I think I see your problem. You have this list. It’s a list of people you need/want to buy a Christmas gift for. The trouble is that they’re into home theatre, and you don’t know Star Trek from Star Wars. You couldn’t tell a Wolf Man from a Wolverine. And you always thought that Paranormal Activity was something too kinky to talk about. Fortunately, Upcomingdiscs has come to the rescue every Christmas with our Gift Guide Spotlights. These gift guides ARE NOT paid advertisements. We take no money to publish them. The kinds of things we recommend here are things I would be delighted to find under the tree.
No studio has embraced the 4K format as much as Warner Brothers in 2017. They have become the first to release a television series in UHD and the first to release vintage material in 4K. They have consistently provided us with 4K versions of their new releases, and the results have been impressive. If you have a 4K/UHD Blu-ray adopter on your list, you won’t find a better selection than Warner Brothers to start checking names off swiftly.
Westworld (4K) (UHD Blu-ray)
by John Ceballos
“Welcome to the world.”
Westworld is based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name about an extravagant, adult-themed amusement park where a robot malfunction endangers the lives of its guests. The movie served as a cautionary tale about what happens when humanity’s worst and most indulgent instincts run amok. While that’s also a significant theme in this newer version, HBO’s adaptation approaches the material from a different perspective.
Westworld is at its best when it uses its lavish production values to immerse us in what is happening within the park, further blurring the line between what is supposed to be artificial and real. (It’s no accident the Western-themed park looks more relatable to us than the dark, foreboding lab where the real humans spend most of their time.) It’s a more effective trick than when the show’s writers keep adding more and more elements to the series in their attempts at world-building.
Simply put, there are too many storylines and characters that inevitably get the short shrift here. A character like Simon Quarterman’s Lee Sizemore (Westworld’s narrative director) is interesting in theory, but is nothing more than a profane gasbag. I personally wouldn’t mind an episode of Westworld that revolved around Lee and his team brainstorming ideas for the park. However, since it appears each season of Westworld will be its own distinct chapter — the mysterious Maze in season 1 directly ties in to the show’s larger themes — I doubt there will be room for episodes like that, which is a shame.
The good news is it also opens up infinite possibilities for future seasons; the Westworld movie had a 1976 sequel called Futureworld and the show’s game-changing season finale/“The Bicameral Mind” strongly hints at a different time period to be explored down the line. Stay tuned.
Peanuts Holiday Collection (4K) (UHD-Blu-ray)
At first glance you would not expect 50 year old cartoon television specials to be this high on the UHD 4K list. Honestly, I was a bit surprised myself. But when you really think about the staying power of these cartoons you realize they’ve made an emotional connection to generations of children of all ages. I grew up on the Peanuts creations of Charles M. Schulz. Most of us have, in some way or another. His newspaper comic strip is one of the longest running and most successful strips of all time. The work has been translated into every language currently spoken on the planet. The images of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, and the rest of the Peanuts gang have appeared on just about any kind of product imaginable. Our pop culture contains too many references to the strip to mention briefly. For me, it was the television specials starting in the mid 1960’s that brought the gang into my life. The classics are running annually, still after nearly 50 years. A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are the most mentioned and certainly beloved by generations of children and adults. I thought I never missed an airing.
They say you can’t go home again, and more times than not, I’ve found that to be quite true. There are some notable exceptions, however. The Peanuts specials are certainly that. It seems that no matter how old I am these features make me feel like a kid again. It’s one of those rare moments when you really can capture the spirit of the moment, even if that moment was originally felt in an 8 year old kid, 50 years ago. If you have been known to experience the same thing when you encounter one of these classics, then “behold, for I bring you tidings of great joy”.
Wonder Woman (4K) (UHD Blu-ray)
by John Ceballos
“You have been my greatest love. Be careful, Diana…they do not deserve you.”
Ever since Richard Donner made us believe that a man can fly with 1978’s Superman — considered by many to be the first modern superhero film — we’ve gotten three different Men of Steel, along with five different versions of Batman (if you don’t count Will Arnett’s voiceover work). Heck, in the last 15 years alone we’ve had three Spider-Men and (incredibly) gone through three Hulks! Yet in all that time, a movie starring Wonder Woman — a superhero just as iconic as all the ones I just mentioned — could never get off the ground…until now. I’m happy to report it was worth the wait.
Gadot made an impressive debut as Diana/Wonder Woman in Batman v. Superman, but this first solo adventure is a huge deal. There have been attempts to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen for more than 20 years, with everyone from Ivan Reitman to (more famously) Joss Whedon attached to the direct. The list of actresses who have been rumored to don the character’s iconic tiara and indestructible bracelets — Sandra Bullock, Lucy Lawless, Angelina Jolie, Beyonce Knowles(!) — is even longer. (It has to be noted that Lynda Carter’s work in the 1970s Wonder Woman TV series left an indelible mark.)
