Rousing ‘Game of Thrones’

By Tom Von Malder | Apr 09, 2012
Photo by: HBO Sean Bean stars as Lord Ned Stark in season one of  “Game of Thrones.”

Owls Head — Game of Thrones: Season One (HBO, 4 Blu-ray DVDs, TV-MA, 600 min.). “Game of Thrones” is so riveting that it made me want to subscribe to HBO so I could catch season two, which started Sunday, April 1,instead of waiting a year for the second season on DVD. The fantasy epic about families feuding for control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is excellently acted; you immediately feel fondly towards some characters and develop hatred for others. By episode one, I knew who the villains were going to be for me.

The series is based on the bestselling book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” (now up to five volumes with at least two more to come) by George R.R. Martin, whose background includes writing for television, and he does write episode eight here. However, Martin, with whom I used to play chess while we were both freshmen journalism students at Northwestern University, gave up TV writing in frustration (nothing he was writing was being developed) and began this book series making it deliberately to encompassing that it could never be filmed. Thankfully, he was wrong and we have this wonderful series.

Westeros is a land where summers span decades and winter -- coming soon -- can last a lifetime. In the frozen north is an ancient, 700-foot high and 300-mile long Wall, guarded by the under-staffed and under-trained Night’s Watch (the main problem is most of its members are former criminals or other social misfits) that keeps out the nasties, which include the mysterious White Walkers. Not quite as far in the North is Winterfell, ruled by Lord Ned Stark (Sean Bean, of course, playing my favorite character). In the opening episode, Stark is visited by King Robert Baratheon (a solid Mark Addy) of the Iron Throne and King’s Landing in the South and his scheming wife Cersei (Lena Headey, playing the first of the characters I grew to hate) of the House Lannister. We soon learn that Cersei is having an affair with her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). A second brother is the dwarf Tyrion Lannister (Emmy winner Peter Dinklage, playing the most delightful and entertaining character), who is a pursuer of pleasure -- both women and drink -- rather than power. However, Cersei is actively plotting to have her illegitimate teenage son Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson, playing another instant-hate character) take the Iron Throne.

There are many more stories being told. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is Ned Stark’s illegitimate son, who is sent to be a member of the Night’s Watch, but is frustrated when his fighting skills go unrecognized. Ned Stark’s daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner) is engaged to Joffrey Baratheon, only to quickly learn of his cruelty. And perhaps most intriguing is the tale of Daenerys Targaryen (Emelia Clarke) and her brother Viserys III (Harry Lloyd), last of the line of the House Targaryen, which once ruled all the kingdom with its dragons and now in exile. Daenerys is married off to Dothraki horse tribesman Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) so her brother will have an army when he tries to seize the throne. The only problem is the tribesmen live on a different continent and do not trust the wooden horses (ships). This whole Dothraki scenario presents a much different way of life, one that has a casual brutality that is not mean like the scheming of the houses vying for the Iron Throne.

Both the Blu-ray and standard DVD versions come with an excellent insert that contains both a map and, even more helpful, family trees of the five houses. Each version also has a very handy onscreen guide to Westeros, an interactive compendium of the noble houses and lands and all the characters. The Blu-ray verion expands this to include24 exclusive histories of the Seven Kingdoms as told by the characters themselves, done with animated illustrations. Much of this material also is available through the Blu-ray exclusive in-episode guide that I accessed quite frequently. The Blu-ray also has an in-episode look at the anatomy of episode six, plus hidden dragon eggs that lead to more never-before-seen content. Other extras common to both versions include a 30-minute look at the making of the series, 15 character profiles, a look at the creation of the Emmy Award-winning opening title sequence, a 5:14 look at going from book to screen that repeats a lot used in the making-of feature, an in-depth look at the Night’s Watch, a look at the creation of the Dothraki language, and seven audio commentaries with cast and crew, including author Martin and 15 others. Grade: season 4 stars; extras 3.75 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

The Fades (Great Britain, BBC America, 2 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, NR, 338 min.). This is another series I am going to rave about, because it was so unexpectedly good, blending horror and humor in the story of 17-year-old Paul (Iain De Caestecker), who is haunted by apocalyptic dreams and soon realizes that he can see the Fades, spirits of the dead who have not passed on and who cannot be seen by ordinary human beings. Those who can see the Fades are called the Angelics and they are headed by an increasingly desperate Neil Valentine (Johnny Harris). The backstory is sometimes in the 1930s, Ascension stopped for some souls, leaving them trapped to wander as Fades, but not some of them are able to touch the living and, in fact, kill. Worse yet, the vengeful Fade John (Joe Dempsie) has figured out how to be “reborn” and aims to create an apocalypse.

