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December 28, 2016

Blu-ray Review: Close to the Enemy


CloseToTheEnemy_DVD.jpg In the days following the end of WWII both the Americans and the British scrambled to obtain help from their former enemies in Germany for what they saw as an upcoming conflict with a new foe, the Soviet Union. In some cases this meant ignoring individuals' war records, up to and including involvement in war crimes. The new mini-series, Close To The Enemy, being released on Blu-ray and DVD by Acorn Media, on December 27 2016 is a beautiful and sad examination of those difficult times.

Captain Callum Ferguson (Jim Sturgess) has been given the assignment of ensuring a German jet engineer helps the British not only develop their own jet engine, but break the sound barrier before either the Americans or the Russians. He is given carte blanche from the army and the intelligence services as to how he accomplishes this task.

Aside from any patriotic reasons for doing his job, Ferguson is driven by the need to make sure England is prepared for war with the Soviet Union. He had first hand experience of how Britain had been woefully unprepared for WWll and is determined to prevent the mistakes of the past from being repeated.

He and his charge are set up in a once grand hotel which had come through the bombing of London almost intact. Intelligence services of all branches have been making use of the hotel as a way station for their clients since the end of the war. With Ferguson having to reside in the hotel until his job is done, it quickly becomes the main setting for the story. In this way we are introduced to the various characters who will impact upon his job and his life.

The three who have the largest effect upon him are his brother Victor (Freddie Highmore), a disillusioned ex-Foreign Office employee named Harold Lindsay-Jones (Alfred Molina), and a close friend's new American bride Rachel Lombard (Charlotte Riley).

Young Victor Ferguson did not make it through the war with his mental faculties intact. He's severely traumatized and has great difficulty in dealing with the day to day realities of post war life. However, he's also extremely intelligent and cares deeply for his brother. This leads him to find out information crucial to Callum's work, information that many would have probably liked left undiscovered.
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Lindsay-Jones has a secret. His secret concerns the activities of the Foreign Office in the days just before the war and how there were those at the highest level, who while not actively working for the Germans, were at least not working against them. It had tortured him for the entirety of the war and in Callum he sees a chance for redemption.

Finally, Mrs. Lombard, is Callum's chance for a life beyond war and politics. She represents an escape from all that he sees as evil and dirty in the world and his job. Unfortunately she's also married to one of his oldest friends. It's almost as if nothing can come without some kind of moral or ethical cost - even love.

This is a beautifully acted, written, and directed mini-series. Set against the backdrop of an England trying to rebuild from one war and preparing itself for what it thinks will be the next one, we are thrust into a world where nothing is at seems. There are no longer any certainties about what is good and evil which makes everything complicated.

Individuals who should be charged with war crimes are being sheltered by Western intelligence services for the information they can provide about the Soviets, while those trying to bring them to justice are being treated as nuisances at best and dangerous enemies at worst. The lead characters try to navigate through these muddied and dangerous waters as best they can, but it's inevitable they will run aground.

The Blu-ray version of Close to the Enemy comes with bonus features including a 30 minute documentary about the making of the series and interviews with various cast members about their experiences on set. The video and audio are of the usual high quality one would expect from this format, and the show sounds and looks great played through a home entertainment system with 5.1 sound.

Close to the Enemy is another example of the potential for an extended mini-series to produce great drama. Not only are the characters developed to their fullest, but the plot unfolds before us slowly and elegantly. This is a wonderful and intelligent piece of work that shouldn't be missed.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Close to the Enemy)

November 1, 2016

Music Blu-ray/CD Review: Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression Live at the Royal Albert Hall


Cover Post Pop Depression Live Royal Albert Hall.jpg Watching Iggy Pop strut his stuff on the Blu-ray/CD package Post Pop Depression Live at the Royal Albert Hall from Eagle Rock Entertainment and Universal Music, is to remember why real rock and roll scares the crap out of the establishment. With a band fronted by Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme Pop generates enough energy to power all of London. They don't just blow the roof off - they knock down walls and shake foundations.

While at 69 Pop might not be quite as insane as he once was, he doesn't deliberately cut himself on stage anymore (although he did manage to cut himself during his first dive into the crowd) he still bounces around the stage like his legs are springs. This is a guy who takes the concept of putting body and soul into something literally as he flings himself into song after song. For nearly two hours he sings and throws himself around the stage and into the audience with only a small break between the main set and the encore.

Even more incredible is the fact his voice hasn't lost any of its power or its versatility. There's a misconception of Pop being primarily a screamer of lyrics. However, the truth is, while his range might not extend easily into the upper reaches, he can and does utilize the mid and lower ends of the scale beautifully. He can switch from near crooning lyrics in a strong baritone to growling out invective in the blink of an eye. This prevents his songs from becoming exercises in trying to overpower the audience, and becoming droning, boring noise.

While the concert was obviously designed to showcase what Pop and Homme wrote for the Post Pop Depression CD released in the spring of 2016, it also features material covering the span of Pop's solo career. With the exception of "Repo Man" (his contribution to the cult movie hit of the same name) and "Sixteen", the majority of songs not from the new album were from his collaborations with the late David Bowie.

From the show's opener, "Lust for Life", to the song you forgot he co-wrote, "China Girl", this concert could also be taken as Pop's tribute to his old friend. Without his name ever being mentioned at anytime during the performance, Bowie was an undeniable presence throughout.
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However, this wasn't some guy trotting out a collection of his past hits trying to relive old glory. The new material was every bit as powerful and inspired as anything Pop has done in the first fifty years of his career. Songs like "Sunday", "American Vahalla", and "Chocolate Drops", with their musings on his time spent in the trenches of the pop music wars, are intelligent reflections on a long and tumultuous life and career.

This three disc set, one Blu-ray and two CDs, are an amazing record of nearly two hours of magic. While the CDs contain the audio of the concert and are great to listen to, the real treasure is the Blu-ray. Not only are the audio and visual perfect, director James Russell has provided us with a perfect mix of camera angels and shots to capture the event. We are on stage with the band as Pop rumbles across the stage and Homme and company play like men possessed. The lasting impression one takes away from those moments is how much fun they are all having doing this show.

Their spirit is obviously infectious as we see whenever the camera follows Iggy on one of his forays into the crowd. Whether the crowd is supporting him while he body surfs or he simply walks amongst them, everyone is invariably smiling. It's not the usual adulation of fans either. For while there are signs of the ubiquitous selfie taking which plagues any public event, most people seem content with reaching out to touch or hug Pop. It's like they are saying thank you, or perhaps good-bye.

This may or may not be Pop's swan song. If it is he's definitely going out the same way he came in - being true to himself and his music. Pop has never taken any prisoners in his life or his art and this concert is no exception. He might be older, and probably a lot wiser, then he was when he first came on the scene in the 1960s, but he still gives himself body and soul to his music. If you've never seen him in concert Post Pop Depression Live at the Royal Albert Hall is the next best thing.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Iggy Pop -Post Pop Depression Live at the royal Albert hall [Blu-ray/ 2 CD set])

September 19, 2016

Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?


American singer and pianist Nina Simone blazed across the sky of popular music for what seems like an incredibly brief period. Her meteoric rise to eminence in the early part of the 1960s was matched by her all too sudden disappearance from public life in 1968. The documentary, What Happened Miss Simone? produced by Netflix and now available on Blu-ray from Universal Music and Eagle Rock Entertainment, not only fills in details of Simone's life before her period in the spotlight, but tells us exactly what happened to her.
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The movie follows Simone from her earliest beginnings playing piano in church and growing up in segregated America. As a child she was taken under the wing of two white women piano teachers who recognized her talent. Like any other child learning piano she had aspirations to become a classical pianist and even attended the Juilliard School of Music. It was her ambition to become the first woman African American classical pianist. However, when that opportunity was denied her through what she believed was racism, she turned to playing in jazz and blues clubs to help support her family.

It was from those inauspicious beginnings her career was born. Her fame was assured with the release of her first record and the public's reception to her rendition of "I Loves You, Porgy" from the Gershwin brothers opera Porgy and Bess. There's some wonderful footage of her playing the song taken from an old Playboy TV show. The sight of a young black woman playing for an all white audience of smug wealthy hipsters says more about the state of America in the late 1950s than any political slogans or protests.

For the next five or so years Simone would do everything from play a sell out concert at Carnegie Hall to sing onstage at Civil Rights rallies. Her famous song, "Mississippi Goddam", summed up African American anger at those obstructing their civil rights in the 1960s. As her career took off she also became friends with the African American intellectual and artistic communities. James Baldwin, Dick Gregory and Langston Hughes were among those she counted among her friends, while her neighbours were the family of the late Malcolm X.

However, while on the surface things looked great, her life was far from easy. Using excepts from her diaries to let Simone tell her own story, the movie shows us a life filled with domestic violence (she was beaten by her husband), loneliness, and repressed violent urges. These written passages reveal a deeply troubled mind.

All of a sudden, in 1968, Simone left America and took herself into self-imposed exile. First to Liberia in Africa, then Switzerland, and eventually France. It was while she was in France in the 1980s her mental illness was finally diagnosed - bi-polar. Her violent mood swings, bouts of depression and even her sometimes extreme behaviour were all rooted in this disease.

Director Liz Garbus has done a masterful job of telling Simone's story. She weaves together archive footage and still photos with contemporary interviews to allow a complete picture of the woman and her times to unfold in front of us. The co-operation of Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, was obviously key in helping her gain access to things like the diaries and other fascinating archival material.

Of course you can't do a movie about Simone without her music. From start to finish we are regaled with the splendour and majesty of her performances. While some of the quality isn't the greatest - we're talking about footage that dates back almost sixty years in some cases - the black and white footage from the old TV shows is wonderful.

Even better is the CD included in this package, as it contains lovely produced versions of many of the songs which feature in the movie. Some highlights include "Mississippi Goddamn", "Sinnerman", and her covers of "I Put A Spell On You", "Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair", and "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". The latter is particularly poignant in light of the information we found out about Simone in the movie.

The Blu-ray/CD package of What Happened Miss Simone? is a wonderful record of an amazing and unique voice in American popular culture. Simone was more than just a wonderful performer, she was also an articulate and passionate voice in the fight for civil rights. As Dick Gregory says in the movie; "She said things with "Mississippi Goddamn" no one else would have dared say". A great movie about an amazing woman that comes with a bonus CD containing some of her greatest songs.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?/a>)

October 27, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 3


Just in time for Halloween everybody's favourite Australian costume piece has a new series out on Blu-ray: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 3. Released by Acorn Media on October 27 2015 we're transported back to Australia of the roaring twenties and the escapades of female detective Miss Phryne Fisher, Essie Davis.
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While the third season is shorter than the previous two, only eight episodes, there's just as much action and entertainment crammed within the two discs of this set as there has been in the previous releases. First of all the entire the ensemble of Miss Fisher's friends and family are back again making their own unique contributions to the stories. With each of them being as familiar as people we know personally it's a delight to welcome them all back into our living rooms and watch their relationships continue to devleop.

While Davis' character dominates the screen, it's hard to imagine Miss Fisher without her erstwhile companion Dorothy "Dot" Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) or working hand in glove with Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) while solving her murder mysteries. Of course where the Inspector and Dot go, the former's chief assistant, and the latter's fiancee, Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) is never far behind.

Rounding out the ensemble are the rest of Miss Fisher's employees; Bert (Travis McMahon) Ces (Anthony Sharpe) and her butler Mr. Butler(Richard Bligh); her best friend, now pathologist, Dr. Mac (Tammy Macintosh) and last, but by no means least, her formidable Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes).

While the murder investigations they undertake are the major focus of the each episode, as well as the newly introduced mystery surrounding Miss Fisher's ne'er do well father, Baron Henry Fisher (Pip Miller), personal issues between characters are even more prominent than ever. Will Dot and Constable Collins be able to resolve the thorny issues of the Protestant/Catholic divide and her wanting more from life than simply being a housewife to ever make it down the aisle? Will Inspector Robinson and Miss Fisher's relationship finally move past the platonic stage into the romance that's been simmering beneath the surface since Season 1?

What has always made this series special is its ability to switch between the frivolous and serious without missing a beat. Not only do we enjoy the fun and frolic of the roaring twenties as seen through the eyes of Miss Fisher, we also experience moments of real emotion. The most poignant moment in this series features a star turn from Margolyes in the fifth episode,"Death and Hysteria". After opening her house up a visiting psychiatrist and his "hysterical" women patients Aunt Prudence not only has to deal with a mysterious death, but her own repressed grief over the death of a beloved son.
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Margolyes does a magnificent job of depicting this very proper woman dealing with trying to stomp down on her sorrow by ignoring it. Of course this only makes things worse for her. Of all people, it's Miss Fisher's rough and tough employee Bert who brings her around. There's something incredibly touching about watching how the aristocratic Prudence responds to the blunt words of communist Bert. While sympathy hasn't reached her, she takes his bluntness to heart and finally allows herself to grieve.

While the scripts are cleaver and witty, the acting exemplary and the attention to detail in recreating the time period extraordinary, its moments like the one described above which elevate this series to a higher plane. The characters are more than just types; they are multidimensional and complicated. Like Miss Fisher herself, whose extravagant lifestyle hides a complicated and sad past, there's more to each character than meets the eye.

The Blu-ray package features a bevy of behind the scenes interviews and other special features (Be sure not to miss Mr. Butler's "Drink of the Week" or the promotional spots featuring characters from the show) and a gallery of still photos from the show. If you have a Blu-ray player, pay the few extra dollars for this set, because the improved quality of the visuals alone will make it worth your while. This is one show where you'll want to be able to see the fine details in the set dressing and the costumes as they are stunning.

However, when it comes down to it, the show is so good they could be performing on a bare stage with the cast in their street clothes and it would still be great. It's not the pretty clothes or period settings which keep us glued to the television set. It's the scripts and the ability of the actors to bring their characters to life that makes this some of the best television you'll ever see.

While there may not be a fourth series of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (and after how they end Series 3 maybe there shouldn't be) that should not diminish anyone's pleasure with these episodes. A lady always knows how to make an exit. While Miss Fisher may not be the last word in decorum, she's still enough of a lady to know when to take her final bow.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series Three)

September 29, 2015

Blu-ray Review: George Gently: Series 7


Police procedural television shows come and go in an endless blur of troubled cops and grisly crimes. However, amidst the dross a few gems shine through for the quality of their scripts and exemplary acting. Watching the Blu-ray of George Gently: Series 7 from Acorn Media, you quickly understand why this show has been consistently a cut above the rest of the field.

