Reviews

Klaus

Klaus

We’ve been inundated with new origin stories over the past few years. We’ve had Spider-Man, the Joker, and now . . . Santa Claus? There is, of course, the historical origin story, which likely begins in what is now Turkey, with influence from Scandinavia and Coca-Cola. In movies, Santa pops up quite a bit, although there are only a few notable films that address

where he comes from (the most popular being the stop-motion Rankin/Bass film Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town from 1970).

 

Klaus, the first original animated movie Netflix has released, is a brand-new take on the Santa story. It was conceived, written, and directed by Sergio Pablos, who is best known as the animator and creator of the Despicable 

Me franchise. The Klaus story follows the privileged son of the head postmaster, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), as he is tasked to establish a post office in the remote island town of Smeerensburg (an intentional misspelling of the actual Dutch town of Smeerenburg) and postmark 6,000 letters or risk being ostracized from the family and his indulgent lifestyle.

 

As he arrives, he is made aware by the sardonic boatman Mogens (Norm MacDonald) that the dreary, snowy, northern town is inhabited by two extended families that have been feuding for centuries. They have no interest in speaking to one another, let alone carrying out a lengthy written correspondence. But moods in town begin to change, starting with the children, after Jesper meets Klaus (J.K. Simmons) and the two brighten up the lives of the children by delivering toys. This must be done in secret, lest they be discovered spreading joy and goodwill by the angry adults.

 

As their mission continues and they evade capture, the legend of Klaus grows, giving explanation to all the traditional Santa Claus lore—flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, Santa’s elves—in new, interesting ways. While most of Klaus is based in the expected rules of our own world, there are some mystical elements that keep the story of Santa magical. The movie is beautifully heartfelt with some lovely tear-jerking moments, and shows how ingrained negative philosophies can be changed with just one new generation of open minds. Speaking as a father, there are moments that toddlers might find scary, but the overall message is an excellent one.

Klaus

The 4K animation is gorgeous with excellent detail in the character design and scenery. The 2D style is beautifully shaded to give a feel of 3D, and the use of color throughout serves the story and helps to drive the narrative. While the HDR doesn’t deliver the bright highlights you might see in something like Blade Runner 2049, the increase in bit depth and color gamut add to the intensity of the animation. Even if the story is of little interest to you, the animation will completely draw you in.

 

The 5.1 Dolby surround mix supports the storytelling without being obtrusive. There were a few moments where the dialogue moved away from the center channel to follow whoever is speaking that were a bit more drastic than I expected. For most of the film, though, the sound did an excellent job conveying the changing atmosphere of Smeerensburg.

 

Klaus is a joyful new take on Santa and, at least in our house, has already earned its place in our list of yearly holiday movies.

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.

Ad Astra

Ad Astra

For an early anniversary present, my wife surprised me by sending me to attend the Adult Space Academy at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (Yes, much to my surprise, Space Camp is actually a thing, and something 12-year-old me had desperately wanted to attend but thought had long been a missed opportunity.)

 

For three days, I lived in Habitat One and was immersed in all things space, touring the grounds where much of the US space program developed under Wernher von Braun, training for and completing missions, spinning in the Multi-Axis Trainer, and much more. It was all quite a thrill, and made me feel like a kid again, experiencing and enjoying the wonders and scientific complexities of space travel.

 

Needless to say, after leaving One Tranquility Base, I was hopped-up on NASA and space travel, and when I saw that Ad Astra was releasing early for download at 4K HDR from the Kaleidescape Store, I jumped at the opportunity.

 

Virtually since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have frequently looked to the moon and beyond for creative inspiration in their storytelling, and over the years Hollywood has managed to deliver some truly epic films—both factual and fictional—that have revolved around space travel. Ad Astra’s director James Gray said he wanted the film to feature “the most realistic depiction of space travel that’s been put in a movie,” so I was hopeful for a film that not only entertained but that nailed the science.

 

And . . . not so much.

 

Ad Astra belongs to that increasing number of films that has a real divide between critics and moviegoers, but whereas these disparities are usually with audiences preferring the film to critics, Ad Astra received a Rotten Tomatoes score of 84% and just a 40% audience score. So, who’s right?

 

I have to side with the audience here. Ad Astra is such a slowly paced, agonizingly nonsensical, trying-so-hard-to-impress with its self-importance movie that I occasionally started questioning whether it was actually a brilliant film and I was just too dense or emotionally stunted to understand or appreciate it. Then there would be things like Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) droning expository voiceovers, lunar rovers being attacked by a group of space pirates (which, I guess, are a thing now), or random rabid space baboons that take over research stations and lie in wait to attack that I felt my disdain was fully justified. I hung in there through all 123 minutes waiting for some big resolution or enlightenment to drop on me and then . . .the end credits appeared.

 

In reading some of the critics’ reviews, I almost felt like I had watched a completely different movie. This was no transformational, emotional journey. Instead Ad Astra was so plodding and confusing it felt like a script that had gone through numerous writers and studios, with things happening that made no sense whatsoever.

 

And that “most realistic depiction of space travel”? Yeesh. The science in this film is virtually non-existent to the point of being insulting. (If you’d like a thorough breakdown of all the physics problems with Ad Astra, take a look at Bill Hunt’s “two cents” at the Digital Bits.)

 

Pitt has been widely praised for his acting in this film, but that wasn’t enough to connect me to his character or really care about what was going on. Most times McBride, who is known for keeping a cool, steady, slow pulse rate regardless the situation, and who has to regularly take Blade Runner 2049-style psychological evaluations, seems detached or disinterested, just a drone going about his duties. The film also features Tommy Lee Jones as Pitt’s long-lost, marooned-on-Neptune father, H. Clifford McBride, Donald Sutherland as a retired military colonel re-tasked to chaperone Pitt, and Liv Tyler as McBride’s (ex?) wife, Eve, who I don’t believe utters a single word in the film and is only shown in brief flashbacks and memories. Also, the actor playing Lt. General Rivas (John Ortiz) looks so much like a totally miscast Fred Armisen that I found his scenes to be a bit distracting.

