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By Daniel Lammin
9th November 2014

October was a bumper month of great Blu-ray and DVD releases, from new arthouse classics to big summer blockbusters. Here’s a look back at what you may have missed, including more reviews of other notable releases worth checking out.

While Disney Animation got a much-needed shot of adrenaline with ‘Frozen’, their live-action department hasn’t been so lucky. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (2010) was a box office success but an utterly atrocious film, and ‘Oz The Great and Powerful’ (2013) was a thoroughly dull and forgetful affair. Much hope was pinned on ‘Maleficent’ though, their live-action reimagining of their 1959 animated masterpiece ‘Sleeping Beauty’, with their greatest villain as the central character, played by one of the most famous and most powerful actresses in the world. With a few key ingredients, this should have been something worth being excited about, right?

Unfortunately, it turned out it wasn’t. ‘Maleficent’ tries to legitimise the actions of its main character (cursing a baby because she doesn’t receive a christening invitation), making her a woman scorned and seeking revenge, but it does this all the while altering or ignoring many of the key elements that made her so captivating a villain in the first place. Here, she isn’t the frightening figure of nightmares but a misunderstood woman trying to defend herself and her people. In truth, this is probably the best angle they could have taken, and is rife with exciting possibilities, but screenwriter Linda Wolverton doesn’t take any of them. When the original narrative doesn’t serve her flimsy storyline, it’s jettisoned for something that’s never as good. Maleficent doesn’t turn into a dragon at the end, Prince Philip is reduced to nothing but a plot point, the three good fairies are transformed into absolute idiots and, rather than dealing swift revenge by cursing Aurora to eventual death, she instead opts for a "sleep-like death" instead. Then again, after the train wreck she created with her ‘Alice’ screenplay, are we really that surprised? In trying to humanise Maleficent, her power as a villain (what has made her so striking as a figure of pop culture) and the agency of practically everyone else in the film has been taken away. What’s left is a flimsy story built around a clunky set of metaphors about women misused by men that would be far more powerful if they weren’t so ill-handled.

What makes the problems with ‘Maleficent’ so frustrating are that, unlike ‘Alice’ and ‘Oz’, there are some really great elements at play as well. Angelina Jolie is a terrific Maleficent, probably the only woman on earth who could have played her. She clearly adores the role, and throws herself totally into it, even if she does look a little lost amongst the CG work. Elle Fanning as Aurora is also fantastic, building the sketch of a princess we know into something feisty and memorable. And even for his stupidly brief moment on screen, Brenton Thwaites is lovely as Philip. He’s only on screen a few minutes, but makes more of an impression than Sharlto Copley’s awful performance as King Stefan, who just yells a lot and looks gruff, or the terrible fairies (who have now been renamed for absolutely no reason whatsoever). The film also looks pretty good, still using the ‘Alice’ design blueprint to a fault, but director Robert Stromberg at least has a bit more enthusiasm than Burton or Raimi had on their films. In the end though, the cumulative effect of ‘Maleficent’ leaves a big question: why bother? There’s not enough of the 1959 film intact to keep that magic working, and the new ideas aren’t developed anywhere near as well as they should be. With ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ on the horizon (and terrifying rumours of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ too), it looks like Disney isn’t done mining their animated masterpieces for a quick buck. Let’s just hope they start using their heads in the future.

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is, the 1080p 2.35:1 transfer is an excellent one, capturing all the intricate details of the design and balancing the sleepy grey and blue colour palette beautifully. The film shimmers in high definition. The bad news is, the audio is something else entirely. In yet another illogical and baffling mishandling on Disney Australia’s part, they’ve only included a DTS 5.1 track. If you don’t know what that means, it’s essentially a compressed DVD-quality audio track, not the lossless sound we now expect on Blu-Ray. As such, it lacks the punch, the fullness, the richness of a lossless track, made all the worse by the fact that the U.S. edition has a DTS-HD MA 7.1 track. Why Disney Australia has decided to do this is beyond me (and they have told consumers it was a decision on their part to only include a DTS track), but its just another reason why it makes more sense to import rather than buy a local product, particularly when they charge as much as they do. It’s an inexcusable and insulting move on their part.

