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By Daniel Lammin
8th February 2015

The year kicked off with a number of big Blu-ray releases, including some of the most acclaimed films of the past year. We’ve taken a look at a few of the titles released in January, from young-adult dystopia to the horrors of war, and a quick visit from everyone’s favourite Time Lord.

In case you hadn’t noticed, young adult dystopias are very much back in style. Thanks mostly to the gargantuan success of ‘The Hunger Games’, cinemas are being flooded with films about young people in a state of peril within an oppressive society, and it’s due to this new interest in the genre that Lois Lowry’s beloved 1993 novel ‘The Giver’. One of the foundation texts of the genre and U.S. curriculum, its journey to the big screen has been a long one, but was it worth it in the end?

Set at an unnamed time in the future, ‘The Giver’ follows Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man living in a society where emotion has been stabilised and history has been erased so the citizens can exist in perfect harmony. Even though Jonas knows there’s something peculiar about him, he doesn’t see anything unusual about the world he lives in, until the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) chooses him to become the next Receiver of Memories. He is placed in the care of The Giver (Jeff Bridges), who begins to share with Jonas memories of history and introduce him to ideas of joy, happiness, pain and death, ideas that begin to destabilise Jonas’ world.

By comparison to other films in the genre, ‘The Giver’ is a surprisingly slick and clean film, carefully controlled both visually and emotionally. Australian director Phillip Noyce takes full advantage of the creative opportunities the film presents, beginning in startling black and white and slowly feeding in colour as Jonas’ worldview begins to grow. It’s a wonderful visual device that adds to the storytelling without ever getting in the way, and a necessary element that gives the film an extra kick it needs.

This isn’t an action adventure tale, instead a far more philosophical and gentler one. It might never really kick into gear or get your blood pumping, but unlike most of its contemporaries, it forgoes complete escapism to actually tackle some interesting ideas and concepts. The cast also lift the film, with Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges adding tremendous gravitas. Streep is formidable in a rare turn as a sort-of villain (and looks far more enthusiastic in general than she does in ‘Into The Woods’), and Bridges demonstrates tremendous passion for the film and the material (the film has been a pet project of his since the book was published). The real star though is Brenton Thwaites as Jonas, an instantly arresting and beautifully passionate leading man. His combination of talent and charisma make it impossible to not be caught up by him, and he provides the film its central beating heart. He’s a wonderful young actor, and hopefully he has a great career ahead of him.

‘The Giver’ doesn’t have the nail-biting thriller aspects that made ‘The Hunger Games’ or ‘The Maze Runner’ so entertaining, but what it does have that (arguably) the others don’t is tremendous heart and serious ideas. It also takes full advantage of cinema as a visual medium for storytelling. It’s a lovely if unremarkable film, with far more to recommend it than to dismiss it.

Roadshow have given the film a crisp, clean 1080p 2.39:1 transfer than accurately recreates the original visual intentions. As well as demonstrating sharpness and detail appropriate for the setting of the film, it also balances the extremities of colour beautifully, making it a visually striking Blu-ray experience. It’s supported by a subtle yet effective DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that keeps everything in balance. Overall, there don’t appear to be any serious problems with the presentation of ‘The Giver’ on Blu-ray.

The disc adds a lovely selection of extras to complement the film. The main featurette ‘Making The Giver: From Page To Screen’ looks at the journey of the screen over the past two decades, Jeff Bridges’ involvement and thoughts from the cast and crew. All this is further explored in a panel discussion with everyone from a showing in New York. There’s also selections from a reading of the script conducted in the 90s with Bridges and members of his family, a short interview with Lois Lowry, a music video and an extended scene. All of it is handsomely put together and relatively candid, so those interested in knowing more about the film will find much to enjoy here.

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

The past twelve months were an absolutely stellar one for animation. In Australia, we got two Studio Ghibli releases, the long-awaited ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ sequel, Disney’s gorgeous sci-fi ‘Big Hero 6’, and the giddy surrealist joy of ‘The Lego Movie’. Neatly tucked in between all of them was the return of Laika, the stop-motion studio that kicked winning goals already with ‘Coraline’ (2009) and ‘ParaNorman’ (2012), and their new film ‘The Boxtrolls’ is further proof that they are still one of the most exciting animation studios working today.

The creatures of the title are a misunderstood race dressed in old boxes, committed to collecting and recycling discarded objects, but the people of Cheesebridge think of them as dangerous monsters that steal and eat children. The repulsive Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) has been tasked with wiping out the Boxtrolls, a task he takes with relish. However, unbeknownst to the citizens of Cheesebridge, the Boxtrolls have adopted a little boy, brought him up as one of them and called him Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright). With his family in danger, Eggs must convince the humans that the Boxtrolls are nothing to be scared of, with the help of his morbid new friend Winnie (Elle Fanning).