 

So, assuming you are going to watch Ad Astra regardless of what I or anyone else says, are there any redeeming factors to screening the movie at home?

 

Fortunately, yes.

 

Filmed in ArriRaw at 3.4K and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, images are mostly terrific looking. The film uses different color palettes for different environments, with scenes on earth looking very film-like and having greens, blues, and

neutral tones, with scenes on the moon being much sharper and having a silvery-white look, Mars a dusty, rusty orange-red, and Neptune a beautiful gleaming navy-blue.

 

You definitely can’t knock the film’s visual effects, and the large set pieces such as the ginormous earth antenna, the interiors of space crafts, and the moon-buggy chase all look great and show terrific attention to detail and set dressing. Closeups reveal tons of detail, such as the twist in the cabling used on the large antenna, the weave of fabric on Pruitt’s jacket, the woolen texture of Pitt’s army uniform, or scratches and blemishes on the astronauts’ helmets.

 

There are a lot of shots off into outer space, and blacks are deep and clean. HDR is used nicely to punch up the rocket engines during launches as well as some of the bright displays and instrumentation aboard the ships. 

 

20th Century Fox maddeningly refuses to supply Kaleidescape with the object-based Dolby Atmos soundtrack found on the UltraHD Blu-ray disc, but even still, the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track here offers plenty to enjoy, especially if combined with an upmixer like Dolby Surround or DTS Neural:X. There are lots of little atmospheric sounds that immerse you in the action, such as air hissing 

Ad Astra

when hatches open and close, the creaking and groaning of the antenna structure, devices giving off electrical buzzes and crackles, or a variety of PA announcements. 

 

Dialogue is generally clear and easy to understand, though there were times when lines spoken inside of helmets sounded muffled and unclear. There are also some low, steady deep bass notes near the end that will test your media room for any loose items that rattle.

 

Ultimately, I was disappointed with Ad Astra and doubt I’ll ever watch it again. It was slow, unentertaining, and never seemed to find its footing. The film is summed up by one of the best IMDB-user reviews I read, “Brad Pitt goes to Neptune, but this script comes from Uranus.”

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.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

Home cinema fans are increasingly being presented with something of a dilemma: Buy into the digital home video release of a film a few weeks early and miss out on some enticing bonus features or wait a few weeks and buy the full-fledge disc release, complete with all of the supplemental trappings but yet another damned box to clog our shelves.

 

In the case of Downton Abbey—the big-screen continuation of the smash-hit ITV/PBS soap opera about the decline of the aristocracy in post-Edwardian England—the calculus gets a little more complicated. While it’s true that the disc slated for release on December 17 promises to deliver all manner of goodies—from cast interviews to documentaries to deleted scenes 

to an audio commentary by director Michael Engler—that release will be limited to Blu-ray quality at best. The Kaleidescape release, like all of the other digital releases aside from iTunes, presents the film completely devoid of extras. But does come home by way of a 4K/HDR transfer.

 

So, do you go for the best presentation of the film 

now, or do you wait for a lesser presentation that’s backed up by some significant behind-the-scenes insight? (Or, for you Apple TV owners, do you opt for the feature-packed download?)

 

I can’t answer that question for you, of course, but what I can say is that Kaleidescape’s presentation of this delightful little film is simply stunning. I saw Downton Abbey twice in local cinemas, both times in BigD (a competitor of sorts to IMAX that focuses more on wide-aspect-ratio films), and neither of those experiences came close to the sheer visual splendor of the Kaleidescape download.

 

That is, I think, largely due to the fantastic (although subtle) use of high dynamic range, which gives the image more pop, depth, and sparkle when such is called for. The cinematography of Downton Abbey was always one of its most undeniable strengths on the small screen, and this big-screen continuation doesn’t stray far from the style of the series. But Kaleidescape’s presentation of the film does make me wish someone would go back and do an HDR grade for all six seasons.

 

One substantial way in which the look of Downton Abbey the film differs from Downton Abbey the series, aside from the HDR, is its aspect ratio. While the show was framed for 16:9 TVs, the film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and this does make a substantial difference in how things are framed. Wider, longer shots of the estate and the adjacent village plant Downton Abbey more firmly in its geographical surroundings. Dinners, of which there are of course plenty, also feel quite different in the movie as compared with the TV series. With a wider canvas to play with, cinematographer Ben Smithard manages to make each table feel like a continent instead of a collection of loosely interconnected islands.

Downton Abbey

I can’t say for certain whether this transfer was taken from a 4K digital intermediate, but I have to imagine it was, as it wants for nothing in terms of detail. I can, on the other hand, say for certain that it was shot digitally on Sony Venice cameras, which are capable of capturing images at up to 6K resolution in 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Forget the pixel count, though. What matters is that Downton looks better than ever here, in terms of sharpness, shadow detail, depth of field, contrast, and color. The largely brown-and-grey palette, punctuated by golds, reds, oranges, and lavenders throughout, is delivered with all the lushness and warmth it deserves, and skin tones are spot on.

 

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a largely front-focused affair, although it does lean on the surround channels a good bit to accentuate John Lunn’s iconic and familiar score. Aside from that, the surround soundstage does come into play occasionally to accentuate ambiance, be it the chirping of birds or the exuberant crowds at the royal parade, but by and large you won’t be pulling this one out to blow anyone’s hair back or shake their britches legs. For the most part, this is a dialogue-and-music-driven mix, and the lossless 5.1 track renders it with wonderful clarity and richness.

