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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.