First of all there're the actors. Martin Shaw, Chief Inspector George Gently, and Lee Ingleby, Detective Sergeant/Inspector John Bacchus, have worked together through six previous seasons and their relationship on screen is a joy to behold. The rapport between the two is such they are able to bring extra layers of nuance to both their characterizations and interactions. Anyone who has watched the series over the years has seen a gradual evolution in their partnership as the years have passed.
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With the new character of PC (Police Constable)/Sergeant Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis entering the mix the dynamic between the two leads changes. While she had appeared in the previous series, Coles takes on a bigger role in these episodes and forces Bacchus to undergo some more attitude adjustments and growth. Especially when it comes to the way he, and police in general, treat women.

The four feature length episodes in this series are set in the transition from 1969 to 1970. English society, like the rest of the world, is going through major upheavals, and sleepy Northern Durham is no exception. As is usual for the Gently series each of the investigations is played out against a backdrop which reflects these changes. However, there's little or no preaching. Instead we are merely presented with the reality of the times and witness how the three main characters react to the situations.

From the way complaints of rape are treated by the police at the time (Gently Among The Women) to industrial pollution (Breathe in the Air) the show brings into focus the growing awareness that attitudes need to be changed in the way both are treated, Again we see how the elder Gently is far more open to change than his younger colleague. However, Bacchus isn't without a brain or his own sense of personal justice, he just takes a little longer to overcome his ingrained conditioning.

The third and fourth episodes, Gently Among Friends and Son of a Gun deal with issues unique to England. In the former the suspicious death of a local businessman is played out against the beginning of the reconstruction of Newcastle and a garbage strike which crippled the city in 1969. The latter shines a spotlight on the very unique British phenomena of skin heads.
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Nowadays we identify skin heads with neo-nazi movements. However, in 1970, a lack of jobs in major cities gave rise to a huge population of disaffected youth who started comparing themselves to slaves. Instead of being anti-black, they turned to the music of Jamaican immigrants, ska and rocksteady, which spoke of the fight to escape oppression, for inspiration and solace. Of course, it's very easy for a skilled leader to manipulate lost people with a few promises of easy escape and wealth.

In a fore taste of the race riots which would rock England in the late 1970s, we see how Gently and his team have to deal with a group of skinheads who go on a violent rampage of robbing banks under the guidance of one particularly violent individual. Further complicating matters is Gently's discovery of a personal connection to the robberies.

As is usual for this show each episode is a wonderfully crafted piece of television. Not only do they take full advantage of their 90 minute length to fully develop plots, they also add in details about the lead characters' personal lives which allows us to identify with them as people closely. Even better is how these individual problems aren't solved in a episode, or even over the course of the series. Sometimes life isn't neat and tidy and one of this series's strengths has been its ability to depict this without concessions.

George Gently: Series 7 continues the tradition of excellence we've come to expect from this exceptional police procedural. An incredible recurring cast, wonderful guest turns by great actors and fascinating scripts are still the show's hallmarks. This series is still the standard against which all other police procedurals should be judged.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: George Gently Series 7 - A Change is in the air)

July 14, 2015

Blu-ray Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1


Ah, the bucolic splendour of rural New Zealand: the rolling hills, the plant and animal life the sparkling waters and the dead bodies. While the surroundings do make for a picturesque backdrop, it's the latter item which is of primary importance in The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1, now available in both Blu-ray and DVD from Acorn Media. On the surface it may sound like it bears a passing resemblance to the British series Midsomer Murders, but once you begin watching you'll realize there're significant differences between the two shows.

Like most police procedural shows "Brokenwood's" action primarily centres around a supervising detective, Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd (Neil Rea and his subordinate Detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland). Each of the four episodes contained on the two discs of the Blu-ray set are close to 90 minutes each, which gives us plenty of time to get to know our two leads and for their professional relationship to develop.
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For Shepherd is initially an outsider. Brought in to check into possible police misconduct, a suspiciously botched and mishandled murder inquiry by the current Senior Sergeant in the first episode, Blood and Water, Sims is resentful of the fact he's not only taken over a murder inquiry but seems to be investigating her boss. It doesn't help that Shepherd has a couple of odd idiosyncrasies. The strangest being he talks to murder victims' corpses at the crime scene. After that his habit of playing old country music cassettes in his vintage 1970s car is merely annoying in comparison.

Over the course of the four episodes we see the working relationship between the two gradually develop and strengthen. For once he solves the initial case, Shepherd has himself reassigned to Brokenwood permanently when health forces the previous Sergeant to retire. Sims not only becomes used to his strange habits, but learns to respect and appreciate his skills as a investigator. Shephard has to gradually learn how to work well with others after years of playing the lone wolf. However, he's quick to admit his interpersonal skills aren't the greatest, as he often refers back to his three, or is it four, failed marriages (he never seems quite sure about the last fact).

The next three episodes see Shepherd settling into life in a rural community and solving some unusual murders. New Zealand's wine making community may not be as renowned as Australia's, but Brokenwood has sufficient vineyards, including Shepherd's new home, and winemakers to have their own awards. So it's a small surprise that the second episode, Sour Grapes finds a wine judge floating in a vat of wine; people have been dying in wine since Shakespeare's time after all.

While none of the episodes sound too original, there's also a golf murder, Playing the Lie and a hunting murder Hunting the Stag, what makes them so good is the characterization and the slow pace in which each episode develops. The wonderfully written and acted characters grow with each episode. There are also story lines which carry over from one episode to another, primarily from Shepherd's previous career. A couple of really good continuing support characters provide both comic relief and help to move the stories along. One is a junior detective, Constable Breen, (Nic Sampson) in the Brookenwood force. The other is Jared Morehu (Pana Hema Taylor) who operates on the borders of the law but becomes Shepherd's advisor on all things Brookenwood in the first episode and then his caretaker and vineyard worker.
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Of course they can't go through the season without a nod to New Zealand's favourite son, Peter Jackson. In the fourth episode one character's nick name is Frodo. When he comes into the station to be questioned Constable Breen asks if they should invite him through for second breakfast, only to be put off by the fact Shepherd doesn't know what the heck he's talking about.

The show's soundtrack reflects Shepherd's love of country music. However, this is great stuff performed primarily by New Zealand singer and songwriter Tami Neilson who will knock your socks off. Her voice is such she can handle everything from rocking country blues to slow numbers equally well. Not only do the songs work beautifully to fill in the transitions between scenes in the show, they add an extra dimension of depth and character to the settings incidental music isn't usually able to create.

While the special features on the Blu-ray are limited to five minute interviews with the two leads and the head writer, the show itself is the real special feature. Each episode is a well crafted and finally spun story. Like its rural surroundings "Brookenwood's" pace might be slower than other mystery shows, but it seduces you with its quiet nature and before you notice you'll be caught up in an episode and find yourself wanting more.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: The Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 1)

April 26, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Foyle's War: Set 8


While the end of WWII meant no more war for the people of Great Britain, it was also a time of incredible upheaval for the country. The bombing the country had experienced had ruined its infrastructure and manufacturing base making everything from basic necessities like bread to luxury items like whisky scarce leading to unrest at home. They also had to deal with the slow dissolution of their empire around the world and the emergence of a new enemy in Communist Russia. It's against this backdrop the three episodes of the Blu-ray Foyle's War: Set 8 from Acorn Media play out.

In these the last three episodes of the series former police Inspector Christopher Foyle, played by Michael Kitchen, is still working for the British Domestic Intelligence Service, better known as MI5. Their remit is everything from chasing down suspected Russian spies to dealing with black marketers profiting from the shortages. There's also the reality of Britain as a whole coming to grips with the fact they are no longer a major player on the world stage and their role as empire builder has been supplanted by the United States.

Each of the feature length episodes included in this set bring to life the problems facing Great Britain as Foyle goes about his job. In the first episode, High Castle, an American oil company with a shady past representing British interests in Iran have been receiving threats from unknown sources. Foyle is asked to investigate the matter and stumbles onto something with links back to the war, concentration camps and the illegal selling of oil to the Nazis. The American firm is a family owned business headed up by its patriarch, played by Frasier's John Mahoney.
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Foyle only discovers out about the family when a war criminal is found dead in his cell in Nuremberg Germany. However, when he tries to further the investigation into the family's potential wrong doings during WWII he runs into fierce objections from Britain's foreign office. In the new post war realities, nobody wants to look too closely into anyone's past, especially when they are useful.

In both the second and third episodes, Trespass and Elise respectively, Britain's past, present and future collide in somewhat chilling fashion. In the former we watch as the country, and Foyle, not only deal with the fallout from the collapse of the old Empire, but the spectre of British Fascism raising its ugly head again. As is usual whenever there is want, people look for scapegoats. In the aftermath of WWII in England the easiest targets were refugees from Nazi Germany, mainly Jews. A local politician, recently released from an internment camp where he had spent the war for his fascist sympathies, tries to revive his career by whipping up hatred against them, for "stealing our jobs and being the cause of misfortune."

At the same time England is trying to deal with the "Palestine question". The British had occupied what is now Israel since the end of WWI and had been trying to find a way to extract themselves from the situation since the 1930s. Both Jewish and Arab terror groups were planting bombs and killing British civilians and soldiers in Jerusalem. Notably the Jewish terrorist organization, The Stern gang, had blown up the King David Hotel. London was to be host a high level conference about Palestine with both Arab and Jewish representatives and tensions are high within both the Foreign Office and the Intelligence community. When a noted Jewish businessman who is also a Zionist is found dead in his house, Foyle is asked to investigate.

In Elise the past comes back to haunt Foyle's direct superior at MI5, Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) after someone tries to kill her. It turns out the assassin was the brother of one Pierce's "girls" from her days in the British Special Operations Executive (SEO) during the war. The "girls" were french speaking British subjects dropped into occupied France to help co-ordinate British and French efforts against German troops. Near the end of the war the girls were being arrested almost as soon as they landed in France leading everyone to suspect there was a traitor.

After Pierce is shot Foyle starts investigating all the loose threads and finds out more about the security service's history than he really wants. Not only its sordid past but its rather nasty present as well. While he's never found the realities of his new profession much to his liking, these three cases tip him over the edge. As usual Kitchen's performance as Foyle is a masterpiece of understatement. However, this makes everything he does all the more powerful. Even his subtlest reactions are stronger than the emoting most actors splash across our screens.
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As he has been since the series' opening episode Foyle is still accompanied by his faithful right hand woman Samantha Stewart, now Wainwright. (Honeysuckle Weeks) She hasn't let her marriage to a newly elected Labour Party Member of Parliament, Adam Wainwright (Daniel Weyman) slow her down and is as headstrong and impetuous as ever. However it's through her and her husband's work as an MP, we experience the social problems England was experiencing during this.

As ever with Foyle's War the scripts and acting are exemplary. With each episode being an hour and half in length there is time for plots and sub-plots to be developed carefully and intelligently. While there are points made about social inequalities within Britain at the time, there is none of the knee-jerk reactions you'd expect. Instead everything is placed in its appropriate context so we can see how and why things happened. Of course the quality of the show isn't hurt by the consistent high level of the acting from all involved. From every episodes' special guest to the recurring characters each actor is the perfect compliment for the script and the story.

As with all Blu-rays this set comes loaded with Special Features. There's one which examines the history behind each of the episodes, another gives you a day in the life of shooting and another showing you how they recreated London of the late 1940s in 21st century Liverpool. Finally there's also an interview with John Mahoney about his role and his personal acting experiences. They all make for fascinating addendums to the episodes in this set.

Foyle's War: Set 8 unfortunately marks the end of what was a magnificent piece of television. Not only was it a well thought out and intelligent police procedural, it was also a wonderful history of both war time and post war England. If you've been a fan of the series all along you won't be disappointed by this ending. For those new to the show, I'd recommend starting from the beginning. However, you can still watch these without having seen any of the previous episodes and not feel like you're missing too much information. The only regret anyone will have is there won't be any more after this.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Foyle's War: Set 8 - The Final Episodes)

March 25, 2015

Blu-ray Review: Midsomer Murders Set 25


Most long running television shows tend to end up becoming pale imitations of what made them popular in the first place. Scripts stop being as interesting and characters start to become predictable and boring as they descend into catch phrases and cliche. However, there are exceptions, and viewers need look no further than the Blu-ray package Midsomer Murders Set 25 from Acorn Media to find one of the best current examples.

Set in the fictional English county of Midsomer, the show has not only successfully weathered a changes in its lead character and supporting cast since it first aired in 1997, but has continued to be entertaining and intelligent after all this time. As a police procedural one would think they'd have a hard time coming up with new plots, but this set includes the show's 100th hour and a half long episode, and they don't seem to be running out of new ideas anytime soon.

One major change this time round is Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) has a new side kick, Detective Sargent (DS) Charlie Nelson, played by Gwilym Lee. The second change is Barnaby's wife Sarah (Fiona Dolman) is very pregnant. This allows the show to interject periodic breaks into the murder investigations, with scenes of the Barnaby's domestic life as comic relief. What's nice is while they are almost all expectant baby related, they don't tend to fall into the typical "sit-com" stuff we normally see on television.
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The three disc Blu-ray set contains five feature length episodes, three special feature mini documentaries and a couple of still photo galleries. The special features tend to overlap, excerpts from an interview with Lee and from the piece about the 100th episode both end up in the "behind the scenes" featurette. While they're all enjoyable, they do tend to become a bit redundant after a while - watch the first two and pass on the last and you won't really miss much.

However, it's not the special features you should be buying this for anyway. It's the continuing amazing high quality of the shows. The acting, the scripts and the direction are all of the high standards we've come to expect from watching Midsomer Murders in the past. As Nelson, Lee fits in to the ensemble easily. From his stumbling new beginning moments as he gets to know his new boss and what's expected of him in the opening episode, The Christmas Haunting, to his feeling comfortable enough to take his own initiative in the second episode, Let Us Prey (Yes that's the correct spelling, so you might be able to guess the episode has something to do with a church).

What's great about this series, is while you're pretty much guaranteed a couple of pretty gruesome deaths during the course of each episode, the show is something a family can sit down and watch together without any worries. Those deaths that take place on screen are not overtly graphic - although one in Let Us Prey is a bit grisly - and the scene of the crime shots don't dwell more than necessary on the gorier aspects of an incident. Still, there's enough action to keep younger audience members interested and plenty of intelligent dialogue and twisty plots for the more adult minds.