 

It should probably go without saying that the Downton Abbey film is primarily aimed at those who are already smitten with the characters and locations (which are, in some respects, characters in and of themselves). In many ways, it feels like a “Christmas Special” for a seventh season that never existed. (For the uninitiated: Each season for Downton Abbey since Season Two was bookended by a made-for-TV movie with a bigger budget and longer running time, broadcast on Christmas Day in the U.K. and presented as a special season finale when each year’s crop of episodes was broadcast a few months later here in the Colonies.)

 

I can’t see the film through anything other than the eyes of a longtime devotee, but I have to imagine that those who haven’t seen the series will be a little confused by stray references to characters who aren’t introduced, and relationships that aren’t spelled out for new viewers. Of course, little of this is essential to understanding the plot of the film, which is pretty self-

explanatory. The King and Queen are coming to Downton, and everyone is all aflutter. Who forgot to polish the silver? Who’s responsible for cooking the big dinner? Who’s going to be whose heir? What personal tragedy will befall poor Lady Edith this time around?

 

The magic of Downton Abbey (as both a TV series and a film) is that, like the best of the Merchant Ivory catalog it so evokes, it manages to make such low-stakes controversies seem like a Big Deal. And honestly, the details of the plot are, as always, secondary to the wonderful character interactions and performances, especially from Dame Maggie Smith, who seems bound and determined to make this, likely her last turn as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, the performance of her life.

 

Thematically speaking, the screenplay by showrunner Julian Fellowes does tinker around with the Downton formula just a bit. The series has always ultimately been about the conflicting forces of progress and tradition, and that remains true here. As always, this struggle is presented without a thumb on the scales, and those two opposing points-of-view don’t split across upstairs/downstairs lines as you might expect. There are agents of progress both in service and in the aristocracy, and bastions of tradition above and below the main floor. What makes the

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey movie a bit of cheeky fun in this respect is that Fellowes pushes many of the characters into positions of role reversal, with traditionalists defending a bit of change and change-seekers going to bat for the way things have always been done, right and proper.

 

When you get right down to it, the Downton Abbey film feels like returning home for a big holiday dinner. If you’re part of the family, it can be a wonderful exercise that recharges the soul. If you’re new to the family, you can feel a little awkward and out of sorts. In this case, though, the family happens to be so delightful that I think many a newcomer will be drawn in enough to explore the entire run of the show, if only to have a better understanding of the relationships at the heart of this wonderful little melodrama.

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.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Theres a truism about golf that focusing on your grip and overthinking your swing is the easiest way to sabotage your own game. Im not really sure how true that is, because the closest Ive ever gotten to a golfball field was the Mountasia mini-golf course that used to sit where my favorite barbeque joint now resides. But Ive heard the same said of everything from tennis to endurance racing to sex, so Ill assume theres some validity to it.

 

Given that, its sort of amazing that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantinos ninth and reportedly penultimate film, isnt an absolute swing-and-a-miss. Throughout the films 160-minute runtime, its pretty obvious QT positively obsessed over every aspect of not just this film but his entire oeuvre, as well as every single trope that has defined his style.

 

That could have something to do with the fact that this film was in the works when longtime collaborator Harvey Weinstein was outed for years of predatory sexual assault. This is also Tarantinos first film since he got caught in the crossfire between Weinstein and former muse Uma Thurman, and took responsibility for a car crash that seriously injured her during the filming of Kill Bill. (For what its worth, Thurmans daughter Maya Hawke plays a small but pivotal role in Once Upon a Time, which lends some credibility to Uma and Quentins apparent reconciliation.)

 

I normally wouldnt mention such behind-the-scenes controversies in a review, since they normally have no bearing on the quality of the work in and of itself. But despite the fact that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been brewing in the back of Tarantinos mind for a decade now, you can see the fingerprints of all of the above throughout the film. You can also see the filmmaker grappling with, reflecting upon, embracing, and/or altering the formula that has defined his career.

 

Say what you will about Tarantino as a filmmaker—and Ive criticized him as often as Ive lauded him—theres simply no denying that it takes serious talent to juggle all of those balls in broad daylight and still hit one out of the park. (And I swear to you, that will be the last ham-fisted sports metaphor I attempt to make in the course of this review.) Once Upon a Time is the first Tarantino film Ive genuinely enjoyed since 2007s Death Proof, and its arguably his best since 2004s Kill Bill: Volume 2. What isnt really up for argument is that its his most mature and personal work by far, which is a bit of a conundrum given that this is ultimately a comedy.

 

I wont dig too much into the plot for numerous reasons, but suffice to say, the story centers on the relationship between an actor who is past his prime and the longtime stuntman who functions as his right hand, confidant, and personal assistant of sorts. The interactions between these two—played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, who turn in some of the best work either has ever committed to the screen—form the bedrock of what could almost be described as a tone poem about the end of an era, personally, culturally, and politically. Its a rumination on the changing landscape of Hollywood and of society as a whole at the end of the turbulent 1960s.

 

While DiCaprio and Pitt stand at the center of this loose tale, though, they cant really be described as its heart. That function belongs to Margot Robbie, who positively mesmerizes as Sharon Tate, one of a number of real-world figures who populate the wholly (and I do mean wholly) fictionalized world of Tarantinos film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

QTs handling of Tate as a character is honestly one of the films most fascinating elements. He doesnt put her on a pedestal. He doesnt objectify her. He doesnt turn her into some magical, mythical, or tragic creature. He humanizes her, to a degree Ive never seen in any of the fictionalized or dramatized portrayals of her. This, combined with Robbies pitch-perfect performance, gives her a presence that feels somewhat out of proportion with her relatively limited screen time, not to mention the minuscule amount of dialogue given to her.

 

Speaking of dialogue, thats another thing that sets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood apart from Tarantinos larger body of work. While his characters in previous films often feel like little more than delivery mechanisms for the words in the script, in this one the dialogue works first and foremost in service of the characters. True, those words are still too clever by half much of the time, but that trope works in this case, at least as well as it did in Pulp Fiction.

