Reviews

Air Force One

Air Force One

Here we are with another classic Sony Pictures Home Entertainment film getting the 20-year-plus 4K HDR makeover—and I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of Air Force One.

 

Sony gave the film a full 4K HDR restoration from the original 35mm print, along with retooling the soundtrack for a dynamic new Dolby Atmos mix. While it was released on 4K Blu-ray disc last November, the new 4K HDR version recently arrived at the Kaleidescape Store. Because I already owned the film on Blu-ray, I was able to upgrade to the 4K HDR version for only $11.99, making it an easy decision.

 

It’s hard to think of another actor who would have been more perfectly suited to play President James Marshall than Harrison Ford, and the film largely succeeds because of his likability and believability, essentially being the type of commander-in-chief everyone could get behind.

 

When the film came out in 1997, we were already well familiar with Ford in the role of leading-man action star from such films as the original Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones trilogy, The Fugitive, and Blade Runner. More appropriately, Ford had also taken over the mantle of portraying Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Clancy fans will know that as Ryan’s story arc progresses, he eventually moves up the ranks to become President of the United States, so in some ways you could consider AF1 a not-so-distant relative to the Clancy stories.

 

Besides his physicality, Ford was the right age to still be believable as someone capable of holding his own in a scuffle, and had the gravitas to pull off the role of commander-in-chief in the non-fight scenes. He was also backed by a strong supporting cast that includes William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, Glenn Close, and Gary Oldman as ultra-loyalist Russian baddy, Ivan Korshunov.

 

The film opens with special forces parachuting into a compound to capture Kazakhstan dictator General Alexander Radek (Jürgen Prochnow) in a nighttime raid, and then cuts to a banquet in Moscow where President Marshall declares the US’s new “zero-tolerance” policy toward terrorism. He and his family (and the presidential entourage) then board Air Force One to return to the States, but during the flight, a group of terrorists loyal to Radek and led by Korshunov take over the plane, killing many of the Secret Service detail aboard. Instead of escaping the plane in a specially designed pod, President Marshall stays aboard trying to use his ex-military skills to save the hostages and retake the plane.

 

This all happens in roughly the first 20 minutes, leaving a lot of time to build drama and play out the cat-and-mouse hunt aboard the plane as well as the political turmoil back in Washington as the assembled cabinet tries to come to terms with the fact that the President is possibly dead along with having a hijacked AF1 full of high-value passengers quickly flying its way back toward enemy territory.

 

Video quality is greatly improved throughout, with sharp and defined edges. Closeups especially benefit from the restoration, clearly revealing more details, such as individual strands of hair. Overall the film has a nice layer of cleanness to the print,

Air Force One

The same shot from Air Force One, from the Blu-ray version (above)
and the 4K HDR version (below)

Air Force One

making this the best AF1 has looked by far.

 

There was definitely a regrading of the color for this release, which is especially noticeable in the opening scenes. In the Blu-ray version, the sky is a dusky blueish purple, with some shots looking near daytime bright—not a time when you’d do an airborne assault on a compound. In the new HDR version, the sky is much darker, with the action clearly taking place at night, making it more believable.

 

While they didn’t push the HDR grading too aggressively, it’s definitely used to nice effect to 

improve images overall, which results in the film having greater depth and pop than the Blu-ray version. Many scenes benefit from the added pop of brightness and expanded white level and shadow detail.

 

Notice the detail in the parachute canopy in the opening raid compared to how blown out the white levels are in the Blu-ray version, or the detail in the shadows under AF1 and around the MOCKBA sign as the Presidential party is boarding to leave Moscow. You also get far more impact from the displays and sensors in the plane’s communications room, the bright lights around Moscow at night, and the jet’s afterburners. And when a big KC-10 tanker explodes, the flames have bright, vivid red-orange colors.

 

But a 20-plus-year-old film will never look as sharp and clean as a modern digital image, and there is some occasional noise and excessive grain, especially in the dark night scenes like the opening parachute attack. Also, some of the visual effects look truly dated and are almost laughable by current standards—for example, as the staffers escape by parachute and the big tumbling crash at the end.

 

As nice as the new video transfer is, the new Dolby Atmos soundmix is the real gem here. They clearly took every opportunity to have fun with the mix, and the results are phenomenal. Years ago—in 1999, I believe—I attended a CEDIA Expo where many manufacturers were using the airplane takeover scene from AF1 as a demo. That meant I got to experience the same scene on many systems, giving me a real sense of how it sounded. Polk Audio and Cinepro built a system designed to deliver realistic, lifelike audio levels, with every speaker having a minimum of 1,000 watts of power sent to it. I can remember 

watching that demo, and even though I’d seen it multiple times already, hearing Korshunov rack the slide on his weapon sounded like he was right next to you, and when he fired the first shot, everyone in the room jumped. The dynamics were so insane, you felt like a gun had gone off right next to you.

 

This new Dolby Atmos mix got me back to that experience.

 

You can hear the difference right from the beginning as the title score swells over the opening credits with far more space and width to the presentation. The score is also gently mixed into the front height speakers to expand the soundstage. The opening commando raid also reveals that this is going to be a fun mix, with shouts, echoes, and gunshots filling the room along with fairly serious LFE engagement from your subwoofer.

 

The sound mixer also uses the speakers to put you into different acoustic environments, such as the President’s opening speech in the Moscow banquet hall, which has tons of ambience and reverb to accurately place you in that acoustic space, and the subtle ambient sounds aboard AF1.

 

Probably nothing benefits from the improved audio more than the F-15 fighter jets

Air Force One

scrambled to protect/escort AF1, which sound absolutely awesome whenever they’re on screen, with their engine sounds mixed at a high and realistic level. The jets go ripping through the room, tearing overhead and to the front of the room with incredibly powerful deep bass you feel in your chest from their afterburners.