Besides all the dark stuff -- including one shocking murder -- there is the everyday teenage striving to survive bits with Paul and his best mate Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), both geeky social outcasts. This is where a lot of the humor comes in. The show, created and written by Jack Thorne,  has great writing and music. Unfortunately, actor Harris this month stated the show has not been renewed. That would be quite a crime. Each of the six episodes has an extra scene (in one, Mac says “Jungle Book” is the best film about mental illness; in another Paul describes his future house, a future we know he is likely never to see). There also are six behind-the-scenes segments of about three minutes each. There are deleted scenes with director introductions, including a discussion between Mac and his copper dad; a gag reel; brief interviews with Harris and Natalie Dormer (Sarah); and several “Mac Explains” bits. Grade: season 3.75 stars; extras 3 stars

The Killing: The Complete First Season (Fox, 3 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, NR, 587 min.).
Unfortunately, the big buzz about this sow, which also returned April 1, is how upset people were that there was no resolution to the Rosie Larsen murder at the end of the season. Even though the original Danish series took two seasons to resolve its case, the U.S. marketing kept emphasizing “Who killed Rose Larsen?” In fact, that’s what the cover of this DVD set continues to do. The show really is about the effect the murder had on the victim’s family -- a mother (Michelle Forbes) who can no longer cope, two young brothers and a father (Brent Sexton) with former Russian mob ties -- as well as the two investigating Seattle Police detectives -- Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), who was about to taker her son off to California and get on with her life and a new relationship, and newly assigned partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), a former junkie who, in turns out, may be falsifying evidence in the case. Such evidence is used to implicate mayoral candidate Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell). Could the whole murder be the result of dirty politics?

The performances are superb, particularly Kinnaman as a truly tortured soul (we see even more of this in season two). Enos is a bit dry at times, but that is the character she is playing. The show looks superb too. Some may find the pacing too deliberate; yet despite that, each episode left me wanting to view the next right away. Bonus features include an extended season finale; deleted scenes (14 min.); a gag reel; audio commentary on the pilot by executive producer/writer Veena Sud and audio commentary on the final episode with Enos and writer Nicole Yorkin; and a 16-minute making-of feature. The show earned six Emmy Award nominations and one Golden Globe nomination. Grade: season 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Neverland (Vivendi, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 169 min.).
In this prequel re-imagining of “Peter Pan,” Neverland turns out to be a planet in another galaxy. Young pickpocket Peter (Charlie Rowe) and his ragtag gang of “lost boys” commit theft where they should not have in turn-of-the-last-century London and are transported to Neverland. Among those they meet are the gorgeous but deadly pirate Elizabeth Bonny (scene-chewing Anna Friel), who has ruled the seas for nearly two centuries, and her First Mate Smee (Bob Hoskins, actually reprising the role in had almost 20 years ago in the film “Hook”). Peter is separated from the rest of the lads, but is helped by the Tree Spirit named Tinker Bell (voiced by Keira Knighley) and he soon is given the ability to fly. Naturally, Jimmy Hook (Rhys Ifans, pre-encounter with a crocodile) is not the mentor/friend he makes out to be to Peter, nor to the Indians who befriend Peter and the boys.

There is a lot packed in here, including an “Avatar”-like assault on the fairies’ home tree to gain the mineral that enables flying. And Charles Dance plays the man with all the answers and the grand plan. That is Queen Elizabeth’s chief alchemist, who has grown a city in Neverland that is to host all the great minds of mankind. Unfortunately, this wonder to look at is easily destroyed, as is the case in most such tales. Overall, the show looks very good and keeps your interest. It also allows for sequels. Extras include audio commentary by writer/director Nick Willing (he also created Syfy’s “Alice“ and “Tin Man” miniseries); cast interviews; the extensive use of green screens; an art gallery; and a set of postcards. Grade: miniseries and extras 3 stars

One Tree Hill: The Complete Ninth and Final Season (Warner, 3 DVDs, NR, 555 min).
The show recently wrapped up its TV run and here we have the DVD set immediately. Season nine has only 13 episodes, but things are wrapped up, with an unexpected return included. Brooke and Julian are new parents of twins; Nathan’s work trip to Europe takes a devastating turn, forcing Haley into crisis management. Extras include a live panel with the cast and creator Mark Schwahn; an overview of the series, which once faced cancellation and which jumpstarted by going forward several years between seasons; a tribute to the fans; audio commentary by Schwahn and cast on the final episode; a gag reel; and unaired scenes. Grade: season 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

The Descendants (Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 115 min.).
The title really gave me no clue as to what the film was about. George Clooney (Oscar-nominated for arguably his best work ever) plays lawyer Matt King, whose family inherited 25,000 acres of prime Hawaiian real estate as part of a trust, but a law is forcing the trust to be dissolved within seven years and other members of his family want to sell the land to a resort developer. But the true story is King trying to reconnect with his two daughters after a boating accident leaves their mother Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) in an irreversible coma. Sahailene Woodley plays 17-year-old Alexandra, the one who has been sent off to boarding school due to problems with drugs and older guys. Amara Miller plays 10-year-old Scottie. It is Alexandra who spills the secret that sets the film’s quest, that she fought with her mother after she caught her cheating with a young real estate broker (Matthew Lillard in quite a different performance). Soon, King, his two daughters and Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), with kind of a stoner attitude, are off searching for the broker to confront him.

