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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)

April 2, 2015

TV Preview: PBS's Masterpiece - Wolf Hall


While you might think you've seen just about as much as you could want of Henry VIII and his court on television or the movies in the last few years with The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl, don't let that put you off watching Wolf Hall. Starting April 5 2015 at 10pm EST and running for six consecutive Sundays on PBS Masterpiece (check local listings for times and stations in your region) this mini series brings both the era and the people to life in a way you've never seen on the screen before.

Seen from the point of view of the man usually painted as the villain of the era, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) the series focuses on Henry's (Damian Lewis) efforts to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She had failed to produce a male heir after twenty years and he wanted to replace her with Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). We also see how this led to England's split with the Pope and the beginning of his dissatisfaction with Boleyn.

Over the course of the series we watch Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, rise from being aid to Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) Henry's Lord Chancellor to becoming one of Henry's chief advisors himself. Along the way he survives Wolsey's fall from grace, (he failed to convince the Pope to annul the king's first marriage so he could wed Boleyn) the death of his wife and daughters and the enmity of Thomas Moore (Anton Lesser. However, it's the Cardinal's downfall which brings him into contact with Henry and Boleyn and his rise in station and influence. For in trying to assist Wolsey in regaining the king's favour, he impresses them with his loyalty to his master, his intelligence and his abilities to get things done.
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Based on the Booker Prize Winning books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, the series is a beautifully rendered, and historically accurate recounting of one of the most turbulent times in English social/political history. While other productions have been more concerned with the soap opera aspects of the era, here the focus is squarely on the political machinations of the court and the players jockeying for the king's favour.

However, don't be dismayed or put off by what might sound like a dry political drama. The creators have done a masterful job of writing and producing a show which will keep you riveted and glued to your seat. They don't spoon feed you anything, and you have to pay attention, but, in spite of the plot twists and turns and various characters to keep straight, if you let yourself fall into the rhythm of the show you'll find yourself swept up in the story.

Some people might take umbrage with the depiction of Thomas Moore in this production. He's always perviously been shown as "the good guy" who was persecuted by the King and Cromwell. Here he's seen as someone who has no problems torturing individuals he suspects of heresy or ordering them to be burned at the stake for the same crimes. In fact there's very little that's saintly about this particular version of the future St.Thomas Moore.

Of course this type of program is only ever as good as the actors playing the roles. Here, even minor roles are played by actors of quality. Of course where it really counts, the leads, the acting is superlative. You might not have heard of Rylance, he's primarily a stage actor in Great Britain, but his performance as Cromwell is one of the most complex and nuanced pieces of work I've seen in years. Look at his eyes during his conversations with other characters. Watch him watching, you can almost see the wheels turn as he figures out how to best manipulate everybody from the King to the lowliest servant.
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As Henry VIII, Lewis is equally remarkable. In fact he probably has the harder role as he has to overcome all of our preconceived notions of the king. Henry was neither stupid nor the callous philanderer he's often been depicted as. Like all royalty of the time he is firm in the belief of his right to rule, but he's also quick to recognize when someone can be of use to him. Lewis does a fine job of showing us both the arrogance and the humanity of the character. We see the petulant child who has tantrums when he doesn't get what he wants, but we also see the wit and intelligence of a man who could inspire genuine devotion among his followers.

As the axis around which all action revolves in the series, Foy's Boleyn is more than a match for her male counterparts. Not only does her performance capture the ruthlessnesses the character would need to obtain her goal of becoming queen and that she is every bit as politically adroit as the men around her, we also are allowed to see the human being behind the mask of royalty. Using her family connections, niece to one of the most powerful men at Henry's court the Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill), and her physical charms she creates her own power base which gives her the power to help bring about the fall of both Wolsey and Moore. Unfortunately it's the latter which helps to create the circumstances required to bring about her own downfall.