 

Air Force One is just a fun popcorn movie that holds up incredibly well 20 years later, and it makes for a terrific evening in your home theater.

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.

Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel

Marketing-hype phrases like, “From the team that brought you two of the most successful films of all time . . .and, “From the director of Sin City . . .” carry with them a level of expectation that can end up being too much for a film to live up to. This, in part, was the burden that preceded the release of Alita: Battle Angel, and in some ways parallels another film, Mortal Engines.

 

Like Engines, Alita burst onto the cinematic consciousness with an impressive trailer that was full of flash and promise, with incredible detail, effects, and world building. It was also based on a story only familiar to hardcore fans—in this case a 1990 Japanese manga series Gunnm (or Battle Angel Alita) by Yukito Kishiro.

 

Alita takes place roughly 550 years in the future, 300 years after a massive interplanetary war known as “The Fall” has devastated much of Earth. While hunting through a scrap yard filled with trash discarded by the last great sky city of Zalem, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the upper half of a large-eyed female cyborg with a fully-functioning human

RELATED REVIEW

Mortal Engines

brain. He brings her home and gives her a body he originally designed years ago for his deceased daughter.

 

The cyborg (Rosa Salazar), whom Ido names Alita after his daughter, has no memories of her past and spends the film trying to discover who she was (and is), what goes on up in Zalem, and how to survive on the mean streets of Iron City, where Hunter-Warriors, cyborg serial killers, and giant Centurion sentry robots create constant sources of conflict. Along the way, Alita discovers she possesses unique and powerful long-lost fighting skills known as “Panzer Kunst,” as well as an innate ability to play Motorball, a futuristic and far more violent/deadly version of roller derby.

While we typically recommend online versions of films here, especially when downloaded in full resolution from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, this is a case where I’m suggesting you go and purchase the physical 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. Why?

 

For one, 20th Century Fox still refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the lossless Dolby Atmos audio mix with its 4K HDR version, leaving you instead with a much less impressive 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. (I’m hopeful Fox’s recent acquisition by Disney—which does provide Kaleidescape with the best audio elements for all 4K titles—will rectify this going forward.)

 

For two, the 4K Blu-ray version comes in a three-disc set that includes the Blu-ray disc with tons of extras, a digital download code, and a third disc with a 3D version of the film that is an absolute blast to watch, if your system is capable. Alita was shot natively in 3D, and with James Cameron involved—the guy responsible for what is still widely considered the greatest 3D film experience ever with Avatar—this is worth the price of purchase alone. 

 

Alita was shot in ARRIRAW at 3.4K resolution, and while it lists the digital intermediate as “master format,” I’m assuming it was taken from a 2K DI. While the film looks gorgeous, it doesn’t exhibit that ultra-fine level of detail in closeups found in true 4K-sourced films. Another mild disappointment is that while some of the movie was filmed in IMAX for its theatrical release, the home version doesn’t include the IMAX-resolution scenes, which are often some of the finest 4K video available.

 

Those nits aside, Alita frequently fills the screen with eye candy, captivating to look at and behold. Every scene and background bristles with set dressing and design—whether it is machines, buildings, vehicles, or people with a variety of cyborg limbs or appendages, the world of Alita is stunning to see and rich with detail. The film features a fairly drab color palette for many of the daytime outdoor scenes; however, the nighttime scenes exhibit deep, clean black levels, with nice use of HDR highlights in many of the city scenes, with spotlights, signs, and streetlights having extra punch. HDR also benefits the brightly lit interior of the lab of Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) and the Motorball arena.

Alita: Battle Angel

While the film relies heavily on Weta Digital’s computer effects throughout, its greatest effect is Alita, a fully computer-generated character. At first, her significantly oversized eyes and slightly smaller mouth (to reflect her manga origins) make her noticeably different, but the caliber of the CGI work—particularly in her eyes, which are incredibly expressive, emotive and, well, human-looking—is so impressive that you quickly just see Alita as a character. (The only thing that slightly pulled me from my suspension of disbelief was a slight disconnect between Alita’s voice and her mouth. Not that it is out of sync by any means, but just something that my eyes and mind couldn’t fully mesh.)

 

As good as the 4K HDR version looks, there’s a definite extra dimension (pun definitely intended) that comes from watching the 3D version. Instead of going for gimmicky shots that come out of the screen towards the viewer (and which frequently cause headaches and eye strain), Alita uses 3D to deliver an amazing sense of depth and dimension, with many backgrounds appearing to just go on forever. One of my favorite shots is when Alita comes out of the water inside the United Republics of Mars (URM) ship, with the water shimmering and waving all around her with incredible depth. The many computer screens throughout also benefit from the 3D presentation. There are definite benefits and advantages to watching either the 4K HDR or 3D version, and I’d highly suggest enjoying both.

 

One drawback of the 3D version is that it replaces the Dolby Atmos soundtrack for the inferior DTS-HD 7.1-channel mix. While still impressive, it didn’t have the depth and immersion of the Atmos soundtrack.

 

Speaking of the audio, Alita features an active, immersive, reference mix throughout. Whether it is the small, atmospheric background sounds that bring life to scenes, or the big, demo-worthy scenes with their massive audio cues that rip and pound through the room, Alita’s audio mix constantly entertains.

 

The first major audio moment comes at the 11-minute mark when Alita rescues a dog from a walking Centurion. The mech moves over Alita’s (and your) head, with its feet slamming into the ground, producing concussive bass waves. You clearly hear all the whirrs and hums of the mech’s motor servos and hydraulics as it moves around the room, putting you right in the middle of the action. 

