4K HDR Essentials

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

1968 (as I mentioned in my review of Rosemary’s Baby) was the year Hollywood, no longer able to lure people into theaters, blew everything up and started all over again. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the most radical product of that very radical year—not only because it flouted all the conventions of mainstream storytelling but because it went full-court Brecht to subvert the audience’s addiction to identifying with the protagonist, refused to use dialogue to Mickey Mouse viewers through the action, openly pissed on the convention of the traditional Hollywood music score, and stubbornly refused to be wedged it into any identifiable genre.

2001 is utterly sui generis—no film had looked anything like it before; no film has looked anything like it since. It exists in its own, somewhat rarefied, universe.

 

Kubrick would never do anything that overtly adventurous again. Sure, Clockwork Orange was more outrageous, but kind of in the same way as Dr. Strangelove; and “outrageous” isn’t the same thing as “adventurous.”

 

But neither adventurousness nor outrageousness on their own, or even together, are enough to make a film great. (The path from 1968 to the present is littered with the corpses of films that managed to do both, but little else.) 2001 is great because it sets an impossibly high bar and almost achieves it. Adventurousness and outrageousness are symptomatic of that ambition, but neither is essential to realizing it.

 

Which is why—to again return to an earlier review—I have to give The Shining the edge as Kubrick’s most 

2001 AT A GLANCE

Stanley Kubrick’s utterly unique and still radical big-budget experimental film is almost as compelling as its original Cinerama presentation in this 4K HDR release.

 

PICTURE     

So well done that the film is on par with The Shining as a reference-quality download. HDR in particular helps enhance the impact of space travel, celestial bodies, and Bowman’s hallucinatory hotel room.

 

SOUND     

A faithful reproduction of a deliberately pared-down soundtrack that was always meant to complement and comment on the action, not mimic it.

accomplished work. Almost everything he does big and bold in 2001 he achieves quietly and more deftly in that later film. 2001 is the product of an artist so giddy he can’t help but show off; The Shining is the work of a master so confident in his abilities that he can just quietly drop clues and then wait as the rest of us scurry to catch up.

 

But why even go into all this? Because both 2001 and The Shining hinge on the experience of pulling you deep inside the film—not in a superficial, escapist way but so you begin to have the sensation of actually occupying the same physical space as the characters.

 

That the 4K HDR presentations of both films are reference-quality seriously ups the “you are there” ante—but with a crucial difference. And there’s the rub. The Shining is almost one-to-one true to the movie Kubrick created. When you watch it at home on a high-quality system, you’re seeing what he wanted you to see. 2001 in 4K HDR is just as extraordinary—but as a title card in the closing credits reminds you, this was originally a Cinerama presentation. And, unlike most of the other filmmakers who dabbled in Cinerama, Kubrick didn’t deploy it as a gimmick (Grand Prix, anyone?) but made it absolutely central to creating that sensation of taking an epic voyage into space.

 

So, is 2001, viewed in 4K HDR, in any meaningful way inferior to The Shining? On the technical level of the transfer, no, they’re both excellent—almost flawless. But since you can’t do Cinerama at home (at least not without a hell of a jerry-rigged

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setup that would have to verge on absurd), The Shining is truer to the original film.

 

All of the above is really just an exercise in praise by faint damning. The Kaleidescape download of 2001 is one of a handful of films so well served by the 4K HDR treatment that it has to be part of the foundation of any serious film collection. If there’s a single significant hiccup in this presentation, I didn’t see it.

 

Cinerama quibbles aside, to get lost in 2001 today, you have to get beyond ticking off what has and hasn’t come to pass and look past all that Swinging ‘60s clothing and furniture and get on the wavelength of the film Kubrick actually created, which exists in an elaborate and self-consistent world that merely uses the trappings of reality to achieve escape velocity.

 

The 4K resolution can’t reveal every detail of the original 70mm print, but it shows so much more than any previous home video incarnation that it’s shocking to realize to what 

extent Kubrick created outside his era, how unencumbered he was by the stylistic ticks of that time (or even of the future). On the level of film technique and film grammar, 2001 still holds.

 

What really takes the experience to a new, truer level is the HDR. Yes, many of the special effects now even more obviously look like still photos traveling across painted backgrounds. But shots of actual physical objects in motion, like the space station, The Discovery, and most of the extravehicular footage of the pod, are stunning. The brightness of objects in space is one of the things 2001 got basically right and the HDR makes them look so crisp and cold they’re almost tactile.

 

Three scenes in particular will give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, beginning with the shot of the scientists walking down the ramp into the lunar excavation, where Kubrick shoots directly into a large worklight, with the light so intense you almost have to look away. Next, the beginning of the final act, where the floating monolith guides Bowman into the Stargate, is especially compelling because of the convincing luminosity of Jupiter and its moons. And, finally, the virtual hotel room where Bowman goes through his transformation, which Kubrick created to mimic the look of early video, is more convincing with the white and other light tones pumped just enough to glow without becoming bloated or diffused.

 

As for the audio, talking about the soundtrack of 2001 has always been kind of a ticklish business because this is essentially a silent movie. Kubrick rediscovered and then reinvented the core grammar of silent film, much of which had been glossed over and obliterated by the tyranny of the microphone during the Studio Era, and used it to not just drive this film but all of his subsequent efforts. It’s not that the audio is superfluous; it’s just not redundant with the visuals, the way it had been since the introduction of sound—and continues to be.

(Curiously, another product of 1968—Blake Edwards’ The Party, which, like 2001, was much maligned at the time and is now revered—is also basically a silent film. Edwards, on a parallel track with Kubrick, dipped back into silent comedy to bring a sense of grace and redemption that had been missing from movie comedies since the Chaplin era.)

 

So, things like The Blue Danube, the heavy breathing, and the various warning sounds all sound perfectly fine. But this is a film of stripped-down and barren environments, without warfare or roaring engines, so there’s, thankfully, little audio-demo fodder to be found.

 

As for the extras—all I can say is “beware.” I’ve already sufficiently dumped on the team that created (although that seems far too kind a word) the promotional videos disguised as mini-docs included with Full Metal Jacket and The Shining. Their efforts here are equally awful. Unfortunately, the other videos are just as irritating and, for the most part, pointless. 

 

The trailer included here isn’t the one from the film’s initial release or even its 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

legendary initial re-release but a decidedly contemporary stab that feels like a cliché film-school exercise (people are going to look back 20 years from now at our addiction to dips to black and laugh their asses off) and indulges in exactly the kind of manipulative melodrama Kubrick despised.

 

The only extra worth going out of your way for is a 76-minute audio-only interview Jeremy Bernstein did with Kubrick in 1966. You get to hear the director walk through his whole career to that point, beginning as a failed high school student who became the youngest photographer ever at Look magazine and then went on to learn filmmaking, in a world without film schools, by making his own features. Not only is it better than anything any writer has ever done on Kubrick, it confirms, beyond a doubt, that Peter Sellers’ Quilty in Lolita is basically an extended Kubrick impression—which puts that deeply flawed film in a whole new light.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Vertigo

Vertigo (1958)

Lazy commentators on Hitchcock will tell you Vertigo is his best film like that’s the beginning and end of the discussion. I’ll allow that it’s one of his best—it’s definitely his most psychologically probing and, in its strange way, intimate—but I would also argue that both Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt deserve to be placed on that same top tier.

 

What is inarguable is that this is by far the best of the first round of Hitchcock films to receive the 4K HDR treatment. Whereas the releases of Rear Window and The Birds are merciless in exposing the flaws in both the original productions and the current state of the film elements, Vertigo is practically seamless in its presentation, gliding from image to image without any 

jarring technical distractions (with one exception, which I’ll discuss below). If you’re a Hitchcock fan, this is the 4K title to start with.

 

But it’s not necessarily the best place to start if you’re new to Hitchcock. Vertigo lacks most of the puckish little gimmicks he used to lure in the masses and, if you take it on its own terms, it’s a pretty disturbing tale of a damaged and fundamentally weak man completely gutted by his belief in the cultural tropes of the saint and the whore. And it can get especially unnerving when you realize that that man isn’t really Jimmy Stewart—who delivers an amazingly fearless portrayal of a pathologically vulnerable ex-detective—but Hitchcock himself.

 

Also, Hitchcock takes his time with the pacing, which won’t sit well with the jolt-a-minute immediate gratification crowd. It’s a cliché to say Vertigo feels like a dream, but that doesn’t make the cliché any less true. And there’s

VERTIGO AT A GLANCE

An essential, impeccably presented and with the impact of the original film completely restored, putting it on a whole other level from the 4K HDR releases of Rear Window and The Birds.

