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REVIEW:

BLU-RAY ROUND-UP


November 2014


By Daniel Lammin, 30th November 2014
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BLU-RAY ROUND-UP

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NOVEMBER 2014

Daniel Lammin
By Daniel Lammin, 30th November 2014
The past month has been a ripper for Blu-ray and DVD releases, including some of the best television of the past year. Take a stroll through our wrap-up of the last month and check out what you’ve missed!

THE BABADOOK
Australia doesn’t have a great tradition with horror films. Thrillers and blood-soaked exploitation, yes, but the classical style of horror in the vein of ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is mostly absent from our film history... which makes the arrival of Jennifer Kent’s gorgeous and brutal ‘The Babadook’ all the more worthy of celebration. Not only is it one of the finest Australian films in a year brimming with them, but it has also proven itself an instant horror classic, causing a stir all over the world.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow and mother to difficult youngster Samuel (Noah Wiseman). One night, in their large and strangely gothic house, they find a picture book that scares the hell out of both of them, about a cloaked figure in a bowler hat called Mister Babadook, who terrorises and manipulates his victims. As Amelia, sleep-deprived, still grief-stricken over her husband’s death and at her wits' end with Samuel, begins to crumble, she becomes aware of a dark figure out of the corner of her eye following her, and slowly her mind turns from caring for her needy and imaginative son to annihilating him.

What writer/director Kent has crafted is gothic horror at its most fundamental, a film that uses a supernatural premise to explore essential human fears and paranoias. It’s obvious very quickly that Mister Babadook is a metaphor or manifestation for something more psychological, but this only makes the film more disturbing and horrifying, like Jack Clayton’s masterpiece ‘The Innocents’ (1961). There are certainly flashes of violence and gore, but they’re kept to a minimum. This is a film that crawls under your skin and buries itself there to fester, remarkably directed and beautifully realised, like an Edward Gorey illustration come to life without being aesthetically distracting. The central figure of Mister Babadook, both in the incredible picture book prop and his physical realisation, is unlike any creature we’ve seen before, an almost stop-motion nightmare pulled from the depths of hell. The image of it is something you’ll find it very difficult to forget.

What really sell the horror at the heart of this film though are the central performances. Essie Davis may finally have found the film to break her onto the international stage properly, a powerhouse emotional and physical performance that leaves you breathless, as great as the great horror performances of Shelley Duvall or Deborah Kerr or Mia Farrow. If she doesn’t win Best Actress at the AACTA ceremony for this year, it will be a crime. Noah Wiseman is also a knock-out as Samuel, walking the fine line between a terror and a well-meaning kid trying to protect his mother. As a pair, they support and inspire the performances in the other.

For being such a remarkable film, barely anyone in Australia saw it, due to a non-existent publicity budget. But the rest of the world has noticed. It’s been a box office hit in France, made more money in its UK opening weekend than its entire Australian run, and is building momentum for its U.S. release. So with its Blu-ray release, Australian audiences no longer have an excuse. Get your hands on ‘The Babadook’ and receive a lesson on just what true horror cinema is capable of.

PICTURE & SOUND
Umbrella has only given ‘The Babadook’ a 1080i 2.35:1 transfer, which is slightly lesser quality than the usual 1080p. I’m not that well-versed in the differences, but sharpness and detail isn’t quite as clear as usual, though the colours still look gorgeous. That said, we’re lucky to have ‘The Babadook’ on Blu-ray at all, so the shortcomings do really come second. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track however is excellent, well-balanced and maintaining all the details of the intricate sound design. For a film that barely made a dent at the box office this year, it’s a relief we’ve been given the change to pick it up in high definition.

SPECIAL FEATURES
There’s a surprisingly healthy collection of extras on offer, primarily the short film ‘Monster’, an early attempt by Kent to develop the story that eventually became ‘The Babadook’. All the basic DNA of the feature film is there, not only with its narrative and resolution, but its aesthetic and key images. There’s also an hour of interviews with the cast and crew, all very candid and informative. One of the most interesting is at with artist Alex Juhasz, who illustrated and constructed the incredible pop-up book at the heart of the film. There’s also some B-roll footage that shows Kent on the shoot and a tour of the set, and the excellent theatrical trailer.