It's not often one has the opportunity to see a historical drama not only accurate down to the minutest detail, including table etiquette and manners, but brilliantly written and featuring performances by some of the best actors of this generation. Wolf Hall, airing on PBS's Masterpiece for six weeks starting Sunday April 5 2015 (check local listings for exact times) is not only all of the above, its also intelligent and entertaining. History has never looked or sounded this good on television.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as TV Preview: PBS's Masterpiece 'Wolf Hall' - Henry VIII as You've Never Seen Him)

September 19, 2013

Television Review: The Hollow Crown (William Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1&2 and Henry V


Probably the hardest theatre to bring to the screen are the works of William Shakespeare. Due to the material's intrinsic theatrically it's almost impossible to escape the fact they were designed to be seen on stage. However this has not prevented many people from attempting to adapt his work to the screen with varying degrees of success. So I was intrigued to learn about a new British mini series called The Hollow Crown being broadcast on the PBS program Great Performances. Comprised of four of Shakespeare's history plays, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V the series is an example for film makers to come on how to adapt Shakespeare for the stage.

Being telecast on four successive Friday nights, September 20, 27, October 4 and 11 2013 at 9:00 pm EST (check local listings for broadcast times and dates in your area) each of the four manages the nearly impossible task of bringing the plays to life as films while still remaining true to the spirit of their original theatricality. Of the four, Henry V, is probably the most well known while both Richard II and Henry IV Part 2 are considered two of Shakespeare's more difficult plays. In fact, the former is so rarely performed even on stage I've only ever heard of it being produced once during my lifetime.
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Of course the key to success in any performance of Shakespeare is the cast, and the directors of this series seemed to have suffered from an embarrassment of riches when it came to the actors at their disposal. When even the supporting and minor roles are played by actors recognizable to most of the viewing audience, people who under other circumstances find themselves in lead roles, you know the cast is talented. The standard for all others to try and match is set right from the start by Ben Whishaw as Richard II. His performance as the doomed king is incredible to watch. What does with his voice, the emotional range, the changes in pitch conveying anything from anger to fear within the same phrase, and his control has to be heard and seen to be believed.

As the man who deposes him Rory Kinnear as Bolingbrook, Duke of Lancaster and the future Henry IV, does his best to match Whishaw, but in reality doesn't have as much to work with. His character is ruled by circumstances and he finds himself caught up in the sweep of events. He does a fine job of depicting a man who all of a sudden finds himself out of his depth and struggling to find his feet. You really have the feeling it was never his intent to usurp Richard, but things just spiral out of his control until it's too late.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare gives hints about what will happen during Henry IV's reign. Various characters say things like the land will be steeped in blood or those who helped you to the throne won't be satisfied with what they receive in return. While you might think these are simply the reactions of soar losers trying to unnerve the new king, you'd be wise to heed their words.

Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 are in equal parts about the latter years of Henry IV's reign and the coming of age of his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddlestion). In Part 1 young Hal is a wastrel and the bane of his father's existence. He spends the majority of his time avoiding any and all responsibility and in the company of the thief, braggart and drunk Sir.John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale). The king (Jeremy Irons) is so disappointed in his son, when he hears of the exploits of the son of the Duke of Northumberland - also named Hal but usually referred to as Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) he actually asks God why he gave him the wrong Hal as son.
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However, we discover the reasons for Prince Hal's desolate lifestyle, he's running from the crown. Not because he doesn't care, but because he can see what wearing the crown has done to his father. How the cares and woes of kingship have sickened him and sucked all the joy from his life. Before this happens to Hal he's determined to have some fun, even if its with, and at the expense of, the likes of Falstaff and his nest of crooks and drunkards. Yet when Northumberland and his son Hotspur rise up in revolt, the Prince is quick to return to his father's fold in order to put down the rebellion.

For those who only know Hiddlestion from playing the part of Loki in the movies Thor and The Avengers, you will be in for a big surprise. Not only does he rise to the mark set by Wishaw in terms of his performance, he comes close to surpassing it. He is a central character in both parts of Henry IV and almost singlehandedly has to carry Henry V on his shoulders. He does a magnificent job of portraying the young man desperately looking to cram a lifetime's worth of living into the few years he has before he must assume the burden of the crown, and the ensuing transition from irresponsible wastrel to dedicated King.