 

Other big reference audio moments include Alita’s first fight, in an alley, at the 27-minute mark, the Motorball stadium at 42-minutes, and the fight with Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) inside the Kansas Bar at little more than an hour in. In these big scenes, you are in a hemispherical audio cocoon, with sounds clearly emanating from all points of the room around you, such as Grewishka’s metal claws launching right past your head and his voice mocking Alita from all around.

 

Even non-action scenes are filled with sounds, such as the water dripping all around you inside the URM ship, or the sounds of various machines and computers in Ido’s lab.

 

When you remove the pressure and high expectation that surrounded Alita’s release, in many ways you’re left with exactly the kind of movie that home theater was designed for. It’s big, it’s flashy, it has incredible detail, and it rocks an absolutely reference Dolby Atmos sound mix. Is it a perfect movie? Far from it. But is it a fun movie that will push your display and sound system to their limits, impressing you and your guests in the process? 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.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame comes to the screen with an incredible amount of baggage for any one film to carry. It has to serve as the emotional and narrative conclusion of 11 years’ and 21 films’ worth of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) stories. It has to serve as the second half of a film released a year earlier. It also has to work as a self-contained narrative on its own terms—one that satisfies both hardcore fans who’ve seen all 21 of those previous Marvel movies numerous times, as well as more casual moviegoers who may have seen some of them only once, if at all.

 

The fact that Endgame manages to check all of those boxes without crumbling under its own weight is a bit of a minor cinematic miracle. The fact that it ends up being so much more than a mere obligatory box checker is a testament to the

talents of the film’s directors (Joe and Anthony Russo) and writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely).

 

To get into why, though, we need to dip our toes into spoiler territory, for both Endgame and 2018’s Infinity War, but I’ll try to keep things as vague as possible on both fronts, for the pair of you who’ve seen neither film. At the end of Infinity Warwe were left in a weird place for a big, blockbuster superhero franchise. The villain had won. Half the population of the universe—and half of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes—had been “blipped” out of existence at the snap of a finger. Mind you, we live in a world where films are announced years in advance, and it didn’t take a savvy viewer to put two and two together and realize that some of those dead heroes were only a film or two into a multi-film contract, which meant they would be coming back, somehow or another, by the end of this film.

 

Think about that weird conundrum for long, and it quickly becomes apparent that Endgame ran the serious risk of not only narratively undermining Infinity War by undoing its deaths, but also of emotionally undermining it so severely that the first part of this two-part story lost all impact for future viewings. I think the most dedicated Marvel fans 

amongst us all sort of went into Endgame knowing that this would be the price we had to pay in order to see the resolution of this storyline.

 

Except, that ends up not being the case at all. Instead of undermining Infinity War—narratively and emotionally—Endgame ends up enriching it, making it a more interesting and impactful story. If the thematic arc of Infinity War could be boiled down to coming to terms with defeat, Endgame at its core is a film about consequences. As with any good epic (in the Tolkien sense

Avengers: Endgame

of the word, not the Hollywood sense of the word), Endgame is a film about the high cost of victory. So, rather than robbing Infinity War of emotional and narrative weight, this film piles an extra heaping helping of solemnity on its forebear, and all the films that came before it.

 

Once its end credits roll, what we the viewers are left with is not only a satisfying yet bittersweet conclusion to the rambling and seemingly disconnected narrative that began with 2008’s Iron Man, but also one that makes us reflect on everything that has happened to the MCU’s characters along the way. Honestly, it even redeems some of the MCU’s weaker efforts, like 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, although perhaps only in retrospect. (And no, I’m not confident enough in this statement to actually suffer through that movie again to find out for sure.)

 

But as I said above, Endgame would be a wholly unsatisfying film if it were merely a massive nostalgia romp. I won’t recount the plot here, because if you’ve seen the movie you already know it, and if you haven’t, I would sound like I was having a stroke. But what makes the film work on its own terms is, in part, the economy of its storytelling. That may seem an ironic statement to make about a three-hour film, but the Russos, Markus, and McNeely have managed to craft an engrossing narrative that feels perfectly paced, because when the plot is simple and straightforward, they use that opportunity to ramp up the richness and diversity of the story’s themes; and by contrast, when the narrative gets more complex (as will happen when you’re playing around with comic-book quantum physics and the fabric of spacetime), they use simpler and more straightforward thematic underpinning to maintain a coherent through-line.

Avengers: Endgame

The film also uses the luxury of its relatively long running time to give the characters a lot of room to breathe. Upon second viewing, I was taken aback by how much of the film is devoted to people sitting around, simply talking to one another. It’s refreshing, to be sure, and It’s exactly what was required to give these beloved characters one last chance to grow, and express their growth, in shockingly adult ways. Coming out the other end of the film, I honestly wonder if most viewers realize that only about half an hour of screen time is really dedicated to stereotypical blockbuster comic-book action scenes.

 

Unsurprisingly, it is those scenes that shine the brightest in Kaleidescape’s 4K/HDR presentation of the film. And I mean that literally. This is truly some of the most effective use of HDR I’ve seen to date, especially in the big battle at the end, where stunning contrasts are used not merely for eye candy, but also to reinforce the emotions of the sequence. I watched this epic

throwdown back-to-back in Blu-ray quality and 4K with HDR, and while it certainly got my nerd heart pumping in mere 1080p HD, I was literally moved to tears by the climactic turning point of the battle as it plays out in high dynamic range.

