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By Daniel Lammin
8th December 2013

The past few months have seen many of the biggest films of the year released on Blu-ray, including ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Monsters University’. For our Round-up, we take a look at them and more, as well as the recent releases from the 50th Anniversary celebrations for ‘Doctor Who’.

Released 1st November 2013

There were a lot of knives drawn against big-budget films this year, but none suffered more than Gore Verbinski’s extravagant western adventure ‘The Lone Ranger’. Starring Armie Hammer as the iconic hero and Johnny Depp as his faithful companion Tonto, the film had a famously troubled production history and overblown budget, only to be brutally savaged by critics and bringing Disney to a point of panic. It’s unfortunate, because apart from being far too long, ‘The Lone Ranger’ is an absolutely cracking film, filled with terrific performances and daring adventure. Verbinski sky-rocketed to fame with the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films, establishing him as one of the finest action directors working today, and all his skills are on display here. The budget may have blown to excess, but every cent is visible on screen. The screenplay cracks with wit and surrealism, the performances are larger than life and the production design is sumptuous. The action set-pieces, especially the train sequence in the final act, are tremendously impressive, amongst the most exciting this year. In the midst of special-effects driven trash, there’s something refreshing and old-school about ‘The Lone Ranger’, the kind of epic big screen adventure romp we don’t see anymore. There are plot holes galore and significant jumps in logic, but in the end, none of this really detracts from the enjoyment of the film. It might not blow you away, but ‘The Lone Ranger’ is a thrilling few hours of entertainment. Hopefully it will find a second life on Blu-ray.

Unlike most films these days, it looks like ‘The Long Ranger’ was actually shot in 35mm, which gave the film a terrific cinematic quality in the cinemas. That quality is maintained in Disney’s terrific 1080p 2.35:1 transfer, which beautifully recreates the auburn colour palette and retains excellent detail, all with a lovely filter of film grain.

As is common with Disney, any film that performs poorly at the box office doesn’t get much in the way of special features, which is a pity as the half-hour of featurettes on offer here are handsome and informative. There’s no talk of the many production problems, but it’s great to see how much attention to detail went into the making of the film. There’s also the obligatory bloopers reel and a deleted scene. A passable collection, but nothing special.

Released 30th October 2013

When Steven Moffat took over the wonderfully reinvented ‘Doctor Who’ from Russell T. Davies, there was so much promise and excitement. Moffat had been responsible for some of the most memorable episodes of the Davies era, and paired with a new and intriguing Doctor in Matt Smith, there was every indication the show was headed in an interesting direction. Series Five, Moffat and Smith’s first, was absolutely breathtaking, clever, mature and exciting storytelling that established a new tone for the show. From there, however, things have slipped. Series Six had great moments, but was a confusing muddle. Arguably, this most recent seventh series is even worse, split into two halves over the course of two years. The first brings resolution to Amy (Karen Gillian) and Rory’s (Arthur Darvill) era as the Doctor’s companions, but there’s only really one episode of note (the opening ‘Asylum of the Daleks’), the rest a meandering mess of dinosaurs on spaceships, underwhelming gunslingers and once again milking the once-menacing Weeping Angels for all they’re worth.

The second half has a bit more promise with the arrival of new companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), who proves herself a cracking match for Matt Smith. It has a shaky start, but a terrific run of episodes gives promise to the new partnership (especially ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’) before shuddering with Neil Gaiman’s awful ‘Nightmare in Silver’ (further proof the Cybermen are utterly redundant) and crashing in catastrophic fashion with the series finale which is completely nonsensical, utterly underwhelming and proves the entire series is just one big set-up for that impending 50th Anniversary Special, which promises to resolve all knotted loose ends left behind (more about that later).

Series Seven isn’t a complete write-off. Matt Smith is still absolutely superb as the Doctor, and his charm and skill alone go a long way to making up for the show’s shortcomings. One can’t help feeling, though, that his immense talent is going to waste, the antithesis of the working relationship between Davies and David Tennant. Mostly forgettable, this season was a test of patience and forgiveness for a show that had been going gangbusters since its revival in 2005. There was hope, though. Perhaps that 50th Anniversary Special they kept going on about would turn things around for the mad man in a blue box...

