Now that the dust has settled from its theatrical release, it might be time to give ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ a fresh look. Reactions to the film were so swift in pointing out its flaws that what got lost were all the things the film got right, far outweighing what it didn’t. The first part in Peter Jackson’s trilogy adaptation of Tolkien’s beloved masterpiece, the film is our preperation for the epic journey ahead, and after a lengthy opening, establishing the many characters involved, it takes off at a cracker pace filled with the same visual grandeur as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ with the added whimsy of a rollicking adventure. Sitting alongside ‘Skyfall’ as the only blockbuster of last year that didn’t disappoint, ‘A Unexpected Journey’ is one worth tackling again, certainly in preparation for the next installment this December.
A towering film deserves a towering release, and Paramount have pulled out all the stops with this Blu-ray release of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece. The film has been lovingly restored, so we can continue to marvel at the work of Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Eric von Stroheim, in this twisted tale of a screenwriter who becomes entrapped in the world of a faded silent movie star. Films of this calibre aren’t seen anymore, and even after over sixty years, ‘Sunset Blvd’ has lost none of its power. This is a stupendous release, featuring a bevvy of fascinating extras and flawless image and sound, culminating in one of the best catalogue title releases so far this year.
There have been a surprising number of films of late exploring the onset of old age, most notably Michael Haneke’s shattering ‘Amour’. For his directorial debut, Dustin Hoffman choses a considerably lighter film but one that offers an altogether more hopeful perspective. Set in a home for retired musicians, ‘Quartet’ follows four opera legends (Maggie Smith, Tom Courtney, Billy Connelly and Pauline Collins) coming to terms with mortality and their autumn years, whist preparing a gala performance of the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. It’s a charming premise, and the location allows Hoffman to bolster the cast with retired musicians, a decision that gives the film a tremendous sense of verisimilitude. The four central performances are also terrific, especially Maggie Smith, emerging from the Harry Potter films and the soap-opera world of ‘Downton Abbey’. It won’t change your world, but ‘Quartet’ is a sweet, clever little film, and shows how much Hoffman has learned after decades of working with the best directors in the world.
PICTURE & SOUND
￼As to be expected from such a recent film, ‘Quartet’ looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray. The 1080p 2.35:1 transfer is luscious and bursts with the colour of the British countryside. There is an air and lightness to the visuals of the film, and Paramount have left this intact. The same can be said of the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which delicately balances the performances woven in with beautiful classical and operatic performances.
Most of what we have here are the usual press interviews and featurettes, but these performers and their director are so articulate that they’re still fascinating to listen to. There are over forty-five minutes of cast and crew interviews from many of the team, around ten minutes of featurettes (which is essentially a cut-down of the interviews into something more digestible, interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage) and an audio commentary by Hoffman. Nothing earth-shattering, but charming nonetheless.
After thirteen years and many a parody, you’d think the premise of ‘Cast Away’ wouldn’t be able to keep you that enthralled for two and a half hours. A guy stuck on a desert island with no-one to talk to other than a volleyball? How could that possibly be interesting? All the more a shock, then, that ‘Cast Away’ turns out to be powerful and harrowing experience, and one that has lost none of its impact while becoming a pop culture staple. At its heart is Tom Hanks’ tremendous performance as Chuck Noland, stranded on a deserted island after a Fed-Ex plane crash. Driven only by the need to get home to his fiancé Kelly (Helen Hunt), he has to adapt to a brutal landscape and find a way off the island. If this were in the hands of any other director, it might have been a predictable affair, but Robert Zemeckis is still one of the most fearless directors in Hollywood, and holds nothing back, from the shattering sensory experience of the crash itself, to Chuck’s torturous escape, to the moving final act. There’s no question that ‘Cast Away’ has classic status written all over it, and its stature as a significant work of cinema will only grow as time goes on.
PICTURE & SOUND
While Paramount’s 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is very good, it isn’t as great as it should be. Detail is clear but not up to the same level as their other catalogue releases. There’s also quite a bit of dirt present, which suggests that very little work was done after the print was scanned. This might not be entirely Paramount’s fault, though. All clues point to this being the same transfer used by Fox in the U.S. release in 2007, so new elements may not have been available for this release. It’s still a really good transfer, just not as good as it could have been. Luckily, the DTS-HD MA 5/1 track is tremendous. For a majority of the film, Zemeckis chooses not to use a traditional score, and instead relies upon the natural soundscapes of the island and the ocean. Much of the film’s visceral power comes through in the sound, and this track pops with every bone crushed, every scratch, every relentless beat of the ocean. Your speakers will be shaking from this one.