 

But hey, if you’re just in it for the eye candy, Kaleidescape’s presentation works on that front, too, even if the vivid and detailed presentation does at times make some of the special effects ever-so-slightly too obvious. Audio enthusiasts who’ve grumbled at Disney for their sometimes-lackluster audio mixes will also be delighted by the richness of the film’s soundtrack and its effective use of bowel-loosening bass and the aggressiveness of the Dolby TrueHD Atmos track’s height channels. Truth be told, those effects were a little too distracting for my tastes, and I preferred the included DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix, but it’s nice that both options are available.

 

There is one other audio track that absolutely cannot be ignored, although you’ll only find it on the Blu-ray-quality download (which is included with your 4K HDR purchase): The audio commentary by directors Anthony & Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. If you listened to their commentary for Infinity War, you know what you’re in for here. If not, I’m jealous that you get to experience it for the first time. As with the previous film, their commentary is less 

Avengers: Endgame

a scene-by-scene breakdown of how the film was made, and more a masterclass in storytelling, character development, and filmmaking, making it essential listening even if you typically skip commentaries.

 

It’s just a shame that the rest of the extras don’t rise to the same level. Also included with the Blu-ray-quality download is about an hour’s worth of bonus documentaries that you can mostly ignore, except for the eight-minute tribute to Stan Lee that was included after the film in its soft theatrical re-release back in June. You’ll also want to check out the last of the six deleted scenes (which, by the way, doesn’t include the excised clip that was tacked onto the aforementioned theatrical re-release).

 

Hopefully, at some point Endgame will get a double-dip home video release whose bonus features dig a little deeper into the rich tapestry that is this film. Until then, though, this one is a must-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.

A Few Good Men

A Few Good Men

Film studios look at technology advancements and big anniversaries as an opportunity to dip back into the vault and re-release a classic in a shined-up new package. In the past, this has resulted in some improvement as we’ve moved from a 480p DVD release to a new 1080p Blu-ray, sometimes with a new, cleaned-up and improved video transfer, or with a lossless audio track or some new set of bonus features.

 

But when older films get a 4K HDR makeover, we almost always get a brand new transfer, especially since it needs to be graded for HDR and the wider BT.2020 color gamut. We also see many studios opting to remix old, dated soundtracks in Dolby Atmos.

 

One studio that repeatedly impresses with its handling of catalog titles is Sony Pictures. Its home-video arm consistently takes a ton of care on restorations, breathing life into older films by cleaning away years of noise and damage and giving them a new 4K scan, resulting in movies that look better than what you could have experienced if you’d watched them on opening

night in a flagship theater years ago. Some recent Sony transfers that totally impressed were The Natural, The Karate Kid, The Fifth Element, and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

 

A recent recipient of the 25-Year Silver Anniversary treatment is the classic courtroom drama, A Few Good Men. The movie actually isn’t new to 4K Blu-ray disc, having seen a limited release in 2017 as a Best Buy exclusive, with a wide retail release in 2018. However, the new 4K HDR transfer just landed at the Kaleidescape Store and, with an impressively low “upgrade from Blu-ray to HDR” price of just $11.99, I snapped it up.

 

I can’t imagine much needs to be said about Men in way of a synopsis at this point, as it finds itself on regular rotation amongst the cable channels. But the film centers on a crime committed among a group of Marines serving at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a team of Navy attorneys, tasked with defending the accused Marines, sent to investigate and then decide whether to accept a plea bargain or see it through in court. Was the crime ordered—and then covered-up—as a “Code Red” by a higher-ranking officer to punish a soldier stepping outside the chain of command, or was it committed to keep someone from reporting an alleged offense on base? The film builds in intensity towards the final, “You can’t handle the truth!” courtroom showdown between Tom Cruise as lead counsel Lt. Daniel Kaffee and Jack Nicholson, who received a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in Supporting Role for his ultra-memorable portrayal of Colonel Nathan Jessep.

The screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin, adapted from his play of the same name. What makes the film so powerful is Sorkin’s snappy dialogue, and the screen just bristles with star power in every frame. I had forgotten just how many mega-stars grace the credits of Men. Besides Cruise and Nicholson, we have Demi Moore, Kevin Pollack, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Noah Wyle, and a brief appearance by Cuba Gooding Jr.

 

This is an entirely story-driven film, with virtually no special effects at all, so the movie succeeds entirely on the basis of its story and acting, much of which holds up. (There are a couple of scenes where Moore seemed to be trying a bit too hard, in my opinion.)

 

As seems to be the common practice, the opening Columbia Pictures and Castle Rock title cards look terrible—perhaps these are left alone to show you just how bad the un-remastered material looks. But rest assured, once the film begins, images are clean and detailed, with lots of pop.

 

The opening morning (or evening?) scenes of the Cuban sky are tinted a bit heavy on the orange side, but otherwise colors are natural and accurate throughout the film. The first “wow” moment comes with the title-sequence shot of the American flag, with the red stripes having a vibrancy not found on the Blu-ray disc, and also having crisp, sharp lines. You can also see all of the fine markings in the bayonet attached to the rifle of the Silent Drill team, as well as the wood-grain detail in the rifle stocks.

A Few Good Men

The added resolution also lets you see the texture and detail in objects like the Naval uniform shoulder boards, where you can see the fine threading in the stripes as well as detail in the buttons. In one closeup conversation between Cruise and Nicholson, you can clearly see every individual eyebrow in the actors’ faces.

 

There aren’t a lot of night scenes in the film, but the few present—mostly exterior shots of DC at night—benefit from the added contrast and brightness of HDR. You also see a pronounced improvement over the Blu-ray in the outdoor scenes. 

During one scene at Guantanamo, the buildings and walls are far brighter, as are the dress-white uniforms, with gleaming white collars, and sunlight glinting off brass as they catch the bright sun. Flipping over to the same scene in the Blu-ray, the image is just dull by comparison.