 

Once Upon a Time also leans hard on a number of other tried-and-true Tarantino tropes, though not always in the expected ways. As always, pop music plays a huge role in the soundtrack, though the filmmaker seems less interested in digging up long-forgotten deep cuts like “Stuck in the Middle with You” or “Flowers on the Wall,” relying instead of iconic cuts that evoke the era and the personal emotions hes exploring.

 

Another trope Tarantino seems to be consciously grappling with is violence. Ill admit, Ive never had quite the problem with his use of gore and splatter as some critics, if only because its generally so over-the-top and obviously cartoonish that theres only the most tenuous relationship between Tarantinos violence and real-world bodily harm. In Once Upon a Time, though, not only is the violence massively downplayed; its also shockingly realistic. That combination—the overall lack of bloodshed combined with an undeniable lack of glorification or sensationalism when it does appear—honestly makes this films two or three brief violent scenes the exact opposite of cartoonish. In fact, theyre so brutal as to be difficult to watch.

 

Im only guessing here, but it seems to me this is intentional. Indeed, one of the minor recurring themes of the film is the representation of violence in movies and TV (including Tarantinos own previous efforts). Unsurprisingly, its a theme he handles with a hefty helping of Gen X irony. But the fact that hes handling it so blatantly in the first place cant go unnoticed.

 

One also cant help but notice that Tarantino agonized over the look of the film. Shot on a combination of 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film stock, the color portions of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are outright dazzling, even if the image seems to be a revolt against current digital video standards. If youre a videophile, be prepared for some seriously crushed blacks, overly ruddy skin tones, primary colors that sizzle with near-neon intensity, and a defiant lack of dynamic range, especially on the lower end of the value scale.

 

I dont say this as a criticism of the home video transfer, mind you. The Ultra HD/HDR presentation, especially the one provided by Kaleidescape, seems absolutely true to Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardsons artistic vision. Im merely giving you a heads-up that if you go in expecting near-infinite shadow detail and subtlety in the color palette, youre going to be a bit taken aback by what you see.

 

On the other hand, this is one of the few modern films that genuinely takes advantage of Ultra HD resolution, since it was finished in a 4K digital intermediate. And, indeed, the wider color gamut, as compared with the older HD home video standards, allows the extra intensity of those vibrant primary hues to shine through unscathed.

 

Interestingly, despite the overall lack of dynamic range on display, there is one very dark scene in the film that I think would have benefited from the dynamic metadata of Dolby Vision HDR. “Dynamic metadata” is just a jargony way of saying the overall dynamic range of the image can be adjusted on a scene-by-scene basis, and it’s one of the major advantages of Dolby Vision vs. HDR10. I know a Dolby Vision master was created for digital cinema exhibition, although the best we have on home video is the standard HDR10. Again, though, that one dark scene aside, the only time the film really calls for enhanced dynamic range is one or two rare instances of high-intensity brightness in the TV-pilot-within-a-film that comprises so much of the movie’s second act.

 

Overall, its a gorgeous film that is well-served by this home video presentation. It simply isnt what most people would consider home theater demo material, because it has absolutely no interest in acting as such.

 

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack accompanying the Kaleidescape download also does a wonderful job of delivering the films mix, which runs the gamut from safe and unobtrusive to unapologetically playful, depending on the needs of the scene. There are creative uses of the surround soundfield that will likely go unnoticed unless youre taking notes and critiquing the mix from a technical perspective, and other, more obvious surround-sound tricks that seemingly serve Tarantinos meta-purposes of making a film about filmmaking. But all of this really takes a backseat to what matters most: The fidelity of the soundtrack music and the intelligibility of the dialogue, both of which are unimpeachable.

Its just a bummer that, for now, Sony Pictures seems fit to have left the Kaleidescape release of this film devoid of bonus features. Im not quite ready to proclaim Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a masterpiece or anything, but it is a fascinating film made for lovers of cinema, and as such it deserves some supplemental exploration.

 

The upcoming UHD Blu-ray promises to be pretty packed with bonus goodies, and indeed, other digital releases already available include some substantial extras, including a documentary about how Tarantino transformed modern-day L.A. into a  convincing recreation of its late-1960s equivalent without the use of computer effects, as well as over 20 minutes of deleted or alternate scenes. The latter are of particular interest, given that many of the scenes shown in trailers for the film appear nowhere in the finished product, and indeed seem to have no place in it.

 

Kaleidescape tells me these bonuses will be coming in the next few weeks,” presumably closer to the disc release on December 10. So, dont let the present lack thereof keep you from purchasing the film on Kaleidescape if thats your preferred movie service.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

As to whether you should purchase the film at all, no matter the platform, thats a difficult question to answer. For Tarantino diehards, its a no-brainer. On the other hand, those of you who have never found anything to love in any of his films likely wont be swayed by this one. Despite the obvious self-critique of his own cinematic shorthand, he still relies on it, though not as unapologetically as hes done in the past.

 

For those like me who love some of Tarantinos films and outright loathe or are bored to tears by others, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an interesting work. It isnt perfect. It isnt consistent. It is utterly captivating, though. So much so that Ive been unable to think about much else since watching it.

 

Will it stand the test of time? Honestly, who knows? I will say this, though: After taking a bit more time to sort out my own thoughts on the film, Im eager to dive back in and explore it at least one more time. 

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.

Die Hard

Die Hard

Few things give you that, “Wow! Really?! It’s been that long?!?” feeling like a milestone anniversary re-release of one of your favorite films. Die Hard came out in 1988, the same year I graduated high school. I first saw the movie on VHS with two high-school buddies, viewing it on a relatively small TV with a pair of speakers connected to a stereo system. (Remember that home theater was virtually non-existent back then, and a VHS Hi-Fi player—or LaserDisc player—connected to a stereo was practically state-of-the-art!) But the presentation didn’t matter. The film was so gripping and unlike any other action movie I’d seen that it held my attention from start to finish.