Than, there's the show's sense of humour. Perhaps I've a slightly twisted bent to my humour, but comments like "Cause of death a large sharp object pushed through him tearing some essential organs" by the pathologist when observing a corpse which has been impaled by a cast iron lighting fixture are funny. Alright, it doesn't sound particularly rib tickling out of context, but the combination of the line's dry delivery and the subtle reactions of both Barnaby and Nelson made it priceless.

This set, as mentioned, includes the show's 100th episode. There have been plenty of these landmark type episodes in other series, and unfortunately a lot of them fall flat. The usual problem is other shows go for the cheap sentimentality by bringing back old characters or other cliched plot devices. In The Killings of Copenhagen, the creators of Midsomer Murders have done something much smarter. Instead of deviating from their usual structure, they've simply added some special elements.
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First and foremost is the inclusion of a foreign location, Denmark, and two police officers from that country's police force. When a British subject is found dead in a Copenhagen hotel room and Danish police ascertain the murder had its origins in Midsomer County, they contact Barnaby and Nelson to investigate the English angle. When a second body, the brother of the first corpse, also shows up in Denmark, the British detectives travel to Copenhagen. The dynamic between the two Danish detectives, both female, and the Brits adds a new and fun dimension to the interplay between Nelson and Barnaby.

The second is of course the impending birth of baby Barnaby. With Sarah expecting to deliver at any moment, travelling off to Denmark has left DCI Barnaby a little on edge. While this is sort of your typical television husband being more nervous than the wife about an impending birth, there aren't many husbands who will have the foresight to give their wives the name of the best police pursuit driver under their command if she needs a quick ride to the hospital.

Midsomer Murders is one of those delightful shows which, while not necessarily improving with age, shows none of the signs of degradation one usually associates with long running programs. "Set 25" not only integrates a new character into the mix with pleasing results, it proves the show's creators are still committed to producing a police procedural of the highest quality, while maintaing the human element which makes it so popular.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review Midsomer Murders Set 25 - Celebrating A Hundredth Episode)

July 9, 2014

Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel - Back To Front: Live In London


Most of the time popular culture looks to the past it's for purposes of reliving past glories or for wallowing in nostalgia. Very few of us have the courage and the strength to look back at where we've come from with a critical eye. Even fewer have the ability, or the desire, to tamper with past successes. Usually when a performer reaches into his or her back catalogue for a show or a recording they end up recreating the original material as exactly as possible. It's safe, easy and is guaranteed to generate ticket and recording sales.

One of those who has always displayed a willingness and ability to deviate from this practice is Peter Gabriel. Starting with his first release in 1977, Peter Gabriel 1, his solo career now spans four decades. His contributions to popular culture haven't been limited to his own material either. Through his Real World label and his involvement with the founding of the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival in 1980 he was responsible for bringing music from cultures other than our own into the mainstream. However, it wasn't until the release of his album So in 1986 he achieved widespread commercial success.

In 1986/87 Gabriel and his band, Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes guitar, Manu Katche drums and David Sancious keyboards and guitar, toured the world to promote the release. Twenty-five years after that tour ended, 2012, Gabriel reunited the original band in order to revisit the original performances while creating a new experience for his audiences. In October of 2013 the tour pulled into London England's O2 concert hall where the performances were filmed. The result is a new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Back To Front Live In London.
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Available in multiple formats, including a deluxe two Blu-ray two CD set complete with a hard bound book of pictures and liner notes, the single disc Blu-ray recording I watched shows Gabriel not only knows how to please his audience, but is still not afraid to push the creative envelope to its limits. Not only does he not simply play older material the way it was originally performed, he continues to be one of one of the most innovative users of the stage and lighting techniques available to popular performers. Even better is he's one of the few who have always understood how to create the perfect balance between the music and the visual in order to create something which is more than just a concert for his audience to experience.

As the camera leads us onto the stage, showing us Gabriel's perspective on proceedings as he moves into position at his piano to open the show, we're give the first example of how this performance will differ from other events of its kind. He does not enter to a blacked out house and stage, all the lights in the arena are on. Instead of breaking into song he begins by telling the audience exactly what he plans on doing for them over the course of the night; an acoustic set as an introduction, an electric set and then play them So in its entirety.

Maintaining the immediacy created by this rather informal beginning, he and the band perform the entire acoustic set with the house lights up. One of the highlights for me from this opening set was an acoustic version of "Shock The Monkey". Always a powerful song, somehow striping it down to the bare bones sound of acoustic guitar, bass, drums and piano not only didn't diminish its impact, but made you more aware of the song's potency. The gaps left in the song from the lack of electric instruments were like poignant pauses in a conversation which say more than words ever can.

However, no matter how powerful the opening numbers might have been, you could feel the excitement level rise in the arena the moment the house lights went down and the band picked up electric instruments. While the house lights must have been gradually dimming over the course of the last song of the acoustic set, the moment when the band was all of a sudden bathed in white light and the audience was in darkness was still so dramatic the thrill that ran through the crowd could be felt right through the television screen. It was not only a beautiful piece of staging, it was a great piece of filming, as it captured for us at home the experience of being at the concert like few other concert films I've ever witnessed.
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I have to confess, and this is testimony to the skill of both Gabriel and the film's director Hamish Hamilton, that from this point on my critical faculties deserted me and I allowed myself to be carried away by the concert and the experience. While I've seen quite a number of concert films, and a few by Gabriel in the past, this is the first one I've seen where the connection between performer and audience is so strong that even sitting in my living room on a rainy afternoon I lost all track of time and space and became totally absorbed.

For those used to some of Gabriel's more elaborately staged performances, this one might initially seem more prosaic then previous ones as the band is simply lined up facing the audience. However, as the show progresses he begins to make use of the empty space down stage as he and the two female vocalists accompanying him, Jennie Abrahamson (she does amazing work on "Don't Give Up", "This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)" and "In Your Eyes") and Linnea Olsson (who also plays cello) move forward to execute some beautiful choreography during "This Is The Picture" and "Don't Give Up".

While maybe these moments can't equal the spectacle of him singing while hanging upside down as he's done in prior shows, for those who saw last year's release, Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987, capturing the original tour promoting So, you will recognize certain staging techniques and equipment. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say he uses the same equipment he did in 1987, but updates it by incorporating the new video technology at his disposal.

In the interview with Gabriel and lighting designer and Rob Sinclair included in the Blu-ray version of the concert, the two men discuss both how they incorporated the old set pieces and how they created the overall concept for the show. Unlike many of these interviews, this one not only gives you details about how they created what you see on stage, but the reasoning behind their ideas and the process they used in creating the event. Not only was it carefully executed, the planning behind it was meticulous and inspired. Oh, and while not exactly special features, I love the fact that during the film's credits, various backstage members of the crew introduce themselves and what they did to make the show possible. Gabriel is still one of the few who takes time at the end of the show to stand up in front of his audience to publicly thank the men and women who do this work. Including them so visibly in the credits is another sign of his appreciation for their work. How many other pop music stars do you know who would acknowledge the guy who drives the bus?

From the sheer pop energy fun of "Solesbury Hill" to the potency of "Biko" (which he still closes his show with all these years later by telling the audience "What happens next is, as always, up to you") Gabriel has created a catalogue of music few other modern popular music creators can match for its artistry and intelligence. Even more remarkable than the commercial success he was able to achieve with his album So is the fact that 25 years after its release the music is not only just as powerful now as it was then, and that Gabriel is still finding ways to present it which keep it fresh for both him and his audience. Back To Front Live In London might contain material close to forty years old, but it feels far more alive than most of what you hear being released today.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel Back To Front: Live In London)

June 4, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish, Set 2


While some countries are known for exporting raw materials and others for manufactured goods, Australia is rapidly becoming known for the fine crop of actors it produces. With amazing numbers of quality performers at their disposal, it probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise they also produce an incredible quantity of great television. Even television studios in the US have started taking noticeby paying them the ultimate compliment of making their own version of one Australia's funniest shows, Rake.

While some of the actors in the various Australian shows are unknown to most North American audiences, Jack Irish Set 2 stars an actor who has been popping up on North American movie screens for quite some time now, Guy Pearce, in the title role. Released by Acorn Media, this second Jack Irish release comes in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with each disc containing the feature length episode Dead Point.

For those who missed "Set One", Irish is a former barrister who quit practicing the law after his wife was murdered by one of his clients. He now works as a mix of private investigator/fixer who finds peace of mind working in a carpentry shop as an apprentice. While still haunted by images of his wife's murder, he's doing his best to get on with his life and has begun an on again off again relationship with a journalist, Linda Hillier. (Marta Dusseldorp) As Dead Point begins they are in the process of trying to restart their relationship and wondering about making a commitment to each other. However, no matter how much he wants it to, the past just won't leave Irish alone.
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His former father-in-law, Justice Logan, (Barry Humphries) is being blackmailed in an effort to ensure he doesn't release a report on the connections between drug trafficking and the Melbourne shipping yards. Initially Logan had asked Irish to find the person blackmailing him, but when that guy turns up dead, Irish then has to try and track down the incriminating evidence. The trail leads Irish down some very twisted paths into the seamier side of Melbourne society and private clubs catering to the very rich.

At the same time Irish is also trying to solve who tried to rip off his horse racing associates, Henry Strang (Roy Billing) and Cam Delray (Aaron Pederson). Strang and Delray play fast and loose with the racing laws and are a far different breed of people than Justice Logan. Strang is an old school crook, lives and works to a code based on respect, while Delray is his muscle. So when a woman who works for them is robbed and badly beaten, they enlist Irish's aid in tracking down the men who assaulted her and stole money she had been carrying for them.

Strang and Delray not only act as a sort of comic relief, they also serve as a contrast to the sordid nature of the other case Irish is working on. For while they might be crooks, they make no bones about who they are and make for a refreshing change to the filth Irish finds himself swimming in trying to track down Justice Logan's blackmailers. Billing and Pederson manage to strike just the right tone in their portrayals of Strang and Delray respectively to make us both like and enjoy watching them onscreen. You can see why Irish, the former lawyer, appreciates their company in spite of their profession. Not only do they pay well, he knows he can trust them completely and they can be counted on to be there if he needs help. Two commodities that have been in short supply in his life recently.
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As Irish Pearce does some of the best acting of his career. Perhaps it's because he's finally been given a role which allows him to show off his depth and range as a performer. Irish is a multifaceted and complex character dealing with a multitude of issues. Pearce does a great job of managing to bring out all aspects of his personality, allowing us to see both the darkness he's carrying with him from the past and the hope he has for the future. Pearce has gained a certain amount of gravitas as he's aged, and this imbues his performance with an emotional depth that was missing from his work when he was younger. Watching him in this series is to see an actor who is completely comfortable in his own skin delivering an apparently effortless performance that's a joy to watch.

The great thing about these feature length episodes is how it gives the creators of a series plenty of time to develop a show's characters and plot lines. In Dead Point they've done a fine job of balancing and weaving together Irish's personal life and the two separate cases he's working on. None of them are given short shrift, and each make a significant contribution to our understanding of Irish and the world he lives in. It might be dark and seedy in places, but its not without light. The show's plots mirror the contrasts in his life and through solving the crimes he's asked to investigate he also seems to be resolving his personal issues.

The Blu-ray disc of Jack Irish, Set 2 is up to the format's usual high audio and visual standards, so looks and sounds great through a home theatre system. Both the DVD and the Blu-ray contain the same special features, a series of behind the scene clips of various scenes from the show. If you're interested in that sort of thing, watching how scenes are set up and filmed, than you will probably enjoy them, but they don't really give you any information about the making of the show. However you shouldn't let this deter you from buying this disc, as the quality of the show far outweighs anything special features have to offer.

In recent years the world has begun to discover just how much talent resides in the island country of Australia. Their actors have been gracing stages and screens around throughout the rest of the world for the last couple of decades. Now, more and more of them are returning home to take part in movies and television shows being produced in their own country. With great acting, amazing scripts and production quality second to none, some of the best television is being made Down Under. Jack Irish, Set 2 is the latest example of how good television can be when people put their minds to it.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish, Set 2)

May 28, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2


At the end of WW l a great deal of the world seemed to decide the time was right for a very large party. The decade that followed, which has since come to be known as the "Roaring 20s", was not just a time of wild abandon and decadence, although there was plenty of that, it was a period of increased liberties both socially and artistically. Having seen the ruling classes push them into a conflict which caused so much death and carnage, the younger generation rebelled against the standards which their parents had lived by. Life was far too precious to be wasted on worrying what others might think of you.

This era is brought to life in all its flamboyant colour in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2 from Acorn Media. Another of the great series being produced by Australian television, the show follows the exploits of one of the new breed of women the 1920s threw up, Miss Phyrne Fisher (Essie Davis) Lady Detective. Independently wealthy, all the male heirs to the family fortune were killed during the war and she inherited, she devotes her life almost equally to enjoying herself and solving mysteries. If along the way she also happens to open people's minds to the fact a woman is every bit as capable as a man, well that's just a bonus.

While each episode in the series is nominally about solving a murder, they also manage to address social issues particular to Australia at the time. Whether a veteran suffering from what was then know as shell shock, what we'd call post traumatic stress disorder, post war anti-German sentiment, temperance, or the rights of women, they are each dealt with in a serious and compassionate manner. What's even better is how the show's creators have managed not to impose an early 21st century morality on the issues, but are able to make the character's perspectives and observations realistic to the time and place.
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However, what really distinguishes this show from other detective/mystery shows, are the characters and the continued development of their interrelationships. Not only are the characters well written, each of them continue to evolve as the series progresses. As main the foil for Miss Fisher Inspector Jack Robinson Nathan Page of the Melbourne police not only has to deal with her involvement in the various crimes they wind up investigating together, he also has to come to grips with their developing personal relationship.

In the first series we saw the beginnings of their relationship, and now the writers have taken it a couple of steps further. First of all we meet people out of Robinson's past, his ex-wife and ex-father-in law, who also happens to be his direct superior in the police force. When a couple of cases, including a superb one dealing with the issue of a Melbourne based Madeline Laundry (basically a world wide series of workhouses run by the Catholic Church for "fallen" young women) bring Robinson and Fisher into contact with these people from his former life it creates a different level of tension in their relationship then had previously existed. There relationship is further complicated when Robinson is forced to confront the depth of his feelings for Fisher because of an incident which occurs during the investigation of one crime in particular.