In recent years Jeremy Irons has indulged himself with characters like the one he plays in The Borgias, coasting by on his voice and mannerisms, but as Henry IV he reminds you why he is one of the best actors of his generation. You can almost see the weight of his personal history sitting heavier and heavier upon his shoulders - "heavy is the head that bears the crown". Irons does a great job of showing this while still managing to give us hints as to his character's former greatness. The final scenes of Henry IV Part 2 between Irons and Hiddlestion, where the two characters finally come to terms with each other as the prince tells his father of his hatred for the crown having seen what wearing it has done to the king, are simply spellbinding. I could sit and watch those scenes over and over again they are so beautifully acted.

In comparison to the three previous plays Henry V is relatively straightforward, and someways simplistic. In those days England still ruled parts of France. The French, knowing his reputation as the Prince, see Hal's ascension to the throne as the ideal time to try and win back their lands. Rising to the challenge Henry raises an army and departs for France and although severely outnumbered manages to defeat them at Agincourt.
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Hiddlestion's performance again is exemplary as he lets us see the nervousness he feels at the enormity of the gamble he's taking in heading off to war as a newly crowned king that lies beneath his determination to defeat France. England's claim to the disputed territories in France was tenuous at best, and there was no reason save pride for seeking to hold onto them. However, with his country only recently recovered from the divisive rebellions which marked his father's reign Henry V must have felt he needed to prove he was a strong king in order to quell the potential of further unrest.

Throughout the four parts of The Hollow Crown the directors and cinematographers have taken full advantage of their medium to bring the plays to life. They use the camera's ability to capture both wide vistas and intimate close ups to help tell the story and create atmospheres appropriate to a scene. When Richard II returns from his wars in Ireland to be informed the entire country has risen in revolt against him, he is greeted on a desolate stretch of beach by a few aides. Seeing the king against the wide open vista with hardly anyone around him stresses how alone he is in the world. Conversely, in Henry V, when Henry gives his "Once more into the breech good friends" speech, normally staged as some great rallying cry to the troops, he is seen huddled with a few soldiers under the walls of the French castle they are besieging. You can actually feel him willing his men to overcome their fears and find what's necessary to throw themselves back into battle.

Adapting any play to the screen is always a difficult task, and the works of Shakespeare are especially difficult. Too often people either fail to take advantage of the potential the camera has for telling the tale or neglect to find a cast who can properly handle the demands of the text. In the mini series The Hollow Crown not only have they achieved the required balance between performance and media for one play, they have done so over the course of four plays. With top notch performances from every cast member, whether they have two lines or hundreds, and wonderful production values, I have no hesitation in saying these are the best filmed versions of Shakespeare I've ever seen.

(The Hollow Crown will be shown on your local PBS station on consecutive Fridays starting with Richard II on September 20 2013, Henry IV Part 1 September 27 2013, Henry IV Part 2 October 4 2013 and Henry V October 11 2013 starting at 9:00 pm EST - check your local listings for times and dates in your area)

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Television Review: The Hollow Crown)

June 13, 2013

Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming


As more and more people are turning their computers into the centre piece of their home entertainment systems there has been a corresponding increase in the number of companies supplying either content or hardware. The Blu-ray player I just purchased not only plays discs, but wirelessly connects to the internet allowing direct access to Netflix through televisions. For the nominal fee of $7.99 (CDN) per month I can watch a wider variety of television programs and movies than I would ever be offered by my local cable company for a fraction of the price. True, not everything on the market is available nor are the majority of the programs current, but having to deal with commercials and being able to watch the shows whenever I want compensates for any deficiencies in content.

However, what if you're interests lie beyond what Netflix has to offer? What if you've grown spoiled watching the higher quality programming that only ever seems to show up on PBS or is only available on DVD or Blu-ray?. Well, Acorn Media, the supplier of great DVD sets featuring the best of British, Canadian, Australian and American programming, has started their own network, "Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming"

Currently Acorn TV runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering 18 separate series a week with a new series being rotated in every week. Each series runs for thirty days giving you plenty of time to watch however many episodes it may involve. For example until June 30 2013 you can watch the complete Doc Martin Special Collection which includes all five seasons of the television show and the movies featuring characters from the show. As this set lists for $124.99 (US) that's quite the deal.

