically.

Unfortunately all we have on offer is around half-an-hour of featurettes covering the making of the series. It’s all relatively interesting, especially the discussion of how the series engages with the established pirate mythology, but it all feels a bit lean, especially compared to other TV series Blu-ray sets. Hopefully there will be more on offer next season.

It’s easy to forget that the Marvel juggernaut began with a gamble, when the fledgling studio decided to take on a superhero that wasn’t already in the public consciousness. That superhero was Iron Man, and without that gamble, they wouldn’t be one of the most powerful franchises in film history. They’ve meandered along for a few years, but last year took another gamble on another property no-one had heard of, a bunch of space misfits called the Guardians of the Galaxy, and thanks to a terrific cast and the energy and imagination of director James Gunn, turned in a modern space opera classic, full of wit and energy and colour. With ‘Guardians’ ruling the box office in 2014, this new gamble has certainly paid off.

Click here to read our full Blu-ray review of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.

To celebrate the twenty-first anniversary of this magnificent 90s classic, Icon have rereleased ‘The Piano’ on Blu-ray. In celebration, SWITCH took a look back at the masterpiece and why, after two decades, it still deserves all the accolades and praise it received.

Click here to read our retrospective of ‘The Piano’.

We were all prepared for the worst when Michael Bay turned his eyes towards the most beloved of the 80s cartoons. He’d already reduced 'Transformers' to a loud obnoxious mess, so there was every indication he would do the same here. Thankfully Bay was only producer on the film, and seems to have been too distracted by his giant robots, because this reboot turned out to be far better than it should have been. The story is familiar, but the turtles are executed brilliantly and the direction from Jonathan Liebesman is zippy and energetic. What should have been instantly dismissive turned out to be genuine fun.

Click here to read our full Blu-ray review of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’.

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