One thing is for sure - the storytelling might have slipped, but the production values have only gotten higher, and Roadshow’s 1080p 1.85:1 transfer of the series shows off how slick the show looks. Colours are vibrant and bounce of the screen, and detail is clear and sharp. ‘Doctor Who’ is one of the better looking sci-fi productions around, the crown jewel of the BBC, and this release demonstrates that beautifully, The series is also graced with a cracking DTS-HD MA 5.1 track which showcases the excellent sound design and Murray Gold’s continually terrific score. The show might not be as good, but this presentation is top-notch.

As usual with these ‘Complete Series’ releases, the BBC have reserved its best content, so that on top of the material from the individual releases, there’s now over two hours of behind-the-scenes featurettes, audio commentaries, deleted scenes, webisodes and extra featurettes discussing the show’s extended fan appeal. There’s a lot of material here, spread across the entire set. Most of it is mostly fluff, but it’s great to see how a production of this scale is mounted. There’s very little here that will disappoint fans of The Doctor.

Released 6th November 2013

No blockbuster this year seems to have been as debated and discussed as ‘Man of Steel’, Zack Snyder’s reinterpretation of the iconic Superman mythology. Those who loved it adored it, and those he didn’t love it despised it, with fans up in arms about the controversial ending and people debating, of all things, the level of destruction in the film’s final act (Seriously, this was a thing).

Personally, I was completely blown away by the film, an origin story exploring Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) and his journey to understand his remarkable powers, connect with his alien Krypton heritage and accept the man he must become. The screenplay isn’t as strong as it should be, and there are some serious plot holes, but the visual language of the film is powerful and emotionally stirring, applying an even more radical psychological interpretation of Superman than the acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy had done to Batman. The action sequences are overwhelming, especially the battle in the ruins of Metropolis, and Henry Cavill makes a terrific Superman, quieter and rougher than Christopher Reeve’s iconic performance. The supporting cast are also great, especially Amy Adams as a far more rambunctious Louis Lane. In many ways, ‘Man of Steel’ is a superhero film attempting something very different - to tell a narrative in a more visual manner. In fact, the film might have been even stronger with less reliance on dialogue. Snyder is a bold director with a striking visual sense, and every frame of this film explodes with flair and bombast. And yes, there are a few significant deviations from the Superman canon, but these always feel justified and necessary to advance the legacy of the character. What has been attempted here is far more ambitious than any of the rubbish Marvel churns out of their factory, and those who connect with ‘Man of Steel’ will find it a stirring and exhilarating piece of cinema. If only all blockbusters had as much guts and heart as this one.

As expected, ‘Man of Steel’ looks spectacular in high definition. The 1080p 2.40:1 transfer maintains the widescreen cinematic scope of the film, with excellent sharpness and detail. ‘Man of Steel’ works on a very dark palette and the cinematography moves at a rapid pace, so it’s to the credit of the transfer that this never gets overwhelming. Just as impressive is the immense DTS-HD MA 7.1 track. There is rarely a dull moment in the soundtrack, giving the speakers a significant work out. For a film of this scale, anything less than perfect wouldn’t do. The film is also available in 3D Blu-ray.

Unfortunately, this is where this release falls flat on its face. In the U.S., consumers were once again (like with ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’) faced with special features spread across multiple editions. In Australia, we are shortchanged even further. Even though we have two discs, the second holds barely an hour of featurettes covering the characters, design and interpretation of the mythology. It’s all great stuff, but totally insubstantial. What’s missing, shockingly, is ‘Journey of Discovery’, an interactive commentary track hosted by the cast and crew that runs longer than the film itself, incorporating a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. Even worse, we do get this feature, but only as an extra with the digital Ultraviolet download. The fact that this vital feature isn’t available in high definition on disc is baffling and aggravating. To add to the strangeness, the only extra in the first disc is a featurette for ‘The Hobbit’. If there’s any logic to this mess of a release, it escapes me entirely.

Released 13th November

After struggling to find their feet again following their artistic and financial peak with ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010), Pixar returned to one of its past successes with ‘Monsters University’, a prequel to their beloved 2001 classic ‘Monsters Inc.’, and in the process, has taken a highly entertaining step towards a return to form.

Rather than following on from the events of the original, ‘Monsters University’ explores the early days of the friendship between Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman), who meet when they are both inducted into the prestigious scare program at Monsters University. However, their initial meeting is filled with hostility, with Mike the model bookworm and Sully the obnoxious jock. When their bickering has them thrown out of the program, the two must team up with a gang of textbook underdogs to win the annual Scare Games and secure back their place in the program, under the wary eye of Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren).