Unfortunately there isn’t much to say about the special features either. There are a few featurettes on the making of the film, including ‘From Fairy Tale to Feature Film’, where Wolverton and Jolie discuss the adaptation process. Much is made of "sticking close to the original" (yeah, you guys keep telling yourselves that), but the director is surprisingly absent from the conversation. The most interesting features are ‘Building and Epic Battle’, where they discuss the tricks used for the opening battle scene, and ‘Aurora: Becoming a Beauty’, where Elle Fanning talks about fleshing out Aurora as a character. There are also a few forgettable deleted scenes and a special effects reel.

The sex lives of those in the mid-years of our lives seems to be well-trodden ground for film, but rarely are they as charming, as cheeky or as interesting as John Turturro’s ‘Fading Gigolo’. Usually a common face in the early films of the Cohen Brothers, here Turturro is writer, director and lead actor in a lovely film that looks at the insatiable need we all possess - that need to be touched and acknowledged by other human beings.

Fioravante (Turturro) is a struggling florist until his friend Murray (Woody Allen) decides to pimp him out to his doctor (Sharon Stone) and her best friend (Sofia Vergara). It takes some convincing, but eventually Fioravante agrees, and Murray begins to amass a collection of clients, turning his friend into a successful gigolo. Complications arise however when they come across Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of a rabbi who has locked herself away from the world. Fioravante finds himself drawn to her, and a relationship begins to develop that transcends physical contact.

There is a tremendous maturity and confidence in ‘Fading Gigolo’, aided by Turturro’s excellent control of the film and the narrative. It drips with beautiful autumnal colours, lensed beautifully by Marco Pontecorvo. We’ve seen this sort of story before, but there’s almost an irreverence to it, and an honest acknowledgement of its sexual content. It doesn’t try to play coy at all or speak down to the audience. This is a film about people having sex with one another, and it makes no apologies for this. The film is also bolstered by terrific performances, in particular from Allen as Murray, who hasn’t been this good in years. There’s a spring to his step and a twinkle in his eye that’s been lacking from his previous roles. Turturro is also excellent, and has a palpable chemistry with Paradis. Their scenes are tender and dangerous and all the better for this. And Sofia Vergara burst onto the screen with her usual humour and sexiness, making you wonder why we don’t see more of her on the big screen.

‘Fading Gigolo’ isn’t an extraordinary film by any stretch, but it’s a gorgeous and accomplished one, created with tremendous confidence and with its heart very much intact. Everyone involved is clearly having a wonderful time making it, and that lifts a familiar story into something that seems fresh and exciting. Modest films like this tend to slip through the cracks, but this is one most definitely worth searching out.

Transmission have perfectly captured the lush visual photography of ‘Fading Gigolo’ with their lovely 1080p 1.85:1 transfer. The most impressive aspect are the colours, which really stand out thanks to the clarity and detail in the image. The New York setting feels all the more intrinsic to the film thanks to the added visual definition of the transfer. The same can be said for the modest but excellent DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which balances the dialogue very well with Abraham Laboriel and Bill Maxwell’s score. Nothing to write home about, but for a film as modest as this, it offers exactly what it should.

Unfortunately there are no special features offered on this release.

It’s pretty hard to know where to start anymore with ‘Doctor Who’. In our coverage of Series Seven last year, I made it pretty clear that I hadn’t been particularly impressed with the direction show runner Stevan Moffat had taken the series down, but when Matt Smith stepped down and acclaimed Scottish actor Peter Capaldi stepped in to the role of The Doctor, there was some hope that it would finally give the show the much-needed shot of adrenaline it required after the turgid 50th Anniversary Special. If this feature-length opener of Series Eight is ant indication though, things don’t seem to be looking up.

Demonstrating a complete lack of imagination as usual, Moffat throws the newly regenerated Doctor into good old Victorian London (because we haven’t been there enough) and throws in some clockwork villains (how original) and a dinosaur for good measure (because that worked so well last time). As much as the presence of Capaldi is something new and exciting, and director Ben Whiteley does give the episode a much more textured and mature feel, these new elements at play simply cannot overcome how pedestrian and unoriginal the story is, the Doctor stumbling his way through a new body and a murder mystery. Once-dependable sidekicks Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax have now been so overused that they’ve become dull, and as much as they’ve finally showed Vastra and Jenny kissing (congratulations on being so progressive, guys), instead of it being a moment of intimacy, it’s a "kiss of life" moment, showing that Moffat doesn’t have anywhere near the same bravery with representations of sexuality that Russell T. Davies showed. Thankfully, one note he seems to have taken is that Clara can’t just stand there and react anymore, and Jenna Coleman is finally given some meaty material to work with, showing just how much she was wasted last year. In the end though, ‘Deep Breath’ is hardly the rousing season opener or introduction for Capaldi that we hoped for, instead ticking familiar boxes (including another mystery-filled ending with a character we neither know or care about) we’ve come to expect from Steven Moffat. The Doctor is very much starting to show his age.