 

For the film’s 25th anniversary, 20th Century Fox re-released the Die Hard series in a box set, but those transfers were taken from existing video elements and featured no improvement over the initial Blu-ray release. Fortunately, for the 30th anniversary, the studio decided to right that wrong, and gave the movie a full remaster, with this release sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate. And while Die Hard has been available on 4K Blu-ray Disc since May 2018, it is just now available in full-quality download from the Kaleidescape Store, which is how I enjoyed it.

 

For me, there are two standouts that make Die Hard the great film it is. First is Bruce Willis in the role of off-duty NYPD officer John McClane.

 

Remember that when this movie came out in 1988, Willis was certainly nothing of an action star, and not much of a movie star at all. Besides his role in the TV series Moonlighting and some bit parts in other TV shows, his “big” film role had been as a kind of goofball in Blind Date.

 

But Officer McClane was not your typical highly-trained and overly-lethal Spec Ops-trained action star of the day, but rather a relatable everyman suddenly thrust into an incredible situation where he had to figure things out on the fly and struggle virtually every second to outwit the bad guys, save the hostages, and survive. The decisions he makes as a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time give viewers the hope that maybe they could do the same. And Willis interjects just enough humor 

and personality to keep the film from being too dark.

 

But even bigger and more important to the film’s lasting success than Willis’s performance is that of Alan Rickman as ultra-cool villain, Hans Gruber.

 

Gruber was really unlike any other villain we’d seen to that point. He wasn’t a bizarre, megalomaniac Bond villain; he didn’t have 

Die Hard

any weird predilections or affectations; nor was he some supernatural character or monster. He was an exceptional thief who reads Forbes, quotes literature, and wears bespoke Savile Row suits. His first lines are read from a small notebook as he addresses the hostages in Nakatomi Plaza: “’And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.’ Benefits of a classical education.” This is not the typical bombastic entrance of a film’s central villain, and lets you know that Gruber is different. Further, Gruber’s fantastic lines of dialogue are delivered perfectly thanks to Rickman’s classical theater training. Gruber, who conducts the raid on the Nakatomi Plaza like he’s negotiating a hostile business takeover, ranks among the greatest villains of all time.

 

It’s hard to imagine anyone not being familiar with Die Hard, but it’s likely been years since you’ve watched it, as was the case for me. (Unless you belong to that group that considers Die Hard one of the best Christmas films and make it part of your annual festivities.) I had an imported copy of the DVD sitting on my Kaleidescape server, and, frankly, it never looked that great. So, the 4K HDR release was a perfect time to revisit this classic, which looks hands-down better than I’ve ever experienced it. 

 

On Christmas Eve, a group of European criminals take over and lock down the Nakatomi Plaza, taking a floor full of employees enjoying a holiday party hostage in the process. The plan is to break into the vault and steal more than $600 million in negotiable bearer bonds, blow up the building, and be on a beach earning 20% before the authorities realize what happened. But the thieves’ plans are disrupted by the presence of an unexpected party guest in the form of Willis’s McClane. Using nothing but his wits and his duty weapon (well, at least until he can commandeer something better), McClane fights off the terrorists, makes contact with local law enforcement, and uses every resource available—save for shoes—to save the day.

 

I know fellow Cineluxe reviewer Dennis Burger feels “older movies shot on 35mm or larger film stock are the ones that stand to benefit most from the latest Ultra HD and HDR home video standards,” but it’s important to set expectations. Die Hard unquestionably looks the best we’ve seen here, but if you’re looking for the gleaming sharpness and every last pixel of detail you’d find from a modern digitally captured film, you’ll likely be disappointed.

 

There are definitely moments where the added detail and resolution are greatly appreciable, such as the closeups revealing pore detail of the actors’ faces without any of the “waxiness” that can come from overly used DNR. You can also see the weave of fabrics, such as the fine lines in Willis’ undershirt, and notice the detail on the gold frame sitting on Holly Gennaro’s (Bonnie Bedelia) desk. As the limo pulls into Nakatomi Plaza to drop McClane off, you clearly see the sharp lines and detail in the paver stones.

 

But other scenes sprinkled throughout look almost out of focus or even blurry, such as one scene in Holly’s office when she is talking to John. And while lines and edges are mostly sharp, there are other scenes that reveal some aliasing, such as a pile of sheetrock on one of the unfinished floors of the Nakatomi building. 

 

Black levels are nice, deep and clean, but sometimes blacks are so black that detail is lost, such as with the texturing of Hans’s suit. Colors are rich, such as the sunset in LA revealing a rich, vibrant red-orange tapestry that has no banding.

 

HDR is not used aggressively, but definitely adds impact to explosions, gunfire, and bright computer-monitor images. It also enhances the fluorescent lighting on the unfinished floors and oncoming headlights, compared to the Blu-ray. The night scenes overlooking LA from the top of the tower also look terrific.

Die Hard was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing (as well as Best Film Editing and Best Visual Effects), so you might have hoped that a new immersive sound mix would have been part of the 4K release, but that isn’t the case. (I wish studios would pull a page from Sony’s book on how to do a proper anniversary release, but that seems to be too much to ask . . .) What we have here is a DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix that is certainly serviceable.

 

The musical score is given nice room to breathe across the front channels, and dialogue is generally clear and easy to understand, which is paramount in any sound mix.

 

Sound mixes have evolved over the past 30 years, and Die Hard doesn’t look for every opportunity to mine deep low-frequency information. Even some of the big explosions don’t have the bass impact you might would hope for. But still, bass impact is there for the big moments, such as the rocket-launcher attack on the SWAT vehicle or the elevator-shaft explosion or when the final seal of the bank vault is released. Gunshots—of which there are plenty—have good dynamics.

