Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – DVD Review

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
The Series
Sitting on my bookshelf is a book I bought for my mum, borrowed from her, started and never finished. That book is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; the adaptation of which just finished a seven week run on the BBC. Having enjoyed what little I managed to read all those years ago I decided to give the TV series a try. I loved it from the start.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is set in an alternative version of 19th-century England in which magic is real but has not been practiced for hundreds of years. Instead magical societies are made up of theoretical magicians who are no more likely to produce a spell than an astronomer is to produce a star. Enter Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) a quiet and studious man who has slowly amassed a great library of books on magic. Norrell wagers with his local magical society that if he can perform a feat of magic they must disband and never be allowed to call themselves magicians again. Sure enough magic is restored to England with Norrell the sole practitioner.

Meanwhile Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a wealthy man with no vocation, is approached by a mad man and told that he is a magician. Strange takes his cue and pursues magic and before too long the two magicians are in London trying to work together. Norrell favours a modern scholarly approach to magic whilst Strange possesses a more natural talent and seeks to access the older magic of the Raven King; a mythical figure who seemingly brought magic to the country before turning against it. Throw in the Napoleonic war, making deals with mystical creatures to raise people from the dead, and the polite sparring of two English gentleman and you have yourself a series.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is great. Need I say more? The series is funny, dark, and fantastical. Considering it has to combine both period elements and supernatural special effects the show does a wonderful job of realising both. With BBC productions I come to expect a certain level of ropiness when it comes to special effects but Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell somehow executes everything flawlessly. There is a real cinematic quality to the visuals that takes the show above and beyond expectations. It is all the easier to succumb to a show when you aren’t constantly pointing out where the green screen was used.

Great visuals are all well and good but without a strong cast they are worthless. Luckily the acting is just as good. Carvel gives a wonderful performance as he takes Strange from a layabout to a passionate magician and finally presents him as a man possessed. Marsan as Norrell gives a subtle and relatable performance as a man slowly corrupted by his desire to do good. I want to single out other members of the cast but once I started it got a bit out of control. Suffice it to say that there is no weak link amongst them.

In adapting Susanna Clarke’s original novel Peter Harness has successfully wrangled a hefty book into a stripped down narrative. The resulting series is both terrifying and funny, moving and fantastical. I wish the BBC made more of this quality, and less like The Casual Vacancy. I also wish that more people had seen Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell when it aired as it is a real treat.

If only they could get it on DVD instead…

I think I might finish that book now.

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The Extras
The series is accompanied by a decent set of extras. There is sadly no nerdily in-depth behind the scenes documentary but there is a good package of mostly talking heads from the cast and crew. Surprisingly enough there is a bloopers reel which was OK and a few deleted scenes which were much more interesting. For anyone marvelling at the visuals like me the most intriguing extra will be the breakdowns of special effects from the first two episodes. The extras might not be worth investing in the DVD for but the quality and entertainment value of the series more than makes up for it.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is out now on DVD, Blu-ray, and… book. It is well worth your time and money.

Shorts on Tap – Life Thru a Lens

Shorts on Tap

You might remember that sometime towards the end of 2013 I attended and acted as a judge at a short film evening hosted by Shorts on Tap. They are hosting another evening of short films (as they do every month) tomorrow in East London.

Why should you care? Because it is always a great night of watching short films from new talent with optional mingling for those of a social nature.

Why should you care this month in particular? Shorts of Tap have teamed up with London Documentary Network to show 7 short documentary films. AND they are supporting HOPE International Development Agency (UK) who I tried to organise some fundraising screenings for earlier in the month.

If you are free tomorrow (30th June) and can get to Cafe 1001 on Brick Lane by 7pm then please do come along. Entry is just £5 so you will have plenty of money left over to donate to HOPE.

To whet your appetite watch the trailer for one of the shorts, Planet Gong, below. I have seen the full documentary before and can heartily recommend watching.

Planet Gong Documentary Trailer from Ian Habgood on Vimeo.