 

PICTURE     

Almost flawless, with the HDR staying true to the film’s dreamlike imagery and sumptuous colors.

 

SOUND     

A fitting showcase for Bernard Herrmann’s legendary score, giving the timbres of the various orchestral instruments a vivid presence rare on a movie soundtrack.

something about the tactile crispness of the images and the sumptuousness of the colors in this release that just enhances that effect. (But, ironically, given how nightmarish Hitchcock’s imagery can be—Norman Lloyd falling from the Statue of Liberty, anyone?—Vertigo notoriously contains one of the worst dream sequences ever.)

 

Seriously aiding that sense of being seduced into and then trapped within a dreamworld is Bernard Herrmann’s masterful score, probably his best. It’s something to be savored, and is especially well presented here, sounding both epic and intimate in its Wagnerian longing, with the orchestra not just some indiscriminate wash of sound but an assembly of individuals where you can feel the bows being drawn across the strings, the metallic resonance of the French horns, and the reedy, wooden resonance of the clarinets. For just one example among too many to name, watch the scenes of Stewart’s car drifting up and down the hills of San Francisco where the muted strings, like a siren’s call, subtly limn his character’s failing grip on the objective world.

 

This is undoubtedly Robert Burks’ most accomplished work for Hitchcock, with one subtly, and sometimes strikingly, stunning image after another. Given that this is Hitchcock, there is some occasional overreaching, but you can’t really fault Burks for not being able to rise to an impossible challenge.

 

There’s one borderline moment where 4K HDR really comes through. The pivotal scene where Madeleine reborn emerges from the green mist in Judy’s shabby hotel room had always looked corny on previous home video releases, like she was stepping out of a time transporter in a ‘50s sci-fi film. But here, by hitting just the right note with the green tone—not just in this shot but in the ones leading up to it—and by now being able to just see through the haze, you can experience for the first time outside of a movie theater exactly what Hitchcock was aiming for—and it works. It’s not just a clever effects shot but a deeply 

subjective portrayal of a man, using another person to purge his demons, ecstatic as he senses himself on the verge of redemption.

 

Of course, a lot of the credit for the sublime beauty of this 4K release goes to the 1996 restoration by Robert Harris and James Katz, who refurbished the film on 70mm to mimic its original VistaVision presentation. (I’m usually wary of extras, but it would have been useful if the Kaleidescape download had included something that put this somewhat controversial restoration in perspective since it’s so crucial to the film’s impact here.)

 

There is one glaring flaw, which I feel obliged to point out because I can see it’s going to be an issue with 4K releases of catalog films until someone finds a fix. The photo-backdrop cityscapes out Barbara Bel Geddes’ and, to a lesser degree, Stewart’s apartment windows are unconvincing, and look so flat and static that they run the risk of pulling you out of the film. But that’s just not how they looked when Vertigo was shown in theaters.

 

This is the subject of an ongoing conversation between Gerard Alessandrini and me, and something he broached in his “When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1.” These backdrops don’t look fake today because people were more gullible back 

Vertigo (1958)

in the ’50s. (In some ways, Studio Era audiences were far more sophisticated than today’s adrenalin junkies.) The cinematographers and production designers knew what they were doing and factored in the impact of images projected on a screen when they created their sets. But they couldn’t have anticipated what modern technology would do to their efforts. It’s kind of like seeing La Gioconda for the first time and only noticing the cracks in the paint.

 

Vertigo ranks up with The Shining as the best 4K HDR release of a catalog title I’ve seen to date. You not only get the benefit of enjoying Hitchcock at his peak—you get to experience what greater resolution and a wider color gamut can do to restore the impact of an older film.

 

And, O yeah—Vertigo has a nice little Easter egg for Cineluxe readers and John Sciacca fans in particular. Jump to the 1:49:00 mark and you’ll get to see John’s grandfather selling Jimmy Stewart a pair of women’s shoes.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

Of the stable of movie reviewers here at Cineluxe, I am probably the least qualified to review Stanley Kubrick’s epic historical drama, Spartacus. I certainly don’t possess the encyclopedic film knowledge or ability to dissect filming styles like Mike Gaughn, nor have the ability to draw wide parallels and comparisons like Dennis Burger. But what I can bring to this review is a fresh set of eyes and perspective, unsullied by previous experience and unburdened by any real knowledge of the film, as this was my first viewing. What I can hopefully answer is the straightforward question, “Is it worth my time/money to watch Spartacus?”

 

Doing even the slightest bit of digging into the film reveals it was not the smoothest production. After failing to get the title role in Ben Hur, Kirk Douglas was looking for a major project for his production company, Bryna Productions, and he optioned 

Howard Fast’s novel Spartacus. Fast was initially hired to adapt his work into a screenplay, but was replaced by Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood blacklist at the time, writing screenplays under pseudonyms. Trumbo apparently turned the script around in two weeks and Douglas insisted that Trumbo be given on-screen credit for the film and publicly announced Trumbo as the writer, effectively ending the blacklist.

 

The original director, Anthony Mann, was fired by Douglas after the first week of filming, and a 30-year-old Stanley Kubrick (who had worked with Douglas on Paths of Glory just three years earlier) was brought in. However, this is the only film where Kubrick was not given complete creative control, and it included a significantly higher budget—$12 million (equivalent to $105 million today)—and far larger cast than anything he’d previously worked on. Disagreements persisted throughout the production, based on Kubrick’s shooting style, pacing, the screenplay, and choice of location.

SPARTACUS AT A GLANCE

Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 gladiatorial epic looks suitably spectacular after receiving the 4K HDR treatment, with an able assist from the Dolby Atmos mix.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K resolution gives images great sharpness and depth throughout, with the HDR subtly accentuating highlights while bringing out rich colors, like the Legion’s crimson uniforms.

 

SOUND     

The conservative Atmos mix stays mainly in the front channels, which give the epic score plenty of room to breathe, but occasionally spreads into the surrounds for things like thunderstorms.

Despite all that, the film was a massive box-office success, receiving seven Academy Award nominations and winning four, including Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design.

 

With a run time of three hours and 17 minutes, watching Spartacus is a fairly significant time investment. While the film’s 1960 opening ran 202 minutes, the film received a pretty major trim—41 minutes—for a re-release in 1967. It received an extensive restoration in 1992, backed by Steven Spielberg, and while the cut footage—including the “infamous” bath scene between Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis)—was restored, the prints from the premiere were apparently lost, and there are two short scenes that no longer exist.

 

For its 55th Anniversary, the film was given another major restoration that included creating a new true-4K digital intermediate. A title card at the film’s conclusion notes, “2015 Digital Restoration 6K scan from original large format Technirama Film Elements 4K color correction and digital restoration, 7.1 channel audio by NBCUniversal Studio Post.” The 4K Blu-ray includes a DTS:X soundtrack, while the Kaleidescape version reviewed here features Dolby Atmos.

 

Born into slavery, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is saved from death when purchased by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who runs a school that trains gladiators to fight and die “for ladies and gentleman of quality, those who appreciate a fine kill.” While in training, Spartacus meets and falls in love with another slave, Varinia (Jean Simmons). After Varinia is sold, Spartacus leads a revolt and overthrows the soldiers at Batiatus’ camp. This revolt grows into an idea to rise up to free all the slaves of Italy, to create an army of gladiators that could fight their way to freedom to leave Italy forever to return to their homelands.

 

After the slave army conducts a variety of raids on Roman garrisons where they gather treasure and more freed slaves, the Roman Senate enacts a plan to send Legions to crush Spartacus’ army.

 

Spartacus is classic old-school, epic Hollywood filmmaking. It opens with a four-minute musical overture, followed by another near-four-minutes of credits, and even includes a mid-film intermission with a two-minute Entr’acte. With its run time, there is plenty of time to develop characters’ stories, appreciate Spartacus’ rise to power and march across Italy, and delve into the political intrigue happening in Rome, though the pacing does feel a bit slow at times.

 

What drives Spartacus is the strong performances of the leads. Likely motivated to show William Wyler he picked the wrong guy for Ben Hur, Douglas delivers a powerful portrayal, doing much of his acting with his eyes, saying more with a stare, a glare, a squint, or a furrowed brow than he does with his mouth. Olivier’s Crassus is a strong foil to Douglas, but the star of

Spartacus (1960)

the show for me was Ustinov, who seems to revel in his role as successful citizen turned sycophant to the Empire, tossing in off-handed comments and jokes that bring a bit of levity to the story, an example of which: “A gladiator is like a stallion that must pampered. Oiled, bathed, shaved, massaged, taught to use your heads.”