Die Hard

There is a good bit of ambient and surround information that upmixes well using either Dolby Surround or DTS:Neural. We get the nice effect of the FBI helicopter flying overhead, sounds of sprinklers from the fire-suppression system, secondary explosions, and glass shattering.

 

Die Hard was a gamechanger for the action-film genre, and is considered one of the best action films of all time. Fortunately, we can enjoy it again looking better than ever. It remains a ton of fun to watch and is a must-have for any home theater collection.

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.

Watchmen (2019)

Watchmen (2019)

Shocking. Thats easily the best descriptor to sum up the opening of the new HBO series Watchmen.

 

If the name sounds familiar, it might be because of the Zack Snyder film a decade ago, which was in turn an adaptation of a seminal 12-issue DC Comics series from the mid ’80s. The comic takes place in an alternate version of our world where the point of divergence is 1938. Masked heroes (some might say vigilantes) have won the Vietnam War for the American side, 

thanks to Dr. Manhattan, a god-like character born from a scientific experiment.

 

At its heart, the comic is a murder mystery. One of the Watchmen is murdered at the beginning and we spend the 12 issues finding out the who and why, all with the backdrop of nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

The HBO series is a sequel that primarily takes place in Tulsa 34 years after the events of the comic. The location is significant because of that shocking opening scene: The Tulsa race riot of 1921. Its a disturbing moment in 

American history that is unknown, or at least not well known, by most of the population. I know it wasnt covered in any of my history classes.

 

On May 31, 1921, a mob of white Tulsa residents attacked the city’s black Greenwood district, referred to as Black Wall Street” because of the prosperity and wealth of the residents there. Officially, 36 were killed, although unofficial numbers put that number as high as 300, with thousands left homeless. This sets up the racial backdrop of the Tulsa of Watchmen. In it, police officers wear masks to protect their identity from the population they are trying to protect, and from the white supremacist group the Seventh Kavalry.

 

The main characters of the series are new creations by Damon Lindelof (of Lost and The Leftovers fame). That isnt to say the original characters from the comic are absent; in fact, a few are supporting characters (at least through the third episode of the series). But the story is at its heart seen from the viewpoint of Angela Abar (Regina King), one of the masked police officers who has a murder mystery dumped in her lap in Episode One.

 

The cast of Watchmen is absolutely fantastic, and while its the story of Abar, it really is dependent on its ensemble; Louis Gossett Jr., playing Tulsa riot survivor Will Reeves, feeds the mystery of the story with his cryptic hints to Abar; Jeremy Irons is fantastically peculiar; and Jean Smart (introduced in Episode Three) has an inspiring performance that, I think, should lead to awards talk. The cast as a whole handles the challenging and uncomfortable material deftly.

 

Visually, there are beautiful references to the comic book (for those who are fans), and the breadth of cinematography is very cinematic. But being HBO, resolution is capped at 1080p. Luckily, I didnt experience any of the godawful compression issues found during other HBO shows, even during some dark, nighttime fight sequences.

 

The Dolby Digital surround mix (the highest available through HBO Go or HBO Now) is very good. Action scenes filled my room while keeping my focus forward on the screen where it needed to be. The shining star of the mix, though, is the score composed by the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which expertly captures the mood of the show and helps drive its narrative forward.

 

For those who want a deeper dive, there’s a companion podcast, The Official Watchmen Podcast, hosted by Craig Mazin (writer and director of Chernobyl), joined by Lindelof. A new installment is released every third series episode, and each one adds some interesting insight into the creation process.

 

Watchmen is not for the faint of heart, and those unfamiliar with the source material might be thrown for a loop at times, but hang in there. The storytelling is top-notch to match the excellent acting and score.

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.

Angel Has Fallen

Angel Has Fallen

I’m a pretty big sucker for military thrillers. You make a movie involving submarines, fighter jets, Navy SEALs, Delta Force, or something tied to Tom Clancy, I’m 100% gonna be down to watch. Another of the military sub-genres I’m a sucker for is anything involving the US Secret Service.

 

Years ago, while working as a golf professional at a private country club in the Bay Area, I got a chance to watch the Secret Service in action as our club hosted then-president Clinton for a round of golf. His single foursome required a total of 17 golf carts, including the forward and aft security details featuring guys riding around with giant binoculars and touting large unzipped black bags holding shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, a colonel carrying the “football” with the nuclear launch

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codes, and the president’s personal doctor with a chilled supply of medical equipment. (There were also black-clad Spec Ops assaulters who disappeared up into the trees, snipers on overwatch at the top of the country club, two presidential limos circling the streets bordering the course to shadow the president’s position, helicopters sweeping over the course, and even fighter jets that occasionally flew over! How much that single round of golf cost tax payers I can only imagine.)

 

I volunteered to take box lunches out to all of the groups, and as I was driving up to the security detail tasked to the president’s group, I noticed that the agent in the passenger 

seat very nonchalantly crossed his leg and slipped his right hand down to his right thigh. And there was his pistol, perfectly aimed at me and tracking me the entire way as I pulled up and got out to hand over the lunches. Rather than being scared, I thought it was so cool how subtly professional and dialed-in the guy was, covering me the entire time, but being so discreet about it. And not everyone can say that they’ve had a Secret Service agent point a gun at them.

 

So, after that, I’ve had a special place in my heart for the professionalism and thoroughness of the Secret Service detail and love movies that show them in action. (In the Line of Fire is a real favorite!)

 

One of the more exciting film series in this genre has been the Has Fallen trilogy starring Gerard Butler as former US Army Ranger turned US Secret Service agent, Mike Banning. Starting with Olympus Has Fallen in 2013, where Butler had to retake the White House and save President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) after he was captured by a North Korean-led terrorist group, followed by London Has Fallen in 2016, where Banning had to transport Asher through the streets of London after Marine One is shot down and seemingly everyone in the city has become a terrorist hellbent on killing the President, we now get the third in Angel Has Fallen.