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

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG [EXTENDED EDITION]
With ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ now only weeks away, Peter Jackson gets us back on track with his 'Hobbit' trilogy with the traditional extended edition of the second film, ‘The Desolation of Smaug’. Over 25 minutes of material have been added to the already over-long film, but rather than seeming like an exercise in excess, some of that material turns out to be fascinating and enriching to the film and the trilogy.

When it was released last year, I was a big fan of ‘Smaug’, but found the middle section in Lake Town bloated and dull. Much of the added material bolsters up the first act however, going some ways to fixing the imbalances in the film. We have more time with Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a longer introduction to Mirkwood and an extended sequence in Dol Goldur which introduces Thorin’s father Thrain (Antony Sher), captured by the Necromancer. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that the extended versions of Jackson’s Middle Earth films were definitive, often preferring the theatrical cuts instead, but the material and extra breathing room here make some noticeable improvements to the film, in much the same way it did for ‘The Two Towers’ (2002). Because the other narrative threads in the film have more room, the Lake Town sequence is less irritating and makes the anticipation before Smaug’s magnificent entrance all the more enticing.

For its flaws though (and this film has more than any of the other Middle Earth films), revisiting it just highlights all the things the film does right. The barrel sequence and final battle with Smaug are technical marvels, the imagining of the new environments is staggering, and Martin Freeman as Bilbo still shines as the highlight of the film. There’s also much to appreciate in the presence of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a female elf created by Jackson and his team to add a strong female character to a mostly male cast. And of course, the crown jewel is Smaug, a delectable collaboration between the artists at WETA and actor Benedict Cumberbatch. His conversation with Bilbo is as thrilling as the confrontation with Gollum in the first film. ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ is far from perfect, but it’s one hell of an adventure film and blockbuster cinema firing on all cylinders, and this extended edition, with its fascinating additions, only makes it a stronger and richer film.

PICTURE & SOUND
There’s not a lot to say really, other than the 1080p 2.35:1 transfer and the DTS-HD MA 7.1 track are pretty much perfect. The spectacular visuals shimmer across the screen in high definition, with vibrant colours and striking detail. Because they were shot digitally, the Hobbit films were never going to have the same classic cinematic image texture as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but at least Blu-ray gives it a flawless presentation. The audio is thunderous, sound and music racing around the speakers and around the room. There’s real guts to the audio, and exactly what the film deserves.

SPECIAL FEATURES
An extended film is all well and good, but let’s be honest: what we really want the extended editions for are the extras, and once again, this set proves to be one of the best you’ll ever come across. Jackson and co-writer Philipa Boyens are always great value with their audio commentaries, and this one is no exception, expanding on the adaptation process and providing exciting anecdotes along the way. Then spread across two discs are nine hours of documentary material, covering every aspect of the production. Practically no stone is left unturned, but rather than being overwhelming, it’s constructed in such an energetic and breezy fashion that it ends up being as entertaining as the film. The highlights include an extensive documentary on Smaug, from Tolkien’s influences, through the design process and ending with Cumberbatch’s work, and an excellent look at Howard Shore’s score, which also looks at his process of writing ‘The Lord of the Rings’. It might take a few days to get through everything, but as we’ve come to expect from these extended releases of Jackson’s, every minute is totally worth it.

Click here to read our full review of the theatrical release of ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’.

CALVARY
It’s hard to know where to start with ‘Calvary’, writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s much-anticipated follow-up to his comedy ‘The Guard’ (2011). On the one hand, it’s one of the most striking and haunting films of the past year, featuring a powerful central performance from Brendan Gleeson. It’s a film where every element is operating at the height of its power. On the other hand though, the cumulative effect of all these elements might not amount to the classic it very well could have been.

Father James (Gleeson) operates a parish in a small town in Ireland. During confessional one Sunday, a member of his congregation informs him that, in a week’s time, he will kill Father James. The problem is, Father James has no idea who the man is. As we follow the priest over the course of the following week, we see a man facing an unknown future, trying to do his duty by his congregation and reconnect with his estranged daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who seems to be as much at a loss of faith as her father.

