Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Video review: "Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season"

In an age of instant on-demand video and streaming movies on Netflix and other venues, HBO by all rights should have been well on its way to the video grave, laid to rest nestled between Betamax and laserdiscs. In 2012 the idea of rotating theatrical feature films on a pay-per-view television channel -- its name is an acronym for Home Box Office, remember -- seems positively anachronistic.

But somewhere along the way, HBO decided to shift to creating its own content, rather than be swept under the tide of competitors playing the same movies (often more cheaply and/or conveniently). Today, it produces much of the best television available -- as evidenced by the fact that HBO regularly cleans up at the Emmys, and other movie-centric channels like AMC and FX have followed their lead into original programming.

Take "Game of Thrones," based on the first book of a popular fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. Produced for upwards of $60 million, the 10-episode season allowed viewers to luxuriate in Martin's epic narrative sweep and sprawling cast of characters.

Written for grownups, with layered characters blessed with moral ambiguities and flaws, Martin's book could not have translated satisfactorily into a two-hour film. With 10 full hours to roam, uninterrupted by commercials or the need to synch with the forced storytelling rhythms of regular TV, "Game" took the sword-and-sorcery genre to a level of ambition not seen since the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy nearly a decade ago.

It's the story of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a loosely-held alliance of factions constantly vying for power. Lord Stark (Sean Bean) is the loyal friend of King Baratheon (Mark Addy), a once-great warrior grown haughty and indolent. When the king taps Stark to be his right-hand man, it forces the noble Stark clan to become embroiled in the high-stakes politics and infighting that swirl constantly around the Iron Throne.

DVD and Blu-ray features are first-rate. The DVD contains a making-of documentary, profiles of 15 major characters, an interactive overview of all the noble houses, and several other features. Most impressive: seven separate audio commentary tracks by the cast and crew, including author Martin.

The Blu-ray edition adds more interactive features, including 24 histories of the Seven Kingdoms as told by the characters themselves with animated illustrations. It also boasts an in-episode guide and hidden "dragon egg" bonus content.

"Game of Thrones" arrives on video Tuesday, March 6.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

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