Unfortunately, there are no features on this disc, all the more a pity considering the two-disc DVD edition originally released by Fox.
Even after all this time, there’s something fascinating about Audrey Hepburn. She’s remembered more often as a fashion icon, but what we often forget is just how tremendous an actor she was, how skilled and disciplined she was, how talented a comedian she was, and fearless she could be. Paramount have assembled three classic Hepburn films into one handy collection, continuing the endless celebration of Hepburn’s legacy. ‘Sabrina’ (1954) is Billy Wilder’s cracking romantic comedy where Hepburn is caught between the love of cad William Holden and a surprisingly tender Humphrey Bogart. It’s a masterclass of Hollywood filmmaking. ‘Funny Face’ (1957) places Hepburn as a young model under the mentorship of Fred Astaire’s photographer, all whizzing with Stanley Donan’s technicolor dream. And, of course, Hepburn’s most iconic film and role, as call girl Holly Golightly in Blake Edward’s breathtaking ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ (1961), is still as intoxicating and moving as it has always been. It’s a pity Paramount couldn’t include ‘Roman Holiday’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ and make this a really definitive collection, but for the time being, this is a wonderful tribute to a truly great performer, and one of the most beautiful woman, both in looks and in heart, the world has ever seen.
PICTURE & SOUND
With three different films come three different transfers. ‘Sabrina’ has a beautiful 1080p full frame transfer which, while not as good as Paramount’s work with ‘Sunset Blvd’, still brings out the beautiful light and detail in the photography. The same goes for ‘Funny Face’ and its 1080p 1.85:1 transfer. The technicolor pops and dances across the screen, and while it’s not as sharp as it could be, I doubt it’s ever looked better. ‘Tiffany’s’, however, is revelatory on Blu-ray, with the 1.85:1 image lovingly restored with glorious sunny detail. The DTS-HD MA audio tracks are also excellent, though ‘Funny Face’ has a strange tinniness to it that could have probably been fixed with a more extensive restoration.
While ‘Sabrina’ and ‘Funny Face’ miss out on any features whatsoever, ‘Tiffany’s’ is packed with terrific retrospectives, covering the film, its star, its composer Henry Mancini, and the controversial racial stereotypes that stand as the film’s only major flaw. It’s a pity the other films didn’t receive the star treatment of ‘Tiffany’s’, but it certainly is the jewel in the crown of this set.
If there was a film that needed to be seen to be believed, it has to be Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel. Long believed unfilmable, Lee and his incredible team somehow weaved cinematic magic and brought to life the incredible fable of Pi (Suraj Sharma), a young Indian man adrift on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, with some of the most astounding special effects work we’ve ever seen, and then, to top it all off, filmed it in 3D. As a visual experience, there’s nothing quite like it. ‘Life of Pi’ offers a rare chance to see these exciting filmmaking tools in the hands of a genuine artist, and Ang Lee continues to assert himself as one of the most dynamic working today. Just as important, though, the film doesn’t drown in its own technology, and even with the film stuck mostly in a single location, Lee’s grasp of the narrative scope and rhythm of the film keep it whizzing along towards its unexpected finale. ‘Life of Pi’, with its outstanding craft and beautiful whimsy, is a reminder that big studio films still have the ￼capabilities of creating genuine art, and still take you on a powerful emotional journey. This one is an instant classic.
PICTURE & SOUND
If this release was anything less than perfect, it would be totally unacceptable. Thankfully, Fox have pulled out all the stops in a technical presentation practically built to show off the Blu-ray format. One of the most startling visual aspects of the film is its unexpected use of a bright, almost storybook colour palette, and this 1080p 1.85:1 transfer recreates that beautifully, the images leaping off the screen even in 2D. It also offers a chance to marvel at the incredible textures and details in the Oscar-winning visual effects. Holding its own is the DTS-HD MA 7.1 track, a robust and powerful audio experience, especially once Pi hits the ocean and the natural elements assault both him and us. This Blu-ray is a true reference for what we should expect from recent prestige films on Blu-ray.