On paper, there sounds like there would be a great amount of comic potential in the premise, but McDonagh avoids this at almost every turn. Instead, ‘Calvary’ is a meditation on faith and religion through the lens of the last days of Christ (Calvary is the hill on which Christ was crucified), as Father James comes to grip with his fate at the hands of someone he doesn’t know for a crime he did not commit, but that the church he represents did. Beautifully shot on the coasts of Ireland by Larry Smith and executed with care by McDonagh, ‘Calvary’ is certainly an accomplished piece of cinema, an ensemble piece built around a mystery that quickly becomes secondary to how fascinating the inhabitants of the town are. It’s a slow film, oddly paced but not in a negative way, similar in some ways to Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Winter Light’ (1963). The performances are uniformly excellent, especially from Chris O’Dowd as local butcher Jack and Reilly as Fiona. Even Gleeson’s son Domhnall turns up for one memorable scene with his father. The film belongs to Brendan Gleeson though, the embodiment of the fine line McDonagh walks between humour, tragedy and suppressed anger. It’s another example of why Gleeson is one of the most exciting actors in the world.

So with all these great elements at play, why isn’t ‘Calvary’ are more satisfying experience? It’s hard to say, but as the credits roll, it leaves you surprisingly cold. There are a lot of exciting ideas and clear artistry behind it, but they all convalesce to create something that never really gets where it intends. What you’re supposed to walk away with isn’t clear, and maybe this is John Michael MocDonagh’s intention, but it doesn’t shake the fact that ‘Calvary’ seems like the shadow of a great film. That said, it is still definitely worth checking out, if not for the accomplished talent that went into making it.

PICTURE & SOUND
The photography in ‘Calvary’ is one of its greatest achievements, and Transmission’s 1080p 2.35:1 transfer beautifully preserves this. The autumnal natural colours look gorgeous in high definition, and detail is clear and crisp. In many ways, films like ‘Calvary’ are a greater demonstration of the beauty of high definition than action-filled blockbusters. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is also terrific, replicating the subtle but important sound design. McDonagh’s dialogue is the aural centrepiece, and the mix places this in the forefront, always clear and easy to follow. Overall, an excellent presentation from Transmission.

SPECIAL FEATURES
There’s only one feature included with ‘Calvary’, and that’s a twelve minute Behind The Scenes feature featuring interviews with the cast. They mainly discuss their characters, working with McDonagh and the experience of working on the Irish coast. It’s interesting enough for a look if you want to know more about the film.

Click here to read our full theatrical review of ‘Calvary’.

THE HONOURABLE WOMAN
With all the great television in the past year, it’s understandable if something slips through the cracks, but this spectacular mini-series from the BBC is one that can’t be forgotten. Written and directed by Hugo Blick, ‘The Honourable Woman’ is both the textbook definition of a great political thriller and so much more than that, as impressive as anything produced by HBO and featuring an astounding central performance.

Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the CEO of an Israeli organisation based in the UK. Both she and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) witness the assassination of their father as young children, and bolstered by this, their aim with the corporation they inherited from him is to help build reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. However, it all starts to spiral out of control when the son of Ephra’s Palestinian housemaid Atika (Lubna Azabal) is kidnapped, and Nessa, a woman driven by honourable convictions, finds herself caught in a dangerous web of conspiracy, all built around a secret she protects that could cause everything she has built to come crashing down.

What Blick has constructed, and executes with staggering finesse, is a labyrinthine plot of deceit and intrigue, a thriller that genuinely keeps you on the edge of your seat over all eight episodes. There is something sinister and unnerving about ‘The Honourable Woman’, made all the more powerful by its audacity to approach the most complicated political situation of our time. Even amongst its intricate plot, it still manages to be a gripping human drama, made all the more affecting by its performances. It’s tempting to say that this is the finest performance Maggie Gyllenhaal has ever given, the talented actor revelling in the meaty material and the added freedom of the long-form storytelling format. The supporting cast, which also includes Stephen Rea, Katherine Parkinson and Janet McTeer, are just as impressive and adept at charting the murky depths of Blick’s narrative. It’s also thrilling to find a female led political drama, the perfect complement to the superb work on ‘House of Cards’ and ‘True Detective’.

‘The Honourable Woman’ is an example of television at its absolute finest, and one of the best series in a time where television is doing things with narrative and character that cinema can only dream of. Hugo Blick has constructed something dangerous, important and chilling for his superb cast to revel in, and as the series barrels through its shock twist and turns towards its devastating finale, you’ll find yourself gasping for air. I simply cannot recommend this masterful piece of storytelling enough.

PICTURE & SOUND
Unfortunately the BBC have so far only released ‘The Honourable Woman’ on DVD. The 1.78:1 transfer and the Dolby Digital 5.1 track do the job as best they can, but this is a series that would look terrific in high definition. Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky in the future!