What's wonderful about all of this is how the writers have both characters handle the changing circumstances. Neither of them change their behaviour or their approach to life, but they develop an increased respect for the other's feelings. Watching this progression over the course of the thirteen episodes of Series 2 is an example of the show's quality. It's truly remarkable to see how these changes are incorporated effortlessly into each murder investigation without ever taking away from the action or plot at hand.

Of course both Robinson's and Fisher's able right hands are still around. Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Dorothy (Dot) Williams. (Ashleigh Cummings) Like their bosses both their relationship and their characters undergo a substantial development over the course of the second series. While they are both far more conventional than either of the people they work for, we watch as they both grow as people based on the experiences they've gained.
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It may sound like the actual murders of the title "Murder Mysteries" might be secondary to the drama among the show's lead characters. However, while there may be some truth to that in a couple of the episodes, the writers have managed to create the perfect balance between the sub-plots involving the characters and the actual solving of the various crimes. Even in those episodes where the plots seem a little weaker, the actors' abilities and the force of their character's personalities makes each one a pleasure to watch. Davis and Page in particular give wonderfully multi-layered performances. I think you could watch them recite the phone book with pleasure. You'll definitely find yourself wanting to see more of them in the future.

The three disc Blu-ray edition of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2 also includes special features which will delight fans of the show. Of special interest are interviews with most of the cast during which they talk about their characters and what it's like to shoot the show. At one point Davis confesses to being terrified of some of the jewellery she wears as her character as they are genuine pieces worth a small fortune. (Those are real emeralds she's wearing, not fakes made for the show) Being a Blu-ray of course means both the audio and video are wonderful and the show looks and sounds great through a home theatre system.

Everyone knows Australia and New Zealand are capable of making great films (Lord of the Rings, Picnic At Hanging Rock) but we're just beginning to find out the same goes for their television productions. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is a great example of how they manage to create shows which are not only technically on par with anyone else, but can also match up artistically with what the rest of the world has to offer. In fact, judging by Miss Fisher and other shows I've seen, they usually outshine most of what we see on our televisions on a regular basis.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Series 2)

April 17, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Philomena


Up until as late as 1996, when the last one was finally closed, The Magdalene Laundries were the dumping grounds for any young woman considered "fallen" by Irish society. Most of these were single mothers whose family had discarded them. They were forced into the various abbeys and convents where the Laundries were located and after giving birth had to work as slave labour for the nuns as payment and penance for the delivery and the sin of having a child out of wedlock. The children of these young women were taken from their mothers and "adopted" (sometimes this meant sold) by the nuns to couples from all over the world - usually Americans. Further compounding their crime the so called laundries conspired to keep records of all adoptions from both the birth mothers and the adopted children through convenient fires and other means.

While the Irish government has finally agreed to compensation for the victims, the public at large still knows very little about what the women who survived these horrific conditions experienced. While facts have been reported in various newspapers that might have explained things intellectually, they fall short in being able to reach people emotionally. Well, that's about to change with the release of the Blu-ray version of Philomena by The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment. Adapted from the book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by British journalist Martin Sixsmith, the movie tells the story of one woman's search for her son who was given up for adaption by the nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundry where she had been confined.

Under normal circumstances this is a movie I probably would have avoided like the plague. Usually this type of story is handled in such a way it ends up manipulating the audiences emotions with sentimental tripe instead of simply allowing the story to speak for itself. However, the combination of a cast starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the roles of Philomena and Sixsmith respectively, the fact Coogan wrote the script and it was directed by Stephen Frears (High Fidelity and The Queen), made me think it had a chance of avoiding the pit falls this type of movie would normally fall into.
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On the surface the story sounds like some standard TV Movie of the week put out by Hallmark Cards. If it were to follow the typical cliches the movie would have the cynical journalist, Sixsmith, meeting the elderly Irish woman, Lee, and in the course of helping her discover what happened to her child rediscover his own heart. Not having read Sixsmith's book I can't speak for how he approached the story, but Coogan's screen adaptation never once descends into the world of cliche or mawkish sentimentality. For while the two very different characters do manage to find enough common ground for friendship, neither really make any fundamental changes in each others character.

Sixsmith is a highly educated intellectual who served in Tony Blair's government as Press Secretary for the Ministry of Transport. He went to Oxford University and served as a foreign correspondent for the BBC in Russia during the end of the Cold War and in the USA during the first term of Bill Clinton's presidency. Most importantly he's also a lapsed Catholic who no longer believes in God. Lee, on the other hand, remains a devout Catholic with a firm belief in God and has worked as a nurse all her life. She's kept the story of her lost child secret from her family as she was too ashamed to admit she had sex prior to being married let alone had a child out of wedlock. Like other young women of her generation she was firmly convinced that she had committed a sin through both acts. While it hurt to lose her child, she had willingly signed the papers giving up her rights to him as she had been convinced it was the right thing to do.

This dichotomy is one of the constant strains between the two main characters as Sixsmith can't understand how Lee can still have respect for the institution which treated her so badly. Lee, on the other hand, can't understand why Sixsmith expresses so much antipathy for the church and God. In one of the funnier parts of the movie after Sixsmith makes one too many comments about God and the church for her Lee retorts by calling him a "fecking idjit". While neither character changes their opinions, they do manage to learn respect for each other's beliefs and values. Sixsmith can't understand how Lee is able to forgive the nuns for what they've done to her, yet he has enough respect and compassion for her to stop questioning her beliefs and to respect her strength. When he tells her he'd never be able to forgive them, she turns to him and says it was the hardest thing she ever had to do.

I've deliberately not gone into any of the details of what they discover about Lee's missing son as I don't want to spoil the actual story. However, in a movie like this what's just as important is the way in which the story is told. Casting Dench and Coogan in the lead roles was inspired as both are able to make both characters not only alive, but believable. Coogan is perfect as the world weary and cynical ex-political spin doctor who originally dismisses Lee's story as Human Interest fodder for the non thinking masses until he becomes almost her champion. Yet, they continue to be on opposite sides of the issue as his righteous indignation on her behalf is diametrically opposed to Lee's more passive attitudes. She only wants to find out about her son and doesn't care about retribution or vengeance.
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Dench's performance is all we've come to expect from her. She manages to give us a complete picture of Lee as a human being even while expressing what seem to be a set of conflicting emotions and beliefs. For on the one hand she misses her son horribly and desires nothing more to find out what happened to him and find out if he ever thought of her or Ireland. However, at the same time she refuses to blame anyone for what happened. Even when it's revealed the nuns kept her whereabouts secret from her son when he asked about her nor told her he was looking for her, she refuses to change her mind.

While the special features on the Blu-ray edition of the film are minimal, they are interesting as they include in depth interviews with both Coogan and Dench, plus a nice feature on Philomena Lee herself. The Blu-ray edition also comes with a code so you can download a digital version of the movie to your computer or mobile device. However, what makes Philomena special is the movie and the way the story is told. If you desire you can do a search online and find out the story in advance as its public knowledge now and all the events and characters described in the movie are based on reality. However, if you plan on watching the movie, don't deny yourself the pleasure of watching the story unfold in front of you on your home theatre system. It does the nearly impossible of going behind the facts and figures to get to the emotional heart of the story without ever descending into sentimentally.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Philomena)

April 5, 2014

Blu-ray Review: George Gently, Series 6


There are occasionally those really good television shows which manage to not only capture the spirit of the times they're set in, but also create within their world a microscopic environment reflecting the world around them. In classical theatre, Shakespeare for example, when the natural world reflected the action on the stage it was referred to as pathetic fallacy. You know, things like when the horses start eating each other on the night Macbeth kills the rightful king of Scotland. Talk about the world being in a turmoil.

Now there's not many television shows these days I would even think of mentioning in the same breath as the works of Shakespeare. However, reflecting on the newly released George Gently, Series 6 from Acorn Media, and the way the internal turmoil of the lead characters reflects the ongoing societal turmoil of England in the late 1960s it's hard not to make the comparison. For those of you who haven't yet watched "Series 5", I'd recommend you stop reading now as I'll be referring back to events in its final episode from here on in.

Both Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) George Gently (Martin Shaw) and his second in command, Sargent John Bacchus, (Lee Ingleby) had been wounded during a shootout in Durham Cathedral. "Series 5" had ended leaving the two men lying in their respective puddles of blood, with us uncertain as to their fates. The question of their condition is answered very quickly in the first of the four episodes contained on the two discs making up this set, Gently Between The Lines.
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The great thing about this show is with each episode being an hour and a half in length, it not only allows the detectives to solve the case they are working on but it allows the script to develop sub-plots associated with the lives of the police officers. In Gently Between The Lines we are given a perfect example of how they meld the two worlds together. The episode starts with DCI Gently travelling to visit Sargent Bacchus in the convalescent hospital he has spent six months recovering from the bullet wounds he suffered in the last episode of "Series 5". However, this is not just a social call as Bacchus has handed in his letter of resignation and Gently has come to find out why he's decided to quit. When Bacchus insists he's not coming back to the police, Gently reminds him he has to give four weeks notice, and he wants Bacchus to serve them out on duty with him.

This is probably not the best frame of mind for Bacchus to be in when he and Gently have to investigate the mysterious death of a squatter in police custody. In 1969 city councils across England were razzing the old worker's housing left over from pre WWll days and replacing them with apartment blocks. However, not everybody who lived in the old neighbourhoods liked the idea, and in Newcastle, where the death took place, the police were having to forcibly remove people from their homes. This naturally led to anger on the part of the local populations, resentment towards the police and demonstrations protesting the plans. One such demonstration degenerated into a riot in which a police officer was severely injured and numerous people were arrested, including the man who died in custody.

Seeing how the public has turned against the police only feeds Bacchus' resolve to leave the force. Except there's more to it then that, and Gently keep pushing him until he gets him to admit what's really bothering him. In the late 1960s there was no understanding of post traumatic stress disorder, so all Bacchus is able to articulate is his wonder about how many more times he'll be lucky enough to walk away from a dangerous situation in one piece. When Gently goes into an abandoned building to rescue a young boy Bacchus freezes, unable to put himself into a potentially dangerous situation.

However, it's not only Bacchus who has a rough time adjusting. In Gently's case it's not the trauma of injury he's having to come to terms with, it's the way the world around him is changing and his own sense of what's right and wrong. While we see some indication of this in the first episode where he pushes the investigation into the mysterious death far harder than his superiors like, it really comes to the fore in both the third, Gently With Honour, and fourth, Gently Going Under, episodes. In the former their investigation into a murder in a gay bathhouse leads them onto a trail which ends with them uncovering drug testing performed on soldiers by the British army. However, it's not just the drug testing which rocks the ex soldier Gently, it's the fact the army has covered up abuse at the facility where the experiments were carried out led to the death they had been investigating and a soldier was being made into a scapegoat.
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In the final episode of the series Gently comes face to face with changing realities in both his world and the world around him. He and Bacchus are called in to investigate the death of a coal miner whose body has been discovered underground. With the mine in question on the verge of being shut down due to it being almost tapped out emotions are high and there are any number of possible suspects. While the case takes a number of complicated twists and turns revolving around various people's motives, Gently also finds himself having to deal with pressures from his superiors. His refusal to only go through the motions when it comes to what his superiors consider delicate matters has finally reached a head and they want to promote him away from dealing with criminal cases.

Gently own personal code of conduct has brought into conflict with the police establishment in the past. It was his insistence on investigating police corruption in London which had him transferred up to Northern England in the first place as he was rocking too many boats. In the final episode of this series he tells his superior officer point blank if they want to get rid of him they'll have to shove him out as he's not going to take the promotion and make it easy for them.

George Gently, Series 6 is not just an exemplary police show, its also an example of the potential there is for character development in television. Not only do the two main characters work to solve the various murders they're confronted with, we see how they have to develop and adopt to the world around them and their own personal changing circumstances. While the Blu-ray edition doesn't have many special features, there are a couple of interesting behind the scenes interviews with both Martin Shaw and Lee Ingleby in where they discuss their characters and the time period the show was shot in. This edition also conforms with the high technical standards we've all come to expect from Blu-rays as the sound and video quality are superb. However, this is one show that doesn't need any technical enhancements to make it great. This is by far still one of the best police procedurals being aired today.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: George Gently, Series 6)

March 19, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom


I remember asking my mom as a kid in the 1960s why we didn't ever have Granny Smith apples in the house. She replied that she refused to buy anything from South Africa because of what the government did to its people. As the years passed and I became more aware of the world around me, I began to understand why my parents refused to buy anything which came from South Africa. However it wasn't until the 1980s I first heard the name Nelson Mandela. By the time he had become the rallying point for anti-apartheid activists around the world he had already been in jail more then 20 years. For us living outside South Africa he became more than a man, he was a symbol of all that was wrong with what was a corrupt system.

When he was released and began the slow painful business of trying to rebuild his country he became even more than a symbol, he rose in status to that of almost an icon. While the transition from white majority rule was not without violence, somehow, through force of personality and leadership he was able to make it far more peaceful than anyone could have had a right to expect. After more then fifty years of oppression African anger at their former rulers could have spilled over into horrible acts of vengeance.

Yet, after all his accomplishments and his extraordinary life, few of us know much about Mandela aside from those bare facts listed above. The movie, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, now available on Blu-ray from The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment, and based on Mandela's autobiography of the same name, attempts to fill in some of the blank in our knowledge and give us a more complete picture of the man.
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Starring Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Haris as Winnie Mandela, the movie traces his life from childhood through to his election as the first African president of South Africa. While there are some noticeable gaps in the story, there's nothing about how he managed to do the next to impossible of gaining a law degree, the movie does the best it can to show us how he went from being a lawyer to becoming one of the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and one of the most wanted men in South Africa.

We also see how he made a mess of his early personal life. His political activism ended his first marriage when his wife became sick of his never being home and his occasional affairs with other women. However, it also shows us how as he became more committed to the cause of working for the freedom of his people, he also began to mature as a person. So when he met his second wife, Winnie Mandela, the relationship was initially far smoother. It helped that Winnie was just as committed to the cause of African freedom as he was, and supported his efforts.