 

Spartacus’ influence on Gladiator is clear, though that later film relies far more on gladiatorial-battle set pieces and the CGI spectacle of recreating the Roman Colosseum. What Spartacus lacks in modern computer trickery, it makes up for in sheer 

numbers, augmenting its cast with eight thousand Spanish soldiers to double as Romans for the climatic battle, and doing much of its shooting on location (including California’s Hearst Castle—and anyone who has ever been on the tour will recognize the swimming pool at what is supposed to be Crassus’ estate), which looks fantastic captured in the 35 mm Super 70 Technirama format.

 

The quality of this transfer is apparent before the film even starts, as the title credits are razor-sharp, clean, and clear.

 

The opening shots reveal a natural bit of film grain in the blue skies, but images have incredible depth and sharpness, letting you see for miles into the distance. Resolution is impressive throughout, with individual pebbles and stones visible in the rocky ground, or the frayed edges on the ragged sleeves of the slaves’ tunics, the detail of the embroidery, or the scuffs and wear in leather. The detail lets you clearly know what the fabric of each actor’s costume would feel like, and reveals the quality differences between classes. The resolution also reveals incredible facial detail in closeups, clearly showing every pore, wrinkle, and line in Douglas’ leathery, sunburnt face.

 

One of the downsides to suddenly revealing everything in a film—especially one that is now 60 years old—is that some of the filming techniques and shortcuts of the day are apparent. For example, there is an interior scene where it is obvious the brick and mortar of the walls is just set-dressing façade. It’s also clear when they are shooting on an interior set rather than on location. And that the groups of Roman soldiers in some long-focus shots are not actually groups of soldiers.

 

Also curious is the filming decision to nearly always greatly soften the image when showing Varinia. The sharpness of every other scene makes this especially apparent. I can only imagine this was a creative decision of the day, as Simmons was beautiful and had no apparent skin imperfections. (Though her acting was fine, her casting made me think they really wanted Elizabeth Taylor but instead used the closest substitute they could.)

While the grand battle scene is certainly impressive, I was surprised there weren’t more lengthy shots revealing the entirety of the fighting force. However, there are plenty of scenes that show off an innumerable amount of people either marching, preparing for battle, or starting to charge.

 

Also impressive is the training that occurs at Batiatus’ gladiator camp. It’s clear the actors are doing their own stunts, some of which required a fair bit of dexterity and stamina, and it appears that some people are actually being injured. For example, at the 54-minute mark, Spartacus fights Marcellus (Charles McGraw), and the higher resolution and color reveal that McGraw is actually bleeding from a wound, and you see Douglas actually smashing his face into the cooking pot.

 

This new transfer greatly benefits from the HDR grading, with interior scenes having deep shadow detail, and inky, clean blacks. We also enjoy added highlights from sunlight glinting off sweating skin or in burning firelight. Having never seen the film prior, I can’t say for certain but it appears that they took a pretty conservative pass with the HDR, and definitely remained true to the film’s original look. The wider color gamut brings out the richness of the crimson of the 

Spartacus (1960)

Roman soldiers and Senators, the gleam of shining gold, the red-orange as villages burn at night, and just a more natural quality to skin tones.

 

Sonically, it felt like about 90% of the audio came from the front three left, center, and right speakers. If the surrounds were ever employed, it was sparingly, and certainly not in a manner that ever caused distraction or undue attention. The sweeping score is big and dynamic, with its soundstage given a chance to open up across the width of the front speakers with a bit of the strings mixed up into the front height channels for added dimension. The only other time I was aware of any height-channel activity was during a thunderstorm were a bit of the storm is mixed overhead. They also use the subwoofer to bring weight to the musical score, and to punctuate some of the battle scenes or marching. Dialogue is kept to the center channel, and it is clear and intelligible throughout.

 

Spartacus remains a spectacle and triumph of its time, and it is the kind of massive Hollywood film of epic scale we don’t often see any longer. Further, the care and effort that went into this restoration are simply stunning to behold, letting you appreciate details audiences 60 years ago likely missed. Getting back to my opening question, “Is it worth your time/money to watch?” Absolutely.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980)

The critics hated The Shining. Some of the more prominent, and dubious, ones put it on their “Worst of the Year” lists. Some pointed to the first Friday the 13th installment, released around the same time, as the future of horror and dismissed Kubrick’s effort as quaint and out of touch. Stephen King famously damned the film—then went on with his own adaptation to prove that he knows nothing about filmmaking.

 

The Shining has, of course, since become a classic. But films are usually deemed “classic” more for their ability to pander to mass taste than for any inherent worth. The more important question is: Is it Kubrick’s best film?

I’m not completely sure about that, but I would tend to argue yes. In The Shining, his technique is in perfect sync with his ambitions, his execution fully, inventively, and surprisingly realizes his themes, and he dives deep enough into the much-abused but still fecund roots of the culture and returns with enough gold to craft something that might still survive when almost every other movie has been forgotten. The Shining is so well done it makes even the best of Kubrick’s previous efforts seem a little callow.

 

There’s no point in hashing out its merits as a traditional horror movie. While he does deploy some conventional elements, Kubrick primarily pursues horror through other, more effective, means—by using the very nature of film technique to keep the audience uneasy and to pull them into the action against their will.

 

The most obvious instances are well known by now, the two most famous being seeing the hyper-realistic manifestation of the old woman rising out of the bathtub at the same time 

SHINING AT A GLANCE

This 1980 horror classic is arguably Kubrick’s greatest film, presented here in an inarguably stunning transfer that’s one of the best 4K HDR efforts to date.

 

PICTURE     

Absolutely faithful to the original film, filling the frame with so much sharp detail and so accurately evoking the cold winter light that you feel like you’re trapped in The Overlook with the Torrances.

 

SOUND     

The appropriately subtle DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix enhances the various sonic signatures within the hotel and convincingly creates the sense of an enveloping winter storm.

her cackling horror-movie double is already chasing Jack Nicholson from the room, and Nicholson asking Shelly Duvall “Which room was it?” only to have the film cut to a cold open of a Miami newscast. (Kubrick intentionally placed that cut at a reel change so the audience would think the projectionist had screwed up.)

 

Things like that and the infamous title cards make you wonder “Is this supposed to be joke?” while baffling you why it should be, eventually inducing a skittish sense of “I can’t trust anybody here.” Taking a puppet-master’s delight in messing with the audience, Kubrick’s cunning runs the gamut from puckish to perverse, dancing right up to the edge of sadistic.

 

More relevant for our purposes is his astonishingly successful effort to transport the viewer into the film. It’s a cliché to say that The Overlook is a character in The Shining, but going there kind of misses the point. Kubrick took the strategies Roman Polanski used in Rosemary’s Baby to give The Black Bramford a palpable presence and seriously upped the ante by grafting them onto the medieval Art of Memory to achieve not just the sense of being lost in the film but trapped inside a labyrinthine hotel with a madman.

 

But anyone who’s only seen The Shining at less than 4K resolution—even on a cinematic home theater screen—has never had this experience—which means they’ve never really seen this film. All of which is a longwinded way of saying that this 4K HDR release is the first time anyone has had the chance to experience The Shining at home with the impact Kubrick intended.

 

That impact hinges on a number of things, but primarily on accurately reproducing the naturalness of the artificially created outdoor light, matching the resolution of the original film print so all of the detail—especially in the landscape shots—is faithfully reproduced, and having enough resolution so the movie can be experienced from the proper viewing distance, without distractions.

 

That last point is the most key: Sit at the right distance, and you begin to experience The Overlook the way the characters do. You accurately feel the scale of both the large and smaller spaces and can mentally navigate the corridors the same way they do—even when they’re not around. After a while, you begin to have this sensation independently of the action on the screen. You feel haunted, in real-time—which is what makes the film uncanny and horrific in a way no other movie has been able to achieve.

 

None of that would be possible at home without this transfer, which is the most beautifully done, and faithful, 4K HDR translation I’ve seen of any movie. Nothing is overemphasized; all of it is in the service of the film.

The Shining (1980)

And you can feel the full impact from the very first shot, where the faint ripples on the surface of the lake create the sense the small island is rushing toward you, and where the detail deep in the landscape makes the shot seem almost 3D—an effect maintained throughout the opening sequence, where the images have so much detail in the distance that they border on vertiginous. With HDR, the landscapes seem not just grand but crisp and cold and almost nasty.

 

This carries over to the interiors, where the ability to perceive even the smallest details reinforces the reality of The Overlook, adding to that sense of being trapped within it. I was especially awed by the wide shots of the gold ballroom, where you can clearly see the variations in the metallic surfaces and on the parquet walls way in the back of the room, and where all the lighting sources and reflections are properly balanced without being blown out. The movie hasn’t looked this good since the pristine prints from its initial release.