For this prequel, the reigns are handed over to director Dan Scanlon for his Pixar feature debut, but luckily, the colourful and breezy humour of the original is intact. While ‘Monsters Inc.’ focused mostly on Sully, this time Mike is placed at the centre of the story. As such, there’s less a feeling of covering similar ground, and allows the character to grow. The film is awash with the sights and sounds of the American college experience, helped immensely by Randy Newman’s terrific score full of percussions and big band. ‘Monsters University’ is more consciously a comedy, and a terrific one at that, but the conflict between Mike and Sully allows a more serious look into their characters, and offers some poignant moments in the third act. Rather than the professionals we’re familiar with, these are two monsters still trying to settle on who they are, about to enter adulthood and terrified by the unknown in their futures. The film is again bolstered by terrific performances by Crystal and Goodman, Crystal in particular clearly having a ball returning to his favourite character. The only real misstep is, surprisingly, Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble. It makes sense on paper, but Mirren’s silky voice actually strips Hardscrabble of some of her menace, and as a villain, she doesn’t have as much teeth as Steve Buscemi’s Randall did in the first film (who also features in this film as a wonderfully amiable nerd).

While not the instant and moving classic ‘Monsters Inc.’ was, this new entry into the Pixar canon is easily their best in years, a rousing and snappy comedy filled with terrific set pieces and a host of new and familiar faces. Hopefully this is a sign that things are on the up for the animation company that rewrote the rules of animated films.

As you would expect, ‘Monsters University’ looks ravishing on Blu-ray with a top-notch 1080p 1.85:1 transfer. The advantage for such a film in this format is that it can be taken directly from the digital source, so that detail is excellent, colours bound out of the screen and the artistry behind the film is maintained exactly as the filmmakers intended. The same can be said for the Dolby TrueHD 7.1track, clean and crisp with a tremendous amount of guts. All round, a perfect presentation. The film is also available in 3D Blu-ray.

Unlike previous releases, Disney haven’t skimped on the extras here with a rare two-disc Collectors Edition. The first disc offers an energetic audio commentary and the beautiful animated short ‘Blue Umbrella’, while the second disc is packed with featurettes covering every area of production, as well as touching on the working culture at Pixar. The only drawback is that there is no ‘Play All’ function available. There are also exciting HD Fly-Throughs of the MU Campus, over 20 minutes of deleted scenes and extensive art gallery. If only more of the Disney, or even Pixar releases of late, had had such an impressive collection of features.

Released 20th November 2013

For those that found the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’ too long, the idea of an extended edition must sound preposterous. Keeping with the tradition set with ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Jackson has added 17 minutes of footage to ‘An Unexpected Journey’, moments that offer further character information and dramatic beats deemed unnecessary for the theatrical cut. It was already a long film, so the idea of making it longer seems a bit much, but the extended cuts of these films were never meant to be a definitive or directors cut. They simply act as a companion to the theatrical cuts, which are often the cuts Jackson prefers. And this longer version certainly doesn’t distract from the fact that ‘An Unexpected Journey’ is an absolutely cracking first instalment, bolstered by Jackson’s bravura filmmaking, staggering action set pieces and a wonderfully detailed central performance by Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. Extra footage offers more information about Bilbo and the Dwarves, and a smattering more about the Elves, but it neither enhances not detracts from the film itself. As we throttle towards the Lonely Mountain with ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ on Boxing Day, this extended cut offers a chance to revisit the first chapter with some extra tid-bits thrown in.

Of course, the film still looks absolutely spectacular. The 2.35:1 1080p transfer is clean, crisp and cinematic, with the gorgeous production design gorgeous in high definition. This Blu-ray release puts the entire film on a single disc, but the transfer has lost none of its clarity or power. The same can be said for the thunderous DTS-HD MA 7.1 track. From the get-go, ‘An Unexpected Journey’ bellows with a bass-heavy sound design coupled with Howard Shore’s rousing score.