There are many amazing scenes here, including when King confronts friends who knew about the affair; King railing against his wife in the hospital room; a Sid-revealing scene with King late at night; and Robert Foster, as Elizabeth’s father, reacting to the news of her impending death. I actually disliked co-writer/director Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” but he has won me over with this film, which won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. (Its other Oscar nominations were for best film, editing and direction.) The film noticeably uses a mix of modern and traditional Hawaiian music for its score. Extras include two deleted scenes; 7:27 on Clooney (who knew he was such an on-set cutup); 12:06 on the land in the film (also used in “Jurassic Park” and TV’s “Lost”); 13:34 on Payne; 8:11 on casting; 10:58 on working on water; 2:52 on waiting for the light; three music videos; a 9:55 silent film, “The World Parade: Hawaii”; and, best, an 11:58 conversation between Clooney and Payne, in which they talk about old films and Clooney’s days on “ER.” Grade: film 4 stars; extras 3.5 stars

The Adventures of Tintin (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 106 min.).
Based on three stories from the famous Belgian comic books by Herge, the film, directed by Steven Spielberg and using motion capture animation (luckily not as creepy as resulted in “The Polar Express”), is jam-packed with action, perhaps too much so, as it certainly leaves one breathless. Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) is a young journalist with a dog Snowy. After opening animated titles that recall the classic “Pink Panther” films openings, we see Tintin in the market place, where he buys a replica of the ship Unicorn, which the sinister Saccharine (Daniel Craig) immediately tries to buy from him. Well, it turns out there is a hidden scroll in the model and the other two similar models, which, when combined, reveal the location of a sunken treasure. After being kidnapped, Tintin frees Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis), whose befuddled memory holds the key to the model’s secret. Towards the frenzied ending, there are multiple flashbacks to a pirate ship attacking, while both ships are on fire. Then, there is the chase through the town, ahead of the flood they accidentally created. My main complaint is the film ends before the story does.

Extras include a history of Tintin and cast and crew’s recollections of their exposure to the character (10:46); a look at the conceptual design (8:38); a piece on the intersection of the human and comic characters (14:18); the genesis of the film with Spielberg recalling his first encounter with the comics (8:54); a look inside “The Volume,” where the human actors’ actions were captured (17:54); animated Snowy (10:11); a look at animating the film (11 min.); a look at composer John Williams (7:01), whose score was nominated for an Oscar; and a look at the Tintin figurines (3:58). Grade: film and extras 3.5 stars

Battle Royale: The Complete Collection (2000, 2003, Japan, Anchor Bay, 3 Blu-ray discs and 1 standard DVD, NR, 368 min.).
Any similarities between this and “Hunger Games” (published 2008) is totally coincidental. “Battle Royale,” the film came out in 2000 and was based on  a 1999 novel by Koshun  Takami. In the controversial film, now available for the first time in North America, the Millennium Educational Reform Act was passed after 800,000 students boycotted school. Now, each year, one middle school class of 42 students (here 40 students plus two “ringers”) are placed on an island, given various weapons and told to hunt and kill each other until only one victor remains. Their seventh-grade teacher Kitano is in charge. He does the six-hour announcements of who has been killed and specifies which areas of the island will be kill zones during which hour. Each student wears a collar that can be exploded remotely or if they are caught in a kill zone. One of the two “ringers,” Kawada, actually survived the game three years ago and he helps out Nanahara Shuya and his female friend Nakagawa Noriko. The other, Kiriyami, just likes to kill and has a machine gun. There are some shocking scenes and well-played scenes of students becoming aware of the reality of what they must due to survive. And yes, the rules are circumvented at the end.

As excellent as Kinji Fukasaku’s original film is, and it was nominated for 10 Japanese Academy Awards, the follow-up, 2003’s “Battle Royale II: Requiem,” which was finished by Fukasaku’s son Kenta after his father‘s death, is a mess. The survivors of the first film have now become terrorists and are holed-up on an island. The government sends in another middle school class, giving them three days to kill the terrorists or they will be killed. In a bit that makes no sense, the new students are paired electronically, so that when one dies, the other’s collar explodes, killing them as well. The teacher in charge acts like a scene-chewing lunatic most of the time, and the students storming the beach under fire just seems a big stretch. Eventually, the terrorist see the collars on their attackers and the film turns a bit preachy, with a strong subtext that the United States is evil and responsible for all the world’s ills.

The first film is presented in its theatrical cut on one disc and in its 122-minute director’s cut on the second. The sequel is on the third Blu-ray disc. The standard DVD contains more than two hours of special features, including a making-of look (50:24); a press conference (12:03); audition and rehearsal footage (7:12); a look at the special effects (4:18); filming the basketball scenes for the extended version (8:40); a 12-minute documentary about working on the film; and 21 minutes of raw on-set footage in two installments. Despite not being shown here, “Battle Royale” was a mainstream Japanese film. Director Fukasaku headed the Director’s Guild of Japan from 1996 until his death in 2003. Grade: Battle Royale 3.5 stars, Battle Royale II: Requiem 2 stars; extras 3.5 stars

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