 

Black levels are deep and clean throughout, with there being a clear difference between the ultra-deep, near-black navy blue of Moore’s Navy cap compared to the dark blue of Cruise’s Boston Red Sox cap.

 

You might not think a dialogue-driven film like Men would benefit from a Dolby Atmos audio makeover, but you’d be mistaken. The dialogue now seems to have more room to breathe across the front channels, with the sound mixer judiciously spacing ambient cues around the room, adding width to the presentation. Outdoor scenes benefit from subtle offscreen sounds that open the soundstage, or with voices occasionally calling from far off screen. In the courtroom, the tone of the dialogue takes on the different character of the more reverberant space. Most importantly, every spoken word is clear and easily understood. A dramatic thunderstorm late in the film also gives the audio mix a chance to push sounds up overhead and drive some info to the subwoofer.

A Few Good Men

With A Few Good Men, Sony has once again proved itself, creating a new 4K Digital Intermediate from the original 35mm film negative that produces fantastic images, giving fresh life to this dramatic, Rob Reiner-directed classic.

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.

Veronica Mars: Season 4

Veronica Mars

The Hulu-exclusive fourth season of Veronica Mars—which surprisingly dropped this past weekend ahead of its originally announced July 26 launch—is a wild and wonderfully complex thing. And I don’t just mean the sociopolitical murder mystery at the heart of its plot. This eight-episode run also has a sort of meta thing going on, in which it explores the tenuousness of its very existence, and what a dangerous motivator nostalgia can be.

 

If you’re not familiar with Veronica Mars at all, perhaps it’s worth stepping back for a minute to explain why the fourth season is such a big deal. The series started life in 2004 on UPN and ran for two years before moving to the CW for one final season. Best described as a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (minus the supernatural elements) meets Raymond Chandler (minus all

the cigarettes), the show launched Kristen Bell into the spotlight, and gained a cult following due to its smart writing, wonderful characters, and incredible performances. And then it was canceled, all too soon, because nobody could figure out how to market a series that looked like a modern high-school drama and acted like a gumshoe classic.

 

In the years since, word of mouth has elevated the series to must-watch status, so much so that a feature-film 

reboot in 2014 broke records on Kickstarter in the video category and held those records until Mystery Science Theater 3000 came along and smashed them. The funny thing about that is that both projects ended up being blatant fan service that failed to capture what made the originals so great.

 

Re-launches of beloved properties seem to be all the rage in the world of streaming these days, though (think: Gilmore Girls and Full House, of all things), so it’s no real shock to see Veronica Mars return, 12 years after its cancelation. What sets this season apart—from other reboots of other properties, and indeed from the 2014 Veronica Mars film—is that it actually has something to say. A reason to exist beyond mere nostalgia. Some self-awareness about what a double-edged sword one wields when giving fans of a dead-and-buried TV show what they think they want.

 

In short, Veronica Mars Season 4 is Veronica Mars and it isn’t. It’s many of the same characters we knew and loved from the show’s original run, except they’re not exactly the same people anymore. Since the Buffy vibe no longer quite works, given how far removed from high school Veronica is these days, this season also leans more heavily on its Raymond Chandler roots, and makes playful references to other noir and neo-noir offspring of Chandler, including some blink-and-miss-it nods to Columbo and—true to Veronica Mars form—a good mix of subtle and overt shout-outs to The Big Lebowski.

 

At its heart, though, what makes this new season work so well is exactly the same thing that made the original series such a joy to watch. Namely, the bond between Kristen Bell as Veronica and Enrico Colantoni as her father and partner-in-crime-solving, Keith Mars. The banter between them puts the best of Cary Grant and Ros Russell to shame, and although that

Veronica Mars

rapid-fire back-and-forth has evolved to accommodate a world in which smart phones, smart homes, and social media are a thing, that evolution feels organic, not forced or kitschy. As does everything else about how the dark world of sunny Neptune, CA, has changed since we last dropped in on it to revel in the whodunnit of it all.

 

Perhaps the most impactful difference between the old and new incarnations of Veronica Mars isn’t the time that has passed, though; it’s the new format. By limiting this season to eight episodes, showrunner Rob Thomas (no, not the “Matchbox Twenty” one; the Space Ghost Coast to Coast/Party Down/iZombie one) is able to craft a compact narrative without all of the mystery-of-the-week episodes that padded earlier seasons.

 

Since the show is also now likely to be binged instead of doled out a week at a time, the new writing team (which also interestingly includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) has also been given free rein to weave a much denser narrative that involves not just a spring-break bomber, but also a blackmailed congressman, two hitmen for a Mexican drug cartel, and a fame-seeking pizza-delivery guy/conspiracy theorist (played to perfection by Patton Oswalt), all of whom come together in one big mystery of misunderstandings, double-crossings, and red herrings.

 

All in all, Season 4 comes as close to the perfection of Season 1 as anyone could hope for. Only a few minor quibbles (a stray reference to a director’s cut of The Big Lebowski when nonesuch exists, and a minor continuity error involving a cellphone video that doesn’t perfectly match events as they played out in an earlier episode, for example) mar what is otherwise a masterfully crafted reboot that can honestly be enjoyed as its own thing, even if you never saw the first three seasons and might not understand a handful of references to characters who didn’t have an organic part to play in this new story.

 

That last fact, though, plays right into this season’s larger theme about how nostalgia can bite you in the ass. Some longtime fans may have preferred to see those characters shoehorned into the plot anyway. And others will no doubt rage at the show’s handling of one of the original cast members. (I haven’t had time to peruse the forums just yet, but I can predict the hissy fits without even having read them.)