The film is also available on Blu-ray 3D, which all reports suggest is just as impressive a disc as its 2D release.
Looking at the list, there doesn’t seem to be much on offer here, but at the heart of these extras is ‘A Filmmaker’s Epic Journey’, an hour-long documentary covering the personal journeys of Ang Lee and his leading man through the making of the film. The sentiment, like the film, is worn on its sleeve, but Lee is such a passionate artist that he sweeps you right up in it. We’re also offered a chance to see how the extraordinary visuals were created, particularly Richard Parker, Pi’s tiger companion. Two more featurettes expand on the visual effects, giving a sense of how impossible a task was set before visual effects house Rhythm & Hues with this film. It’s a modest set, but one that reveals just enough without ruining the magic of the film itself.
This series, from satirical mastermind Armando Iannucci, seems to have gone unnoticed by most Australian audiences, which is a great pity, as it might be one of the best comedies being produced anywhere in the world right now, possibly ever. Imagine a British ‘West Wing’ focusing on those government departments most people aren’t even aware exist, but are filled with petty, angry and incompetent dingbats and the most glorious insults and swearing you are likely ever to hear. ‘The Thick of It’ has never waited for its audience to catch up, and this fourth series hits the ground running. Suddenly, the opposition are in power, daft Peter Mannion (Roger Allam) is the new Secretary of State for Social Affairs, and poor MP Nicola Murray (Rebecca Frost) has been thrust into the spotlight as leader of the opposition. As always, issues that don’t matter an ounce are placed at the forefront, only to be sidelined by backstabbing and political assassinations, with the impossibly magnificent Peter Capaldi at the centre as Machiavellian spin-master Malcolm Tucker. Raising the stakes even higher than before after three flawless seasons, the ball isn’t dropped for their fourth, except when it’s dropping into the pit of your stomach. ‘The Thick of It’ is one of the funniest, most maniacal and intelligent shows ever made, a political comedy without equal. If you haven’t discovered it yet, take advantage of this DVD release, and the upcoming box-set of everything so far. You won’t regret it. ￼
PICTURE & SOUND
Thus far, the BBC have only released ‘The Thick of It’ on DVD, but this isn’t such a bad thing. Iannucci uses a frantic documentary style for the series, with hand-held photography and snappy quick edits, none of which suffers in standard definition. The same can be said for the Dolby Digital track, placing dialogue ahead of everything else to capture the lightning wit of the script and cast improvisations.
The usual suspects are here, based on the previous seasons, with commentaries from cast and crew on each episode, and golden deleted and extended scenes that only enhance the eight episodes on offer. Unfortunately, unlike previous seasons, there are no making-of featurettes or extra tidbits on offer. It’s a pity, but when a show is as great as this, it hardly matters.
On the surface, Ruben Fleischer’s ‘Gangster Squad’ looks like something we’ve seen before, and far too often. It probably didn’t help being pitted against John Hillcoat’s ‘Lawless’ and being delayed thanks to unfortunate similarities to the Aurora cinema shootings last year. It seemed to be just the wrong time for this film, even with an A-List cast and the promise of gangster-led thrills. It’s a pity, because ‘Gangster Squad’ has a lot going for it, and in another time could have been a great success. Pitting Josh Brolin’s cop-of-good-morals John O’Mara against Sean Penn’s sadistic gangster Mickey Cohen in a battle to control 1949 Los Angeles, the titular squad go undercover with no back-up to bring down Cohen’s crime empire. Fleischer is a fascinating stylist, but one who's never had the right palette to show this off. ‘Gangster Squad’ offers him his best chance yet, throwing realism and logic out the window with a candy-coloured, almost cartoon-like extravaganza. It’s a shot in the arm to a genre that started to feel stolid and outdated, a kind of giddy sugar rush. And while the cast aren’t doing their best work, they’re all such dynamic performers that this hardly matters. And any excuse to watch Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone on screen is a good excuse. Gloriously pulpy and over-the-top, with outstanding production design and unapologetic flair, ‘Gangster Squad’ leaves you on a testosterone high and, while it won’t set your world on fire, you’ll have fun nonetheless.
