THE WALKING DEAD: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON
I’m a late-comer in all things concerning The Walking Dead. I own the first thirty or so issues of this post-apocalyptic zombie comic book series but for some reason or another, I didn’t get the opportunity to go through them all. I’m so behind in the game that I’ve decided to just pick up the trade paperbacks from now on. Things aren’t much different concerning AMC’s television series adaptation. I just recently caught up to the first season and really dug it. The six-episode run established the gritty, unflinching, unpredictable tone of Robert Kirkman’s comics. Like everyone else, I was supremely worried going into season two since Executive Producer, Frank Darabont (The Mist, The Shawshank Redemption) left the show. Glen Mazzara (The Shield) took over the reins and thankfully sticks to the sturdy template left behind.
It’s good to see that the tough budget cuts forced upon by AMC hasn’t hurt the show in any obvious way. The writers have worked around this obstacle by narrowing the scope considerably. The second season leads the characters to an old farmhouse and stays confined there for the entire thirteen episodes. The action-packed, breakneck pace of its predecessor has been replaced with a slower, more character-driven tempo. While this frustrated some, I actually believe this added a much darker, more tension-filled feel to the show. It stays true to what I love about The Walking Dead. The trials and tribulations of these very human, flawed characters are now further explored. Since there are a lot less action beats, doesn’t mean they lose their effect. Actually the opposite happens. Stakes feel much higher. KNB’s FX work is still first rate stuff and the performances by the ensemble is some of the best I’ve ever seen on television.
The one thing that the increasingly frustrating True Blood could learn from The Walking Dead at this point; don’t be afraid to kill off your main characters! This adds an element of danger that sets this series apart from the rest, as well as keeping true to the source material which apparently does this sort of thing quite often. I got emotional on more than one occasion during this season. While it’s painful to see characters you’re so invested in eliminated so abruptly, it makes the show that much more compelling to watch. This is a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by the undead we’re talking about, people! So the idea that folks are bound to be unceremoniously knocked off at any moment sounds realistic to me. The perfectly executed climax of The Walking Dead’s second season teasingly hints on some very cool things to come. October can’t come soon enough.
Despite the changes upstairs, The Walking Dead thankfully remains being shot on 16mm. While it’s not as visually strong as its predecessor, the look gives the series an identity that stands apart from other shows. Film grain is intact and the softness that usually accompanies this format is ever present. Anchor Bay’s transfer is completely faithful to the intended look, imperfections and all. The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 is an incredibly immersive experience. There are sounds coming all over the place, subtle and aggressive. This is up there with True Blood as the standard in which all television series should aim towards when it comes to the A/V department.
The bonus features are similar to the first box set of season one. The featurettes give insight into certain aspects of the show’s creation. There are commentary tracks with an assortment of cast and crew members for five episodes plus a deleted scenes section. Also present; Greg Nicotero-directed webisodes about how the pilot episode’s signature zombie came to be during the initial outbreak.
A LITTLE BIT ZOMBIE
When Shaun of the Dead reinvigorated the zombie comedy back in 2004, a slew soon followed. For every great entry (Zombieland) that comes along, a lame one (Lesbian Vampire Killers) shows its ugly face. Like everything else, what makes people laugh is entirely subjective. Personally, I find a lot of horror comedies too self-aware and cheeky for my tastes. Last year’s Deadheads annoyed the hell out of me enough to want to stay away from this sub-genre for a long period. A little less than a year later, I’m suckered by a friend to give A Little Bit Zombie a go despite being turned off by the trailer. Much to my surprise, he was right; it didn’t suck.
A Little Bit Zombie is about mild mannered HR manager, Steve (Kristopher Turner) who gets infected by a virus while on a getaway at the cottage with his fiancée, sister and best friend. The conflict comes not only from the protagonists dealing with Steve’s metamorphosis, but as well as their attempt to evade an obsessed zombie hunter played by the reliable Stephen McHattie. The film didn’t really grab my attention until the moment when Steve’s family accepts his present state. Much of the humour and heart is derived from how far they’re willing go to accommodate Steve’s urges and adjust their lives in order to keep him in it. The sitcomish nature of the material succeeds for the most part due to the perfectly cast ensemble. The chemistry between the four leads feels genuine. In particular, Resident Evil’s Albert Wesker himself, Shawn Roberts, who steals the film with his always spot-on comic timing. My least favourite aspect of A Little Bit Zombie has to be that of the zombie hunters. There’s nothing wrong with McHattie and Emilie Ullerup’s portrayal. I just feel that the characters’ inclusion comes across as a forced attempt to create additional conflict.