Like most of these services Acorn offers everybody a free thirty day trial, but the $2.99 monthly/$29.99(US) yearly price for the service is quite a bargain. Of course if you want to watch the service on something other than your computer monitor it will cost you a little bit more if you don't already have one of four streaming players the service is currently offered on. The best deal is a combined offer featuring your first year of Acorn TV and the Roku streaming player for $79.99(US). Roku doesn't only offer Acorn TV, it will give you access to a multitude of streaming channels ranging from sports to music. Of course you'll have to pay for each additional channel, but compared to what cable companies charge and the ability to watch what you want when you want it, this is still a much better deal than any provider of regular TV can offer.

As of now you can also watch Acorn TV on your iPhone or iPad, as long as they're equipped with the Safari browser; Apple TV; ( but you also need either an iPhone or an iPad to make the connection) the Barnes & Noble Nook device with an Acorn TV application downloadable from the Barnes & Noble web site or a Google TV Box equipped with Google's Chrome Browser.

Now the technical details are out the way, we can turn to the quality of the programming on offer. First of all you should know while the current format seems rather limited, there are plans in the works to not only increase the amount of content available by five - making 90 different series available at once - they also plan on dropping the thirty day time limit for each program. However, it's not mentioned anywhere if they plan on continuing to add additional shows on a regular basis. Of course, if you have any experience with the quality of programming offered by Acorn Media, you know chances are you'll want to watch the majority of what's on offer. In addition, since many of their packages are complete series, one program can be the equivalent of ten DVDs worth of episodes with each being a minimum of an hour in length. Even my basic math skills tell me that adds up to a heck of a lot of viewing hours.

With quantity covered, what about quality? Judging by what's on offer for the current thirty day period not only will there be something for just about everybody, you can be guaranteed no matter what you watch will be feature some of today's finest actors. This month alone features programming ranging from classics seen on past episodes of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre to items from the current and yet to be released Acorn catalogue. For example you can watch PBS's 1993 adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, all 17 episodes of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries Collection with individual segments featuring actors like Colin Firth, the newest instalment of perennial favourite Midsummer Murders: Set 22 and the not yet released on DVD, Falcon, staring Martin Csokas.

Currently the only drawback I can see with Acorn TV is its limited availability. However, its still a relatively new service and they say they are looking into ways of increasing access. If you already have one of the streaming devices mentioned above and you like British television than adding the Acorn TV channel to your system is a no brainer. The cost makes it probably the best bargain going right now. If you need any more incentive, they are also offering free shipping to anywhere in the continental United States if you decide you want to own a DVD copy of the show you've been watching once you've signed up. Three dollars a month is not very much to pay for checking out between 18 and 22 different television programs.

If you enjoy the best television has to offer in drama, comedy, documentaries and history than you can't help but appreciate Acorn TV. It's the specialty channel to end all specialty channels and you don't have to pay a cable company for installation or for a bunch of stations you'll never watch in order to enjoy it. Even watching it on my 17 inch laptop's monitor and listening to the audio through headphones has made it obvious this service isn't like anything else out there. Netflix and the others may offer a few British television shows, but none of them come close to being able to match Acorn TV for variety and quality.

(Article first published at Blogcritics as Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming)

April 5, 2013

DVD Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien wasn't the first book I read, but it was pretty close. After Paddington Bear, the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarfish companions must have been a close second. To be honest it was so long ago I can't even remember the first time I read the book. I do know, each time I go back to read the book is how surprised I am to discover how much of a children's book it is. For unlike The Lord Of The Rings The Hobbit is written in very simple language and told in the broad tones of a child's adventure story. It's also very British, full of expressions and sayings familiar to any child who had spent time at boarding school or reading boy's adventure stories.

When I heard director Peter Jackson was going back for another kick at the can by directing a movie version of Tolkien's first book I admit to being rather surprised. It seemed like a lot of cost and expense to tell what is a rather simple story. On top of that, it's just not as adult a story as the other books so he'd have to sexy it up somehow to give it a wider appeal.

The initial announcement that Jackson was going to film it in two parts only added to my doubts about the venture, so hearing it was being expanded into a trilogy made me wonder what the heck he was doing. However, I was still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all I had been sceptical of the whole Lord Of The Rings trilogy and had then like his adaptation. So when I walked into my video store and saw a copy of The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey on the shelves, I didn't even think twice about buying a copy.
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I'm going to try and avoid giving away any of the surprises in store for you if you haven't seen it yet, but I'm going to have to mention some things in passing in order to comment on what he's done with the narrative. First of all he has made the decision to have an older Bilbo writing out the story just prior to the birthday party opening The Fellowship of the Ring. In this way he's able to give the back story of the destruction of Dale and the kingdom under the mountain by Smaug right off the top.

