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By Daniel Lammin
1st April 2013

Welcome to the first edition of our monthly home entertainment round-up, where we take a look at some of the most exciting releases on Blu-ray and DVD in the last month, including the spectacular documentary 'Searching for Sugar Man', Christopher Nolan's directorial breakthrough, 'Memento', and the Disney classic 'Aladdin'.

Released 13th February 2013

After making a significant impact with his debut film, ‘Chopper’ (2000), Australian director Andrew Dominik hasn’t found much love for his recent films here at home. It’s a pity, as Dominik is still a tremendously exciting filmmaker, and his latest, ‘Killing Them Softly’, is an incredibly impressive and distinct entry into the ever-popular gangster genre. Featuring a stellar cast, the film follows two small-time criminals being hunted down by a ruthless and dispassionate hit man after a daring robbery on a card game. What gives the film added potency is Dominik’s decision to add as a backdrop the lead-up to the Global Financial Crisis and the election of Obama. Suddenly, what could have been just a retread of ‘Goodfellas’ territory becomes something more allegorical and intellectual, and much more satisfying. This is a tremendous film, one of the most exciting of last year. Hopefully its release on Blu-ray will give it a second shot at connecting with Australian audiences, and give them a chance to discover it.

Click here to check out our theatrical review.

Dominik’s films have a distinct photographic style, full of texture and detail, and Sony’s 1.78:1 transfer leaves all this intact. There is some beautiful photography at work here, working with a much darker palette than is usual, and rather than lightening it for this release, the work of the filmmakers is maintained. The same can be said about the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. Audio clips of political speeches are woven into the sonic fabric of the film, so sound is incredibly important here, and the muscular audio track brings out all those necessary details.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any features on our release. Internationally, there have been a few EPK interviews included, but after the minimal extras included on his previous film ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ (2007), it might be safe to assume that Dominik isn’t a director interested in such things.

Released 20th February 2013

On the surface, ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ sounds like a relatively pedestrian affair: inspirational teacher comes to a Montreal school and helps his young pupils through a recent trauma, encouraging them to aim higher and, in turn, can come to peace with himself. It’s such a clichéd narrative arc that a synopsis alone is enough to put you off with that feeling of, "Haven’t we seen this before?" All the more surprising then, that ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ is as powerful, affecting and beautiful a film as it is. Featuring a subtle performance from Mohammed Fellag as the titular teacher, as well as one of the finest ensemble of children on screen, the film deals directly with death, grief and intolerance without watering it down or turning it into saccharine sentiment. Lazhar takes over his class after their previous teacher died, and he has to help them deal with a loss they are too young to comprehend. Nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2012, this French Canadian production is an instant classic, and one you certainly cannot miss.

Click here to check out our theatrical review.

The beautifully muted and melancholic tones of ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ remain intact in Madman’s terrific 1080p 2.35:1 transfer. Director Philippe Falardeau and cinematographer Ronald Plante take full advantage of the screenplay’s show-don’t-tell philosophy and the startling breadth of expression in the young cast, and its cinematic texture make it a striking Blu-ray release. The same can be said for the subtle and tender DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, recreating the soundscape of the primary school environment. Filmed in French, the disc also features English subtitles.

Madman have delivered a small but excellent collection of featurettes on the making of the film, including audition tapes, interviews and ‘From Stage To Screen’, a terrific conversation between Falardeau and playwright Evelyne de la Cheneliere, whose play ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ is based on. Touring the school where the film was shot, the two discuss the process of adaptation, the design and symbolism, and how the tremendous child cast came about. A great example of how to craft an extras package to complement a film.

Released 22nd February 2013

Winner of the Best Documentary Oscar this year, ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is one of the many examples of fact being far more fascinating than fiction. For his first feature, Malik Bendjelloul follows the story of Rodriguez, a 70s musician whose two albums were instantly forgotten when released in the States. Somehow, his music reached apartheid-crippled South Africa, and without even knowing, became a hero to the country. Realising they knew nothing of this man, who they believed had killed himself on stage, a group of South Africans begin a search to find their hero, and find something totally unexpected at the end of their journey. One of those films that stays with you days after and fills you with immense joy and sadness, ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is an excellent, if flawed, documentary, constructed with flair like an unfolding detective story, as well as a primer to the work of an artist who had been criminally overlooked.

Like most documentaries, ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ uses footage of varying qualities, and Madman’s transfer is a reflection of that. It isn’t reference quality, but it was never going to be, and in that, it’s an accurate and excellent representation of the film. The same can be said for the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which deals well with the inconsistent audio quality of a lot of the material, while placing Rodriguez’s music exactly where it should be - front and centre.

As usual with Madman, their release offers a small selection of extras, but a truly excellent one. The making-of is essential viewing, covering the many trials Bendjelloul faced in making the film, and the impact its release and success has had for Rodriguez. A small clip of the man performing live is also included, as well as the theatrical trailer of the film. Overall, an excellent package rounding out an excellent release.