 

Noticeably different in this film is the replacement of Eckhart’s Asher as president, and if there were any overt references to Asher in Angel, I missed them. But, as five years have passed since the end of London, it makes sense that Asher has moved on from the office and political life. He is replaced with some semblance of continuity by Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), who has steadily risen in the government ranks, having served as Speaker of the House in Olympus, Vice President in London, and finally getting the presidential nod here in Angel.

 

Bannon is still the principal agent on the presidential detail, though his body and mind are a bit worse for wear after all the years of active service. But he once again finds himself in the middle of things, after an assassination attempt leaves Trumbull in a coma, and all of the evidence points to Bannon as the mastermind behind the attempt.

 

Bannon is forced on the run, needing to evade capture from both the FBI (led by Jada Pinkett Smith as Agent Helen Thompson) and the Secret Service while also trying to track down those responsible for the attempt on Trumbull’s life and insure they aren’t successful in another attempt. Along the way, Bannon enlists the help of his estranged and off-the-grid father Clay (Nick Nolte). 

 

Angel belongs to that increasingly common group of movies that has a real divide between critics and fans, with critics giving it only 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, and audiences giving it a 93%. While not the strongest movie of the trilogy—Olympus holds that title—it features a steady stream of action, with plenty of explosions, gunfire, and car chases designed to give fans of the series what they want.

 

Shot in ArriRaw at 3.4K, Angel is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and generally looks terrific. Edges are razor sharp, and closeups reveal tons of detail. In fact, perhaps a bit too much detail for the likes of Butler and Freeman, whose faces show lots of weather and wear, while shots of Nolte clearly show every crazy stray hair on his head and in his beard. Even things like the small American flag pin on Trumbull’s lapel clearly show the individual red and white stripes of the flag, and you can also see the thread and stitching detail in clothing. Compared to the Blu-ray version (included with the 4K purchase

from Kaleidescape), there is noticeably more sharpness and detail, especially in closeups.

 

There are quite a few night or very dark interior scenes, and blacks are generally deep and clean. There is a bit of digital noise in some of the scenes when Bannon is being transported by the FBI, but these are shot in torturously low light, and really are more a testament to how far digital capture has come rather than being a drawback by revealing a bit of noise. Most night/dark scenes look terrific, such as the night shots of DC, which look gorgeous, with the city beautifully lit in full HDR glory.

 

HDR is used nicely to enhance the image throughout. During the opening, sunlight streams through openings in a building, illuminating its dark interior with bright shafts of light. Car tail lights, police lights, and dashboard instruments all have tons of pop, courtesy of HDR.

 

Sonically, Angel has a lot going on thanks to a very active and immersive Dolby Atmos sound mix that kicks off almost from the opening frame. The sound mixers seemed to use every opportunity to put appropriate sounds overhead, such as helicopters flying and hovering, or a swarm of drones zipping around the ceiling. There’s a near constant bit of atmospheric audio filling the speakers, like radio 

Angel Has Fallen

chatter and off-screen announcements, and gunshot echoes and reports. Equally important to the quality of the special effects is the ability to clearly understand dialogue and what is being said, and Angel has no problems in this regard.

 

My only real complaint with the audio is that bass seemed to be a bit anemic. There were numerous big explosions throughout that never seemed to really push the LFE channel. None of the big moments delivered the kinds of pants-fluttering bass levels you’d expect from a big action film, and it was a little disappointing that Angel didn’t have some more low-end impact to accompany gunshots and detonations.

 

Fans of the Fallen series will be pleased to hear that series producer Alan Siegel recently announced plans for a fourth, fifth, and sixth film, meaning we haven’t seen the end of Bannon’s days on the detail.

 

Angel Has Fallen is available for download now from the Kaleidescape Store, two weeks ahead of its physical-media release on November 26.

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.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

All of us have those few movies we’ve seen that make a lasting, indelible impression on our minds. For me, the first was Star Wars (now with Episode IV—A New Hope added to its title). I saw this when I was seven, and can still clearly remember the massive Star Destroyer flying overhead to start the movie and knowing I was in for something unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Another was The Matrix. I can clearly remember turning to my wife while we were watching the movie and saying, “I have no idea how they are doing any of this! Man, I am loving this movie!” Terminator 2: Judgment Day is another film that sits firmly in that category.

 

Even more than the original Terminator, T2 was a film that just fired on all cylinders. Here we have Arnold Schwarzenegger as a good guy Terminator we can cheer for, a buffed-out and intense Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor saving humanity from a new threat, and an all new T-1000 liquid-metal terminator (Robert Patrick) that defied any of the special effects technologies my 21-year-old brain could comprehend. I can remember walking out of the theater with my cousin and just dissecting the movie for hours, wondering how they accomplished some of the shots, and planning when we could go see it again.

 

As I got into the custom installation business years later, T2 was one of those go-to movies for demo fodder for clients wanting to experience home theater. The canal chase and Connor’s escape from the sanitarium are both scenes that pack a ton of action and tension into a short, intense sequence.

 

Like Star Wars, T2 is one of those films I’ve owned in multiple formats over the years. A VHS tape, then a special-edition widescreen VHS tape, then on LaserDisc, then DVD, then on Blu-ray. But for some reason, I had skipped out on upgrading to the 4K UltraHD version even though it’s priced incredibly low for a 4K title. Yesterday, while browsing at Target with my daughter, I saw T2 sitting there in its 4K slipcover for the just-can’t-refuse price of $7.50, and I decided to snatch it up.

 

I’m not going to waste any space offering any kind of synopsis for Terminator 2. If you’ve seen it, then you know what the movie is about; if you haven’t, you either have no interest in it, or need to drop everything and go watch it immediately.