PICTURE & SOUND
Colour is a big deal in this film, and the 1080p 2.40:1 transfer replicates the almost sickly palette beautifully. There’s an almost unreal sheen over the film, the textures and details of faces sacrificed for a more stylised look, but this is a creative decision, and the Blu-ray follows suit. This is a crisp, handsome transfer, as to be expected from a recent studio release. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is thunderous if a little unbalanced between the quieter dialogue moments and the explosive action sequences. Set-pieces will give the sound system a real work-out.
Apart from a so-so commentary from Fleisher and a few featurettes on the true story behind the film, most of the features are relegated to an exciting Picture-In-Picture track, ‘The Gangster Files’, covering all aspects of the production. These kinds of features really enhance the viewing experience for film fans, and it’s great to see it for such a visually unusual film. The various ￼featurettes included in the track are also available to watch separately. Some deleted scenes round out the package.
What could have been a tired retread of familiar territory turns out to be an unexpectedly fresh and entertaining piece of solid action cinema. Bringing Lee Childs’ beloved character to life with tongue firmly wedged in cheek, ‘Jack Reacher’ sees Tom Cruise as the mysterious titular character using his brain and brawn to investigate a vicious sniper sniper attack in a riverside park. This is old- school action, fistfights and car chases replacing explosions and giant robots. Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter behind ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995) takes writing and directing duties, turning out a visually dynamic film held together by a charismatic Cruise in top form. This might be familiar territory, but it’s one we haven’t visited in a long time, unapologetically fun and genuinely thrilling.
The reimagining of this classic sci-fi series has come leaps and bounds since its return in 2005, with each series building on the bombastic promises of what came before. Indeed, when Stephen Moffatt took over show runner duties with the magnificent fifth series, it seemed like things could only get better. Unfortunately, the show has spluttered and fumbled since then, reaching a creative low point in the first half of this seventh series. Thankfully, the arrival of Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) as The Doctor’s newest companion gives the show a new burst of energy, and her wonderful chemistry with Matt Smith, along with a string of terrific episodes (particularly from writer Mark Gatiss), put the series back on the map. At the very end, though, we’re back to square one with an underwhelming and baffling finale that seems more like a teaser for the 50th anniversary special rather than an actual episode. Matt Smith continues to be the beating heart at the centre of the show, and still an incredible Doctor, but there’s a sense that Moffatt doesn’t quite know what to do in the face of this young man’s considerable talent. This half of the series is far from a write-off, but this is easily the sloppiest, most underwhelming finale we’ve had yet with this show. Here’s hoping the upcoming special fixes all this.
PICTURE & SOUND
This release was only available to review on DVD, but if the previous Blu-ray releases are anything to go by, these episodes some come off a treat in high definition. That said, the DVD release is also excellent, with both vibrant image and dynamic sound bringing the adventures to life. With better budgets and better tools at their disposal, ‘Doctor Who’ continues to be a feat for the eyes and ears, especially with the always breathtaking work of composer Murray Gold.
These half-season releases are always pretty skimp of extras, most of the great stuff saved for the inevitable full-season box set, but the little we have here is still fun nonetheless. Most of the short ￼featurettes are webisodes or extra scenes from Moffatt intended to expand the universe of the series and the ideas at play, especially with the lovely Victorian crimefighting trio of Lady Vastra, Jenny and Strax. There’s also a short documentary discussing the role of the companions in the series, focusing on those in the reimagining as opposed to the classic series. All great stuff, but just a taster for what will inevitably come in the future.
Two comic generations come together in this lovely mother-and-son road trip comedy. Andy Brewster (Seth Rogan) brings his overbearing mother Joyce (Barbra Streisand) along with him on a trip across the United States to promote his new organic cleaning product, soon realising the consequences of spending eight days in the car with her. Streisand and Rogan are a dynamic pairing, bouncing off one another and flexing their comic muscles. ‘The Guilt Trip’ isn’t groundbreaking or instant classic material, more one of those easily digestible guilty pleasures you have now and then, but what makes it work is that it doesn’t try to be any more than that. It’s a breezy, sunny little film with many a chuckle to offer.