Released 27th February 2013

While most of the Disney films of the 90s have made an indelible impact on popular culture, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ is often one that is forgotten or overlooked. Adapted from Victor Hugo’s classic novel, it transforms the story of Quasimodo, the ugly but kind-hearted hunchback bell-ringer of Notre Dame cathedral into an (albeit darker than usual) Disney musical. Even though it was critically well-received, audiences have been divisive in their response. It’s easy to see why - this might be the darkest film Disney has produced, not shying away from issues of intolerance, racism and sexual violence. However, this just makes it all the more impressive. Its comic moments sometimes fall a bit flat, but when it gets its aim right, it has a harrowing resonance that sticks with you long after the film has finished, aided by the beautiful hand-drawn animation and Alan Menken’s thundering, powerful gothic score. An epic work of animation and definitely worth revisiting.

And then there’s the direct-to-video sequel, of which the less said, the better.

Click here to check out our interview with ‘Hunchback’ producer Don Hahn.

‘Hunchback’ looks beautiful on Blu-ray, and Disney have done an excellent job maintaing the earthy tones and incredible detail of the animation. It might not be as staggering a restoration as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or ‘Fantastia’, but it’s a gratefully received one nonetheless. Just as terrific is the DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track, all the more necessary with Menken’s score and the distinctively impressive sound work in the film creating the aural landscape of medieval Paris.

Disney haven’t been that gracious with its releases in the past, and here is no exception, with only a smattering of features on offer. An excellent audio commentary from directors Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale and producer Don Hahn give vital background on the production, but the making-of is standard shallow stuff, and the multi-language reel offers cursory amusement. ‘Hunchback 2’ adds a BTS featurette. A disappointing effort, considering the wealth of material that could have been amassed from previous releases on DVD and Laserdisc.

Released 27th February 2013

After ‘Hunchback’, the next time Disney would tackle a story on a truly epic scale would be with ‘Mulan’, an adaptation of the Chinese legend about a girl who dresses up as a boy to save her father from fighting in battle. This wonderfully Shakespearean twist sets it apart from the usual princess films, and gives it a drive and energy of its own. Thankfully in this case, critical acclaim and audience approval went hand-in-hand, and ‘Mulan’ is now seen as a classic addition to the Disney canon. The Chinese-inspired style of animation is beautiful, the script is witty and moving, and the voice acting is absolutely top-notch, especially from Eddie Murphy as Mulan’s tiny dragon guardian Mushu, with a performance of snap and pathos that blows that annoying talking donkey out of the water. Disney executes ‘Mulan’ on a grand widescreen scale, with stunning action sequences on snow-covered mountains and grand Chinese palaces. The songs are also terrific, as is Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score. It’s almost impossible not to be swept up in this film.

And again, the less said about ‘Mulan 2’, the better.

Being such a recent film by Disney’s usual hand-drawn standards, anything less than perfect would have been unacceptable with ‘Mulan’, and Disney haven’t disappointed. Both the picture and the DTS-HD MA 5.1 sound are terrific, and capture the detail and beauty of the film. Disney have an excellent track record with their Blu-ray releases, and they haven’t dropped the ball with this one.

Unlike ‘Hunchback’, Disney have put a bit more effort into this release, even giving it animated menus. Almost all the extras from the 2-disc DVD have been included, as well as a few tidbits for ‘Mulan 2’. What we get for the first film are numerous featurettes covering every aspect of the production, deleted scenes, galleries and an audio commentary. While it’s disappointing there isn’t anything new here - no retrospective on the film - it’s still a decent and enjoyable package.

Released 27th February 2013

Tim Burton returns to form after a slew of disappointments and outright disasters with his tender reimagining of his 80s short film. Even with advances in computer animation, the art of stop-motion hasn’t died or shown any sign of stopping, and ‘Frankenweenie’, the story of a quiet little boy who uses his science know-how to bring his pet dog back from the dead, is one of the finest examples of the medium we’ve seen yet.

Click here to read our full review of the Blu-ray release.

Released 27th February 2013

Finally, after a laborious wait, Christopher Nolan’s labyrinthian second film, and first major success, comes to Blu-ray in Australia. And for a film this good, it’s worth the wait. Intelligently constructed and edited, and featuring excellent performances all round, ‘Memento’ is a sure sign of Nolan’s incredible talent as a filmmaker, even back when he didn’t have studios falling at his feet. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) suffers from a lack of short term memory thanks to a terrible accident. Told backwards, ‘Memento’ follows Leonard as he tries to track down the man responsible for the accident and his wife’s murder. However, told in reverse, Nolan is able to pull the rug out from under us continuously with narrative and cinematic flair. This is one of those rare cases of a film that only becomes more intriguing the more often you see it, and like his many great films following it, demands the audience engage with the film and its ideas rather than sit passively back and watch. ‘Memento’ is a truly great film in every way.