Fifty Shades of Grey – DVD Review

Fifty Shades

For those of you whose Dom doesn’t permit you to keep up to date with popular culture allow me to introduce you to a literary adaption that has caused more fuss than it has any right to. Fifty Shades of Grey is an aspiring erotic romantic drama in which the virginal student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and handsome young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) meet, fall madly in love, and negotiate a contract which would make Anastasia the Submissive to Christian’s Dominant. All Anastasia wants is to fall madly in love but Christian would rather just buy her nice gifts in exchange for tying her up and rubbing her down. So to speak.

Can they make it work? Is Christian emotionally stable? Is Anastasia making good life choices? The film answers very little of these questions as the film circles its quite basic plot. For all the fuss created about E.L. James’ original novel and this adaptation not much actually goes on. After their initial meeting Steele and Grey have sex a few times in between trying to convince each other to pursue wildly different relationships and then the film just ends.

From a romantic point of view the film failed to give any reason why I should want the lead pair to get together. Were either of them a friend I would advise them to move on and find someone new. Anastasia’s personality begins and ends with liking books and wanting to make love while Christian likes playing piano topless and, look away now sensitive folks, fisting. Their interactions outside of the bedroom/red-room-of-pain don’t demonstrate enough chemistry to convince that they are actually in love, lust, or even in the same book group.

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When it comes to the erotic element of the film it is a bit hit and miss. Some of the sex scenes do succeed in actually being sexy but then the film suddenly descends into sweeping camera moves and slow fade transitions that leave the sex, after all that fuss, a little pedestrian. Considering the raunchy nature of what we see on TV and online (I’m talking Netflix not actual porn) week in week out Fifty Shades of Grey actually felt a little tame which was not what I was expecting.

We all know the film is the result of infighting between E. L. James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson. That lack of creative freedom and singular coherent vision has resulted in a film that isn’t really anything in particular. The film didn’t feel particularly romantic, erotic, nor dramatic. It wasn’t even a total disaster so isn’t worth hate-watching. Overall Fifty Shades of Grey is boring and bland; a sanitised story of love and lust that fails to excite.

For anyone seeking a romantic erotic story of a woman embracing a sadomasochistic relationship please watch Secretary, and to see a damaged man overindulge in sex let me recommend Shame. Both will show you what Fifty Shades of Grey could have been if it had the ambition.

Fifty Shades of Grey is out on DVD and Blu-ray should you need to see it for yourself. (So are Secretary and Shame.)

NOTE: The DVD I was sent included the “Unseen” version of the film with roughly three minutes extra footage. Sadly no special features were available for reviewing but the various sets do have extra footage/documentaries should you need more content when you’re done.

Paper Souls – DVD Review

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Film
In this Paris-set French comedy a widow and widower meet and the widower finds he plans for romance scuppered by an unlikely visitor.

The widow. Emma (Julie Gavet), is raising her son alone since the death of her husband, Nathan (Jonathan Zaccaï), and wants her son to have something to remember his father by. The widower, Paul (Stephan Guillon), is a writer who appears to be dealing with his wife’s death by writing speeches for other people to read at their loved ones’ funerals. In a unique meet-cute scenario Emma hires Paul to write about her dead husband to help her son. As Paul gets to know Emma romantic feelings blossom only to be skewered by the arrival of Nathan’s ghost.

Nathan no longer has any idea of who he is so it is up to Paul whether he wants to reunite the couple or keep Nathan’s resurrection a secret. Hilarity ensues.

Or rather… gentle chuckles and wry smiles ensue. Paper Souls‘ director Vincent Lannoo handles the high concept comedy with a light touch not letting the supernatural elements turn proceedings into a farce. The result is a little odd and not quite funny enough. An absurd situation is presented in such a mundane way that it avoids any real chance for proper belly laughs. This is not to say the film is bad, it is perfectly likable, but doesn’t stay around in the mind after watching and certainly doesn’t demand repeat viewing.

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Extras
As you might expect from a small comedy release the extras are limited to a trailer.

Paper Souls is out on DVD now and is worth a look, but just the once.

Christopher Lee 1922 – 2015

Christopher Lee

27th May 1922 – 7th June 2015

“I hate being idle. As dear Boris used to say, when I die I want to die with my boots on.”