Friday, June 15, 2012

Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson

Game of Thrones is the blockbuster new series from HBO that won two 2011 Emmy awards including Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (Peter Dinklage). The drama follows kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars and noblemen as they vie for power in a land where summers span decades and winters can last a lifetime. Two powerful families are engaged in a deadly cat-and-mouse game for control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. As betrayal, lust, intrigue and supernatural forces shake the four corners of the Kingdoms, their bloody struggle for the Iron Throne will have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences.

Film (5 out of 5 stars) 

A Game of Thrones is based on the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire which is a fantasy series written by George R. R. Martin and the series is just as dense as the book it’s based on.  Martin wanted the material to be treated with respect and be given the time to tell the whole story so when HBO showed interest in it a deal was struck and David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were brought on to be the show-runners and writers.  HBO wanted the events of each book to be the basis of a single  season and they impressively pulled that off.  The first season has been estimated to costing around $50-60 million and I think every penny of it is on the screen.  Filled with castles, tons of extras, and a lot of location work in Ireland and Malta, this is a gorgeous looking show that deserves all of the accolades its received.
Sean Bean leads the cast as Neddard “Ned” Stark, an honorable man who has made mistakes in the past but continues to try to do the right thing.  He is the patriarch of House Stark, and his family and their northern stronghold of Winterfell represents the first line of defense of Westeros against any attackers that can get through the massive wall of ice that separates the kingdom and the undead creatures that live on the other side.  The Wall is also manned by the Night’s Watch, a group mostly made up of miscreants and outcasts conscripted into service as an alternative to a harsher sentence.  With undead creatures that can only be killed by fire, the Night’s Watch and Winterfell take the threat seriously since they know once the long winter arrives (which can last decades), the creatures will make their move.  In fact House Stark’s motto is “Winter is coming,” but their focus on preparing for future challenges is out of step with the other royal houses who care more for having fun now.
Even Stark’s old friend and liege King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) negects his duty as the King and instead spends his time getting drunk and enjoying women.  Robert asks Stark to be the Hand of the King and essentially run the kingdom for him, knowing full well that it would be safe hands under Stark’s supervision.  Stark reluctantly agrees against his better judgement, but before he leaves for King’s Landing, his wife Lady Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) requests that he investigate the death of the previous Hand of the King, Lord Jon Arryn who may have been killed as part of a plot by House Lannister and Robert’s wife, Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and the rest of House Lannister.  Stark leaves control of Winterfell to his oldest son Robb (Richard Madden) while his bastard son John Snow (Kit Harington) journeys to The Wall to join the ranks of the Night’s Watch.
Catelyn is suspicious of the Lannisters especially since her son Bran’s (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) climbing “accident” which wasn’t really an accident at all, as he was pushed out of a window for witnessing incest between Cersei and her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Realizing that her husband is in danger, Catelyn starts her own journey to King’s Landing to warn him about the Lannisters.  There’s good reason for distrusting House Lannister as their deceit and Machiavellian ways have already ended the life of  Aerys II, “the Mad King” and they will stop at nothing until they have capture the Iron Throne for themselves.   They don’t realize that across the narrow sea, Aerys’ exiled son Viserys (Harry Lloyd) and daughter Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) have their own plans for the throne since Visery’s is assembling an army to retake the kingdom that he believes belongs to him.  In exchange for enlisting an army of barbarians known as the Dothraki to aid him in his quest, Viserys sells his sister in marriage to the Dothraki leader Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) which will backfire later when she falls in love with Drogo.
Upon arriving at King’s Land, Stark discovers that it’s a nest of political intrigue and machinations. Everyone has their own agenda and Robert is oblivious to just about all of it. The more Stark tries to investigate what happened to his predecessor, the more danger he finds himself in especially when he discovers the truth about who should be the true heir to the throne.  After warning her husband about the Lannisters, Catelyn heads for home but accidentally bumps into Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in a tavern and takes him captive in retaliation for what happened to her son.  Tyrion tries to reason with her that he’s innocent, but it falls on deaf ears and he is taken to the stronghold of Eyrie, where her sister Lady Lysa Arryn will decide his fate.  With Robert away on a hunting trip, Stark is already making people unhappy with the way he’s running the kingdom, but things come to a head when he tips his hand on what he knows to the wrong people in an attempt to do the right thing.   A chain of events is started that will change everything and everyone will make their final moves in this game of thrones that will have few winners but a lot of losers.

Video (5 out of 5 stars) 

I’m happy to report that HBO has put out another reference quality release as this 1080p (1.78:1) transfer is perfection personified.  The razor sharp picture captures every single detail and texture so well that you can see every wrinkle, whisker, and drop of blood.  Speaking of blood, there’s a lot of it and its bright red droplets pop off the screen like every other color.  Every color is distinct and vibrant and flesh tones are natural and consistent.  Black levels are solidly dark and offer some very nice shadowing.  Contrast is also excellent and there’s no real digital artifacts to complain about.  If you thought the show looked good during its HD broadcast, just wait until you see this!