 

The quality of the transfer is just as important in the many striking closeups, with their natural skin tones and often uncomfortable intimacy. Letting yourself get lost in those shots helps reinforce the sense of being a complicit member of the highly dysfunctional Torrance family.

 

I really can’t fault the transfer for anything—except two somewhat inadvertent things. The HDR is so revealing that it gives away how Kubrick was able to achieve the seemingly impossible overhead shot of Wendy and Danny walking through the middle of an improbably elaborate version of the hedge maze. And Kubrick relied on the random variations of film grain and the motion of the film through the projector gate to sell the shot of Jack sitting frozen in the snow. Seen as it is here, with no film or grain movement, it’s all too obviously a photo still.

 

I don’t mean to shortchange the film’s soundtrack, but the images are so beguiling that you have to force yourself to really focus on what’s going on there. First off, the music score is to be savored. Without question the most effective use of existing cues in any film ever, Kubrick so carefully wedded and molded its elements that most viewers probably assume it’s an original score.

 

As for chest-thumping explosions, window-rattling gunfire, and the other aesthetically dubious bombast we’ve come to expect from a contemporary surround mix, there’s none of that here. Kubrick was too much a master of his craft to resort to gratuitous jolts. Intent on keeping you inside the action, he wouldn’t have wanted viewers thinking about the potential seismic damage to their homes.

 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is as deft as the visual transfer, enhancing the atmospheric sense of inevitability without drawing attention to itself or doing anything that would make you wince. The best stuff is the most subtle—the contrasting sonic signatures of the hotel’s rooms, lobby, ballroom, and other spaces, and the first hints, and then rising presence, of the winter storm. It’s like a perverse twist on New Age pablum, using the sounds of nature to lull you into a nightmare.

 

I feel obligated to mention the extras while kind of dreading it. To save the best for first, there’s “Making The Shining,” a documentary by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian that Kubrick suppressed during his lifetime but couldn’t keep from popping up on

YouTube and elsewhere from time to time. Because of his daughter’s unrivaled access and her skill, even at 17, as a filmmaker, it’s really the only portrait we have of Kubrick as a director. It’s also surprisingly revealing about Nicholson, Duvall, and Danny Lloyd, and the whole dynamic on the set. If you’re even casually interested in Kubrick or The Shining, it’s a must-see.

 

“Wendy Carlos, Composer,” available only on the DVD version, is mildly interesting for both the casually curious and for students of Carlos’ work. The audio commentary, also only available on the DVD download, is a very mixed bag. Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown has a decent number of insightful remarks about his work on The Shining, but Kubrick biographer John Baxter is nothing but a train wreck. You’d think a biographer would be strong on details, but he gets so much wrong you get the sense he’s just making it all up as he goes along. And his Felix the Cat recounting of the action while we’re watching it play out on the screen is so dumb and pointless that it becomes funny after a while. It’s like he’s narrating the film for a group of incredibly gullible blind people.

 

“View from the Overlook: Crafting The Shining” and “The Visions of Stanley Kubrick,” by the same team that perpetrated Full Metal Jacket’s “Between Good and Evil,” manage to neutralize the impact of any interesting comments by 

The Shining (1980)

various actors, directors, studio executives, and authors through their appallingly inept editing of footage from the film. Like the Full Metal Jacket travesty, they’re a textbook example of what happens when you give people with no discernible taste or talent free rein to butcher brilliant material.

 

But don’t let any of that cause you to hesitate to download this film. This release of The Shining will quickly become the jewel of any serious film collection. But it’s not there to be revered but watched. This film’s impact hasn’t diminished a jot since the day of its release. And this 4K HDR version takes us all the way back to that first day without compromise. It’s kind of like the movie just keeps repeating itself in an infinite loop without ever aging. Right . . ?

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Beetlejuice

Beetlejuice

Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice probably doesn’t spring immediately to mind as a prime candidate for a 4K/HDR remaster. That’s not to say anything about the quality of the film itself, of course. In fact, I would rank it as the second-best “goth” film of all time (right after Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, of course). It’s just never been a film that made for decent home theater demo material. The DVD release looked like a skit performed for public-access TV, and the Blu-ray—while a huge improvement—was still a blown-out, garish, overly saturated mess of a thing that could be categorized as “watchable” at best.

 

That kind of thing sticks with you. For the past 32 years, the home video presentation of Beetlejuice has left a lasting impression in the mind of viewers of how this quirky and adorably dark film is supposed to look. My only hope here is that 

enough people give the UHD/HDR release enough attention to undo some of the damage done by previous home video efforts.

 

To be frank, you don’t really notice the advantages of the new HDR color grade at first. And I suspect that’s because the opening credits sequence—with its sweeping overhead view of the village of Winter River, CT, which morphs into a model thereof—seems to have been taken from a print, not the original film negative. So while you immediately get a sense of the enhanced resolution of this new restoration, the color palette is still a little limited and the overall quality of the image is ever-so-slightly dupe-y.

 

As soon as the last title fades away, though, we quite obviously move to a scan of the original negative, and from here on out the image takes on all the qualities of beautifully restored (or perhaps lovingly preserved) 35mm film.

 

Maybe the most startling thing about this new presentation is how nuanced the colors are. Gone are the ridiculously 

BEETLEJUICE AT A GLANCE

This 4K transfer of Tim Burton’s surprisingly affirmative romp through goth darkness shows what a boon HDR can be for ’80s films—when it’s done right.

 

PICTURE     

This 4K HDR version avoids the garishness of, and restores a lot of the detail missing from, earlier home video incarnations.

 

SOUND     

The tastefully done Dolby Atmos mix results in audio that sounds better than the original soundtrack sounded on the mixing stage, enhancing the clarity of the dialogue and giving Danny Elfman’s score plenty of room to breathe.

ruddy skin tones and the Hulk-Smash green of the foliage (both outdoors and in the scale model of Winter River that dominates the plot of the film). Yes, as the lovely Geena Davis and a surprisingly sufferable Alec Baldwin make their trek into the idyllic little town toward the beginning of the film, the image is still peppered with vibrant primary hues—the sign on the hardware store, the covered bridge where Davis and Baldwin’s characters lose their lives—but because of the wider color gamut of HDR10, the saturation of the overall image doesn’t have to be cranked to 11 to allow for such vivid chromaticity when and where it’s appropriate.

 

The second thing you notice is that there’s just so much detail in the image that has been lost in previous home video transfers, and not wholly as a function of resolution. Take the short scene in which the pushy real-estate agent played by Annie McEnroe surprises Baldwin’s character at the window in a desperate push to talk him out of his home. Even on Blu-ray, the scenery behind her is a white-hot blur, devoid of depth or detail. And that makes sense, given the 8-bit limitations of HD video. The choice had to be made whether to overexpose the world outside that window or underexpose the interior and risk

losing Baldwin in the shadows.

 

In this new 10-bit transfer, both interior and exterior are perfectly exposed. Baldwin exists in the shadows, yes, but doesn’t get lost in them, while the depth and detail of the foliage behind McEnroe still shines through.

 

That’s one scene out of dozens I could point to in 

extolling the virtues of this new UHD/HDR restoration and its ability to breathe life into this tale of the dead. Other details that come to mind are the imperfections of Winona Ryder’s teenaged complexion and the fine filigree lace of Davis’s bridal gown, both of which are resolved beautifully. The film grain is also perfectly organic throughout—not too noisy, not too overbearing, but never artificially smoothed over.

 

But perhaps my favorite thing about this new transfer is the way it handles the scenes in the bureaucratic Neitherworld, which have always been the worst-looking aspect of the film’s home video releases. Here, the HDR gets to flex its muscles with no concern for lifelike skin tones or believable greenery. Simply put, these sequences now glow and iridize like a fluorescent

blacklight poster, which is how they’ve always looked in my memory of seeing the film far too many times to count on the big screen in the spring of ’88.

 

The sound on the other hand? I think it’s safe to say Beetlejuice didn’t sound as good on the mixing stage as it does here. Aside from a few cute and subtle exceptions, the new Dolby Atmos remix doesn’t get too carried away with repositioning sound elements or making the film sound like a modern blockbuster, mind you. And thank goodness it doesn’t include any re-recorded sound effects, as does the travesty of a remix included with the new 4K/HDR remaster of Hitchcock’s Psycho. The mix mostly serves to simply give more space to Danny Elfman’s delicious score and the wonderfully uplifting Harry Belafonte soundtrack. But it’s also apparent that there’s also been some equalization done to the audio. There’s an enhanced richness and fidelity I don’t recall ever hearing before, and dialogue clarity is among the best of any home video release. Like, ever.