Unfortunately only the DVD version was available for review, but the BBC have a good track record with their Doctor Who releases on Blu-ray, so I expect this release will be no different.

There are a few behind-the-scenes featureless, mainly concerned with Peter Capaldi stepping into the TARDIS, as well as a few prequel shorts that don’t offer anything whatsoever. It’s a pretty safe bet though that the upcoming box set of Series Eight will have a lot more to offer, so unless you really want ‘Deep Breath’ on its own, it may just be worth waiting for that.

With the year coming to a close, it’s safe to say that there hasn’t been another film that comes close to matching the hypnotic strangeness of Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under The Skin’. Adapted from the novel by Michel Faber, it follows an unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she explores the Scottish countryside looking for athletic young men, whom she kidnaps and takes back to her lair, where we find she isn’t who she seems; rather an alien who hunts these men and devours them. Nothing about the film follows conventional narrative or cinematic convention, taking its careful time to move from image to image, and sacrificing narrative for a tone somewhat akin to a nightmare. For audiences who don’t find themselves drawn to arthouse cinema, there is little to recommend, but for those that do, it’s a beguiling and haunting piece of art that turns the male gaze upon its head and draws you in with a startling turn from Scarlett Johansson and Glazer’s daring method and vision. You’ll probably finish ‘Under The Skin’ unsure of what you’ve just watched, but you’ll most definitely never forget it.

Click here to read our full review of the Blu-Ray release of ‘Under The Skin’.

Either because of the collective cultural mistrust of Tom Cruise or because of an unimaginative title, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ pretty much slipped through the cracks during blockbuster season, which meant that most audiences completely missed one of the most entertaining and original studio films of the year. Following the trials and tribulations of Major John Cage (Cruise) who suffers an accident during an alien invasion that forces him to relive the same gruelling day over and over again, this new action classic from director Doug Liman delivers everything most tentpole films seem to lack these days, from a rollicking and clever screenplay to jaw dropping action set pieces. Supporting an excellent Cruise is the always terrific Emily Blunt as a marine who plans to use Cage’s unusual gift to turn the tide of this vicious and futile battle against the horrific alien invaders, the Mimics. Hopefully this Blu-ray release will give ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ the attention it properly deserves.

Click here to read our full review of the Blu-Ray release of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’.

For his second feature, acclaimed Australian director David Michôd leaves behind the labyrinthian family saga of his first feature ‘Animal Kingdom’ (2010) and crafts a simple fable of two men set against an apocalyptic landscape. When a man (Guy Pearce) finds his car stolen during the devastating fallout of a financial catastrophe that has crippled the world, he begins a frantic chase across the Australian outback to reclaim it, guided only by Rey (Robert Pattinson), one of the thieves injured and left for dead by the others. The sparse dialogue gives full scope for a narrative driven by the landscape of both the environment and the faces of these men, bolstered by Michôd’s impeccable direction and Natasha Braier’s astounding cinematography. It’s a far more meditative film than you would expect, but an endlessly fascinating and arresting one, a prime example of the excellent year of Australian film we’ve enjoyed in 2014.

Click here to read our full review of the Blu-Ray release of ‘The Rover’.

When the King of the Monsters returned to our screens earlier this year, it was in the shape of one of the most striking blockbusters of the decade, a faithful and powerful reimagining of the legendary Japanese nuclear beast. In the hands of emerging director Gareth Edwards, ‘Godzilla’ is a sight to behold, ticking all the necessary blockbuster tropes on the checklist but with an artistic quality unlike anything we’ve seen in a studio tent pole film. Taking its time to reveal the titular monster, the film tries to carefully balance spectacle with character development, and while the latter falls to the wayside as the former takes centre stage, the spectacle of ‘Godzilla’ is such that it leaves you breathless and begging for more. It’s also a stupid amount of fun, a kind of ‘Jurassic Park’ for our new century, a thrill ride that barrels along and never stops to breathe. If only more blockbusters were as accomplished and as gorgeous as this one.

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

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