SPECIAL FEATURES
There’s only a short behind-the-scenes featurette included, but it covers a surprising amount of material in twelve minutes. Blick discusses the genesis of the project, and the cast discuss their love of the material and enthusiasm for the long-form format. That said, some commentaries from the cast and crew wouldn’t have gone astray.

DOCTOR WHO: THE COMPLETE SERIES EIGHT
In our Wrap-Up last month, I tore into the first episode of the recent season of ‘Doctor Who’, in much the same way I had done with Series Seven and the 50th Anniversary Special. Even with a new Doctor helming the TARDIS, it looked like the much-beloved show was still destined to spin around in tired circles, offering no exciting reason to tune in every week. It was still lame, dull and unimaginative. So with great trepidation, I loaded the Blu-ray of Series Eight into my player and settled down for what I assumed would be a tedious few hours... only to find, to my great surprise, that I wasn’t hating it at all. I was actually loving it.

As it turns out, ‘Deep Breath’ was just a teething problem in working out what this new Doctor and new direction was. The series continues to stumble until ‘Listen’, the first great episode on the set. The Matt Smith Years ended in convolution and cliché amid higher production values, but with the arrival of Peter Capaldi, the tone of the show has shifted. It’s smaller, blacker and a little more dangerous. Many of the traits and rules we’d come to expect from the Doctor since the series returned fall to the wayside, Capaldi’s much less empathetic and driven by his intuitiveness. He might look older, but this Doctor sees the world like a small boy, intrigued by its possibilities but without considering emotional consequence. It lends the show an edge it hasn’t had since the glorious Series Five, and actually gets you invested in the characters.

Central to that is Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald, who is finally given material to match her talent. This is the season where Clara finally comes into her own, the series placing her as the protagonist, pulled between her thirst for adventure with the Doctor and her blossoming relationship with fellow schoolteacher Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). The chemistry between Coleman and Anderson is delectable, and their romance gives the show much-needed humanity. But perhaps most impressive of all is watching as Clara comes to realise this isn’t the same Doctor anymore, a far more dangerous man, not just to her but to those she loves. That’s where this season really excels, not solving some intergalactic problem no one understands but a simple human drama: whether the Doctor might be better off alone after all.

Sure, there are still some clunky episodes, but this is the strongest the series has seemed since Moffat’s first year. Capaldi is a ripper of a Doctor and Coleman is the perfect companion to him, and while the series closer isn’t as effective as it could have been, it certainly cements what this season has suggested - that the TARDIS is headed in a new direction, and better late than never. As someone who was preparing to jump ship, ‘Doctor Who’ finally has my attention again.

PICTURE & SOUND
Even though the BBC have only given us a 1080i transfer rather than a full 1080p, this doesn’t diminish how handsome the 1.78:1 transfer looks. The production values of the series are on full show, with excellent detail and vibrant colours. Each episode also comes with a full and well-balanced DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which beautifully recreates the bombastic sound design of the show.

SPECIAL FEATURES
We also have a smorgasbord of features to enjoy with this release, mostly archival material shot around the appointment of Peter Capaldi and the start of his tenure on the show. None of the video material is particularly in-depth, but it’s all a bit of fun. There are also deleted scenes, webisodes and commentaries, as well as a disc devoted entirely to behind-the-scenes material on each episode of the series with all key players present. These Doctor Who sets have always been full of material for fans to pour over, and this set is no exception.

SHERLOCK: SERIES 1-3 SPECIAL EDITION
When it premiered back in 2010, I doubt any expected that the BBC’s modern reinvention of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson would become the cultural phenomenon it has. Under the guiding hands of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, ‘Sherlock’ is one of the great television events, each three episode season so far bigger than the last. It makes sense that this success would mean a super-deluxe special edition double-dip set at some point, but thankfully this one turns out to be worth it.

Adapting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved stories to a 21st century setting, ‘Sherlock’ is something of a minor miracle, especially in its excellent first season and superb second season. The writing is sharp and sardonic, the direction is flash and crisp, and the labyrinthine plots unfold with grace and ease towards satisfying conclusions. What really makes the series work though is its phenomenal cast; in fact, it’s tempting to say that, without them, we wouldn’t be talking about the series at all. As Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch has become something of an icon, cutting as impressive a silhouette as Basil Rathbone as the legendary sleuth. What makes his Holmes so compelling is his refusal to make him likeable in a traditional sense, or even anything close to sane. Sherlock can barely function in society without offending or upsetting pretty much everyone, and Cumberbatch’s utter commitment to the role coupled with his tremendous playfulness make for a formidable performance.