In fact, one of the things I appreciated most about the movie was its depiction of Winnie Mandela. There were a lot of things said about her and her split from her husband in the early 1990s that weren't exactly pleasant. However, in the movie we see the torments she was subjected to by the South African police while her husband was in jail. We see her being beaten, tossed into solitary confinement for sixteen months and left to wonder what has become of her children. Harris does an amazing job of portraying Winnie's transformation from a loving wife and fun loving woman into an angry and vengeful woman who desires only to fight back against those who took her life away from her. As she says to her husband upon one of her rare visits to the Robben Island Prison, "it's my hate that keeps me going".
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As Mandela Elba, does a magnificent job of capturing both the man's humanity, and his amazing charisma. Even in his early days as a lawyer defending his black clients in the white court rooms we see how he uses a combination of intelligence and humour to fight an unjust system. We also see how he gradually transforms from working towards a peaceful resolution to the problems of his country to taking up arms against the government. While you can see a gradual build up in his anger, the tipping point for him came during the demonstrations against the imposition of the pass laws in 1960 when police opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in the township of Sharpeville killing 69 unarmed people.

After three years of planting bombs Mandela and the rest of the ANC leadership were caught and sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island in 1963. While the movie does bog down a bit during his term in prison, how much can you say about the interminable boredom and misery of hard labour and prison life, it tries its best to give an accurate depiction of the life these men had to endure. Cut off from their families and outside world almost completely they know almost nothing of what's happening in the world beyond their walls. While the movie does try to keep us informed, the clips they use aren't really enough to give us more than a general impression of violence and upheaval. I know the movie is supposed to be a history of the man, not the struggle, but as the two became inseparable in most people's minds it might have been good to show a little bit more of what was happening while he was in jail.

However, in spite of some minor drawbacks, the movie does a remarkable job of depicting Nelson Mandela as a man and not just an icon. I think a lot of the credit for that must go to Elba, who manages to not only imbue Mandela with the indomitable spirit the world came to recognize and admire, but the humanity few of us ever saw. Elba is shows us how Mandela was able to overcome his personal pain and anger to see the need to create a country where all were treated the same no matter the colour of their skin. It is a remarkable performance, and combined with the work of Harris as Winnie, more than compensates for any weakness in the script.

The Blu-ray edition of the movie (the package I was sent includes Blu-ray, DVD and a code to download a digital version) comes with the usual compliment of special features; director's (Justin Chadwick) commentary, a making of featurette, and a tribute video gallery. While the latter doesn't really add much to our knowledge of the Mandela, the featurette has some interesting interviews with Elba, Harris and director Chadwick which tell how they felt about making the movie and the process they each used in its creation.

Nelson Mandela was the face of the fight for freedom in South Africa. Turning that kind of icon into a human being is a nigh on near impossible job. However the movie Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom comes as close as is probably possible. This is a man around whom the whole world rallied, and this movie helps fill in some of the blanks in the picture we have of who he was and how he became the revered figure we remember today.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom)

March 5, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Come Back Africa, The Movies of Lionel Rogosin Volume 2


Documentary movies always seem to get short shrift. For too many people there the things people tell them to watch at school so they will learn something. Growing up on a diet of talking heads sitting around talking about subjects you're not really interested in would turn anybody off watching them. Which is highly unfortunate, as there are documentary movies out with just as much action and excitement as anything the studios could ever come up with. In fact, they are even more intense when you remember what you're watching actually happened.

The rather unfortunate shunning of this genre of film making has led to some of the more innovative directors and producers being ignored or forgotten. One of the most brave and innovative American documentary makers was probably someone most of you have never heard of, Lionel Rogosin. After returning from fighting in Europe in WW ll he was determined to continue the fight against oppression and intolerance in some way. Even though he had never directed or had anything to do with film before, he decided it would be the best way of communicating to the largest number of people at once. His first movie, On The Bowery, a documentary about the down and outs in New York's lower east side, won the Grand Prize for documentary films at the Venice Film Festival and The British Film Academy Award in the same category in 1956.

But injustice was what he wanted to depict, not just cinema verite, and he created two landmark movies which dealt with the circumstances of two groups of people dealing with systemic racism: Africans in South Africa in the late 1950s, Come Back Africa and African Americans in the early 1970s in Black Roots. These two movies have now been restored and packaged together in a special Blu-ray presentation by Milestone Films under the title Come Back Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume ll.
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Come Back Africa was shot on location in South Africa and is a mix of documentary and docu-drama. Due to the fact he had to lie to the government about what he was filming in order to get permission to shoot, Rogosin and his crew had to shoot hundreds of feet of footage they would never use. The rest of the time they had to make sure they were not being observed and shot most of the film on the fly or in locations they knew were secure. They also had to use amateur actors due to the risk of informers. According to the documentary about the making of the movie included as one of the special features, Rogosin and his wife showed up in Johannesburg and were fortunate enough to meet several white members of the African National Congress and Africans who were willing to help them with the script and finding locations.

In order to attempt to tell the world the reality of the indignities of Apartheid they decided to focus on the plight of one man and his struggles to find work and what he and his family had to put up with in order to survive. We follow the one character through a variety of work and living situations, including making a trip down into the gold mines with the workers. While we are now overly familiar with the horrors of the Apartheid system of segregation and the manner in which it dehumanized Africans, in the 1950s this would have been a brutal revelation to the rest of the world. On the other hand it was also the first introduction people outside of South Africa had to the music of the townships. (One of the excuses Rogosin gave to the South African government for making the film was telling them they were documenting the music of the "natives" to show how happy they were in their lives).

The film was shot entirely on location in Sophiatown, the black ghetto which had been home to Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela, plus many of the actors and script writers who were involved in the films creation. At the time of the filming it was a centre of Black culture and activism. It was also on the verge of being destroyed by the South African government. Shortly after filming finished all the residents were forcibly evicted and the township razed and replaced with white only housing.

Instead of imposing a script upon his African cast, Rogosin gave them scenarios and let them improvise their own dialogue so they could create as accurate a picture as possible of their lives. The scenarios themselves were based on events the cast had actually lived through and in spite of their lack of experience they were able to impart these scenes with a verisimilitude you'd never find in a scripted movie or regular style of documentary. It might be raw and a bit awkward at times, but there can be no denying the power of what you're watching.
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Of course the irony of this being filmed at the same time the battle against segregation in the US was just starting to really heat up isn't easy to forget. Ten years after making Come Back, Africa Rogosin made the second feature included in this package, Black Roots, which is a kind of oral history of African Americans told in words and music by a couple generations of African American musicians. Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Larry Johnson, Wende Smith, Florynce "Flo" Kennedy and others simply sit around in front of the cameras exchanging stories and singing songs relating ot the horrors of the African American experience in the 20th century.

They tell stories about everything from witnessing lynchings by the Klan to how their sharecropping families would work all season picking cotton and then not be paid a cent for their labour as the dealers would rob them blind. The songs they play range from old Leadbelly country blues numbers to more modern angry songs. Collier singing the lines "If I can't live my life in freedom/ I'll burn the whole place down" is a reflection of the state of African American anger at the time. After hearing their stories you may begin to have an inkling why patience was wearing so thin among their communities. Not only had their best leaders been killed or arrested, they had lived lives of horrible indignity for hundreds of years. I'd be pissed at any white liberal telling me change takes time if I had experienced even a modicum of what they and their families had endured.

Considering these films were both shot on film and the prints have been laying around for ever, both the sound and the visual quality are much better than you'd expect. While it's obviously not going to be up to the standards most people are used to, they were both still of a better quality than any number of movies I've seen put into digital format. However, even more important is how these films are still relevant today. While they are over fifty and forty years old respectively, both are not just important historical documents, they also put current conditions in both North America and South Africa (and any other place where indigenous and other populations have been oppressed by a majority or minority) into their proper context. When you see and hear the stories being told in either of these movies you might begin to understand how much further both societies have to travel before they can even begin to make redress for the past.

These two movies are examples of the power film has to tell stories and impart information in a way no other medium can approach, Watching these two examples of Rogosin's work lets you see the potential there is in cinema for effecting change, and how its power is being wasted by those who see it only as the means for making money. Documentary movies can be every bit as emotional and passionate as any other kind of movie, and what makes them even more frightening is they are telling the truth. No horror movie Hollywood churns out can match the fear and loathing either of these documentaries generate in their audiences.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Come Back Africa: The Movies of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 2)

October 23, 2013

Music Blu-ray Review: Various Performers - The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert


To be perfectly honest I was never a big fan of either Queen or the band's lead singer Freddie Mercury. However, they were really good at what they did and I could respect them for that. While others might make claims on their behalf, they made no bones about what they were or what they did. They were the last great glam rock band. When Bowie took off his glitter paint post Ziggy Stardust, they were the ones who carried on the spirit of glam - and they did a great job of it. Musically they were over the top without ever forgetting they were a hard rock band at heart. As far as flamboyance went, it didn't matter what the rest of the guys in the band did, Mercury was flamboyant enough on his on to light up stadiums all over the world.

There's also no denying the band and Mercury were incredibly popular. Not only were they able to sell out arenas around the world for their whole career, how many other bands can you name who played a key role in a mystery novel's plot? (If you're a Queen fan you have to read Chris Brookmyre's A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away) Therefore, it's not much of a surprise that when Mercury passed away from AIDS related symptoms in 1991, the band would want to do something both in honour of his memory and to raise money to help combat AIDS. In 1992 the surviving members of the band, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor, got together with a bunch of friends and thousands of screaming fans to hold a tribute concert to their deceased front man. While various versions of the concert have been released over the years, Eagle Rock Entertainment have now released the penultimate package of The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert on Blu-ray, including performances not released before now and all sorts of extras as well.
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The concert was divided into two parts. The opening acts featuring Metallica, Def Leopard, Guns N' Roses, Bob Geldof and various other bands playing their own tunes and covering some Queen numbers, and the main show featuring the surviving members of Queen being joined by guests to sing a string of their greatest hits and some of the guests' tunes as well. With performers ranging from Liza Minnelli to Axl Rose appearing on stage (And Elizabeth Taylor popping up to make a speech about AIDS awareness) there was enough variety of styles and sound to please all tastes. While I could easily done without the likes of George Michael and Lisa Stanford or some of the hard rockers who also graced the stage (sorry, never even heard of half of them) there were enough great performances from the rest to make it interesting.

Watching Roger Daltrey run onto stage swinging his microphone like a lariat you'll find it hard to believe the bugger had aged a day since Woodstock in 1969. Daltrey has always been the consummate performer, and his rendition of "I Want It All" was just another example of how great a showman he is. Watch how he not only uses his mic as a stage prop but how he positions it to control his singing volume. He knows he can project his voice into the stratosphere, so when he's harmonizing with the rest of the band, he's pulling the mic away from his mouth to avoide overwhelming their voices in the mix. Unlike some singers who think they have to deep throat a microphone Daltrey lets it work for him and his voice.

It was also Daltrey who seemed to understand the most what the loss of Mercury meant to the other members of Queen. One of the special features included on the Blu-ray was a documentary made about the concert on its tenth anniversary. While nearly all the performers who appeared on stage were interviewed, Daltrey was one of the few who didn't just mutter some platitude about "what a loss it was" in regards to Mercury's passing. He talked about how he still hadn't recovered from the death of The Who's former drummer Keith Moon - how bands were like families - and how raw the wound must still be for the surviving members of Queen. Daltrey is not what anybody would call sentimental - he's always struck me as a street kid who got lucky by becoming a rock star instead of a petty criminal - so when he says something like that he means it.

Back on stage, one of the better performances was Roger Plant camping it up for his version of "Crazy Thing Called Love". In any images I'd seen of Plant prior to this show he'd always come across as somebody who took himself a little to seriously. Seeing him starting to loosen up and have such a good time on stage was really cool. You can see he's starting to change his approach to music and it's like a foreshadowing of what's going to happen with his career in the future.
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While those two guys were cool, they weren't the highlight of disc as far as I was concerned. Watching David Bowie and Annie Lennox singing "Under Pressure" is almost worth the cost of the disc on its own. Lennox looks like she stepped off the cover of one of Bowie's old glam rock albums - white Kabuki make up with a racoon mask of black over her eyes - and wearing a stark grey and black dress. With Bowie doing his thin white duke thing, the visual contrast is amazing. Listening to how their voices intermingle was a joy. They both can run up and down the scale without any apparent strain and proceed to take turns singing low and high harmonies. It was not only great music it was great theatre - which is after all what Queen was about.

However, if you want to talk about contrasts and great theatre, the best was saved for near the end of the concert. I'd be hard pressed to think of a more unlikely duo to share the stage than Elton John and Axl Rose, but that's exactly what they did for a extremely intelligent and interesting version of the Queen classic "Bohemian Rhapsody". John opened the song, doing all the soft parts leading up to pseudo choral bit in the middle. Instead of trying to recreate that live, the part of the original video for the song where Queen sang it was broadcast over the stadium's Video screens. Then, without missing a beat, the live band took over for the hard rock segment of the song, with Rose doing the lead vocals. He and John came together centre stage for the song's finale. It was a perfectly executed piece of theatre and if they had ended the show right there it would have been a fitting tribute to what Queen had been.

Unfortunately, and this is probably why I was never a big fan of Queen, they had to take it one step more and do a couple of more songs, including "We Will Rock You" with Axl Rose and a grande finale of Liza Minnelli leading everybody in "We Are The Champions". It all felt like a bit of a let down after the great performance Rose and John had given. I understand those were two of the band's biggest hits and they wouldn't want to leave them out, but they should have figured out something else. I also don't understand having Minnelli singing the closing number either. She might have had a great and powerful voice at one time, but by 1992 she was a mere shadow of what she had once been and she had all the charisma of a wet blanket.
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I had briefly mentioned the disc's special features earlier. While the documentary about the concert doesn't offer much more than people muttering the usual platitudes you'd expect to hear, the included footage of Annie Lennox and David Bowie rehearsing their performance is a treat. They've also included some nice information about the Mercury/Phoenix Trust and stills gallery from the concert. While this is a Blu-ray recording, it's important to remember the original concert was shot in 1992 and neither the sound nor the audio are going of a quality you're used to. That being said, the remastering job done on both is quite amazing as the quality was nearly as good as anything you'd buy recorded today.

The net proceeds from the sales of this disc are donated to the the Mercury Phoenix Trust, and after reading about the work they do I'd say they are more than worthy of being supported. They are working directly with grassroots frontline organizations in the places the disease is still impacting the
most. With prostitutes and the poor in both Africa and South East Asia, where they not only have to work against poverty but government antipathy and a serious lack of medical infrastructure. They are funding projects which are actually making a difference to people's lives on a day to day basis, and that's the best thing an organization like this can do.