 

There’s nothing much by way of extras here, aside from three episodes of the Beetlejuice Saturday-morning cartoon that ran from 1989 to 1991. These haven’t been restored and are horribly compressed, so they likely aren’t worth your time. The Kaleidescape download, unlike the recent UHD Blu-ray release, also includes an isolated music track—that is to say, a version of the film devoid of dialogue or 

Beetlejuice

sound effects. But it’s unfortunately married to the pan & scan standard-definition transfer of the film, so its value is debatable at best.

 

But don’t let the lack of supplemental goodies bum you out. Beetlejuice is one of the worthiest UHD/HDR remasters I’ve seen to date (almost on par with The Wizard of Oz), and the film itself is such a joyous (and ironic) celebration of life that it stands on its own.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Gladiator

Gladiator

Having not watched the film for years, what I most remembered about Gladiator prior to this viewing was the incredible recreation of the Roman Colosseum filled with tens of thousands of cheering, blood-thirsty fans. I recall marveling at the size and scope of it and how they had been able to resurrect and recreate this 1,900-plus-year-old monument.

 

Those digital effects didn’t hold up quite so convincingly viewed in 4K resolution 20 years later, but that’s OK. While the movie boasted some impressive visual effects for its day, they were always there just to serve the greater purpose of telling the 

story and never just for the sake of, “Look what we can do!” digital wizardry. At its heart, Gladiator remains a thoroughly compelling story featuring powerful acting all around with impressive practical sets and effects and action scenes that remain dynamic and thrilling, keeping this film as entertaining today as it was on its release back in 2000.

 

I had also forgotten just what a powerhouse Gladiator was at the 2001 Academy Awards, snagging a total of 12 nominations and pulling down a total five Oscars including Picture, Actor (Russell Crowe), Costume Design, Sound, and Visual Effects. 

 

Director Ridley Scott wastes no time jumping into the story, quickly introducing us to General Maximus Decimus (Crowe) as he is about to lead his Roman army to victory against a Germanic horde in what will be the final battle of his latest campaign. It’s immediately clear Maximus is an accomplished war fighter, leading from the front, and beloved by his men.

GLADIATOR AT A GLANCE

Twenty years on, aside from some of the digital effects, this sword & toga potboiler holds up surprisingly well in 4K, thanks to its strong acting, excellent production design, and classic action scenes.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is excellent, and true to the movie’s 35mm roots, with occasional glimpses of grain in the images and an analog softness.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix is consistently effective, whether evoking the subtle sounds of casual interaction, the mayhem of battle, or the intense engagement of gladiatorial combat.

Following the battle, aging Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) tells Maximus of his plans to leave rule to him rather than his debauched son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Predictably, Commodus doesn’t take this news well, instead killing his father in private and declaring himself Caesar and then ordering the Praetorian Guard to kill Maximus and his family. When the soldiers fail to kill Maximus, he rides towards his home, arriving just in time to see it burned to the ground and his family slaughtered. Severely wounded, Maximus is taken prisoner and sold as a slave to Proximo (Oliver Reed) and made to fight as a gladiator. Maximus’ motivation throughout remains solely to survive long enough to be able to avenge his family by killing Commodus.

 

If Gladiator were just about fighting, fancy sets, and costumes, it wouldn’t hold up nearly so well. What keeps it great is the acting, primarily by Crowe who earns his Oscar in every scene and seems fully at home in the role of commanding troops and fighting. Maximus is always believable as the general who could come in and organize a band of gladiators to overthrow the people they are forced to fight, leading a rebellion from within. Phoenix brings just the right level of loathsomeness to petulant Commodus, someone solely interested in his own rise to power and willing to do whatever it takes to keep it, along with his lecherous relationship with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielson).

 

At over two and a half hours, Gladiator is a long film that doesn’t feel long. Rather, Scott takes us on what feels like an epic journey, even though, in reality, the events portrayed in the film would take less than a year to play out. The running time gives us plenty of opportunity to care about Maximus and his journey; to root for his fellow gladiator/slaves Jubu (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (Ralf Moeller); to follow the political machinations of Roman Senators Gauis (John Shrapnel) and Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) as they try to keep Commodus in check and do what is right for the Republic. It also allows enough time between matches in the arena to keep the film from feeling like just a string of fights.

 

Filmed in 35mm, Gladiator was given a restoration in 2018 and both the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc and the Kaleidescape download are taken from a new true 4K digital intermediate. The movie looks like it has been born anew. Image quality retains its film-like look, with grain occasionally visible in some of the early-morning sky scenes or through some of the battlefield smoke, but you are drawn closer to the action with the clarity and cleanness of the picture. Native film scanned to 4K doesn’t produce the micro-level of detail seen in modern transfers, but you can still appreciate far better resolution here than in the previous, HD version.

 

Closeups reveal the texture and feel of the fabrics used on the elaborate Academy Award-winning costumes, the nicks and dents in the battle armor or links in chainmail, the cracks and lines in the walls of the city, or the fine stalks of wheat with individually detailed wisps, or the dirt and dust Maximus rubs on his hands before each battle.

 

The added detail also helps you to appreciate the large vistas that give the film its sense of scope and scale. But I did notice that some of the long shots and even the occasional closeup appeared a bit soft. Also, the lengthy shots leaning heavy on CGI, such as the Colosseum and the initial Rome flyover, are softer due to the graphics limitations of the day, and the greater resolution makes the digital crowd feel a bit less real.

 

The added contrast from HDR also helps to improve images. There are a lot of low-lit scenes here, whether in tents or prisons or at night time, and the deep black levels and shadow detail add to the realism. Many interior scenes are lit by numerous torches, and we not only get the nice pop of brightness from the fires, but the warm, natural glow of the firelight, and the deep shadows as actors move around a space. The spectacle of Commodus’ Rome benefits from the wide colors, with bright, gleaming golds and other regal colors looking vivid, along with the bright-red blood spilled in battle and the deep red-orange of fireballs and flames in combat.

While the UltraHD disc receives a new object-based DTS:X soundtrack, the Kaleidescape version gets a DTS-HD Master 7.1-channel mix that’s still exhilarating and exciting, especially when run through an upmixer found on modern AV processors.

 

The opening battle features shouts and chants from the armies along with the din of soldiers, which engulfs you from all around the room, followed by the sounds of arrows whistling past you into the surround channels and fireballs sailing overhead and bursting into treetops. The crowd noise inside the Colosseum is also appropriately huge and room-filling, putting you right in the midst of the action. Bass is deep and authoritative when appropriate, such as chariots crashing in the arena or when the fireballs smash into trees.

 

Equally as impressive as the bombast are the subtler audio moments that help to define and establish the scene and space the characters are in, with nearly every scene or moment featuring little bits of audio that help to set the space of things happening on or off camera. Listen to the carriage ride as Commodus is riding to the front—you hear the sounds of the rocking and creaking of the carriage itself 

Gladiator

along with things jingling inside, as well as the noises of the horses and the wheels turning outside. In another scene, you can hear the delicate, gentle tinkle of Lucilla’s earrings knocking together as she talks. Or in the prison at night, where you hear the sounds of doors opening and closing, crickets chirping in the distance, or echoing footsteps. Throughout, the audio mix is impressive whether in the midst of battle or in quieter moments.

 

Of course, Hans Zimmer’s dynamic Oscar-nominated score sounds wonderful here, giving more room to breathe across the front channels and up into the height speakers.

 

Gladiator holds up remarkably well after 20 years, not just visually and sonically, but also from its involving story and acting, and the new 4K HDR version clocking in at a whopping 95 GB from Kaleidescape represents the best you’ve ever experienced this film!

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Disney and Lucasfilm gave Star Wars fans a real gift this year, making all nine of the franchise films (plus offshoots Rogue One and Solo) available for the first time in 4K HDR transfers with Dolby Atmos immersive audio soundtracks. And, as an even more special May the Fourth present, the films are also all currently marked down at sale prices through digital retailers, with each movie available for download at Kaleidescape for $13.99 (opposed to the usual $33.99). A bargain in any galaxy
. . . no matter how far, far away!

While I’ve reviewed the two latest films in the Star Wars canon—The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalkerwe thought it would be interesting to take a look further back in the franchise and view one of the installments widely considered to be the best of the bunch: The Empire Strikes Back.