He wouldn’t be half as great though without Martin Freeman as John Watson, the humanity and (arguably) the protagonist of the series, at least when it is at his best. John is the man we see Sherlock through, the man who supports and condemns him, a good man where so many are not. If it wasn’t for Freeman’s intelligent, passionate and understated performance, Cumberbatch might take over the entire show. Their chemistry on-screen is absolute magic. Supporting them wonderfully are Gatiss as Sherlock’s dry brother Mycroft and Rupert Graves as put-upon Inspector Lestrade, but you simply can’t go past the powerhouse performance by Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty, Sherlock’s great nemesis and one of the most twisted and villainous performances of our time.

The wait between each season has been agonisingly long, and that won’t change anytime soon since the show shot Cumberbatch and Freeman into stardom, but the first three seasons are so good, they demand revisiting (even if the end of Series Three was a convoluted Moffat-laced mess). There’s little doubt that ‘Sherlock’ is one of the biggest television blockbusters around, and one that keeps you riveted to the screen, not just because of its terrific mysteries but its emphasis on the most human drama of two men who cannot live without the other.

PICTURE & SOUND
For the most part, this set simply repackages the existing discs of Series One and Two, and adds some features on Series Three, so video and sound presentations are the same excellent ones from the previous releases.

SPECIAL FEATURES
While the first two series offer nothing new, the third series now comes with an audio commentary for the convoluted series finale, as well as all the features included in the previous release. What makes this Special Edition worth checking out is the seventh disc, which includes hours of new material. While most of it focuses on Series Three, it also acts as an excellent retrospective on the series as a whole. All the key players discuss the development of the series and its response in ‘Unlocking Sherlock’, while each episode of the third series is covered in more depth in ‘Sherlock Uncovered’. There are also a collection of fascinating interviews with the cast and crew before the series premiered back in 2010, all of them unaware of the cultural event they were about to launch. There’s enough material here to warrant this new release, a fitting celebration of a superb piece of television.

DEVIL’S KNOT
Acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan offers his perspective on the infamous case of the West Memphis Three with his unusual film ‘Devil’s Knot’. Where the case has already been covered over two epic documentary projects, this is the first dramatic recreation of the events. It’s a handsomely directed and well-acted film, but it feel strangely slight, only covering a small portion of the story. As an initial introduction to the case it has a lot of merit, as the documentaries can be a tad overwhelming thanks to the scale of the case, but for those familiar already, there don’t seem to be many new stones to turn over and peek underneath.

Click here to read our full review of the Blu-Ray release of ‘Devil’s Knot’.

SNOWPIERCER
This remarkable and insane dystopian sci-fi extravaganza received a very limited release in cinemas in Australia, so this Blu-ray release is the chance for ‘Snowpiercer’ to find the audience it deserves. Set on a train circling the earth with what remains of humanity after a biological disaster leaves the earth a frozen wasteland, it combines all the best tropes of science fiction with the unusual style of South Korean director Joon-Ho Bong. This is the kind of film that rarely comes along, divides audiences and leaves those on its side cheering for it. Easily one of the best films of the year, ‘Snowpiercer’ has cult classic written all over it, and Roadshow has given it a sterling Blu-ray release.

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

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION
Any hope that this sort-of reboot of the 'Transformers' franchise would give some new life and much-needed maturity to the blockbuster toy commercials disappear pretty quickly into ‘Age of Extinction’, with everything making it clear that the petulant child that is director Michael Bay hasn’t changed at all. The explosions are louder, the story is more preposterous, the acting from the Autobots is getting worse, the girls still dress in utterly preposterous manners, there are still far too many shots of cars driving down roads, and the amount of product placement is now so overt it could easily cause you to slip into a consumer-induced coma. These films have never been about making great cinema, but they could have been great summer blockbusters. As is, they’re just loud and annoying, which makes ‘Age of Extinction’ the perfect candidate for the first film released on Blu-ray with Dolby Atmos. At least it has something going for it.

Click here to read our full review of the Blu-ray release of ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’.

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