Watching this disc makes you realize how much of what Queen was as a band was due to Freddie Mercury. The songs just don't have the same qualities they did when sung by anybody else. You need to have the flamboyance, the arrogance and the ego of a person like Mercury in order to bring them off. In the hands of other people they just sound like any other rock song, but somehow he was able to turn them into massive hits. Whether you liked the band or not, after watching this tribute to Mercury it's impossible not to realize how much of an impact the man had on popular music during his career. For Queen fans who don't already own a recording of this concert, it is a must have.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review:Various Performers -The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert)

October 14, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season


I'm not a really big fan of television. In fact I don't even have cable. I have a home entertainment system and watch Bly-rays and DVDs. From what I've seen of what's offered regularly on television, I've no desire to pay the close to $80.00 a month cabal companies in Canada charge for what they call entertainment. The problem I've run into over and over again is any shows I've liked either are cancelled after a year or two, or, even worse, after a couple of seasons the quality deteriorates to the point where they become unwatchable.

However, there's always the exception to every rule. Over the summer I bought a Blu-ray player with wireless capabilities and a free month's subscription to Netflix. Through it I discovered the Fox Network's show Bones. I was blown away not only by the inventiveness of the scripts, but the characters and the careful way the people involved with the show developed the relationship between not only the lead roles, but how the interactions between everybody on the show progressed over the course of the seven seasons Netflix had available. The only question I had was would they be able to sustain this?

Well, after watching the Blu-ray version of Bones: The Complete Eighth Season I can honestly say they not only have been able to sustain what they started, they have actually continued to make it better. Not only do both the ongoing story lines continue to be interesting, but the individual cases dealt with in each episode are just as fascinating, and bizarre, as they ever were. Even more impressive is how they never seem to take the easy way out when dealing with serious issues. Instead of opting for cheap sentimentality to manipulate a reaction, they manage to create situations and scenarios which elicit genuine emotional responses in the audience.
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For those who don't know, the show details the work of a group of forensic scientists who work with the FBI. Led by Dr, Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel), a brilliant forensic anthropologist, the team examines decomposed remains of murder victims in order to discover who they were, and who was responsible for their death. Working with their FBI liaison, Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) the team from the Jeffersonian Institute: Angela Montenegro, (Michaela Conlin) Dr. Jack Hodgins (T.J.Thyne) and Dr. Camille Saroyan, (Tamara Taylor) have gained a reputation for being able to solve the un-solvable. Along with FBI psychologist, Dr Lance Sweets (John Francis Daley) they are the nucleus the show revolves around.

Over the first seven seasons the relationships between these characters has been carefully and skillfully developed, especially the one between Brennan and Booth. While on the surface they are complete opposites, she's rationale and super intelligent while he works on instincts and is very emotional, they compliment each other perfectly. Over the course of the show their relationship has developed from being a great working partnership to being a great partnership period to the point where they now have a child and live together. While the seventh season ended in a crises, with Bones being framed for a murder by a super hacker, the eighth season opens with them solving the crime and then settling back into the regular routine at work with their relationship stronger than ever.

As a way of keeping the series fresh, the creators have come up with a series of rotating continuing characters who make periodic appearances. The most frequent of these are the six interns studying with Bones. Each of these characters bring something different to the show by giving the main characters somebody else to interact with. The character of Sweets even becomes romantically involved with one of them, Daisy Wick (Carla Gallo), in spite of how everybody else finds her incredibly annoying. To be honest I find her character incredibly annoying, and much prefer it when one of the other interns make an appearance. Whether it's supremely depressed Colin Fisher (Joel David Moore), descent Wendell Bray (Michael Grant Terry), the fussy but brilliant Dr. Clarke Edison (Eugene Byrd), serious and intense Arastoo Vaziri (Pej Vahdat) or the Southerner Finn Abernathy (Luke Lkeintank) each are interesting characters who change the dynamic of the show whenever they show up.

One of the highlights of season eight is the episode featuring all five male interns working together. After Bones watches a basketball game she becomes fascinated with the idea of teamwork and brings them in to see if they can work together. We watch as the five men gradually work out how they can best pool their combined knowledge and intelligence to solve a mystery involving a homeless man whose body was found in a parking garage. Not only was the way they were able to overcome their desire to overshadow their fellows depicted with intelligence and humour, but the subject matter of the episode was dealt with admirably. The show ended up dealing with 9/11 and the plane which hit the Pentagon and how the homeless man was involved. Instead of making it a patriotic statement or something equally manipulative, it was a very personal story about this one man and his experiences. It was remarkable for its ability in bringing home both the horror of the event, and how what the homeless man had endured tied in with it.
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While each episode is most often an entity on to itself, with the cast usually dealing with a new set of remains and its accompanying mystery each time out, the various continuing story lines running through this season, and the history of the show, gives the series a substance you don't often find on television. While the subplots of the various ongoing relationships are ongoing (for those of you who haven't watched the season yet there's a surprising new one) and beautifully handled, a new one is added to the mix and one from season seven continues. The new one has Sweets moving in with Bones and Booth temporarily making for interesting scenes of all of them on the home front together. Not only is the situation handled in the show's usual able manner, it also gives us an opportunity to see different sides of both Booth and Sweets. Their friendship, which has sort of been like that of an older brother and younger brother up until now, becomes more one of mutual respect over the course of the season and Sweets staying with them.

The storyline continuing on from the previous season involves everybody's favourite serial killer and computer genius Christopher Pelant (Andrew Leeds). After forcing Bones on the run by framing her for murder he escapes justice when he to erase his identity and turn himself into an Egyptian national. Even though he's whisked off to Egypt in the first episode of the season, you just know we haven't heard the last of him. His obsession with proving he's smarter than the folk at The Jeffersonian, especially Bones, ensures he'll be back. He pops in for a visit in Episode 12, and then is back again to close out the season and wreck his usual havoc on everybody's lives, especially Bones and Booth.

The five disc Blu-ray package of Bones: The Complete Eighth Season comes complete with the usual accoutrement of special features, Even here the producers show their originality. For once the gag reel is more than just the cast hamming it up for the camera, and we see some genuine mistakes and the actors falling out of character. However, the bit I liked best was when the actors answered a series of questions about their characters, the show and other related matter fans had submitted. Each of the questions was taken seriously and answered with humour and intelligence.

While the Blu-ray is high definition all the way with both great sound and video, be prepared to have to update the firmware for your player as some of the menu features require you to have the latest versions. I'm not sure how much I like all these features, or see the need; there's one which allows you to select continuous play so you can remove the disc at any time and it will automatically restart where you left off. However, if you elect to use the single episode option, no matter what disc you insert into the player the menu always reads disc one, episode one and you have to scroll through to find where you left off. Still, that's only a minor inconvenience when it comes to watching a show of this quality.

There has been a disturbing trend over the past little while of depicting intelligent people as freaks and objects of ridicule in popular culture. While the characters in Bones have their eccentricities, they have always been depicted as complete human beings, not much different than the rest of us save for the level of their intelligence and their rather unique skill sets. The series has done a wonderful job of not only bring these people to life, but in allowing their characters to develop and grow. Watching Bones: The Complete Eighth Season one sees the process continue in front of your eyes. What's even better is they grow without ever changing their core characters.

It sometimes seems if a show remains on the air too long the quality will start to fall off. Well as Bones enters its ninth season, it not only hasn't depreciated, it has actually improved. There aren't many shows you can say that of. Through its combination of great scripts, wonderful characters and good acting Bones continues to amaze and astound. If there were more shows like this on television I might actually consider getting cable.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season)

October 3, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish


Not very long ago it was quite rare to see an actor who worked in movies appearing in television shows. In the early days of television part of the reason was geography as most shows were shot in New York City, where the networks were based, while movies were of course shot in Los Angeles where the studios were located. However, the real reason was most movie actors would have considered it beneath them to do television, which was seen as something of a second class citizen. Now of course all of that has changed. With the proliferation of cabal channels which specialize in mini series offering actors challenging roles, and the promise of continuing work, we've seen more and more crossover between the medias. In fact there is no longer really any distinction between movie and television actors. You're just as likely to see someone showing up on the small screen as on the big screen.

Well not as well known as some of his compatriots, Australian actor Guy Pearce has become a fixture in American movies over the last decade. However, he recently returned home to play the role of Jack Irish, successful barrister turned private detective, for Australian television. While filmed and originally aired in Australia, the show is now available to North American audiences through the release of the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack Jack Irish by Acorn Media.

Over the course of two feature length episodes we follow the lead character as he looks into the mysterious deaths of first a former client and then the son of a friend of his late father. While the two cases aren't related to each other, the two shows are chronological. For unlike other television detectives Irish has a life outside his investigations. While his detective work is obviously what propels the action, the rest of his life is just as important to the story and as interesting to watch as his work. For not only do the lines between the two occasionally blur as one bleeds over into the other, his personal story is the reason he's where he is today.
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When the first episode opens, Bad Debts, Irish is a still a successful barrister with a thriving career as a defence lawyer and a beautiful wife. It all collapses when his wife is killed by a client who feels Irish didn't do his job properly. Needless to say his world comes crashing down upon him. We learn he tried to continue on as a defence lawyer after his wife's murder but he wasn't the man he once was in many ways. In an effort to deal with his pain he turned to alcohol. While it might have numbed his senses, it also reduced his faculties.

When we meet him again, a few years later, gone is the smart suit and carefully coiffed appearance. Instead we see a unshaven, poorly dressed guy acting as a debt collector. While he does give out receipts to those he collects from, it does seem like he's now operating in slightly less of a legal capacity then he once did. The fact he's also working for a rather shady individual helping to drive up the odds on horses during races in order to increase their winningsonly strengthens the impression he's drifted quite a bit from his former life. However, this doesn't mean he's not without a conscience or lacking in the compassion that made him a defence lawyer in the first place.

For when a ex client, whose defence he mishandled badly due to drinking, is found murdered after leaving Irish a number of frantic voice mails, he decides to look into the circumstances surrounding his death. The police claim the man had pulled a gun on a couple of officers and they shot him in self defence. However, the guy had been expecting Irish to show up to meet him at the location where he was found dead and the circumstances don't add up. Driven by feelings of guilt for maybe failing the man twice - Irish's botched work as his defence attorney had resulted in the man going to jail for ten years on a charge of vehicular manslaughter - he begins to look into the man's life to see what he can find out.

With the help of an investigative reporter, who soon also becomes his lover, he begins to peel back the layers of mystery surrounding the man's death. The trail leads him and his woman partner back ten years to the crime the man was originally charged with and into the heart of what turns out to be a political scandal. As the body count mounts among those who could potentially give evidence in the case, Irish finds himself not only on the receiving end of death threats but finally on the run from crooked cops and corrupt politicians.

Both this episode and the second one, Black Tide, are as good as any of the crime dramas I've seen produced on either British or North American television, and far better than most. While the hard drinking private investigator with a tragic past is close to being a cliche, there's far more to Irish than what appears on the surface. When the series opens he still appears to be only going through the motions of living. The wounds caused by his wife's murder have hardened into scar tissue which he wears like armour against emotions and having to care too much. Looking into the murder of his former client begins the process of breaking down the barriers he's erected between himself and most of the world while his new relationship continues the process. We actually see a softness appear on Irish's face which wasn't there at the beginning of the show the more he opens up to the new woman in his life.
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Even in the second episode, when his partner has moved to another city to take a job with television and is rumoured to be having an affair with an on air personality, he doesn't retreat back into his shell. It's like he's remembered what's it's like to be alive again, and even the jealousy and hurt he feels over the problems with his relationship aren't enough to push him back into his life as a zombie. While it's the script which lays all this out for us, without an actor of the quality of Pearce in the title role it might not have been as effective. He does a wonderful job of showing his character's gradual progression as he deals with two very dangerous criminal investigations and ghosts from his past.

In the first episode it's his wife's murder he has to come to terms with, but in the second he has to reach back even further and deal with his memories of his father, a famous athlete, who died when Irish was a child. Pearce has always brought a certain amount of intensity to his roles, but here he allows himself to relax into his character. While the intensity comes through when required, he allows his character moments of repose where what's happening affects him instead of it the other way around. While I've always appreciated Pearce's work in the past, his performance as Jack Irish is probably the most complete characterization I've ever seen from him.

Perhaps it's because, as he says in the special feature about the show included on both the Blu-ray and DVD, the show is being shot in his native Australia and he doesn't have to worry about his accent and is generally more relaxed. You can see in the behind the scenes shots how in spite of the hard work being put in by everybody involved, there's quite a relaxed attitude on set. This same feature also gives you an idea of both the technical knowhow and the talent of the people working in Australian television today, This is the third feature length production I've seen produced from Australian television and they have all been equally impressive in terms of both technical and artistic achievements.

If you make the mistake I did of not realizing this a combo disc and end up watching one episode on DVD and the other on Blu-ray you'll quickly notice the sizeable differences in the technology. Both the audio and the visual quality of the Blu-ray are vastly superior to the DVD and this pulls you deeper into the proceedings. The HD sound and images of the former not only make the action more vivid, they somehow bring a level of emotional depth to the proceedings DVD is not able to match. Blu-ray's ability to capture even the smallest of changes in expression on an actor's face makes it feel like we are seeing deeper into their characterizations then we've ever been able to before.

Jack Irish is not only a great example of the mystery genre, it's also a wonderfully executed character study. Thanks to a great performance from the show's lead, Guy Pearce (The Australian actors in the supporting roles would be unknown to North Americans, but they are every bit as good as anybody you'd see on British television) and an excellent script, both feature length episodes included in the package are that rare combination of exciting action and in depth exploration of a character you rarely see on either the big or small screen. It's no wonder Pearce flew home, half-way around the world to make these shows. Opportunities like these don't come around very often.

Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Jack Irish)

September 25, 2013

Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987


I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was younger, and by that I mean a teenager and into my early twenties. The concerts were events, a shared experience you had with a group of people who were all there for the same reason. There was something about seeing the music live which made the experience more vital and inspiring than listening to it on record. I don't know if I've changed and concerts are still the same, but I won't go to one anymore unless I'm sure they will be in a controlled environment where people's focus will be on the stage. For under any other circumstances it seems like the audience is far more concerned with their portable devices or talking than paying attention to the person or band performing. These types of conditions make it almost impossible to enjoy a live concert the way I once did.

All of which makes me incredibly grateful for recent advances made in audio/visual technology. Now not only can I watch a performer I really appreciate without putting up with a lot of bullshit from people around me, the sound and visual quality are such they're probably better than what you'd find at most venues anyway. Even more exciting is the fact this same technology is allowing artists to revisit recordings of older concerts and remaster them digitally so we at home can experience them in ways we weren't able to before. Not only is this enjoyable, it also gives you a new appreciation for the group or individual's talent. This was brought home to me by the recent release of the Blu-ray/DVD package from Peter Gabriel Live In Athens 1987 on the Eagle Rock Entertainment label.