 

I was seven when Star Wars—now known as A New Hope—was released in 1977, and I can’t remember being as excited about seeing a sequel as when Empire came out in 1980. (In retrospect, it’s clear Empire only set me up for a lifetime of disappointment, expecting that all sequels would be fantastic and surpass the originals.) I clearly remember begging my dad to take me on opening night, and then breaking down and sobbing when he said he wouldn’t—a devastating blow to 10-year-old me having to wait even one extra day! (For the record, I have seen every Star Wars film since—including the Special Edition re-releases—on opening day.)

EMPIRE AT A GLANCE

Even if you already have Empire in every previous format, you’ll want to add this 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos transfer to your collection. Both picture and sound are reference-quality.

 

PICTURE     

Space has never looked blacker, the pinpricks of starlight have never looked brighter, and you can see every wispy strand of hair on Puppet-Yoda’s head.

 

SOUND

The Atmos mix is not only dynamic—with resonant AT-AT foot stomps and lots of impressive flyovers—but detailed, revealing all the activity in the Hoth rebel base as the blizzard rages outside.

As impressive as the first film was, Empire ratcheted everything up several notches: Exciting new locations—Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin; new weapons—snow speeders and AT-AT walkers; Jedi training, and a far more impressive lightsaber battle between Vader and Luke (Mark Hamill); new characters—scoundrel/frenemy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the Emperor (Ian MacDiarmid), a character so powerful even Vader kneels before him, and a new Jedi Master, Yoda! Plus, a huge—you actually want to hear an audience let out an audible gasp!?revelation from Vader, along with the introduction of everyone’s favorite bounty hunter, Boba Fett.

With all that going on, it’s no wonder this movie is both the best reviewed—Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of 94—and most fan-loved—audience score of 97—of the nine-film series, along with being my personal favorite. And, let me assure you, it not only holds up after 40 years, but, oh my DAMN! does this film look and sound absolutely amazing! Fully restored and taken from a new 4K digital intermediate, Empire is clean, detailed, sharp, and visually stunning, and never looked as good as we have it now.

 

As stunning as the audio and video transfer is, nearly as impressive to me was not only how well the film holds up after all this time, but just how impressive the visual effects still are. Sure, you can tell that the Tauntauns and AT-ATs are stop-motion miniatures, and some of the matte paintings can’t compete with modern CGI, but overall, the film still absolutely delivers. (Leia calling Han “laser brain” and Luke oddly scratching Chewie under the neck still remain cringeworthy.)

 

George Lucas famously broke away from the Hollywood machine after the first film, deciding to take full control of his story and opting to finance Empire entirely on his own (a story documented in the fascinating two-and-a-half-hour Empire of Dreams—The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, available for streaming on Disney+). Doing this not only made him fabulously wealthy, it made him realize he would be too busy to take on the directing chores, instead asking a former film professor, Irvin Kershner, to take over at the helm. Besides managing finances, Lucas also looked over the special effects of his other budding enterprise, Industrial Light and Magic, and remained involved as executive 

producer, writer, and editor, something you get an interesting glimpse into via one of the included special-feature docs “George Lucas on Editing The Empire Strikes Back.” 

 

Literally from the film’s opening seconds, you will notice the improvement in picture quality. The starfield is black and crisp, with hundreds of bright pinpoints of starlight (were there always that many stars?), and the opening text scrawl is a glorious vibrant yellow that leaps off the screen.

 

All of the space shots are wonderfully deep and black, with bright star points and little lights illuminating the various ships, along with a variety of colored engine plumes. These shots now have far more contrast, and the Imperial Star Destroyers look gorgeous. Featuring a beautiful shining-white leading edge, they’re illuminated by hundreds of lights, making them appear more ominous and alive and massive, and allowing you to appreciate all the detail.

The Empire Strikes Back

Edges are just razor-sharp and clean throughout, with closeup detail so good that you see every line and pore in the actors’ faces. Leia (Carrie Fisher) looks incredibly fresh-faced and young and beautiful. You also notice that the shoulder restraints of the snow-speeder pilots appear to be just bubble wrap. These tight shots reveal individual strands of Chewbacca’s fur, along with each single wispy piece of hair on Yoda’s head, face, and fingers, and each wrinkle and expression. Puppet-Yoda is more alive and real than ever, and you can really appreciate the master work done here by Frank Oz.

 

There were a lot of practical sets and props used during production, and the image quality really lets you appreciate the detail and care that went into them. The detail and texture along the Falcon is amazing, and you can see all of the little nicks and scratches and wear on the various pilots’ uniforms and helmets. The details of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite—with little dimples and cracks and pits—are also clearly visible. We get several nice interior shots of the Falcon’s cockpit, alive with hundreds of glowing and blinking lights of different colors, all vibrant in HDR.

 

While the Hoth battle scene is one of my very favorites—and is as exciting today as ever, enhanced with both better images and audio, and with the details of the snowy landscape now more visible thanks to HDR—I think one of the most visually striking parts of the film is in the carbonite freezing bay. Here the deep black of the room is accentuated with glowing orange, with bright blue lights and with smoke all around. When Vader and Luke face off here in the first saber duel, it looks

absolutely phenomenal. The visuals are crisp and sharp with tons of contrast, creating incredibly cinematic images that are every bit as dynamic and compelling as anything you’ll see in modern film.

 

As good as the images are, the sound does an equally impressive job of bringing Empire up to modern sonic standards, with the mixers taking every opportunity to have ships and objects flying or rumbling past overhead. Right from the start, probe droids launched from the Destroyer whiz across your ceiling, not to mention all the flyovers from tie-fighters, snow speeders, mynocks, and more. Ghost Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) and the Emperor’s voice boom from overhead and all around as appropriate.

 

Beyond the big action scenes, we get a ton of ambience and atmospheric sounds in nearly every scene. Take a moment and listen to all the little things that are happening inside the Rebel bases on Hoth . . . there are shouts from off screen, ambient little buzzes and droid noises, and mechanical sounds of repairs going on. Outside on Hoth, the blizzard whips wind and snow around the room. On Dagobah, we are immersed in jungle sounds, with creature noises and leaves rustling, and a brief rainstorm that showers the room.

The Empire Strikes Back

Bass is deep and powerful when called for, whether it is explosions or the mighty foot stomps of the AT-AT walkers. Perhaps most important, dialogue is always clear and properly placed, not always in the center channel but tracking characters as they move off screen.

 

I honestly can’t say enough about this 4K HDR transfer of The Empire Strikes Back; it is truly reference quality in every way. And having purchased the Star Wars films in so many formats and versions over the years—VHS, letterbox VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray—I was seriously planning on sitting this round of Star Wars releases out. But after watching Empire, I am starting to question that decision. If you are a Star Wars fan, you have never seen the movies looking like this, especially in a fine home theater. In many ways, it feels like seeing them again for the very first time. And that is a priceless experience.

 

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Wonderful 4K “Wizard of Oz”

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

As much as we tend to discuss Ultra HD video and high dynamic range in relation to the latest that Hollywood and Netflix have to offer, it’s sometimes easy to forget something quite important: The films that stand to benefit most from current home-video standards aren’t the newest digital spectacles but rather classic works created entirely in the analog domain. Older films simply possess a level of detail and nuance no previous home-video format has been capable of replicating, and short of

cinema revivals, most of us have never seen them in all their splendor.

 

That said, I don’t know of any film as old as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz to make the leap into 4K/HDR before now. For that matter, I don’t know of any other movies filmed in three-strip Technicolor that have been remastered for 4K/HDR. That alone makes this new home-video release academically interesting, even if the Judy Garland classic holds no emotional sway over you.

 

Not that it matters, of course, but it does for me. Hold emotional sway, that is. I’ve owned Oz on every home-

video format available in the U.S., including every VHS release, every Laserdisc release, every DVD and Blu-ray. But my love affair goes further back than that. One of my earliest memories is of lying belly-flat on the rug in our den, watching Dorothy and friends traipse down the Gray Brick Road on our old black-and-white tube TV. Much to my dad’s chagrin, that was the start of a yearly tradition for me—one I uphold to this day, every Thanksgiving.

 

I can almost define each era of my life in relation to how I experienced that annual ritual. My first time viewing it on a color TV was, it should go without saying, a significant revelation. And although there have been upgrades down the road since (the 1989 restoration of the sepia tones in the opening and closing acts, the 2005 restoration and re-alignment of the original Technicolor film strips), rarely has any viewing of Oz blown my mind quite to the same degree as seeing it in color for the first time.

 

Until now, that is. This new 4K/HDR release of The Wizard of Oz is the first that actually manages to replicate the experience of viewing the movie by way of a pristine 35mm print. And this is evident as early as those early sepia-toned shots in Kansas, which you wouldn’t think would make for a great HDR demo. But it’s important to remember that, for all the talk about peak 

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

brightness and nits and whatnot, the most significant boost to dynamic range that HDR delivers is in the lower end of the value scale. There are simply more steps of near-black to work with here, and that’s put to good use in the opening scenes of Oz by dragging detail out of the shadows without brightening the overall image.