The 2.35:1 transfer of ‘Memento’, while excellent, shows the age and budget restraints of the film. Detail is good, but not up to the standards of recent films or those that have undergone extensive restoration. The same can be said of the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, which works really well, but isn’t anything to write home about.

Probably the most disappointing thing about this release, especially after such a long wait, is that it lacks the features included on the U.S. and UK releases. What we get is an excellent commentary by Nolan and an exclusive forty-minute interview with the director by Guillermo del Toro, both of which are worth returning to. What we miss out on, however, included making-of featurettes, galleries, the original short story and an Easter Egg that offers the movie in chronological order. For a film this significant, this release could have been a better one.

Released 6th March 2013

After taking the world by storm with its first season, and proving that fantasy still had a place on television, the second season of HBO’s award winning ‘Game of Thrones’ only ups the stakes in the war to claim the Iron Throne of Westeros. Adapted from ‘A Clash of Kings’, the second novel in George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’, this season sees the lead players scattered to the four winds, each laying their own plans to take the throne and lay waste to their enemies. Somehow, with multiple locations, a vast array of new characters and an increasingly complicated plot, the show never buckles, still finding scope to be shocking, powerful, allegorical and relevant. HBO also demonstrates their confidence in the show, and its increase in freedom and budget only go towards making this season even more impressive and breathtaking than the first. ‘Game of Thrones’ is easily the most exciting program on television at the moment, a groundbreaking piece of work that has changed the rules of narrative storytelling, visual language and gender politics on television, and this second season only strengthens this, building towards the kind of climax that will have you clawing at the screen begging for more.

HBO have always taken great pride in their Blu-ray releases, and ‘Game of Thrones’ is the crown jewel in their repertoire at the moment. Just as with the first season, their 1.78:1 transfer is absolutely stunning, putting most feature film releases to shame. The clarity and detail of the image is breathtaking. The same can be said for the thunderous DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. If only all television releases were up to the standards of this one.

There is so much on this five-disc set, it’s almost impossible to fathom. Twelve audio commentaries, in-episode guides, interactive histories of Westeros and its history, making-of featurettes, interviews with all the key players, including Martin... this set will keep you captivated for days. This is easily the standard by which television releases should be measured.

Released 13th March 2013

Paul Thomas Anderson’s long-awaited return to the screen after ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007) was a decisive film for both critics and audiences. Refusing to reveal its secrets easily, and focusing on intense character study rather than narrative, ‘The Master’ is an undeniable feat of cinematic craftsmanship, and for those who are lulled under its spell, an intensely moving and affecting film about two men joined together in finding where they fit in the post-war world of 50s America.

Click here to read our full review of the Blu-ray release.

Released 20th March 2013

Working against the sudden resurgence of candy-coloured superhero extravaganzas, this British adaptation of the beloved Judge Dredd comics bypasses tongue-in-cheek and goes straight for hard-edged violence and operatic style. Confining its eponymous character in a locked-down futuristic apartment building with a psychic sidekick and against a psychotic crime queen, ‘Dredd’ is certainly a distinctive-looking film, but fails to achieve anything else beyond that. Definitely an exercise in style over substance.

Click here to read our full review of the Blu-ray release.

Released 27th March 2013

It’s a big call, but there may be no better example of character construction on film than in Disney’s 1992 Oscar-Winner ‘Aladdin’. Filtering the Arabian legend through the musical theatre form, it offers everything you could possibly want from an animated film - or even just a narrative film in general. The script is tight and moves with tremendous speed, the music is sublime, the animation is stylish and mesmerising and the humour has never been bettered. Yet where ‘Aladdin’ soars above most is in its characters: a flawless collection, not a single one unnecessary and all memorable. This is Disney riding on their new-found confidence following ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991), and inspired by their ridiculous voice cast, including Robin Williams as the Genie, probably the greatest voice performance in the history of animation. Watching it now, over twenty years later, ‘Aladdin’ has lost none of its magic, its charm, its insanity or its heart. An absolutely perfect film.

While the video and audio on ‘Aladdin’ is still excellent, it certainly isn’t up to the standard Disney had set with its previous releases such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or ‘The Lion King’. Even their lesser releases such as ‘Pocahontas’ seem to have been afforded more restoration than this film, and occasionally flecks of dirt or grime can be seen. Still, some work has been done on it, and the colours and details are crisp and clear, so this 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is likely the best we’re going to get for now. The same can be said for the DTS-HD 5.1 track - certainly does the job, but nothing that will blow you away.

Rather than offering any new retrospective material, the special features on this disc are simply a retread of the best standard definition options from the Platinum DVD release. The making-of is excellent, covering all aspects of the production, as is the audio commentary with the directors. Deleted scenes and songs offer some interest. A good set, but it really could have been better.

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