This is what every fan of ‘The Hobbit’ has been waiting for. The highlight of the extended editions of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was the exhaustive making-of material that included around six hours of documentaries for each film as well as thousands of images in copious photo galleries. ‘An Unexpected Journey’, unfortunately, doesn’t have any galleries on offer, but it does have over nine hours of documentaries covering every single aspect of the making of the film. The first of the two discs covers the filming production period, with candid interviews with the entire cast and crew, while the second disc looks at the pre- and post-production period. The scale of the material is immense, but there’s not a wasted minute. The standard set by ‘The Lord of the Rings’ has been met, and this is undoubtedly one of the best extras packages we have seen in a very long time. It makes you salivate for the next extended edition.

Released 4th December 2013

There was much fanfare when CBS launched their new sci-fi series based on Stephen King’s acclaimed novel ‘Under the Dome’. The studio, so confident the show would be a success, immediately announced a second season, showing their satisfaction at the show’s ratings success. However, fans of the book (one of the best King has written in a very long time) reacted with confusion. The original work, a stunning psychological horror story about a New England town strapped one day under a mysterious dome that cuts them off from the rest of the world, works on a small timeframe and comes to an immense and devastating finale. How long did CBS intend to drag this one out for?

Unfortunately, there’s very little to suggest that the series of ‘Under the Dome’ has a promising future. Gone is the psychological subtext of the novel or set-pieces of violence and horror, bolstered by brilliant characters. Instead, we have hackneyed writing, appalling storytelling, atrocious production values and a cast of actors who are either trying really, really hard to be convincing (most of the younger cast) or trying to find something to be excited about (Dean Norris, so tremendous in ‘Breaking Bad’, looks utterly bored here as ‘Big Jim’ Rennie, the villain who in transition from page to screen seems to have been severely lobotomised). It’s clear the series would have worked much better as a limited series with an end in sight, rather than meandering into an uncertain future. As the season stumbles towards its atrocious finale, it somehow becomes less coherent and even more outrageously simplistic. For those unfamiliar with the source material, it’s a vaguely intriguing premise that occasionally ventures into interesting territory. For fans of the novel, or any of King’s work, it’s another example of a great idea with the guts ripped out. Amidst all the wonderful work being done on TV, ‘Under the Dome’ is disappointingly forgettable.

For a series shot in HD, the 1080p 1.85:1 transfer fares well on Blu-ray. The visual look of the show is as artificial as the writing and acting, a chrome shininess to it. Detail is strong but not great, and the lower production values of the show are even more obvious in this format. There’s also an unremarkable DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that doesn’t have much going for it, but does the job.

Around 90 minutes of material are on offer in this 4-disc set, and most of it is more handsomely made than the series it relates to. The highlight is an engaging interview with Stephen King where he discusses the book and his interest in the adaptation. The rest of the documentary material covers the making of the series, from development to casting to filming the pilot. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, but it’s all marred when you realise that the crux of their adaptation process was to take the premise and the characters and do with it what they will. That explains why this is such a poor, poor adaptation.

Released 4th December 2013
At the end of Series Seven, we got the baffling revelation of acclaimed actor John Hurt as The Doctor. Heaven knew what it meant. It seemed like another obscure bit of oddness in the soupy mess that was the end of the series. What Steven Moffat offered with Hurt’s appearance was a tease towards the highly anticipated 50th Anniversary Special which aired towards the end of November this year, breaking ratings records across the globe. In this special episode, John Hurt’s Doctor (The War Doctor) is about to take the drastic action that will end the Time War, an event that has run through the revival of the series since the beginning, where the Doctor wipes out both the Daleks and the Time Lords in order to stop the war. However, a bit of timey-wimey business has him teaming up with both Matt Smith and David Tennant’s Doctors to stop the shape-shifting Zygons from taking over the earth.

Along the way are a myriad of references to the fifty year history of the show. Moffat promises revelations about the Doctor, and the final act of the episode does just that, effectively rewriting the previous seven years of the show and, arguably, making them utterly redundant. For all its promise, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ is a complete disappointment, an "event" that would have been nothing more than a vaguely interesting episode in the show if it hadn’t been heavily publicised and shot in 3D. What should have been an epic television event (and everything in the first few minutes promises just that) ends up being an underwhelming romp through an Elizabethan setting that seems utterly unnecessary, before returning to modern times and introducing more head-scratching narrative confusion. It is a joy to see Tennant back in the Converses, Smith is his usual terrific self and John Hurt is a surprisingly wonderful crabby War Doctor, but Jenna-Louise Coleman is relegated to standing around looking confused and it’s not entirely clear why Billie Piper needed to come back at all, especially as she isn’t playing Rose Tyler. There are occasionally witty moments and some genuine laughs (especially Tennant’s scene with a rabbit), but all that good work is lost in the final act. Moffat’s radical shift in the Doctor’s storyline at first seems refreshing at least, until you realise that it robs the Doctor of the gravitas that had made him so interesting since the revival of the show. This is masked behind a completely unnecessary and confusing cameo that will keep the fans happy, regardless of the fact it doesn’t seem to have a point or make any sense whatsoever.