 

It should come as no surprise, though, that this new transfer doesn’t really come to life until Dorothy steps through the

monochromatic door of her wind-tossed home into the rainbow land of Oz. But again, the benefits here may not be what you’re expecting.

 

If you go in anticipating tons of intense specular highlights, you’re going to be left wanting. Some vibrant peak brightness is used to bring out the sparkle of Glinda’s jewels and of course the gleaming glimmer of Dorothy’s ruby slippers. But in all cases, this higher-intensity brightness is organic and tastefully done. So much so that it may only affect you subliminally.

 

There’s simply no mistaking the color palette of this new transfer for that of any previous home-video release. Early video offerings of Oz did what they could with their limited color gamut. Around the time of the aforementioned remaster in the mid-2000s, though, Warner saw fit to actually boost the color saturation of the movie in order to approximate the Crayola hues Technicolor was capable of delivering.

 

The problem with this is that the entire color palette of Oz was dragged along for the ride. So, although the Wicked Witch’s verdant skin tones may have looked close enough, subtler colors like the pastel tones of the Lullaby League were overly boosted, overly intense—just plain wrong, when you get right down to it.

 

When viewed via Kaleidescape, the 10-bit palette of this new release (which was taken from an 8K, 16-bit scan of the original film elements) puts all of the colors in their proper proportions. So, for example, in certain scenes in Munchkinland, subdued pastels share the screen with luscious primary hues—something most of us have never seen outside of the film’s more recent theatrical revivals.

 

The detail and definition of this new transfer will also henceforth be my response to those who say we don’t need 4K resolution at home. Subtle details that were obscured by previous 1080p and lower-resolution releases are restored for all the world to see—even down to the individual hairs on Dorothy’s head.

 

Granted, there is, of course, a hefty helping of softness to the image in places, especially in closeup shots of Billie Burke (Glinda). My point is, it’s taken us until this point to finally bring all of the detail in the image—softened, filtered, gauzed though it may be in some scenes—to home displays. I’m struggling to see where even an 8K release could improve on what I’m seeing here in terms of detail and definition, much less color and contrast.

 

If I have a nit to pick, it’s that this new color grade still gets the opening and closing sepia-toned scenes a little wrong. It’s important to remember that this footage was shot in black-and-white and hand-tinted sepia—and then hand-tinted sepia again in the ‘80s. And, as with every release of the past couple decades, this version takes that sepia tinting just a touch too far, with slightly too much warmth. But that’s really only a concern if you get overly fussy about “filmmaker’s intent.” (Incidentally, 

if you’re curious about how I can speak to “filmmaker’s intent” in this case, given that there were so many chefs stirring this pot, we can look to a scene later in the movie in which Dorothy peers into the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball and sees her Aunt Em in Kansas, in all her sepia-tinted glory. That’s what Kansas is supposed to look like.)

 

And . . . [checks notes] Yep. That’s it. That’s literally the only pedantic niggle I can come up with. 

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

Some viewers may take issue with the fact that those sepia scenes don’t quite hold up to the clarity and definition of the film’s colorful middle. That’s largely due to the fact that the original film negatives for the first and last act were lost in a fire in the 1970s, and have since been sourced from an optical intermediate struck in the 1960s. The only original negatives we have at this point are for the color parts of the film. So this is the best Kansas is ever going to look.

 

The purist in me also wants to half-heartedly complain about the lack of the the original mono soundtrack with this new release, but I just can’t bring myself to grump about that, given how great the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix sounds. And this is a new remix, by the way—not the same lossless 5.1 mix that was included with the 70th- and 75th-anniversary Blu-rays.

 

The surround channels are employed a little more frequently this time around, and there’s an appreciable boost to dialogue intelligibility and vocal clarity across the board, along with some enhanced bass, especially during the tornado sequence. But 

all in all, this surround sound mix is true to the sprit and overall aesthetic of the film. It’s certainly not as egregious or aggressive as some recent remixes for classic films. So even if the original mono were present, I can’t imagine I would ever listen to it.

 

As for the Kaleidescape presentation of this new release, my only beef is that, in addition to the 4K/HDR version, you’ll also need to download the Blu-ray-quality version if you want access to all of the bonus goodies—including the audio commentary with historian and author John Fricke, which carries over from every home-video release since 2005. There’s also the excellent The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic from 1990, hosted by Angela Lansbury, which for some reason was dropped from the 75th-anniversary home video releases but makes a welcome reappearance here.

 

Oodles of other bonus features are certainly worth your time if you’re a dedicated fan, but these two are essential viewing/listening for everyone, so go ahead and download both versions of the film from the giddy-up. Why you can’t simply download the bonus features without double-dipping on the film itself is beyond me.

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

But what else is there to be said, really? If you’re reading this, you already know what the film means to you—you’re simply deciding whether or not it’s worth the 4K/HDR upgrade for an 80-year-old film. The answer to that is a resounding, enthusiastic, unapologetic “Yes!” Few films have benefited from the increased resolution, enhanced dynamic range, and most importantly the wider color gamut of our current home video standards nearly so much as this one. My biggest regret is that I can’t put 4K/HDR screen grabs in front of you and let you see the improvements with your own eyes. Unfortunately, the limitations of the web make that impossible. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Batman Returns

Batman Returns

I’ve never been a big fan of shibboleths—those words or catch-phrases designed to set members of an in-group apart from outsiders. Especially in today’s geek culture, the use of such exclusionary memes seems unnecessarily divisive. But I’ll admit, I do have my own shorthand way of identifying my people: I simply work into casual conversation the observation that 1992’s Batman Returns is a better and more interesting film than the 1989 original.

 

What I love most about this revelation is the looks I get in response. At one end of the spectrum, you have the folks who gape at me as if I’ve just licked their nostrils. At the other end, there’s a spark of realization, a look in the eye that says, “You get it!”

 

What generally follows—with the latter folk, at least—is a lengthy discussion about why. Why Batman Returns is everything Batman should have been. Why it has stood the test of time in a way the original hasn’t. Without hours to dig into all of it here, though, I’ll have to merely scratch the surface.

Simply put, whereas Batman—much as I love that film—is primarily a product, its weird and wonderful sequel is a genuine work of art. An aesthetic, thematic, and tonal expression that actually has something to say, and stands up to legitimate re-interpretation as the years pass and the weirdness of our own world finally catches up in so many ways to the macabre and gothic political tale Tim Burton wove in this most anticipated of sequels. And surprisingly, very little of that has to do with the fact that Max Shreck—Returnstertiary antagonist, played by Christopher Walken in all his scenery-chewing glory—is a nasty, narcissistic, big-city tycoon with underhanded political ambitions and a feint of concern for the common man.

 

In any other comic-book film, Walken really would have stolen the show. But the real standouts here are Danny DeVito as a deliciously disgusting re-interpretation of The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer, who simply makes Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, her own.

 

If I had to guess, I’d say one of the reasons why Batman Returns was mistakenly written off as an inferior sequel in its day is the heavy emphasis on its villains—delightful as they are—to the exclusion of the titular hero, who almost shrinks into the background as a mysterious boogeyman. Or perhaps it’s simply that this film is so dramatically different from the one it follows, almost having more in common with Burton’s criminally underappreciated Edward Scissorhands, which he made in between his two Batman efforts.

 

None of this is to say that Batman Returns is perfect, mind you. Some of its dialogue falls flat, even if only by contrast 

with the sheer brilliance of other one-liners. And Keaton at times seems bored to be wearing the cape and cowl for a second time. But if, for whatever reason, you haven’t seen Batman Returns since its debut, you owe it another look. And there’s no better way to do so than the new UHD/HDR release on Kaleidescape.

 

To say that the film has never looked as striking as it does here would be a banal understatement. The improvements over previous home video releases simply cannot be summed up in a handful of paragraphs. The additional detail over the Blu-ray release from 2010 is jaw-dropping from beginning to end, but it’s the HDR grade that truly brings this film to life.

Batman Returns

Unlike Batman, which is a way more visually vibrant film than most people remember it being, Returns is genuinely stygian throughout, and the enhanced contrasts, shadow detail, and depth afforded by HDR give the streets of Gotham and the sewers beneath a depth and richness I don’t remember seeing even in the film’s original big-screen release. The new transfer also makes wonderful use of highlights, mostly to bring vivid clarity to the film’s diverse textures—especially in contrasting the dull, matte darkness of Batman’s costume with the gleaming, slick blackness of Catwoman’s getup.