Aside from a couple of dismal-looking visual effects during the climax, Director Casey Walker and his team have put together an impressively well-crafted indie genre picture. The tone is established early on and sustains effectively. A Little Bit Zombie is more of a comedy than it is horror but it does have its share of effective gags. Despite my apprehension, this feature-length sitcom won me over with its charm. No matter how increasingly silly it gets, the cast’s complete commitment to the material makes A Little Bit Zombie succeed where others have failed so miserably.
*On a side note, props must be given to the filmmakers for resisting the urge to drop Evil Dead references at every turn. These nods sparsely appear and when they do, they’re pleasing.
Presented in 1080p HD, A Little Bit Zombie looks a cut above most indie genre fare. Detail and colourization is consistently top notch. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is an unspectacular but still solid listen. While there are features aplenty, nothing in particular stood out. The highlights; The 27-minute “To Dream of Brains: The Making of A Little Bit Zombie” mini-doc and a decent commentary track with Director Casey Walker, Actors Kristopher Turner and Shawn Roberts. There are a collection of featurettes but a lot of this material is already covered in the documentary. The webisodes with the zombie hunters are painfully unfunny and the blooper reel and outtakes are standard. Casey Walker’s Director Diaries are too short to make much of an impact.
THE HUNGER GAMES
Aside from the Battle Royale comparisons, I didn’t have much prior knowledge of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy going into the film adaptation of the first book, The Hunger Games. Like many, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. Thankfully, I did. Co-Writer/Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) has put together a thoughtful and engaging piece of sci-fi cinema that doesn’t come across as just another glossy Hollywood entertainment. While I do see the similarities to Battle Royale everyone is going on about, The Hunger Games owes just as much to George Orwell’s 1984. Like any work of fiction, one can find comparisons to just about anything that’s come past. Despite that, The Hunger Games carve its own unique territory worth diving into for its 142-minute duration.
If you don’t know already, The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic future in which a totalitarian government selects one boy and girl from twelve districts to fight to the death on live television. Our point of entry into this world, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister. Then the game ensues. Like any good starting chapter, Gary Ross successfully establishes the universe the characters inhabit. The central protagonist is as compelling as they come. What makes Katniss so relatable is her vulnerability, as well as her incredible strengths. This is owed much to Jennifer Lawrence’s beautifully nuanced performance. Where the book allows us to literally read her inner thoughts, Lawrence and Ross wisely decide to convey this through her body language instead of boorishly obvious narration. This is an attribute that film does really well and that sets it apart from the equally wonderful medium that is books. The ensemble contains one strong performance after another. While it might not be initially obvious, I have to make note of Donald Sutherland’s quietly intense portrayal of the puppet master himself, President Snow. He expresses intelligence and ruthlessness with such subtly, a trait not often associated with villains.
From the main contributions Gary Ross injects into this film, nothing is more impressive than how he works around the PG-13 rating that is mandatory for a film of such broad appeal. He masterfully chooses his moments in which to convey graphic violence. It appears very briefly but the impact on the viewer is undeniable. The editing during these sequences is visceral and affecting. It took the second view for me to notice that I actually witnessed less onscreen carnage than I initially thought I saw. Could it have been more effective with an R-rating? Possibly but there’s no point in arguing that since there was no way in hell a franchise of this magnitude would ever consider a rating that would remove a core demographic out of the equation. While it’s all very textbook Hollywood filmmaking, The Hunger Games is much better than I could have ever anticipated and I think a large part of that is due to Gary Ross’ involvement. It’s very unfortunate he’s not returning for the second instalment, Catching Fire. He’s left a strong foundation to build upon so hopefully Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) won’t muck it up.