Audio (5 out of 5 stars) 

Game of Thrones’ DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is just as incredible as the picture quality. Dialogue is crystal clear even during battle scenes and crowd scenes.  It all sounds real which is the greatest compliment I can give.  Whether it’s a discussion inside a throne room, or a camp near the coast, or even in the midst of a fight, it all sounds realistic and true to the environment. The LFE channel delivers the action in all of its thunder and clamor, and the rear channels offer superb directional effects that are as accurate as they are realistic.  This is truly an immersive mix that will transport viewers to the action.  This is a reference quality sound mix that is reason enough to buy this set!

Extras (5 out of 5 stars) 

HBO has pulled out all the stops on these extras and this set offers a wealth of goodies for fans of the show.  These are fantastic extras but I do have one complaint and that is that all of the extras as listed on each disc even if they aren’t actually on the disc you are watching.  Since I don’t watch the extras until I finish the show, I usually expect them on the final disc so you can watch them all at once.  Instead, when you watch the final disc and try to select the extras you discover that you have to keep switching discs which is really annoying.  I don’t want to have to go back and put every disc back on to see the extras.  It makes sense that the commentaries are tied to the episodes, but it makes no sense to spread extras across the set, especially when it’s on the Blu-ray format with a lot of space.  The good news is that all of these extras are in high definition which is really nice. By the way, there’s also some hidden dragon eggs that offers some extra goodies.
  • Audio Commentaries – There’s seven commentaries with the cast, writers, and producers taking turns on the episodes with the sad exception of Sean Bean who is nowhere to be found on these commentary tracks.  Making up for his absence is the book’s writer George R.R. Martin’s track who not only wrote one of the episodes but who is the definitive source to go to as the man who created it all.  Here are the commentaries:
    • Winter is Coming – Executive producers and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
    • The Kingsroad – Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Mark Addy (Robert Baratheon) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister).
    • Lord Snow –  Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark).
    • Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things – Writer Bryan Cogman and Kit Harington (Jon Snow).
    • A Golden Crown – Director Daniel Minahan, Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen).
    • The Pointy End – Co-executive producer and series author George R.R. Martin.
    • Fire and Blood - Executive producers and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and director Alan Taylor.
  • In-Episode Guides – Every episode offers an interactive pop up info track that gives facts about the pertaining history about the locations, characters, etc. to help viewers get a better understanding of what’s happening.  If you select the Complete Guide it will take you to an even more comprehensive resource calledThe Complete Guide to Westeros (see below).
  • The Complete Guide to Westeros – Whether you got to this from the in-episode guides or if you selected the stand alone option, this extra is full of interesting facts that should cover any question you may have.  Using interactive maps, a guide to family histories, and best of all, twenty-four HD mini-featurettes that totals over an hour, that supplies the rest of the background information as relayed by the cast in character.  This is a genius idea and I hope other series start providing this kind of extra.  For a complicated show like this, this extra is an invaluable resource to gain a complete understanding of the character motivations and histories.
  • Character Profiles – We get the profiles of the fifteen main characters (again spoken by the actors themselves) including:
    • Ned Stark
    • Robb Stark
    • Arya Stark
    • Bran Stark
    • Sansa Stark
    • Catelyn Stark
    • Cersei Lannister
    • Jaime Lannister
    • Tyrion Lannister
    • Daenerys Targaryen
    • Viserys Targaryen
    • Jon Snow
    • Khal Drago
    • Petyr Baelish
    • Robert Baratheon
  • Anatomy of an Episode: A Golden Crown – Getting down to the nitty-gritty, this episode long picture-in-picture track goes into great detail about the making of the episode through the use of interviews with the cast and crew, behind the scenes footage, and more. For as cool as this extra is, I wish they had done it for the rest of the episodes.
  • Making Game of Thrones – This thirty minute look at the making of the show is more of the traditional kind of featurette we are used to getting.  That’s not a slight against it as this was enjoyable to watch, but compared to the rest of these innovative extras, it seems dated.  This featurette has interviews with the cast and crew along with Martin and it provides a nice overview of the making of the show.
  • From the Book to the Screen – Many of the clips in this were recycled from other extras which is never good but they are all relevant to this topic.  George R.R. Martin, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss talk about adapting the novel for the first season.
  • The Night’s Watch – A look into at the soldiers of the Night’s Watch including the Wall that they protect with comments from George R.R. Martin and the cast and crew.
  • Creating the Show Open - If you love the opening sequence of the show like I do, then you will enjoy this look at the how it was created and its development process.  The people involved also share their thoughts about this Emmy-winning title sequence.
  • Creating the Dothraki Language – Learn how these language was created for the show.

Summary (5 out of 5 stars) 

This is an incredible show that’s been packaged in a stellar Blu-ray set.  The audio and visual qualities are reference quality and there’s so many excellent extras that this is a must own release. The show’s writing is smart and complex, the actors are incredible in their roles, and the production of the show is first rate.  This is a show that you will have to pay attention to or you will miss important information. It’s not needlessly complex, it’s just intelligent writing that demands more of you than the usual show does and I have no problem with that. For fans of this genre, this level of quality is a godsend but if you are shying away from the show in fear of the fantasy aspect you should give it a chance because this is a character driven show first and a fantasy show second.  One final word about the show…this is a very adult show with a lot of graphic violence and nudity so if that makes you uncomfortable, then this probably isn’t the show for you but it’s a lot more than just that. Buy this show and you won’t regret it!
Order your copy today!

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