 

The enhanced dynamic range also elevates narrative elements of the film, such as the scene in which Penguin crawls out of the sewers for the first time and is blinded by the strobing of camera flashes. Those bright flashes aren’t quite eye-reactive, but they are stark enough to illuminate Penguin’s discomfort and give the viewer some small taste of his experience.

 

I’ll admit, I was concerned going in that the HDR would do no favors to the film’s numerous matte-painted cityscapes. But since the film is in many ways shot like a play whose audience is dragged from stage to stage at a frantic pace, the fact that you can now more easily see the seams in spots actually adds to the film’s charms in an appropriately weird way. Aside from a handful of optically composited effects, Batman Returns looks like it could have been shot yesterday. By a madman,

to be sure—and certainly not funded by any major motion picture studio outside of perhaps Netflix—but yesterday nonetheless.

 

As for the sound, unlike the UHD/HDR release of Batman, the new Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t introduce any re-recorded sound effects, largely because it doesn’t need to. The sound elements still hold up as shockingly modern and incredibly robust, and the Atmos mix simply draws atmospheric elements and bits of Danny Elfman’s iconic score into the height dimension.

 

I have to say, if this is the direction Hollywood is heading with Atmos mixes, either new or re-mixed, I might have to rethink my curmudgeonly stance on the format. The new mix never whaps you over the head with kitschy audio grandstanding. Instead, it’s used largely to build the film’s environments, to give a distinct sonic signature to interiors like the Batcave and the Penguin’s underground lair. In other words, it draws you into and reinforces the onscreen action rather than distracting from it.

 

One other thing worth noting about the new Kaleidescape release of the film is that it’s the only digital release of the UHD/HDR remaster to include bonus features, aside from the iTunes download. Vudu, Amazon, and others have

Batman Returns

released movie-only versions that sell the film short, in my opinion. On Kaleidescape, you’ll also need to download the Blu-ray-quality version of the film to get the bonus goodies, and said goodies are only available in standard-definition, since they were originally created for DVD. But it’s worth the extra effort. The supplements are a continuation of those created for Batman, and give a nice inside look at the making of the film, especially its effects, set designs, etc.

 

I wish Burton’s commentary had also been attached to the UHD/HDR version, instead of merely supplementing the Blu-ray-quality version, since it’s a worthwhile listen, and having seen the film in all its 4K glory, it’s hard now to watch it in mere high-definition. But if nothing else, doing so gives one a greater appreciation of just how incredible the new restoration is.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Review: Alien

Alien (1979)

Forty years. That’s how old the seminal sci-fi, suspense, horror film Alien turns this year. And to celebrate the milestone, 20th Century Fox has given the film a complete 4K HDR restoration, supervised by director Ridley Scott, with the transfer taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate.

 

At this point, what can be said about Alien that hasn’t been said in hundreds of other reviews, columns, blogs, and forums? Released in 1979, the movie has a different look, feel, and style than anything else that had come before it. And like throwing a boulder into a pond, it caused a ripple-effect through the filmmaking world that influenced the style and storytelling of virtually every sci-fi film that followed—principally Scott’s own Blade Runner, which came two years later. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley—looking incredibly young and fresh-faced here—launched the idea of the female action hero, and Scott’s gritty, decaying Nostromo showed that the future didn’t need to be shiny and new.

 

I remember the first time I saw Alien. It was on a free Showtime weekend right after we had just moved to a new home in Bakersfield, California. I was in fifth grade, had the flu, and was couch-ridden and under-supervised. This was way pre-

onscreen guide days, so you basically just flipped around at the top of the hour hoping you would catch something good. 

 

When I saw that Alien was coming on—and that my parents were busy elsewhere—I settled in. All I really knew about the movie was the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The original trailer had an incredibly 

slow build, almost a full-minute of a slow pan down to an egg, followed by a lot of dark scenes with people running and panicking. And not a single spoken word. Not. One.

 

Of course, as an 11-year-old, the infamous chest-burster scene was shocking, but not actually the nightmare fuel one might think. No, what lingered in my brain was nightmares of running through a darkened ship, klaxons blaring, strobes flashing, being chased by a monster, as a countdown timer steadily wound down towards destruction. Fun times.

 

Unfortunately, Alien has never really lived up to its potential on the home screen. DVD and LaserDisc versions were overly grainy and noisy, and the previous remastered Blu-ray version couldn’t do the shadow and black-level detail the justice it deserved. Rest assured, all of that is made right with this new 4K HDR version, which looks fantastic. Fortunately, the restoration is not overly heavy-handed, getting rid of the bad bits of noise and deterioration while keeping Scott’s look and stylistic feel solidly intact.

 

The film begins with the unrestored 20th Century Fox logo showing you just how grainy and noisy the source material was, but once we jump into the movie, the image is clean, clear, and beautifully solid. The blackness of space is deep, inky, and clean, with the stars as bright pinpoints of light. They definitely took a mild touch with HDR here, not overdriving the film but enhancing key scenes, punching up the appropriate highlights like the ship’s drive engines, spotlights, flames, and strobes. Much—and I mean much—of the film takes place in the dark, with many things hidden in shadows, and it is here where the cleaned-up transfer and HDR have the greatest impact.

Alien (1979)

Occasionally, there are scenes where the boosted brightness of a spotlight will highlight a bit of extra noise in the image, but these scenes are few and unobjectionable. There is a brutal video torture test at 24:30 into the film, where the crew is exploring LV-426, the moon that is the source of the spurious radio signal. Here we have myriad shades of grey illuminated by various lighting sources and swirling smoke that could be an absolute banding nightmare, but the image holds up wonderfully.

 

While Alien will never be accused of being a colorful film, 4K’s wider color gamut is used modestly to enhance the bright reds and oranges of the many indicator lights located around the Nostromo.

 

Alien isn’t your typical sci-fi, horror, space-exploration film, rather being an amalgam. It’s been years since I’ve watched the film, and I couldn’t entirely recall the storyline, so it was nice to go into it semi-fresh. What I really appreciated was the total lack of exposition. You’re thrown into the Nostromo with the crew as they’re awakened out of hyper-sleep, and you have to figure out things along with them. Several minutes pass in the film before a word is spoken. During that time, we’re treated to a slow, wandering journey through the empty Nostromo, and the depth of image is almost 3D. HDR is used nicely here, allowing us to see more shadow detail than ever before, letting you appreciate the lengths taken with the practical sets. The same can be said for The Derelict, the spacecraft the crew discovers on LV-426. Here you can marvel at H.R. Giger’s design style and really appreciate the look of the Space Jockey and leathery texture of the eggs in the egg farm. 

 

The film’s first act really plays more like a documentary of the life of space miners, hearing the crew grouse about bonuses, and wanting to get home. The film is equally slow about revealing Ripley as the hero, keeping you guessing as to who will and won’t die. And whether by design or technical limitation, the glimpses of the Xenomorph are kept few, and are often just snatches or in shadows. This reminded me of Jaws, where Spielberg keeps the huge great white a visual mystery for much of the film, proving that the dangers we can’t see are often the most terrifying.

For a film that’s celebrating 40 years, I was amazed how well the story and effects held up. The only things that really date the film’s look are the ancient displays and computer tech located around the Nostromo. Some of the graphics on these screens look a bit of a mess, while others—namely the text on Mother’s (MU-TH-UR 6000) screen—are razor-sharp. The alien looks just as terrifying as ever, with the inner-workings of its glistening, goo-filled inner jaws clearly visible.

 

Part of the danger of making a 40-year-old film look so good and visible are that some things best left unseen are revealed. There were a couple of moments where it was too obvious that the alien’s movements were a tad too human-in-a-costume or that we were looking at models instead of full-sized crafts. Fortunately, these were minor, and certainly didn’t detract from enjoying the film. (One thing my wife and I both commented on was the bizarre choice for Ripley to be wearing underwear during the finale that appears to be about five sizes too small for her. Perhaps that was the style of the day—or will be the trend in 2122 . . .)

 

One thing not changed from the previous Blu-ray release was the audio, with the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio being retained here. Would I have loved a new Dolby Atmos or DTS:X mix? Absolutely. There are many scenes where an immersive track could have been used to great effect, but this mix plays well in a luxury cinema, and my processor’s upmixer did a great job of putting blaring alarm klaxons up into the overheads.

 

Both the 4K disc and the Kaleidescape download include the original theatrical cut and the director’s cut (which actually plays a minute shorter) along with two commentary tracks and two isolated soundtrack scores.

 

Alien is a must-have for any movie fan, and I dare say it will never look better than what we have here.

John Sciacca

Alien (1979)

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.