As expected, The Hunger Games looks and sounds great on the Blu-ray format. The MPEG-4 AVC retains a lovely naturalistic filmic look throughout. This Super 35-shot production contains a healthy amount of grain, as well as strong colours and detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio is even more impressive. All of the channels get a hell of a workout. The default is in 7.1. I only have a 5.1 set-up at the moment but I can only imagine how much more immersive it would be.
The special features are some of the finest produced this year. The 2-hour plus, “The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games” is a terrific overview of the entire production. Everything you’d ever want to know about the movie is addressed in detail. If that wasn’t enough, you get a slew of equally memorable featurettes. My personal favourite is the 15-minute, “A Conversation with Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell”. I’ve gained more appreciative of Ross’ approach to the source. Kudos to the studio for putting together such a vastly informative supplemental section.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION
When it comes to The Raid: Redemption; believe the hype. The tagline is all the synopsis you need; “1 Ruthless Crime Lord, 20 Elite Cops, 30 Floors of Chaos.” The film is packed to the brim with one spectacular action set-piece after another. There’s a great mixture of ferocious gun shootouts and exhilarating hand-to-hand combat. Director, Gareth Evans just keeps raising the wow-factor at every turn without easing up on the viewer for a bit. It would be wrong to dismiss The Raid: Redemption as simply just another dumb but entertaining action picture. Well-choreographed violence can only get you so far.
The screenplay reverts back to classical arcs not unlike Star Wars. The line between good and evil is clearly defined. There’s just enough character development, plot and motivation to make you invested in what is happening onscreen. This is minimalist storytelling at its finest. Iko Uwais playing the role of our hero, Rama instills a wonderful everyman quality into his character. We are rooting for him from the start. His unrelenting drive to do the right thing and survive is the pulse of the film. Of course, every hero needs a great villain and in The Raid: Redemption we get two. They’re genuinely intimidating and most importantly, they convince you that the protagonist has no shot of getting out of this ordeal alive. When you can convince your audience that the hero may not scrape through his/her main obstacle, you know that the filmmakers succeeded in what they have set out to accomplish. In particular, the seemingly unassuming main henchman, Mad Dog (the remarkable Yayan Ruhian) is one of the greatest, most original villains to ever hit the big screen. It’s never more evident than in the jaw-dropping climatic fight scene. He comes across as Thug #2 from the outset. The way Mad Dog’s character arc is built up methodically throughout the picture is a thing of beauty.
The Raid: Redemption is the best pure action picture I’ve seen since John Woo’sHard Boiled. What Gareth Evans and his team have accomplished on such a low budget is a truly remarkable feat. There’s never a moment where I felt more could have been done with a bigger budget. Hollywood could learn plenty from this little film’s constant showmanship. Bring on part 2!
At no fault of the transfer, the A/V on this Blu-ray will most likely underwhelm most viewers. The HD-shot imagery is flat in definition and bland in the colour department. The DTS-HD Master Audio comes in both Indonesian and English (awful dubbing so avoid like the plague). It won’t compete with Hollywood but this 5.1 mix is a pretty fun listen. There’s a nice use of the surround channels during the film’s many spectacular action setpieces. Low budget notwithstanding, the rather drab look of The Raid: Redemption is appropriate considering the gritty nature of the material.
The “Video Blogs” give a brief but fascinating look at the incredible effort that was put towards this low budget shoot. Some of the “how the hell did they do that” moments in The Raid: Redemption thankfully does get touched upon. The 40-minute, “An Evening with Gareth Evans, Mike Shinoda & Joe Trapanese” gives some further insight. Overall there’s a bit too much spotlight on the creation of the North American score than on the actual film itself. While I enjoyed listening to Shinoda and Trapanese discuss their process, there are several featurettes where information is repeated.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This review is that of the Canadian Alliance Films release. Sadly it only contains the North American soundtrack by Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese. On the U.S. Sony Blu-ray, you get the option of choosing between the original and North American score. I actually dug Shinoda and Trapanese’s music but having the choice would have been much appreciated. As for special features, the biggest omission is the director’s commentary track. The only thing the Alliance version has going for it is an infinitely better cover artwork. Sony’s Unrated Edition is the no-brainer choice for hardcore fans.