 

As for me, you can count this long-time Marshmallow (as Veronica Mars fans are known) amongst those who loved every minute of this season. I want more of the same. ASAP. But appropriately enough, “more of the same” would be outright impossible. The end of Season 4 leaves Veronica Mars (the show and the character) in such a place that it and she are left with no choice but to evolve again.

 

Technically speaking, I only wish Hulu would likewise evolve. The look of Season 4 is at times held back by the 1080p limitations of the service the show now calls home. Blacks are a bit crushed in some darker scenes, and banding rears its ugly head from time to time. Granted, the show looks better now than it did in its original run, but its mix of bright and sunny beach shots and shadowy nighttime skulking would greatly benefit from the high dynamic range that 4K brings with it.

 

Hopefully, by the time Season 5 rolls around (fingers crossed), Hulu will have grown up and adapted to the modern era as deftly and meaningfully as Veronica Mars has.

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.

Shazam!

Shazam

I’ll forgive you if you’re suffering from a bit of superhero-film fatigue. The past few years has seen theaters inundated with a steady slate of supers, both solo and in teams. Between the 20-plus films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, X-Men, the various DC films, the anti-heroes Venom and Deadpool, and the myriad of spinoffs available for streaming on Netflix, barely a weekend seems to go by without some new hero flick appearing on the screen.

 

That’s one of the reasons why I took a pass on Shazam! during its theatrical release despite some decent buzz, a clear (and much needed) fresh approach by the DC team, and a shockingly high Rotten Tomatoes score of 91%, just slightly below the franchise-best 93% of Wonder Woman. But if you avoided Shazam! during its theatrical run, you might want to give it a second chance in your home theater as the film not only looks and sounds fantastic, it’s just fun to watch.

 

Starring 16-year-old Asher Angel (best known by ‘tween girls everywhere for his role of Jonah Beck on The Disney Channel’s Andi Mack) as Billy Batson, the boy who transforms into the adult Shazam!, and co-starring 15-year-old Jack Dylan Grazer (It) as his foster brother Freddy Freeman, the youth lifts the heaviness present in so many recent DC films and gives the filmmakers the opportunity to inject some lightheartedness and humor into the proceedings. Imagine that? A DC superhero who isn’t dark and heavy the entire time? Add Zachary Levi, who appears to be having a blast as Baton’s superhero alter ago, perfectly translating a teenager being thrust into a full-grown hero’s body. All of this produces a recipe for a film the entire family can enjoy. (Common Sense Media actually recommends it for ages 12+, as there are a couple of fairly intense PG-13 scenes that could definitely frighten younger viewers.)

 

At 2 hours 12 minutes, Shazam! isn’t short, but it uses its runtime efficiently to provide enough backstory to explain why Batson is so obsessed with finding his mother, how he’s chosen to become Shazam, how he discovers his superhero abilities, and why the film’s arch-villain is so bent on getting a second chance to be considered “worthy.”

 

I seem to recall reading some Shazam! comics growing up, but I remembered virtually nothing about the character or his abilities, so the story was new (i.e., interesting) to me. After bouncing around a variety of foster homes, Batson lands in a new house filled with other foster kids. After saving Freeman from bullies at school, he’s summoned to the Rock of Eternity by the ancient Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). The last of the council of wizards, Wizard Shazam is dying and is looking for a new champion who is “pure of heart” to bestow his magical powers to before he goes. This champion will have to fight the one who stole the Eye of Sin, a device that inhabits its owner and that holds the Seven Deadly Sins that can be unleashed on the world.

 

With the powers transferred, Batson transforms into a near invincible hero whenever he shouts “Shazam!” But he is given no instructions about what these powers are or how best to use them, and the film uses this discovery process to much comedic effect, with the chemistry between Grazer and Levi making for a great buddy comedy.

 

Shot in ARRIRAW at 3.4K resolution, the Digital Intermediate format is only listed as “master format,” but the picture quality leads me to believe it’s 3.4K upsampled to 4K, rather than downconverted to 2K. Closeups reveal incredible detail, such as the texture in Shazam’s suit, the fabric of Batson’s hat and jacket, or individual strands of the Wizard’s hair. Virtually every shot bristles with detail, especially the brightly lit outdoor scenes. Images also have incredible sharpness and edge detail without seeming exaggerated.

 

Even more impressive than the resolution is the film’s extensive use of HDR and the format’s wider color gamut, which is deployed judiciously to enhance images that benefit from the added brightness. The Rock of Eternity has deep, black 

shadows, yet the orb atop the Wizard’s staff and The Eye of Sin glow brilliantly and intensely, offering far more illumination on the Kaleidescape download than on the Blu-ray version. The lightning bolts that appear every time Shazam transforms, and the bolts of electricity he blasts, are also far more intense. Even the ever-present glowing lightning bolt on Shazam’s chest (a practical design rather than a CGI effect) has more intensity and pop with the benefit of HDR. Nighttime scenes in Philadelphia—including the film’s climatic battle at an outdoor carnival—have so much more depth and dimension, making the non-HDR Blu-ray version appear flat in comparison.

 

Sonically, Shazam!’s Dolby Atmos soundtrack matches the quality of the video, and is absolutely first-rate, with tons of immersion and full use of all channels throughout. The sound designers really understood what a powerful tool Atmos adds to the storytelling, and they don’t miss an opportunity to expand the mix into channels around the room, surrounding you in the action.

 

Early in the film, we have our first visit to the Rock of Eternity, with the sound of ice crystals forming and crackling overhead, and then the echoes and reverberations transforming your listening space into the cave. When the Seven Deadly Sin statues speak, their voices boom with deep, gravelly notes that seem to emanate from every corner of the room. Bass is deep and impactful when it 

Shazam

should be, but dialogue always remains clear and intelligible. If you’ve been looking for a new film to show off your surround system, Shazam! doesn’t disappoint.