DC and Warner Bros. eventually settled on director Patty Jenkins, whose only other big-screen foray was 2003’s gritty Monster. Jenkins, working from a script credited to Allan Heinberg, excels at building a credible and worthy hero and (perhaps more importantly) making a DC superhero movie that actually has a personality. Despite being a globe-trotting action/adventure with a budget around $150 million, Wonder Woman is best in its smaller moments. I’m thinking about the scene where Diana and Steve get to know each other on a tiny sailboat; I was struck by how long that scene was and grateful that Jenkins and DC’s brass were generous enough to let those kinds of character moments breathe without too much bombast.
Not only is Wonder Woman easily the best and most satisfying film in the DC Extended Universe — insert your own joke about how that’s like being the tallest person in a midget convention — but it is (so far) the biggest and best superhero movie of the year.
Most importantly, it is a worthy debut for a classic comic book character that had to wait much too long for a starring role on the big screen.
Harry Potter Years 1-4 Film Collection (4K) (UHD Blu-ray)
The beauty of this franchise can be found…frankly… in its beauty. If ever a franchise called out for 4K releases, it has to be Harry Potter. The visual style of these films will take your breath away as you get to see these films like you haven’t seen them since the cinema. It’s wonderful to watch these young actors grow over a decade in front of the Potter cameras. The creatures are revealed in details never before seen on home video. The depth and HDR color abilities make these films as realistic as they’ve ever been. Potter has always been an immersive world. Now so more than ever before.
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone
The film that started it all. Of course the books had been madly popular long before the first film. These might have been some of the most long-awaited films for young readers in a long time. We finally get to see the world of Hogwarts and fly through the air on broomsticks. This was school like we all wish we had been to.
Utter the simple name of Harry Potter to any age, and it is nearly guaranteed that they will know what you are speaking about. Since becoming a worldwide phenomenon in 1999, the Harry Potter series have been turned into everything from video games to bathing products. Most notably, the series have been turned into a set of excellent films that are successful, for the most part, in recreating the major elements presented in the novels by author J.K.Rowling. While the world of Harry Potter was created primarily for a younger adolescent audience, there is no question that the tapestry is epic, and compelling enough to satisfy adults. I believe the true success of these films lies within that idea. It is truly rare when a film arrives that can appeal so completely to both demographic groups.
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets:
Based one the wildly successful Harry Potter series of novels, this film is based on book two of the series. As sophomore jinxes go, this one could have been far worse. The problem here is we no longer have the wonder of a new world to explore, but we still have characters that are not fully fleshed out yet either. The plot is somewhat predictable in that we have the same villain as the previous novel, albeit in a different form. Harry Potter and the usual cast of characters return for another year of adventure at Hogwarts. This time we see a storyline that is much darker then the first as the kids have grown up a little and are ready for bigger and scarier things. Parents with small children who were fans of the first film may want to watch this without the kids first to insure that it is appropriate for their kids, as there are a couple of very frightening scenes.
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban:
Prisoner of Azkaban is perhaps the darkest, but I don’t think the most frightening, Potter film. The creature images of the previous entry were considerably more graphic and disturbing to the younger children. I’m going to take some heat for this, but I am so happy there was a very limited scene of the famous quidditch games. They are very popular it seems, but I find them a dreadful bore. The children are beginning to mature both as characters and actors. While Daniel Radcliffe has improved quite noticeably from the first film, I must admit that it is the performance of Emma Watson that showed the greatest maturity and potential. Richard Harris was most certainly missed, but I think that Michael Gambon conjured up a nice, while more limited, performance of the wise old Dumbledore. As with all of the Harry Potter films, this one begins with Harry’s tedious life in the normal world. I’m sure that each time viewers of all ages are eager to see Harry return to his element and friends.
Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire:
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire continues on the story with Harry and his friends continuing their adventures at Hogwarts School of Wizardry. Before they arrive at the school though, Harry and his friends are invited by the Weasley family to attend the Quidditch World Cup. While here, Voldemort and his Death Eaters attack the event, sending a message that Voldemort is indeed back, and he means bad things.
The biggest plot of the film revolves around the Triwizard Tournament, which is a tournament where three finalists are chosen by the Goblet of Fire. The three names are Cedric Diggory from Hogwarts, Viktor Krum from Durmstrang, and Fleur Delacour from the group of Beauxbaton girls. When the Goblet spits out a fourth name, Harry Potter’s, everyone is at a loss of words. According to the rules, you must be 17 to compete in the Triwizard Tournament. With Harry being only 14, Dumbledore can’t do much as he mentions that what the Goblet wants, the Goblet gets. But the real question is who put Harry’s name in the Goblet?
The four students must compete in three trials: The first being fire-breathing dragons, the second being an underwater rescue mission, and the final being a huge dark maze. But what awaits Harry in the maze is unexpected by the Triwizard rules, for Voldemort awaits Harry. Not in his stone, pale look from The Sorcerer’s Stone, but rather in a completely dark, sinister, evil, and the malevolent fury of the great Ralph Fiennes. Speaking of Fiennes, he brings Voldemort to the screen in the exact manner how I pictured Voldemort to look as I was reading the book. Voldemort looks like a big, pale person, with a slug-like look for a face, snake-looking nostrils, and gooey skin. Fiennes acts with exuberant finesse, bringing the horror and evil of this man for all of us to view.