Instead of the usual dual format package where they send you the same item on both Blu-ray and DVD, this set is two distinct discs. The Blu-ray is the concert footage culled from three shows Gabriel gave over three nights in Athens of 1987 and the DVD, called Play, is made up of videos of Gabriel's songs from the last 25 years re-edited and mastered for 5.1 surround sound. While Gabriel selected which videos would be included in this collection, the majority of the re-mastering was done by Daniel Lanois.
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Gabriel took a much more hands on approach when it came to the concert footage. Originally the footage shot in Athens had been included in a movie called P.O.V.. Produced by Martin Scorsese the original film was more of a documentary about the 1987 tour as the concert footage intercut with film Gabriel had shot of life on the road off and back stage. For this HD remastering he went back to the original three days worth of film shot during the concerts and put together just over two hours worth of a concert movie. The film also includes the previously unreleased performance by the great Senegalese artist Youssou N'dour and his band Le Super Etoile de Dakar, who opened for and performed with Gabriel during the tour.

In 1987 Gabriel was probably at the pinnacle of his popularity and was touring to promote his most popular album to date, So, which remains the biggest selling album of his solo career. The three days of concerts in Athens marked the end of what was a world tour, so he, the band and the technical people had had plenty of time to work out all the kinks. While you might expect them to have been tired and maybe going through the motions somewhat after having been on the road for so long, nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe they had an extra adrenaline boost because these were the final nights of the tour, or perhaps they played every gig on the tour with this level of intensity, but this show is an emotionally charged phenomenon sizzling with energy from N'dour's opening note to Gabriel's final encore.

If you never had the chance to see N'dour and his band when they were in their prime their five song set will be a revelation. His set is a wonderful example of the way African popular music at the time combined popular music from other cultures with their own to create a spirited and exciting sound. Of course seeing them is twice as exciting as hearing them as they incorporate dance and playacting into their performance. The combination of N'dour's soaring soprano voice and the polyrhythmic sound of his band made for a performance that was not only a celebration of music but the joy of being alive as well.

However, this is Gabriel's show, From the moment he and the band, Tony Levin (bass) David Rhodes (guitar) Manu Katche (drums) and David Sancious (keyboards) open the show with "This is the Picture/Excellent Birds" (a song written with Laurie Anderson) you feel like you've entered into an exciting new world of sound, light and dance. For this isn't your ordinary rock concert with guys standing in a row playing. Nor is it the overblown effects some bands use to hide the inadequacy of their material. Instead what you have is a carefully choreographed and orchestrated show down to the smallest of hand gestures.

Gabriel uses his stage lightening not just for mood. It is almost a dance partner as he uses shadow, colour and light to help him weave the various stories he's telling or to accent a song's emotional content. His concerts run the gamut of taking us into the shadows where our darkest secrets lie (He introduces "Shock The Monkey" as a song about jealousy) to hope, "Games Without Frontiers" his anthem for peace and the joy of life's simple pleasures, "Solsbury Hill". On the latter the stage is bathed in clean white light and Gabriel, Levin and Rhodes almost skip around the immense stage in exuberant, yet simply choreographed, movements.
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However, it was on the song "Mercy Street" where he put both technology and choreography to their most daring usage. Not only did the lights play a part in the movement of the song. the lighting equipment itself became part of an elaborate dance with Gabriel. A portion of his lighting equipment was on a series of mobile crane like arms which could be raised, lowered, contracted and extended seemingly effortlessly. During "Mercy Street" these structures swung over the stage and then pressed down in what looked like attempts to crush Gabriel as he cowered under them. At times he would thrust the lights away from him and they would swing back up into the sky, only to come plunging back down again as he tried to stand. Not only was it an impressive display of coordinating the technical aspect of a show with the performance, it shows the depth of Gabriel's stage craft and his willingness to push the envelope of invention in all directions.

Never the less, all the technical wizardry and all the kinetic energy in the world would still be an empty shell if there wasn't a heart beating inside of, and an intellect controlling, it. In this case it's the heart and mind of one of the most passionate and intelligent performers in popular music. While those moments when Gabriel is in motion are without doubt very exciting, it's when he's still he's his most powerful. In 1987 South Africa was still under white minority rule and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Apartheid and all the crimes committed against humanity caused by it was still a fact of life and the name Steven Biko was still emblematic for the mistreatment of Black Africans everywhere in South Africa. Biko was a school teacher and non-violent protester against apartheid who died in police custody September 12 1977 at the age of 30.

Gabriel wrote the song "Biko" in 1980 in commemoration of the man and what he believed in. The lyrics are simple and to the point, describing how he was found dead in his prison cell, and then repeating his name over and over again as part of a chant played over the sound of keyboard synthesized bagpipes and simple drum. Usually Gabriel stands stalk still in the centre of the stage to sing this song, and on this tour he closed all his shows with it, with his only movement raising his fist straight in the air. In Athens he was joined on stage by Youssou N'dour and members of his band for the chant. There is such power in this man and in this moment, that I defy anyone with a heart to listen to this song, especially this version, without shedding at least one tear. Although Biko's plight might be in the past, the song resonates with such power listening to it being performed today, 26 years later, not only reminds us of past horrors, but the fact people are still being kept in conditions similar to those which led to Biko's death today.

Peter Gabriel is the consummate performer. Not only does he understand how to marry technology and art like few others, he doesn't need technology to make his music great. He only uses it to enhance the experience for those watching not to make up for any deficiencies in his work. Live In Athens 1987 is a perfect example of this in action. Both the Blu-ray of the concert and the collected videos on the DVD are all the proof anyone will ever need. This is a case of technology finally catching up to an artist's vision rather than the other way round.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987)

August 6, 2013

Blu-ray Review: The Sapphires


Like many other indigenous people the Aboriginals of Australia saw colonizers steal their land and attempt to destroy their way of life and culture. One of the more insidious ways invaders have attempted to carry out cultural genocide has been to steal the children of indigenous people in order to civilize them. In Canada and the US we had the residential schools where we beat the "Indian" out of children in an attempt to make them white. In Australia Aboriginal children who could pass for white were taken from their families and placed in white institutions cutting them off from their communities and destroying connections to their history and culture.

Somehow, in spite of the of the best efforts of their colonial masters, Native peoples in most parts of the world have survived and managed to retain their cultural identity. They have even regained enough strength to begin telling the stories of the people who lived through the bad times. Not all of the stories have had happy endings, but neither have all the stories had sad endings. In fact some of the stories are uplifting and inspiring. One of those stories is the tale of four young Aboriginal women who for a year, 1968, were a singing group who performed American soul and R&B music for troops in Viet Nam. Written by Tony Blair, son of one of the woman in the group, The Sapphires was first a stage play and then a movie and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment and Miramax Films.

While the majority of the movie is set in 1968 the year The Sapphires were performing, the movie opens in 1958. Four little girls are preparing to sing for their friends and family on the back of a flat bed truck. In the middle of the performance they are interrupted by an invasion of white men in cars come to steal any "white" looking children. The children flee into the woods, the bigger ones helping the little ones, in an attempt to escape. The movie then jumps ahead ten years to three young Aboriginal women leaving their "settlement" (the Australian equivalent of a reservation) to go into a white town to enter a talent contest run by the very hung over, down on his luck, talent scout/music lover/want a be manager, Dave Lovelace. (Chris O'Dowd)
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Even in his rather fragile state Lovelace can see Gail, (Deborah Mailman) Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) are obviously the class of the contest. In fact he even manages to stir from his alcoholic stupor enough to provide them with piano accompaniment for their performance. In spite of them being much better than anyone else in the contest, the three lose. Of course they had as much chance of winning as The Supremes would have had at a contest run by the Ku Klux Klan, and both Lovelace and they are pretty much kicked out when the contest is over.

However, Cynthia convinces Lovelace to help them respond to an audition notice requesting entertainers for American troops in Viet Nam. He does so, but only on the condition they stop singing Merle Haggard songs and start singing soul music. He might be a pasty faced white guy from Melbourne, but he's got the blood of a soul musician floating in his veins. After he manages to convince their family to let him take the girls to the audition, and maybe Viet Nam, the scene shifts to Melbourne where it takes place and the trio expands to a quartet. Their cousin Kay, (Shari Sebbens) the fourth girl at the beginning of the movie singing with them, had been stolen by the government and placed in the white world and is now living in Melbourne. They reclaim her for the family and the singing group.

The movie follows the arc you'd expect. The girls experience success as performers in Viet Nam and start to play to larger and larger collections of troops. Of course it's not all smooth sailing with Cynthia resenting her younger sister Julie being the centre of attention as the lead singer and acting out by drinking too much and trying to steal the spotlight. However, it's Lovelace's irresponsible behaviour and drinking which gets them into serious trouble. He drunkenly agrees to take the girls to a base close to enemy lines, but forgets to tell them they will have to make the trip without the military escort they've had previously.

Gail, the eldest, and thus responsible for the other three, had taken the longest to trust Lovelace. However, when she did start to trust him the two became, against her misgivings and better judgement, romantically involved. When she finds out what he did she's furious with both herself and Lovelace. While they make the trip to the base safely enough it comes under attack while they are there. The girls are airlifted to safety, but as they lift off they see Lovelace go down. They arrive back in Saigon not knowing whether he's alive or not, only to find out Martin Luther King has been assassinated.

The Sapphires is the type of movie which in the wrong hands could be maudlin and sentimental trash. Instead, what we are given is a very realistic portrayal of four young women having the time of their lives in the middle of a horrible situation. At the same time it manages, without any overt politicalization, to show the damage done the Aboriginal people of Australia by the policy of taking their children away from them. With the character of Kay we see how these children became both alienated from their people while never really fitting into the "white" world. Putting up with having their land stolen and overt racism is bad enough, but to have your own children turned against you must have been the real knife in some people's hearts.
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In the role of Lovelace O'Dowd continues to impress as an actor. He's one of those people who have the wonderful ability to wear their heart's on their sleeve without ever overplaying a scene. While a natural comic, he's also able to communicate what hides behind his character's bluff exterior and grins. Like his character, O'Dowd has soul, and it shines through in his entire performance. While the four women aren't as experienced as O'Dowd, only Mailman has any real acting experience and this is Sebbens' first movie, they all do wonderful jobs with their characters.

Each bring a level of credibility to their performances which helps make the movie a joy to watch. Mauboy is a professional singer and does all her own singing as the lead singer for the group Julie, but seeing her on screen she does such a good job in her role you think of her as an actor doing some singing, not a singer doing some acting. In spite of their inexperience, neither Tapsell and Sebbens are weak links. As the dispossessed Kay, Sebbens gives an especially moving and strong performance as she attempts to reclaim her heritage.

Seeing a movie like this at home on Blu-ray through a good home theatre system with 5.1 sound makes you appreciate the potency of the music the girls sing all over again. The sound and visuals are as good you've come to expect from the new technology, and thoroughly enhance the story. What's nice, is unlike movies which try and compensate for any weak spots in the script by turning it into spectacle through effects instead of telling the story, here the audio enhances the story and helps set the atmosphere.

The special features on this Blu-ray are much better than usual as they not only give you a chance to meet the actors and learn about how the movie was made, you also meet the original Sapphires. After their tour of Viet Nam none of them continued to work as singers, although one was the first ever Aboriginal model in Australia for a while, instead they returned to their communities and worked tirelessly to help their own people. They are all still alive and the interviews with them in the special features are almost as interesting as the movie itself. They probably won't make a sequel to The Sapphires, as their lives aren't as glamourous now as they were for that one year, but the story of what they've done since is every bit as impressive.

The Sapphires is the story of four women who grabbed a moment and ran with it for all they were worth. It's fun, sad and best of all, very real. For some reason the movie seems to have come and gone without much notice when it played in the theatres and it would be a shame if the same thing happened now that's it out on Blu-ray and DVD. This is a wonderful movie filled with great performances and some of the best soul music to come out of the 1960s - what more could you ask for?

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: The Sapphires)

July 20, 2013

Blu-ra Review: Solomon Kane


In the 1920s a new form of literary entertainment was born. Called pulp fiction for the poor quality of the paper it was printed on, you could literally still see the wood pulp in the pages of the magazines which published them, the stories were high on action and low on any redeeming literary qualities. Whether lurid crime fiction or brutal sword and sorcery fantasy very few of the stories have survived and their authors have been largely forgotten. However, one whose work has lived on long after both he and the magazines have perished is Robert E Howard.

Best known as the creator of the character Conan the Barbarian whose exploits have been seen in films, books and comic books on a regular basis, he also created numerous other characters. While there have been attempts to create films based on the adventures of other heroes aside from Conan in the past, most of them have been about as tawdry as their original publications. Even the adaptations of Conan to the big screen, especially the ones staring a certain Austrian body builder, have been a bit of a joke. However, the adaptation of another of his character's adventures, Solomon Kane, to the big screen, now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment, is quite a number of steps up in quality from anything anyone has done previously.

For while the story follows along the same rather simplistic moralistic lines of all Howard's work involving the forces of good fighting the force of evil, casting an actor the quality of James Purefoy in the lead role ensures this movie a depth the others have lacked. For instead of the rather cartoonish figure of a muscle bound lout hacking and slashing his way through a world of armed men and monsters, we are presented with a character of complex emotions, motivations and conflicting desires. Purefoy is able to take what in the hand's of a lessor actor would be a one dimensional character and create a truly troubled soul.
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To give you some indication what Purefoy brought to his performance in an interview with the actor included on the Blu-ray edition he talked about his preperation for the character. Not only did he read all of Howard's stories about Solomon Kane, he also read up on Puritanism in England in the 1600s and the various beliefs in witch craft and other black magic common to the era. From this research he was able to understand the mindset of his character and bring a level of credibility to his actions another actor would not have been able to communicate to the audience.

When we first meet Kane he is corsair in the employ of England. Which meant he had a licence from the crown to commit acts of piracy as long as they were against people considered enemies. Unfortunately while the crown was okay with him letting him rape, murder and pillage his soul has no such dispensation. In the midst of sacking a Turkish palace he and his crew are confronted by demons from hell. While his crew is destroyed Kane barely escapes the Devil's reaver who had come for his soul.