 

The Blu-ray-quality download included with the 4K HDR purchase at the Kaleidescape Store has a number of extra features and more than 30 deleted scenes, letting you take a deeper dive into Shazam’s universe.

 

If you’re looking for a family-friendly break from the dark trend favored by most superhero films lately, Shazam! might be exactly what your home theater has been wanting.

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.

Chasing the Moon

If you’re looking to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing from the comforts of your sofa, needless to say you’ve got a ton of options. From Ryan Gosling’s intense portrayal of Neil Armstrong in First Man to the just-the-facts-ma’am documentary approach of Apollo 11, on to the recently remastered HD re-release of HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, the space race has been covered from just about every angle imaginable. And yet, despite the fact that I have an

entire shelfful of DVDs and Blu-ray discs dedicated to the Apollo program, I’ve never seen anything quite like PBS’ new documentary mini-series Chasing the Moon.

 

That’s largely due to the documentary’s placement within PBS’ larger pantheon of programming. The three episodes that comprise this new and different doc fall within the 31st season of American Experience, the network’s series about our nation’s history and the oft-controversial figures that propel that history.

 

As you might expect if you’ve ever tuned into American Experience, the emphasis here isn’t on the scientific or engineering marvels that took us to the moon, nor the trials and tribulations of the astronauts themselves. Instead, Chasing the Moon plants the space race firmly within the geopolitical climate of the era, giving the viewer a hefty helping of historical context.

 

The first episode, for example, starts with a spotlight on Apollo 11, and even includes some shots similar to those seen in the recent IMAX documentary of the same name, 

but then sort of backs up and says, hang on, to understand how we got here we need to back up to 1957 and the Soviet launch of Sputnik. And to understand that, we need to back up again to World War II, to unpack the complicated relationships between Germany, the US, and the USSR. This presents an opportunity to unveil some archival footage I’ve never seen, such as the Germans testing their V-2 rockets and the Soviets trumpeting their early successes over the Americans.

 

Shockingly (to me, at least), there’s also extensive voiceovers from Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet Premier and a rocket engineer in his own right, who provides some modern perspective on the Russian side of the space race. Inclusions such as this, combined with the larger focus on politics—how they influenced the space race, and how the space race influenced them—make Chasing the Moon perhaps one of the most important documentaries on the Apollo program I’ve ever seen. Important in that it will give future generations insight into why all of this happened in the first place, not merely how.

Chasing the Moon

Granted, if you’re looking for a spectacular AV presentation, you might be a little disappointed. Since education is the primary impetus behind Chasing the Moon, no real effort has been made to clean up much of the grainy, scratchy archival footage and TV broadcasts that comprise the bulk of its visuals. Still, you’ve got a few avenues by which to view the series (which runs just 20 minutes shy of six hours over the course of three episodes), and quality of presentation may affect your decision about which road to take.

 

There is, of course, cable/satellite or antenna, as PBS will continue to rebroadcast all three episodes in the days surrounding the anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. There’s also the free PBS app, which is available on most streaming devices and requires no subscription, just a free login. The quality of presentation here is a step up from cable/satellite, but not quite up to the clarity of over-the-air broadcasts if you’ve got a decent antenna.

 

You can also purchase the show in 1080p HD with 5.1 sound from Amazon for $7.99 or Vudu for $9.99. There’s no real reason to opt for the latter unless you just hate Amazon Prime’s cluttered interface, as both are practically identical in terms of presentation. Or you could opt for the Blu-ray release for $25, which adds a few bonus features, including a making-of documentary and an interview with the director.

 

However you watch, though, I think Chasing the Moon deserves your attention, due to its distinctive take on this most historic event. Just don’t go in expecting the rah-rah flag-waving typical of Apollo documentaries. This is a warts-and-all exploration of the messy and often contentious reality of the space program from a societal and political perspective, and as such it touches on a lot of truths that more celebratory retrospectives often leave out.

 

In a weird way, though, that makes the big event all the more worthy of celebration.

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.

Stranger Things 3

Stranger Things 3 is such a tonal, structural, and narrative departure from what’s come before that it can take hardcore fans of the series (raises hand unapologetically) a few episodes to get into this year’s batch of eight episodes. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the first couple episodes. In fact, the show’s creators—collectively known as the Duffer Brothers—demonstrate time and again their ability to lovingly mash up, remix, riff on, and reassemble 1980s pop culture in new and inventive ways. It’s simply that this time around, they’re being a little cheeky about it.

 

There’s a poolside scene in the first episode, for example, in which they nab the Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and it’s played in such a way that you can’t help but anticipate exactly what’s coming if you know that film. That anticipation is hilariously subverted, though, setting the stage for a new season that is, at times, something Stranger

Things has never really been before: Zany.

 

Get a few episodes in to Stranger Things 3 and the reason for this starts to become clear. While leaning hard on all of the influences that have made the show so beloved to date—Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Rob Reiner, and all the other giants of genre and coming-of-age fiction from that era—the Duffers also start to bring other, darker influences to the forefront: Early-80s Sam Raimi, mid-80s David Cronenberg. As such, things can get a little more gruesome this time around.

To balance that gruesomeness, the show’s creators introduce a lot more levity. They’ve mentioned Fletch as a big inspiration for Stranger Things 3, and indeed, elements of the Chevy Chase screwball comedy can be seen in the side-quest of Hopper (the show’s irritable chief of police) and Joyce (the mother of Mike, the unfortunate victim of Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2). Add to that some unlikely influences such as Spies Like Us and Red Dawn (the latter of which is ribbed more than revered here), and you’ve got a weird and wonderful pastiche that, on paper at least, seems like it would struggle to hold itself together.

