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.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 2
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.

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.

Fifty Shades 2

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

Paper Souls 1

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.

Paper Souls 2

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.

The Theory of Everything – Blu-ray Review

The Theory of Everything 2

Film
Despite my long-held admiration for Felicity Jones and endless praise for the film I somehow managed to miss The Theory of Everything when it was in cinemas. Perhaps I was annoyed at having to share Jones with the rest of the general public or, more likely, nobody wanted to go and see the film with me knowing that I’d be slack-jawed throughout.

The Theory of Everything follows the romance of Stephen and Jane Hawking (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones) from their first meeting at University and through their marriage as Stephen slowly becomes more and more dependant on Jane thanks to the onset of motor neurone disease. Tellingly most coverage of the film has focussed on the acting; to some degree on Jones’ performance as the ever-burdened wife but mostly on Redmayne and his brutal portrayal of a man slowly losing control of his body.

The praise for Redmayne is certainly well deserved as he audibly and physically transforms himself throughout the film from a sprightly young student to a wheelchair-bound professor. Most importantly what Redmayne manages to do is maintain the spark and personality that is such a vital part of the real Stephen Hawking. While he may end the film sitting almost immobile in a wheelchair Redmayne’s Stephen never loses his energy. Alongside Redmayne Jones brilliantly plays a woman not just dealing with raising two young children while coping with a demanding husband, but also shows the pain of a deeply religious woman whose husband does not respect her beliefs.

Together Redmayne and Jones portray a couple deeply in love who find their relationship straining when one loses their physical capabilities and the other struggles to find the emotional strength to carry on. Neither are passed off as saints as they both show signs of selfishness and weakness as their love for one another stumbles. It should definitely be noted that this is not a film about a science but a film about love. And while we’re at it, as a great narrator once said, this is not a love story; this is a story about love.

The film is undoubtedly moving and is as good as it is simply because of its strong lead performances; failing to truly wow with its script or direction. As I look back on the film I find I am left with a sense that some of the less loving emotions between Jane and Stephen may have been watered down. Their marriage was far from perfect, understandably considering the circumstances, and the lack of real anger in an otherwise emotionally open film felt suspect. Luckily the actors are skilled enough to distract you from second guessing while you watch the film itself.

These quibbles aside The Theory of Everything is a great showcase for two young British talents, though I suspect they have better films left in their careers. A film worth watching, just maybe not worth watching twice.

(But only just)
The Theory of Everything 1

Extras
This being a period British film looking at people and emotions rather than explosions and special effects the extras on the Blu-ray are limited. What you get are a good number of deleted scenes and a brief documentary Becoming the Hawkings focussing on Redmayne and Jones preparing for their roles.

As far as I can tell the DVD has no special features. The horror!

The Theory of Everything is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Interstellar – Blu-ray Review

MM and MC

I’ve tried to explain to you all before why Interstellar is worth your time and now it is out on a variety of shiny discs I think it bears repeating. I’ve watched every single one of the special features so my opinion is valid and should be respected.

Film
In the near future life on earth has become almost untenable as crops fail and dust storms barrel across the landscape. Thanks to a bizarre gravitational anomaly astronaut-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles across the secret residual base of NASA; an organisation now seen as frivolous in an age where farming comes before scientific exploration. After a bit of exposition from Michael Caine Cooper finds himself travelling with a small crew through a wormhole in search of a new planet that can sustain life and ensure the future of mankind. As Cooper travels on his interstellar journey his science-loving daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy & Jessica Chastain) stays behind on Earth growing up fast without her parental unit. Thanks to the relativities of space and time as days pass in space years are flying by back on Earth. Cooper and his crew not only have to contend with running out of fuel but running out of time to find the new home for the human race.

On the big screen Interstellar was an absolute marvel. The music was original but somehow timeless, the visuals were stunning and unlike anything I had seen before, and the sheer ambition and craftsmanship from director Christopher Nolan was admirable. Though some sitting close to me disagreed it was love at first sight for me and Interstellar. It was not a perfect film but it was an experience I wouldn’t forget soon. Sitting down with the Blu-ray on my less than stellar TV I was a little nervous that the experience would be tricky to replicate.

I needn’t have worried. While I wasn’t going to be able to create the visual impact of a 70mm print at home I dimmed the lights and let the film do its work. The picture was crystal clear on my vintage flat screen with the scenes on Earth looking suitably grubby and dust-covered while the planetary visuals were sublimely realised in cold sterile clarity. My non-existent sound system even managed to do some justice to Hans Zimmer’s excellent organ-based score which lends the film a religious feel befitting a film with the fate of our species at its core.

You may despise Interstellar, some certainly do, but for those willing to turn down their scorn temporarily there are moments of real awe to be had. Even on your TV at home.

For more pro-Interstellar rambling please see my full review.

Christopher and Matthew

Extras
Once you’ve finished the film allow yourself a short comfort break before getting stuck into the special features as the two-disc Blu-ray is full of the things. Proceedings start with a 50 minute documentary about the real scientific theory that went into the making of Interstellar that will fascinate or bore in equal measure depending on just how much physics you are willing to indulge in for the sake of cinema. I can take a lot of physics so was very pleased with this in-depth look at black holes, relativity, and space-time. Lovely stuff.

From there we get no less than fourteen featurettes of decent length detailing every aspect of the production from physical and computer generated effects, through farming and simulating zero-gravity, to recording the music in an actual church. On a Christopher Nolan film as much is done without the aid of computers as possible and a lot of what I had assumed was CGI was actually done for real. It’s hard to appreciate all this while watching the film itself so the extras allow the hard work to be fully appreciated.

As with the physics I know not everyone wants to get too stuck into the behind the scenes but for my fellow nerds there is plenty to enjoy here.

Everyone else can be quiet.

Interstellar is out now on DVD, Blu-ray, and super-special-Blu-ray. Extras vary depending on which one you buy.