After all the build-up and hope that this might right the wrongs of Series Seven, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ ends up as an underwhelming non-event, on par with middle-tier episodes of the main series. For such a remarkable icon of popular culture, you can’t help but think that he deserved a much better celebration for his 50th anniversary than this.

Predictably, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ looks terrific on Blu-ray with a cracking 1080p 1.85:1 transfer on par with the more recent Blu-ray releases of the series. The BBC put all their efforts behind the special, including filming it in 3D. This release offers the special in both 2D and 3D on the same disc. The DTS- HD MA 5.1 track is also up to the series’ usual bombastic standards, as technically proficient as the video transfer.

There’s a small and somewhat satisfying collection on offer here. The making-of featurette is all fluff, but there’s an interesting retrospective on the Doctor over 50 years. It isn’t particularly in-depth, but features interviews with many of the past Doctors and Companions. The real highlights are the two prequel webisodes. ‘The Last Day’ is an interesting tid-bit from the Time Wars, but ‘The Night of the Doctor’ is almost more satisfying than the special itself, featuring the Ninth Doctor Paul McGann and finally offering him the regeneration he never got. There’s also two teaser trailers, both of which make ‘The Day of the Doctor’ look far more exciting than it actually is.

Released 11th December 2013

With all attention squarely focused on ‘The Day of the Doctor’, most would have been unaware or uninterested in another BBC production celebrating the 50th Anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’. Written by regular Who writer Mark Gatiss, ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ turns its attention to the original conception of the show and the three people responsible for making it happen. In 1963, young producer Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) is tasked by the head of drama at the BBC, Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) to launch a new sci-fi program aimed at children that combines science and history and follows around a crabby old man in a time machine. Teaming with up-and-coming director Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), they put everything into making the concept work even in the face of workplace discrimination and immense production problems. For their mysterious Doctor, they turn to veteran character actor William Hartnell (David Bradley), who has been slowly disappearing off the radar and in desperate need of one last shot. Together, they defy expectation and create one of the most beloved television shows in history.

There’s a brevity to the film that comes with made-for-TV films, but in spite of this, ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ is a surprisingly moving and stirring piece of work. Amidst the perfectly recreated period setting, we explore the challenges facing Lambert, Hussain and Hartnell, not just in creating the show, but in working in the institution of the BBC during the 60s. The writing is razor-sharp and intelligent (as one would expect from Mark Gatiss) and the performances are all excellent. The highlight though is David Bradley as Hartnell. Similarly to his character, Bradley has long been relegated to memorable but small character parts, from ‘Harry Potter’ to that scene in ‘Game of Thrones’, but here is given one hell of a role and demonstrates what an imposing talent he actually is. His performance as Hartnell is powerful and heartbreaking, and devoid of ego. He isn’t afraid to show the darker demons of the man, but without any performative showy-ness. In many ways, ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ is the true 50th Anniversary Special for ‘Doctor Who’, far more memorable and emotional. The final few minutes hit you like a sledgehammer. While ‘The Day of the Doctor’ spent a lot of time telling you that the legacy of ‘Doctor Who’ is important, ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ does something far more powerful: it shows us why.

Sadly, the BBC has only released ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ on DVD. There’s no doubt it would have looked beautiful on Blu-ray, but because of its limited appeal in comparison to ‘The Day of the Doctor’, you can understand the decision, and this release is a top-notch one in both video and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio for a standard definition release.

A wonderful set of extras are on offer, far better than those on ‘The Day of the Doctor’. There’s a short featurette about William Hartnell and a short but fascinating look at the making of the film. There are also two deleted scenes (one giving us a look into the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and the unedited recreations of classic ‘Doctor Who’ shown in the film shot using as much of the original technology as possible. Rounding off the package are a short comparison of the original Who credits and those for the film, and a booklet with a note from Gatiss. An excellent package rounding off an excellent release.

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