When we next meet him he has taken refuge in a church. Kane believes the only way he can save his soul is by never committing a violent act again and he feels he can only do this is by hiding away from the world. Unfortunately God has other plans for him and the priest in charge of the church he's staying in tells him he must seek redemption out in the world. As he's travelling he meets a family of Puritans on the road. While he initially refuses their offer of a ride, they end up rescuing him after he's set upon by outlaws. Refusing to offer any resistance he is struck over the head and left for dead. When he comes to he finds himself in the back of the Puritan family's wagon being tended to by their daughter.

The head of the family, the wonderful Peter Postelthwaite, tells Kane the family is on the way to Portsmouth where they will catch a ship to the New World. Unfortunately that's not to be. For there's something evil afoot in this part of England. Raiders led by a mysterious masked man with strange powers are rounding up people and taking them into slavery for their mysterious master. Naturally Kane and the family run up against them, and when they kill the family's youngest boy Kane makes the choice to fight back. While he's able to defend himself well enough he's not able to prevent the daughter from being taken captive and the father from receiving a fatal wound. With his dying breath the father tells Kane he can save his soul by rescuing his daughter and there is redemption to be found in fighting evil - in being a warrior for good instead of for selfish purposes.
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So you can see where this is going can't you. Kane begins to cut a swathe through the evil doers in an attempt to rescue the daughter. While the story is fairly predictable, filled with all the usual sword and sorcery violence and blood shed one would expect from pulp fiction in all its gory detail, there are some nice twists and turns to the plot which elevate it above the usual slash and chop movie. However, it's the brooding presence of Purefoy at the centre of the movie which really makes this movie worth watching.

In most of the roles I've seen Purefoy he's either been an uncomplicated heroic type or it's been a case of still waters running deep with a rather placid exterior hiding some mystery. Here though he's gone against type and is playing a character consumed by passions. Whether the violent man we meet as the film opens or the man driven by the desperate need to salvage his soul and find redemption. When he finally allows himself to pick up the sword again, although it costs him a great deal, you see how it almost comes as a relief to him to be able to fight back. When he is given absolution to kill in the name of God it's like he's been returned to normal.

The Blu-ray edition of this disc is a great example of the advantages of the new technology as both the sound and the picture are crystal clear and sharp. What I really appreciate is no matter how loud the sound track is, explosions and such, there's never any problem hearing the dialogue. So those of you who like to feel explosions as well as hear them will enjoy this version as much as those who appreciate being able to hear what the actors are saying.

Aside from the interview with Purefoy, the bonus features also include a commentary track with Purefoy and the director (Michael J Basset), an interview with the director, a making of the movie feature and a couple other bits about the special effects for one scene and the original concept art for the movie.

While the story of Solomon Kane follows along the expected path for a sword and sorcery type movie what raises it above other movies of this ilk is the performance of James Purefoy in the lead role. It's not often a movie of this type is blessed with an actor of this calibre, and its much better for it. While it will still appeal to those who like a good chop and hack movie, if you can stand a little gore, those of you who watch movies for the quality of the performances will appreciate it as well.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Solomon Kane

June 18, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Quartet


Far too often films depict the elderly as either dotty, funny or sick. Oh sure, we might get the occasional wise older person passing on sage advice to some youngster, but that's still not much more than another brand of stereotype. How many movies can you name where the majority of the cast are over sixty-five, but the main focus isn't on death, illness or the characters aren't some variation on "aren't they cutest things"? While there might be some out there, they are definitely few and far between. Thankfully, there's a new movie which can be included in that number being released on Blu-ray and DVD Tuesday June 18 2013 by The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment, Quartet.

The premise of the movie is simple enough. Set in a retirement home for musicians, four retired opera singers who had once scored international success together try to reconcile their differences after not seeing one of their members in decades. Three of them have been living in the home, Beecham House for an undetermined time, when the fourth, joins them. Her arrival coincides with the residents preparing their annual fundraising gala. An event which the facility depends on for its survival.

It turns out two of the quartet, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) and Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) had been briefly married, but had divorced when she confessed to an affair. While Paget is obviously less than thrilled by the new arrival, the other two members of the quartet, Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) are more than happy to welcome their old friend.
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While Paget eventually is able to find it within himself to reconcile with his ex-wife, tensions arise between the four of them when the director of the gala, Cedric Livingston, (Michael Gambon) prevails upon the original three to try and convince Horton to join them in recreating their success for the performance. He's sure their inclusion would allow the home to charge top dollar for tickets and guarantee its survival for another year. However, Horton thinks the idea of four retired opera singers attempting to perform is ridiculous. She has refused to sing publicly for years for that very reason. Her pride won't let her be seen in public as anything less than the star she once was.

Needless to say there's nothing really original or overly suspenseful about the plot of the movie. We know everything will turn out for the best in the end, it's just the way these movies work. However, sometimes, how the story is told matters far more than what it's about and how it ends, and this story is told beautifully.

One of the wonderful things about the movie is the fact the majority of the supporting cast are made up of retired musicians ranging from music hall performers, former orchestra players to opera singers. They not only bring credibility to the musical numbers included in the movie, it ensures the depiction of the elderly in this movie is nothing like you've seen before. Instead of shots of people sitting around in wheel chairs playing bingo or staring off into space, we walk into rooms filled with vital, animated and active people. Sure they might have to use a cane or a stair lift to get around, but they have more joie de vive than most people half their age.

Watching the four leads work is a joy. Each of them play their characters with an understated elegance which only experience and talent make possible. As the irrepressible Bond, he flirts with pretty nurses and staff and arranges to have pints of whisky hidden on the grounds for him and his friends, Connolly brings a wonderful humanity to what could have easily been a caricature of a dirty old man. Instead we see a man who refuses to believe aging means you must stop enjoying life.

Collins has the far more difficult task of playing a woman in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. She imbues Robson with a sweetness and innocence which make her a delight to watch and those moments when she loses her way all the more poignant. Those times when her face goes slack and she loses track of where she is and what she's supposed to be doing are some of the most powerful in the film. Collins does a magnificent job of not telegraphing when an episode is about to begin making her moments of dissociation all the more moving when they occur.

As the former married couple Horton and Paget, Smith and Courtenayt are wonderful. Watching Smith rehearse what she's going to say to him on the drive to the home in preparation for their first meeting gives us some indication of the state of their relationship. Throughout the movie Smith does a wonderful job of gradually exposing the wounded and regretful person hidden beneath her pride. Courtenay's Paget has held on to his hurt and betrayal for so long it's difficult for him to let go of them. However, the reason he's held on to those feelings is he never stopped loving her. Once they are in each other's company again we watch him gradually warm up to her until he's able to let down his defences. The way the two actors gradually develop the relationship between their characters again is a thing of beauty to watch and as fine an example of acting as you'll see on screen for a good while.
Scene from Quartet - Billy Connolly Maggie Smith Tom Courtenay Pauline Collins.jpg
First time director Dustin Hoffman has done a wonderful job of staying out his actors' way. In the special features included on the disc the actors talk about working with him and say the main direction he gave them was to "stop acting". In other words to be as natural as possible in their performance. By trusting them and their instincts to deliver the performances required to make this movie work, he ensured each of his leads, and the supporting cast as well, gave some of the best and least affected performances I've seen from any group of actors in ages.

Other bonus features included in the disc were brief little asides about the story, the music used in the movie and comments from the actors on the movie itself. One of the most telling comments came from Smith when she said how rare it was to find a romantic comedy with a cast in this age range and what a treat it was to perform in. In fact the actors were pretty much uniform in their appreciation for the way movie depicted aging and older people. In his interview Gambon makes a point of saying people in nursing homes or facilities for the aged should make a point of behaving irresponsibly.

This is only about the third or fourth Blu ray disc I've watched and the quality of both audio and picture continue to amaze me. The music, so important to this movie, is beautifully reproduced, especially those times when the cast themselves are singing or performing. Even more impressive is the balance between incidental music and dialogue making it easy to hear the actors. One might think without special effects or action high definition is wasted on a movie. However, there's a depth of field to the images on screen which brings everything alive and makes the world depicted even more believable.

Quartet is a wonderfully acted, intelligently written and carefully directed movie which has made the transition to the home screen beautifully. It not only is a wonderful story about friendship, love and the passions music can generate, it reminds audiences just because a person is old doesn't mean they have nothing left to contribute or can't have a rich and diverse life. My mother will be turning 80 in July and she just returned from a two week trip to Europe which saw her travel through France and Spain and currently her biggest worry is finding a publisher for her book on Romanesque art. It was nice to see a movie which recognizes she's not a rarity.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Quartet)

May 31, 2013

Blu-ray Review: George Gently: Series 5


1968 was the year unrest crested in both North America and Europe. Riots and demonstrations dotted the landscape of the United States with the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy adding fuel to the fire. In Paris France a student led rebellion saw running battles between demonstrators and police continue for weeks on end. Even communist Eastern Europe wasn't immune as the Prague Spring saw the people of Czechoslovakia temporarily throw off their dictatorial rule only to see their revolution crushed by Russian tanks. While most of the protests were taking place in major metropolitan areas, the repercussions of change was felt everywhere.

In Great Britain things never quite reached the boiling point they did in other countries. However it doesn't mean there weren't changes. For those whose jobs brought them into contact with all levels of society the changes were there to be seen if one looked. The time period and situation is brought to life in the new Blu-Ray release from Acorn Media, George Gently: Series 5. Chief Inspector George Gently (Martin Shaw) and his sergeant John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) not only have crimes to solve but the problems arising from the changes the world around them is going through.

The first three episodes of the four on this two disc set each depict the ways in which English society was either changing or being shook up. Whether something obvious like the issue of race which comes boiling to a head in Gently Northern Soul or the more subtle issue of class as expressed in Gently With Class, each 90 minute episode not only has our detectives doing their best to solve the crime which has occurred but manages to capture the tenor of the times without sentiment or preaching. As we see most of what's going on through the eyes of the two lead characters, their opinions and attitudes are what help shape our impressions of the times.
Cover George Gently Series 5 Blu Ray.jpg
In GentlyNorthern Soul when a young black woman turns up dead beside a road near a graveyard, an area where prostitutes often take their clients, Bacchus makes the assumption the girl was "on the game". However, when the officers learn she was dating a young white man, the son of a known racist, and was pregnant as well, their investigation changes. Bacchus is sent undercover to attend a weekly dance party where DJ's play American soul music and attract a mixed race crowd.

In 1968 England's black population was primarily first or second generation immigrants from Jamaica. They had either come over to serve in the British army in WW II or right after the war looking for a better life. While the sitting government was trying to pass equal rights legislation in order to protect people of colour from racial discrimination, the far right, led by a Conservative Party politician named Enoch Powell, were pushing to have all "coloured" immigrants sent back to where they came from. Throughout the course of the investigation into the young woman's death the issue of race continues to raise its head and both officers gain a better understanding of the abuse immigrants are dealing with.

England's class system had withstood civil war, world wars and a stock market crash. The one thing it couldn't stand against was public opinion. By the end of the 1960s fewer and fewer people were willing to accept hereditary titles and land as reasons for anyone to expect special treatment. When a young woman's body is found abandoned in the passenger seat of a wrecked car registered in the name of a local lord suspicion falls on the man's son. Bacchus had tried to arrest the son previously for drunken driving but strings had been pulled behind the scenes and he'd been let off. Deeply resentful of the way the family had used privilege to prevent their son from being charged Bacchus is determined to get a result this time, even if it means stretching the rules.

We can understand his feelings more once we meet the family, especially the young man's mother. A horrible snob who acts like she and her son deserve to be treated differently from others she tries to pull strings to ensure no blame falls on anybody in her family. However, in spite of her trying to suppress the investigation by appealing to Gently's superior officer, neither he nor Bacchus refuse to be cowed and continue on until they discover who was in the driver's seat of the car.
Lee Ingleby & Martin Shaw - John Baccus and George Gently.jpg
As in previous seasons of this series the cases the two officers tackle are only part of what the show is about. For with each episode we scratch a little deeper under the skin of each of our characters. While Bacchus always comes across as brash and more than a little cocky over the course of the four episodes in this set we begin to see beneath his exterior shell more and more. Ingleby does a fantastic job of showing us first the cracks showing up in his character's facade and then the vulnerability and strength laying beneath the skin. For not only does Bacchus begin to allow himself to have emotional reactions to what he experiences on the job, he also finds the fortitude to stand up for what he believes in and the strength of character to not let personal ambition blind him to what's right.

While Gently's wife was murdered way back in the opening episode of the series, he's always seemed to keep his grief compartmentalized. However, it doesn't mean he misses her any less then the day he buried her. For some reason a case of a missing child, episode three The Lost Child, seems to trigger his dormant grief and brings the ache to the surface again. Shaw somehow manages to retain his character's stolid exterior while at the same time giving us clues to the extent of Gently's loneliness. It's little things like the way his eye seems to glance at the picture of his late wife on his desk a little more often and linger a little longer and how he has to almost shake himself to escape the pull of his memories and come back to the present that make his performance so believable.

The bonus features included with the Blu-ray version of the series is limited to one short, three minute, behind the scenes featurette. However, the real bonus comes in watching the series on Blu-ray. It was actually an accident I received a Blu-ray version of this set, but through a series of events stranger than fiction I had to replace my old DVD player with a new Blu-ray machine a couple of days after it arrived. The difference in picture and sound quality between watching a DVD and a Blu-ray was astonishing. Instead of the usual battle between soundtrack and dialogue resulting in having to turn the volume up and down in order to hear the actors talking and to avoid being pummelled by incidental music, everything was perfectly balanced. You could not only hear every word the actors were saying, you could hear individual sounds like a match being struck or an actor's feet scraping along the gravel in a driveway. I have to admit I had my doubts about the difference in quality when it came to Blu-ray versus DVD. However, now I've seen something created in high definition specifically for the new technology I'm convinced of its superiority.

Over the course of its life the George Gently series has not only continued to impress, it has continued to improve. The scripts have become increasingly complex as the characters deal with both the cases they are trying to solve and a society undergoing constant changes. We've also seen the lead characters continue to grow and their relationship change as they have developed. However, most of the enjoyment in watching this series is due to the superlative work of both lead actors and the producers' willingness to surround them with a strong supporting cast of special guests and regulars. George Gently: Series 5 proves once again this is one of the best ongoing police procedurals on television today. Thankfully series six is already being aired in Great Britain so we can look forward to seeing more of Chief Inspector George Gently and Sergeant John Bacchus in the future.

Originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: George Gently: Series 5