While the story can be a tad convoluted or clichéd at times, ‘The Boxtrolls’ is elevated by its staggering artistry and tremendous amount of heart. There really is something tangibly special about stop-motion animation, the fact that you can see in every frame the care and attention that has gone into it. This is Laika’s most ambitious project yet, working on a scale and at a level of detail rarely seen in this style of animation. The characters are beautifully crafted, and complemented by an exceptional voice cast that also features Jared Harris, Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, Toni Collette and Tracy Morgan. While so many other family films are held down by cynicism or pop-culture-pleasing garbage, ‘The Boxtrolls’ wears its heart firmly on its sleeve and makes no effort to hide its message of acceptance and tolerance. It also, in a tradition that sets Laika apart from everyone else, never speaks down to its young target audience, unafraid to be scary or dark at times. This might be a turn-off to the cripplingly politically correct ideals we seem to have developed with children’s entertainment, but much like their other films, guarantees this is a film that will last.

Watching animation on Blu-ray is always a genuine delight. Watching stop-motion animation on Blu-ray is another thing entirely, and Universal’s perfect 1080p 1.78:1 transfer brings out all the astounding detail in the animation and production design. There is so much going on in every frame of this beautiful-looking film, with a flawless, crisp image. The disc also includes a 3D transfer of the film (which I wasn’t able to review) but this hasn’t taken anything away from the encode of the 2D transfer. We also have a beautifully clear and balanced DTS-HD MA 5.1 track just as packed with rich detail and delights as the visuals. Dialogue is as clear as the score and sound effects, making the film as exciting an experience for the ears as for the eyes.

There’ s a small but excellent selection of features on offer, chief of which are a series of featurettes covering the conception and execution of the film, including design, voice casting and the building of the puppets themselves. Overall there’s about forty-five minutes of this material, all of it demonstrating the care and passion that went into the film. More detailed discussion into the making of the film is found in the thorough audio commentary from the directing team. There are also a series of animatics for the key sequences in the film.

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

War films generally don’t hesitate in pulling their punches, but it’s been a long while since we've seen anything like David Ayer’s ‘Fury’. Stepping aside from both the sentimentality and patriotism that often weakens films of the genre, this is an unrelenting, brutal and bleak film, and all the better for it. Imagine the opening ten minutes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ stretched over two hours, and you might start to get the idea.

In April 1945 in Germany, America Sherman tank crews are being decimated by the superior German models. Norman (Logan Lerman), a young soldier trained as a typing clerk, is assigned to the battered tank crew under the command of Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt) and their tank dubbed ‘Fury’. As Collier leads them deeper into enemy territory, Norman is forced to harden himself in order to physically and mentally survive.

The narrative is tried-and-true, but its execution is what makes ‘Fury’ distinct. This isn’t the clichéd story of a young man being taken under the wing of older, harder men, but rather one of those older, harder men shoving his face mercilessly into the mud and the blood of war. The film refuses to romanticise war in any way, capturing it in all its surreal horror. The violence is brutal, shocking and visceral, not just to the human beings in the firing line but the landscape itself.

Ayer doesn’t let the period setting get in the way of an unusually modern aesthetic, from its cinematography and editing, to Oscar-winner Steven Price’s jarringly electronic score. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially from an almost unrecognisable Pitt and a surprisingly gentle Shia LaBeouf. The real star though is Lerman, who continues to be one of the most talented young actors working today. A lot of the success of ‘Fury’ is down to his refusal to make Norman passive or idealistic, rather a character of integrity and genuine tragedy. Very little about ‘Fury’ feels how you would expect a film about the Second World War to feel, and while this occasionally doesn’t always gel, mostly it makes the film far more memorable than most of its contemporaries. While never quite as iconic, it sits neatly next to ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’. You certainly won’t forget it in a hurry.

‘Fury’ was shot on film rather than digitally, so that should already make you excited for this exceptional 1080p 2.39:1 transfer. It also helps that it was mastered in 4K, so on top of having remarkable detail and colour, the image has a gritty, tangible texture that only comes from film stock. The word that comes to mind watching this transfer is "authentic". The thunderous DTS-HD MA 5.1 track also doesn’t disappoint, particularly as sound is such an integral part of the film. Occasionally the score and sound effects overwhelm the dialogue, but never to too much detriment. There’s a lot of bass going off, and the balance of the sound allows us to drink in all the gorgeous detail in Steven Price’s score.

The main features on this Blu-ray release are almost 50 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, an exhausting collection that builds on the characters and the brutality in the main film. They are complemented by a series of handsome featurettes covering the training the cast needed to do for the film, the complications of shooting with the tanks and the history behind the Sherman campaigns in the Second World War.

Everything about ‘The Immigrant’ suggests it should be a classic in the making. A phenomenal cast of Oscar winners and nominees, an acclaimed director and a fascinating period setting seem like a ripe combination, especially when combined with a story of cross-cultures, forbidden love and a fascinating moment in the history of the United States. So why is it that, with such great ingredients, that ‘The Immigrant’ never really amounts to very much at all?

Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) is a young Polish immigrant travelling with her sister to New York in 1921. When her sister is refused entry because of an illness, Ewa is forced to place her life in the hands of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a volatile entrepreneur who forces her into a situation where she must sell herself to earn a living. When Emil (Jeremy Renner) appears, a suave young magician, Ewa is offered a chance at redemption, but one that Bruno may not give her the chance to take.

There’s no denying that ‘The Immigrant’ is a handsome film, reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ in its visual style, but its rhythm and unrelentingly bleak tone make it a difficult film to warm to. Revisiting the film on Blu-ray, I didn’t find my interest waining as much as it had at the cinemas, but this was probably due to my expectations being altered. The world of the film is intensely fascinating, and the strength of Cotillard’s performance in particular makes it possible to sympathise with Ewa and her predicament, but the unrelenting bleakness of the film doesn’t really give you much of a chance to find your way in. Joaquin Phoenix falls into his worst tendencies as an actor, this performance a pale imitation of his turn in ‘The Master’, but Renner shows he has far more charm and talent than those Marvel films have allowed him to show. Maybe what really kills ‘The Immigrant’ in the end is its overwhelming desire to be important and significant, to stand up proud next to the greats of American cinema. The problem is, if you start off by wanting to stand tall with the greats, you’ll inevitably trip over yourself along the way. ‘The Immigrant’ doesn’t quite fall flat on its face, but it certainly isn’t the film it could have been.

What it might lack in narrative interest, ‘The Immigrant’ certainly makes up in it visuals. Shot on film, it has a very classic Hollywood feel to it, and the Blu-ray recreates this with its handsome if unremarkable 108p 2.35:1 transfer. The beautiful autumnal colours of the design are recreated beautifully here, and while detail and sharpness aren’t quite up to the usual standards for a film this recent, it’s enough to demonstrate the artistry behind the production design and cinematography. The same can be said for the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which never openly impresses but still keeps all the elements in balance.

For this release, Roadshow have not included any extra material. As far as I can tell, this is one of the first Blu-ray releases of the film internationally, so this may simply be because there was no material available to include.

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

The Christmas season always brings along a new Doctor Who special, and it’s usually a pretty safe bet that it probably won’t be very good. It’s the most taxing of episodes, often suffering from the worst excess and cliché that can occasionally (and more recently, more often) cripple the show. So count me as genuinely surprised that ‘Last Christmas’, the 2014 Christmas Special, turns out to be a little ripper, demonstrating some of the best qualities of the series instead.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) are forced to reunite once again when they find themselves at a research facility at the North Pole. A group of scientists are being terrorised by a group of horrifying crab-like creatures that secure themselves to a host, put them into a vivid dream and slowly eat away at them. Their greatest chance of survival though doesn’t come from the Doctor, but by an unexpected visitor... Santa Claus (Nick Frost).

The idea of Santa turning up in a Doctor Who episode (especially one written by Steven Moffat) is enough to worry anyone, but surprisingly it works within the neat little concept at the heart of the episode. ‘Last Christmas’ ends up falling into one of the most fun categories of Who adventures, ones that are a bit scary and a bit dangerous. Cheekily riffing on pop-culture stalwarts like ‘Alien’ and ‘Inception’, it genuinely keeps you guessing until the end. It also continues to develop the complex relationship between Capaldi’s Doctor and Clara, acknowledging the tragic ending of the eighth season. Sure, there’s still endless monologues and Moffat still keeps making the same basic mistakes, but unlike most Christmas specials, there are no big dumb special effects, no Victorian settings, no clockworks and no dinosaurs. Instead, just a tight, well-crafted adventure built around what makes Doctor Who so appealing when it’s at its best.

As usual, the BBC have given Doctor Who a colourful and vibrant 1080i 1.85:1 transfer, popping with colour and detail. The visual effects are noticeably better with this episode, and look really terrific in HD. It’s also accompanied by a lively DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that’s as energetic and detailed as you would expect from an episode of Who.

There are morsels to enjoy here, including an audio commentary and a short and cheery behind the scenes look at the episode. It’s the usual promotional fare, never falling into a serious tone. I suspect there will be a bit more on offer with the inevitable Series Nine boxset later in the year.

Click here to read our Blu-ray review of Series Eight of Doctor Who in our November Wrap-Up.

It might be way overdue, but that doesn’t mean the long-awaited return of the Sin City franchise isn’t a welcome one. Rather than dropping the ball, ‘A Dame To Kill For’ returns to the same debauchery and visual trickery we fell in love with in the original. It might suffer a little from "seen it all before", but when what we’ve seen before was that good, that isn’t such a bad thing.

Click here to read our review of the Blu-ray release of ‘Sin City: A Dame To Kill For’.

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