Instead of hearing about the events second hand as we do in the book In this way Jackson utilizes the power of the camera to show us what happened. Of course once you've seen how he's prepared to adopt the narrative to suit the needs of his media, you're not going to be as surprised by some of the other changes he introduces later in the film. The most major change is how some subplots are made more important. In the book the troubles in Mirkwood Forest concerning somebody called the Necromancer are only briefly mentioned and at one point Gandalf leaves the company to go off and deal with the matter.

While we don't hear anything more about it in the book, Jackson is obviously going to be dealing with it on screen as the trilogy progresses. Extrapolating from various tidbits of information included in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the latter's appendixes he not only introduces the sub-plot, but a new character, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) the Brown, one of Gandalf's wizard compatriots. While this plot line has little to do with the story being recounted in The Hobbit, it is a piece of the overall story concerning Middle Earth and the finding of the Ring. Purists might decry it as being filler, but if done properly it will help place Bilbo's adventures with the dwarfs in their proper context.

Jackson has also drawn upon the appendix ofLord of the Rings dealing with the history of the dwarfs to create an entirely new subplot. It involves vengeful Orcs and their really nasty chieftain who has a personal grudge against the dwarfs Bilbo's travelling with dating back to a run in with them at the Mines of Moria after they had been evicted by Smaug. It looks like they'll be having meeting up with him all the way through the trilogy. I can see these Orcs being part of the Battle of the Five Armies at the end of the story.

I don't know if these two additions to the story are what have caused people to be unhappy with the movie, but if that's the case, they really need to calm down. Not only do they not detract from the story, they help to bring the world the movie is set in to life. For through them we learn more about the history of the dwarfs and events happening in the world beyond their quest. Jackson and his design people have done a wonderful job of bringing this world to life and making audiences believe in the reality of Middle Earth technically. As long as the new information is introduced in the rest of the movies with same effortlessness as it was in this one, it can only make the experience of watching these movies that much more enjoyable.
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As with Lord Of The Rings Jackson has used an international cast of British, Irish, Scottish, New Zealand, Australian, Canadian and American actors. While Sir Ian McKellen reprises as Gandalf, and a few familiar other faces from the other movies show up, the rest of the lead cast are all new to Middle Earth. Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins. His transition from the very proper middle class gentlehobbit, who thinks adventures are nasty inconvenient things which cause you to be late for dinner, to adventurer facing down Orcs is perfectly believable. For it's not until the end of the movie he even begins to feel like he belongs with his companions. Up until then he makes it perfectly obvious he has his doubts about the whole operation and given half a chance he'd turn around and go back home.

As the King seeking to regain his grandfather's and father's throne under the Lonely Mountain Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield with the perfect mixture of arrogance, pride and fearlessness. He doesn't ask you to like him, in fact he doesn't really care if you do or not. However, you can't help but respect his bravery and the way he feels personally responsible for his people. You have the feeling while revenge against Smaug is important, it's not the only thing driving him. It's just as important to him for his people to be restored to their rightful places.

Of the other twelve dwarfs, the two most prominent are Ballin, played by Ken Stott and Bofur played by James Nesbit. Ballin is a mixture of elder statesman and councillor to Thorin, having been with him through all his adventures. He is the one who Thorin might listen to when it comes to accepting advice and who the others look to for explanations as to why Thorin is doing something.

Bofur at first appears to be a bit of a clown, always ready with a joke or prank. However, Nesbit is too good an actor for his character to be one dimensional, and we find out Bofur's humour comes from a well of compassion and empathy. He's the one who is the most supportive of Bilbo and pushes him to stay the course. It would take far too long to run through the entire cast of dwarves, but there are no weak links in this chain of actors to drag the rest down. Watching them in action you get a real sense that no matter what, they are each prepared to die for the others and would follow Thorin into a dragon's mouth. Which is a good thing I guess.