 

But hold together it does. Whether it’s tweaking mall culture, reliving the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R, or once again bringing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign to life in the creepiest of ways, Stranger Things 3 succeeds primarily because it’s not merely a gimmicky nostalgia romp—it’s a legitimate love letter to a bygone era.

 

Of course, as a result of that, some of its tropes may feel a little dated. The show isn’t interested in shades of grey: There are good guys and there are bad guys. And the bad guys are bad because they’re dirty commies hellbent on world destruction or something. Why are they hellbent on world destruction or something? Because they’re the bad guys. Duh.

 

Really, though, none of the above matters so much as the show’s amazing cast, which features a few new additions. Cary Elwes positively chews the scenery as the corrupt mayor of Hawkins, Indiana, whose shady political dealings allowed for

Stranger Things 3

the construction of the Russian-financed mall that serves as a front for the nefarious Soviet experiment at the heart of this season. And Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) absolutely shines as the misfit mall employee who helps crack the case at the heart of Stranger Things 3.

 

But the original cast, including the impossibly talented Millie Bobby Brown, is still the emotional heart of the show, and it’s their relationships, their emotional ups and downs, their successes and failures that keep us coming back.

 

Another thing that makes Stranger Things 3 such a fun and effective followup to the first two is that, despite all of its shake-ups in terms of tone, structure, and inspiration, there’s an undeniable through-line in the look of the show. The aesthetic is, unsurprisingly, 1980s through and through, and while capturing that look doesn’t leave a lot of room for super-vivid imagery throughout, the show’s 4K presentation relies heavily on HDR to add depth and texture to the shadows. There’s some nice use of spectacular (though not really eye-reactive) highlights from time to time, but most of the dynamic range is reserved for the lower end of the value scale. As such, you’ll definitely benefit from watching on a display that can handle the distinction between black and oh-so-very-nearly black.

 

The show’s 5.1-channel soundtrack also deserves to be experienced on the highest-quality surround sound system possible. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Stranger Things 2 was the impetus behind Netflix’ new adaptive studio-quality sound technology. Still, it’s a little shocking just how effective—indeed, how aggressive—the mix is this time around. I don’t think my subwoofer has gotten such a raucous workout since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the surround channels are pushed to their extremes in all the right places, especially in remixing the gloriously nostalgic soundtrack.

 

My only beef is that Netflix doesn’t give us any bonus features for Stranger Things 3. While another season of Beyond Stranger Things would have been ideal, any sort of extra goodies would have been appreciated.

 

Thankfully, the show stands on its own as a binge-worthy romp, especially for those of us who grew up in the era being mythologized here. And for what it’s worth, there is one tiny extra worth mentioning: If you’re the type to hit the stop button as soon as the ending credits start rolling, be sure to stick around past the end of the final episode. There’s a mid-credits sequence that sets the stage for Stranger Things 4, which by all accounts will likely be the show’s swan song.

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.

Good Omens

Good Omens

Good vs Evil. Dark vs Light. Angels vs. Demons. These themes are the basis of almost every story ever written or told. But Good and Evil working together to prevent the apocalyptic end of the world because they’re comfortable in their day-to-day lives and have no desire to see them end? Such is Good Omens, a six-episode limited series co-produced by Amazon and BBC Studios.

 

The series is based upon the novel of the same name written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman back in 1990. There were adaptation attempts in the past, most notably with Terry Gilliam in the early aughts. But it didn’t become a personal mission until Pratchett asked Gaiman to adapt it to a TV show shortly before his death.

 

It follows the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) from the Garden of Eden to modern England. They try to subtly thwart the End Times and coming of the Antichrist who, through a mixup at the hospital, ends up in a lovely, idyllic English countryside hamlet unbeknownst to the powers of Heaven and Hell. There’s a wonderful supporting cast, including Frances McDormand (God), Jon Hamm (Gabriel), and Michael McKean (Sergeant Shadwell of The Witchfinder Army). The writing is witty and whimsical with a dash of irreverence—quintessential Pratchett and Gaiman (if you’re familiar with their work).

Good Omens

The subject matter made it into the news because of a petition by the Christian group Return to Order claiming the show is “another step to make satanism appear normal, light, and acceptable.” The group is pressuring Netflix to cancel the series.—the limited-run series that has already completed airing and doesn’t have a second season planned. And that’s on Amazon, not Netflix. There has been some lovely and entertaining back and forth on Twitter with Gaiman, Netflix, and Amazon. The petition has since been changed to name Amazon as the offender. If you might be upset with God being voiced by a woman, or with the four riders of the apocalypse being portrayed as a group of bikers, better to steer clear.

 

Otherwise, Good Omens is delightfully quirky. It is quite obvious that the actors are enjoying the material, and the chemistry between Sheen and Tennant is wonderful. The series isn’t perfect—there are some pacing issues in the first few episodes and some of the subplots fall flat—but I was consistently chuckling and smiling throughout. And the soundtrack includes Queen hits. (Crowley is a fan and plays them in his beautiful two-tone 1933 Bentley.) Can’t go wrong with Queen.

 

Amazon’s presentation is excellent. It is available in 4K with 5.1 surround sound (although hard to find in a search, as with all Amazon selections currently). The colors look vibrant and the English countryside is especially welcoming—save for the Antichrist, of course. The sound is mixed well, with judicious use of the surround channels and consistently clear dialogue.

 

If you’re familiar with the work of Pratchett (the expansive Discworld series) and Gaiman (Sandman comic, Neverwhere, American Gods), Good Omens is a delightful jaunt towards Armageddon led by standout performances by Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Their scenes alone make the show worthwhile.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

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.