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By Daniel Lammin
8th September 2014

The past two months, we've had a number of exciting releases on Blu-ray. We've cast our eye over a number of them, including the return of an animated classic and the long-awaited release of one of the greatest television shows ever made.

Released 13th August 2014

In the history of animation, there really isn’t another film like ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Released in 1959 at the end of Disney’s golden age and so widely ambitious it almost bankrupted the company, it pushed the medium to a level of artistry that arguably it’s never reached again. Boiling down the Charles Perrault fairy tale to its most basic elements, the story of Princess Aurora, her prince charming Phillip, her adopted fairy protectors Flora, Fauna and Merryweather and spectacular villain Maleficent is less a narrative film as a hypnotic moving medieval tapestry, a widescreen marvel where you could pause it at any point and hang the image on your wall. The film runs barely an hour, and spends its time with exquisite character animation, especially with the three fairies, and stunning production design that fills the screen with some of the most sumptuous images you’ll find in an animated film, woven with a brilliant reorchestration of Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet. The Disney magic of the other great classic films is all there, especially in the woodland courtship of Aurora and Phillip with the help of the woodland creatures and the hilarious debacle of the fairies preparing a dress for Aurora’s birthday, but it also includes moments of true horror, Aurora being hypnotically summoned to her demise through a darkened castle to the feet of Maleficent. The great villain herself, over fifty years later, has never been matched. Her honeyed voice coupled with her striking design make her, the most memorable figure in the film, as proven by Disney’s decision to promote her to her own live action film this year. Her transformation and battle with Phillip at the end of the film is still one of the most powerful sequences ever animated, made more impressive by the 70mm widescreen format the studio decided to create the film in.

I know I’ve just spent a paragraph heaping hyperbole onto it, but when the film is as important and magical as ‘Sleeping Beauty’, what else would you expect? It also helps that it’s wildly entertaining and at times incredibly funny, and moves at a cracking pace that never lets up. If you want the best example of animation as a work of art, you couldn’t go any higher than this.

Even though a new edition is due out in the US in October, Disney has chosen to simply re-release the first disc of the acclaimed 2008 Platinum Edition (more about that in a bit). Thankfully, there still isn’t much to fault in its technical presentation, especially with the 1080p transfer presenting the film in its entire 2.39:1 format. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is one of the few animated films ‘shot’ in 70mm, meaning the picture is significantly wider than the average widescreen film. The original Blu-Ray release was the first time it had been released as such on home video, and complemented with a staggering restoration that did justice to the tremendous artistry behind the film. It’s still one of the best presentations of an animated film in high definition, all these years later. It also has a robust DTS-HD MA 7.1 track, especially important as much of the film relies on sound and music rather than dialogue, going for broke in the final few minutes. It isn’t such a surprise that Disney didn’t give the film another restoration, it’s hard to imagine it ever looking better than this.

While there’s no problem reusing the original disc in terms of technical presentation, the opposite can be said in terms of special features. The 2008 set was two discs loaded with material, and while what we have on this repeat of the first disc is still excellent, simply reusing it both without the second disc and without adding any of the new material created for the upcoming US release is insultingly lazy. Sure, the visual commentary is terrific and adding a Digital Copy is useful, but what about all the making-of material that already existed? For those who haven’t got ‘Sleeping Beauty’ on Blu-Ray already, it would almost be worth importing from the US in October so you don’t lose any material. For those who already do have it, this release offers absolutely nothing worth upgrading for. In fact, it’s pretty much a downgrade.

Released 16th July 2014

With so much great television to digest, adding another show to the list of ‘must sees’ is almost unfair. But trust me, this one is something very special indeed. A production from BBC America, it begins when wayward British orphan Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) witnesses the suicide of a young woman at a New York train station. To her surprise though, this woman looks exactly like her, identical in every single way. Seeing the possibility of a new start to her life, she assumes her identity, but instead finds herself drawn into a web of intrigue and danger, and the shocking discovery of a whole cohort of young women identical to her. As the series progresses, it opens up to exploring the lives of all the many clones, and their search for a reason for their existence. It’s a nifty concept, but creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett have two cards up their sleeves. Firstly, clever labyrinthine plotting that keeps the tension building and the action flowing, and secondly (and most importantly), Tatiana Maslany. If you need any reason to watch ‘Orphan Black’, it’s her. Not only does she play Sarah, but all the many clones, and her skill as an actor is almost impossible to believe. What she pulls off is some kind of magic, rising far above a challenge that would crumble most actors. There are moments during these first two seasons where she has engages in conversations with three other versions of herself in the same shot, and every one of the clones is as distinct and memorable as the other. Her work in this show is miraculous, and makes it one of the most thrilling shows on television. The fact she has yet to be nominated for an Emmy is beyond belief.