A lot has been made of the movie being shot in 3D and at an increased rate of frames per second. (Normally film is shot at between 25 and 29 frames per second while The Hobbit is being shot at 45) Now while I do have a high definition plasma TV, I don't have 3D capability. However, as far as I can tell you don't lose anything by not having 3D, as visually the movie is still stunning. The increased speed of the film seems to make the picture sharper as details and colours stand out more. Comparing it to my extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring I did notice a substantial difference in picture quality.

The DVD comes with a second disc of bonus features. The majority of the bonus features are the video blogs shot by Jackson during filming over the course of 2011. So you actually get to meet actors who aren't in the first film but will be appearing in the second movie and are given some clues as to what to expect in the future. You'll also notice that most of the way through the special features everybody from Jackson to the cast only refer to two films. It's obvious the decision to expand to three movies wasn't made until they had almost finished the editing process on part one and realized how much footage they actually had.

If you've been holding off buying a copy of the DVD or Blu-ray of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey because of what other people have been saying about it, do yourself a favour and see it for yourself. Personally I think Jackson has done not only a marvellous job of adapting the book to the screen, but of bringing the world of Tolkien to life. His decisions seemed to be based on how I can make the world and the story more believable for those watching not how can I make this more spectacular. As far as I'm concerned Tolkien's legacy is in safe hands as this is one of the best examples of adapting a book to the screen I've seen.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Blogcritics.)


September 25, 2012

DVD Review: The Crimson Petal and the White


London, England in the nineteenth century was a city of contrasts. In the well to do areas the world looked to be a beautiful place with wide tree lined avenues for people to stroll along. Yet travel only a few miles across town and you'd find slums crammed full of people and streets so filthy and dingy you'd wonder how anything could live. Instead of wide open spaces full of light and air, the tenements crowding the streets blocked out the sky and human and animal waste were piled in the streets. Here living was a desperate struggle for survival as men and women fought for whatever scraps of food and money they could lay their hands on.

For a young woman the easiest way to make a living was to sell her body. For the affluent men of the time, the seedy side of Victorian life was an adventure. A place where they could throw off the constraints society forced upon them and pretend to be free. There were even books published for the discerning gentleman informing them of places and people of interest. This is the world we are drawn into in The Crimson Petal and the White being released on DVD September 25 2012 by Acorn Media Group.

We are introduced to the two worlds and their point of intersection by the lead characters in the mini series; Sugar, (Romola Garai) a much sought after prostitute and William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd) the upper middle class son of a soap manufacturer who thinks of himself as a poet. When Rackham is cut off by his father for refusing to work in the family business he seeks solace in the arms of Sugar. Her name is much bandied about by men of his acquaintance and she even has her own listing in one of those above mentioned books for discerning gentlemen..
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Rackham quickly becomes obsessed with Sugar and she, seeing him as a potential way out of her life as a prostitute, encourages his interest. He uses her as a means to escape his reality of impending poverty and a wife (Amanda Hale) Agnes Rackham, who suffers from a type of mental illness. In order for him to be of use to her Sugar first must find a way to save Rackham from himself. Through a combination of flattery and encouragement she manages to convince him that he won't be untrue to his "poetic" temperament by working for his father. Soon, not only has he won himself back into his father's good graces, but he's become instrumental in breathing fresh life into the family business. Of course his father would probably be shocked and appalled if he were to find out the majority of the his ideas - including the complete redesign of the company's catalogue - are the work of a prostitute.

With Sugar becoming indispensable, Rackham first establishes her as his mistress in her own apartment by purchasing her from her madame, Mrs Castaway (Gillian Anderson) and eventually moves her into his house to become his daughter's governess. As his mistress Sugar is living the life she always dreamed of, out of the slums and in her own apartment in a lovely part of the city. However, when she's moved into his house as governess, she's all of a sudden reduced in status again to someone of little importance. For not only must she know her place as a servant, Rackham starts to take her for granted, forgetting how much she'd been responsible for his prosperity. She also see first hand that he will never leave his wife for her, no matter how ill she becomes or how much Sugar does for him.

While a bare bones plot outline might make the story sound like some sort of Dickens era soap opera its far more sophisticated and intelligent than not only any soap opera you've seen, but the majority of what you'll see on television these days. From the technical side of the production through the script to the acting, this mini series is special. The first thing you'll notice is the almost surreal way the seamy side of London is depicted. We walk through streets that are universally grey and claustrophobic. Everywhere the camera looks we see people in various states of desperation. The narrow and dirty streets crammed with dirty tenements are filled with beggars, prostitutes, drunks and those who just seem like they've nowhere else to go.

Sugar is the only flash of colour in this dingy prison and as we see the world through her eyes we begin to understand her desperation to escape. The first time Rackham follows her back to her room at Castaway's brothel, she seems to float in front of him. The camera work creates an almost surreal effect by reducing everything around her to a blurry soft focus and exaggerating both the colours and flow of her costume. Through the camera, Rackham's eyes, we see her as some sort of exotic bird with tail feathers enticing us ever onward. Ignoring the filth around him he sees only the promise Sugar represents. The irony is that while Rackham sees Sugar the prostitute as the means by which he can escape the repressiveness of Victorian society and its middle class values, she sees in him her chance for a life of safe respectability.

While the performances of all those involved in the production are wonderful, Anderson is almost unrecognizable as Sugar's Madam Mrs.Castaway, O'Dowd as Rackham, Garai as Sugar and Hale as Mrs. Rackham are superlative. O'Dowd, probably best known to most as the policeman boy friend in the movie Bridesmaids, is a revelation in a serious role. He somehow manages to convey his need for what Sugar has to offer him while simultaneously being sincere in his expressions of love for his wife. For Sugar, who has pinned all her hopes on him rescuing her from a life of poverty, finding out the depth of his affection for his wife is quite the blow to her ambitions. However, she also finds herself thrust into the role of Mrs. Rackham's protector and does her best to help her.
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Lest you get the impression Sugar is the cliched "hooker with the heart of gold", it only takes remembering how carefully Garai's character orchestrated everything to make herself indispensable to Rackham. However, we do see that while she doesn't have much respect for her clients, in fact she dreams of taking murderous revenge on most of them, including Rackham, we also see her compassion for those who she sees as being mistreated by the world. In her relationship with Mrs. Rackham, Garai does a remarkable job of being completely sincere in her feelings of pity for the other woman, while a part of her obviously would prefer if she were to just vanish. There is a blade of steel inside of her from having lived in the survival of the fittest streets of London, and while she may be sympathetic to others, we have the feeling that she's not going to let anybody get in her way of her dream of a new life.

Of course she also recognizes the feelings of being caged that Mrs. Rackham suffers from as being identical to how she felt about her old life. However, as Hale so magnificently shows, Mrs. Rackham's prison is caused by the pressures and expectations of society on her to behave in a certain manner. Hale manages to walk the line between overacting and playing somebody suffering from delusions and extreme nervousness wonderfully. It would have been easy to play this type of character as a single note, in a constant state of hysteria. However she makes her a far more believable character by showing us glimpses of the person she had been before she became afflicted by her illness. This is important because if we didn't see anything redeemable in her, Rackham's love for her wouldn't have been believable.

In the bonus features that are included on the second of the two discs in this package, we hear from both the actors and the technical people about how they approached their job on this shoot. While nobody goes into tremendous detail, the production designers and cinematographer do explain the techniques they used and the effects they were trying to achieve. In their interviews both Garai and O'Dowd explain the approaches they took to try and humanize their characters. I would have liked to hear more of how O'Dowd, whose background is mainly comedy, might have changed his approach for this role from what he's done in the past, but he just talked about how he tried to inject some humour into his character.

British television is no stranger to costume dramas set in the Victorian era as there have probably been adaptations for the small screen of every Dickens novel ever written. However, The Crimson Petal and the White is unlike any other show set in this period. It goes deeper into the darkness that lay beneath the surface of the times including the effects sexual and emotional repression had on people. Through a combination of superlative acting, a great script and inventive production techniques these issues are brought to light through telling the story of the relationship between an ambitious prostitute and an upper middle class gentleman. Less a tale of star crossed lovers and more a story of what happens when world's collide and the upheavals that ensue. While its not something to watch with the whole family, it can be quite graphic at times, its definitely not your typical costume drama, which makes it one of the most exciting television programs you'll see in a long time.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Crimson Petal and the White on Blogcritics.)