‘Orphan Black’ hasn’t quite taken off yet in Australia, but the long-awaited release of the first two seasons on Blu-Ray will hopefully change that.

The discs weren’t available for review, but expect the usual high quality from the BBC. In terms of picture and sound presentation, they’ve always been dependable, and reports from the US release suggest they haven’t dropped the ball here.

Unfortunately we don’t have much on offer here, with no features at all on the Season One set and only a short ‘Look Inside’ featurette on Season Two. It’s a pity, because the US set has a few more on offer, and it seems a missed opportunity to not hear more about the ground-breaking performance and wizardry at the heart of the show.

Released 29th July 2014

This is the big one, arguably the most anticipated Blu-Ray release of a TV show ever. You can’t dismiss or diminish the massive cultural impact of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s incredible trip into television, the story of a small American town and the murder of beauty queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). From the moment the pilot begins, with Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting theme, we are pulled into the surreal, hysterical and terrifying psychology of Twin Peaks and its strange inhabitants, as seen mostly through the eyes of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin). Without ‘Twin Peaks’, television would never have evolved to create classics like ‘Lost’, ‘Six Feet Under’ or ‘True Detective’, the shockwaves of its influence still felt in television and cinema today. Complementing both seasons of the show in this release is David Lynch’s divisive follow-up film ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’, one of his most unusual and disturbing films that acts as both prequel, sequel and primer to the series, all the while adding to its mystery and confusion.

No matter how prepared you are, you will never have seen anything like ‘Twin Peaks’. The first season is sublime, and while the second sharply dips in quality halfway through, it returns to form at the last second with a finale that blurs the lines between television and cinema long before the days of HBO. With such great minds as Lynch and Frost at the helm though, what else would you expect? For new fans, this is an enviable chance to see the series in its entirety for the first time, and for fans, an opportunity to revisit this classic in the best format possible.

Under David Lynch’s supervision, CBS Home Entertainment have returned to the original film elements to restore the series to high definition, with a dazzling 1080p 1.33:1 transfer that gives the series an entirely new lease on life. The intricately constructed visuals shine with new clarity and detail, all the more impressive with the show’s age. ‘Fire Walk With Me’ has also undergone a 4K restoration, but the results, while still terrific, aren’t quite as breathtaking as the series, with colours not quite as vibrant. Both the series and the film also have DTS-HD MA 7.1 tracks, and while that might sound excessive for a 25-year old television show, sound is such an integral element of ‘Twin Peaks’, and these new tracks open up the aural landscape of the show. The original stereo tracks have also been included.

It’s hard to know where to begin, extras spread across the entire 10-disc beautifully packaged set. Most of it archives material from the DVD releases (with only some commentaries missing from the original DVD release), but some new material is on offer, included an extended interview between David Lynch and the Palmer family. All this amazing material pales in comparison however to The Missing Pieces, the highly-anticipated release of an hour and a half of deleted material from ‘Fire Walk With Me’ that not only explores many of the townsfolk before Laura’s murder, but opens up the mystery even further and offers a continuation of the series’ horrifying cliff-hanger ending. The same high standard of presentation has been afforded this material, chosen and edited by Lynch himself and restored to the same quality as the film. This is just the jewel in the crown though, this Blu-Ray release totally satisfying the needs of any ‘Twin Peaks’ fan.

Released 20th August 2014

After first stepping onto our screens in stellar first instalment ‘The First Avenger’ (2011) before being relegated to nothing more than a redundant excuse for puns in the mess of ‘The Avengers’ (2012), Captain America as realised by Chris Evans returns. However, unlike his fellow Avengers, all of whose second and third outings have been less than impressive, his latest film, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is one of those rare jewels, a sequel as good if not better than the already impressive first. In a time where superhero films have begun to oversaturate our screens, Marvel Studios have given us something fresh and exciting and worthy of celebration.

Click here to read the full review.

Released 27th August 2014

Where most Hollywood studios would prefer to stick to tried-and-true formulas, Paramount showed real daring when they allowed acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky the chance to realise his dream of bringing the biblical story of Noah to the screen. Non-believers might have been turned away by the religious themes, and believers might have been angered by one of their most important stories being told by an atheist. In fact, the biggest drawcard for the film was the curiosity of what the director of ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘Black Swan’ was doing telling Bible stories. Much to Paramount’s relief, ‘Noah’ turned out to be a considerable box-office success and one of the most intriguing and ambitious films ever to emerge from a major Hollywood studio.

Click here to read the full review.

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