 

This version of T2 is taken from a new writer/director (James Cameron)-approved 4K digital intermediate created in 2017 for the film’s 3D re-release. And bizarrely the film opens with a title card that says, “This 3D version has been produced by Studio Canal,” even though the film on the disc is most definitely not in 3D. While the 4K disc only contains the original 137-minute theatrical version, the Blu-ray included in the 4K set also includes the 153-minute Special Edition and 156-minute Ultimate Cut, along with several special features, featurettes, a making-of documentary, and commentaries.

 

Now, there has been a fair bit of controversy and angst surrounding the picture quality of this release of T2. In fact, one enthusiast site has a forum dedicated to discussing it that has over 9,000 posts.

 

The complaints mainly revolve around the somewhat aggressive use of DNR (digital noise reduction) throughout, which has scrubbed the grain from the movie’s original 35mm negative. However, it had been years since I’d sat down to watch the movie from start to finish, and with my brand-new JVC 4K projector, $7.50 seemed like an incredibly reasonable investment in an evening’s entertainment.

 

What you have here is a T2 that looks a lot like a modern, digitally-captured movie instead of something shot on film. Images are surprisingly clean, sharp, and detailed, with almost no noise. For me, I was mostly pleased with the images; but some purists—as a forum inciting 9,000 comments would attest—are not.

 

However, like it or lump it, it’s important to remember that this transfer got Cameron’s blessing, so it’s the Terminator 2 he wanted released. And, without a doubt, it’s the best-looking T2 we have.

 

There are moments when the DNR appears to have been applied a bit too heavily, with the result making some faces appear a bit waxy, smoothed, and overly botoxed. But, remembering that the Terminator is a cyborg, this waxy look didn’t seem especially out of place for me. I was far more aware of the sharp details in closeups, revealing pores, lines, and pockmarks in Hamilton’s face, or the pebbled texture and grain in Arnold’s leather jacket, or every strand of T-1000’s perfectly coiffed ‘do.

 

While some of the effects scenes don’t hold the same magic they did back in 1991—what was cutting-edge morphing technology almost 30 years ago has been eclipsed many times over since—the film still holds up remarkably well as a whole. The T-1000’s relentless pursuit of John Connor (Edward Furlong) still feels as intense, and unstoppable, as ever, and the enhanced resolution lets you appreciate the makeup work used on Arnold as his increasingly damaged skin gives way to reveal the cyborg beneath.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Black levels also benefit immensely in this new transfer, being deep, inky, dark, and noise-free; and these deep black images benefit the overall look. One thing that seems to frequently show an excessive amount of digital noise in older films is the powdery blue sky in outdoor scenes, and there were only a couple of instances where I noticed some of this noise in the desert as Connor plans to head to Mexico. But even then it were far less noticeable than in other recent 4K transfers such as Karate Kid or Field of Dreams. During the attack on Cyberdyne, there is a lot of smoke and gas that swirls around, and it never exhibited any noise or banding.

 

Interestingly, one scene of a trailer-mounted AC unit in the desert exhibited a surprising amount of jaggies and moiré as the camera passed; something you almost never see in 4K images any longer.

 

As much as they used DNR to clean up and modernize the look of T2, I found the restoration to be restrained with the HDR grading and the use of 4K’s wider color gamut. There are scenes, like the opening battle between humans and Terminators, which features a lot of flames, explosions, and laser bolts, or the lightning storm that accompanies a Terminator emerging into our time, that benefit from HDR. Another scene that is also enhanced by HDR is the climactic finale in the steel mill, with dark shadows and glowing red-hot molten metal.

 

But far more often images seem a bit restrained. Explosions seem to lack detail or the bright intensity that modern movies exhibit, and I would have liked to see the reds pushed more aggressively in explosions and the steel factory. Also, the color grading in some scenes has been pushed towards cooler, steel-blue hues, giving them a sterile aesthetic.

 

A variety of audio mixes have accompanied T2 releases over the years, and this is definitely a film that seems tailor-made for a fully immersive Dolby Atmos or DTS:X surround remix. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case here, and we are given a DTS-HD Master 5.1 mix that I believe was ported from the previous Blu-ray release. (Interestingly, the German soundtrack included on the disc has a 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix, so if you auf Deutsch, you can enjoy that.)

 

Fortunately, the mix keeps dialogue clear and intelligible throughout, and it upmixes with either Dolby Surround or DTS:Neural to height speakers very nicely. For example, when the T-1000 is attacking the group in the elevator, you can clearly her him slashing from overhead. Later in the film, a helicopter also flies overhead very convincingly. There are lots of scenes with subtle atmospherics, with sounds placed well around the room, putting you in the action. While not an object-based immersive mix that could have made for a truly epic home theater demo, T2’s audio mostly delivers.

 

I did find bass to be a bit of an uneven bag. Some scenes push the LFE channel, whereas others seem like the sound mixers shied away from the bass volume output. I’d have loved to feel a bit more impact from things like Arnie’s shotgun, or vehicles smashing into each other. Fortunately, bass is loud and deep during all the scenes and moments you’d expect, such as the semi-truck exploding or the Cyberdyne facilities blowing up.

 

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the greatest science-fiction and action films ever made, and it deserves a place in any collection. It’s also shockingly affordable. If you haven’t watched it for a while, the 4K version makes the perfect opportunity to revisit, smoothed out blemishes and all.

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.

Hellboy (2004)

Hellboy (2004)

Try as we might to be objective, the truth of the matter is that those of us who make at least part of our living reviewing films bring some significant biases to the table. So, I should just go ahead and show my cards in this case: I’m a massive fan of Mike Mignola’s folklore/gothic horror/action comic-book series Hellboy and all of its respective spinoffs, from B.P.R.D. to Abe Sapien to Lobster Johnson to Frankenstein Underground.

 

I tell you that, not because it really has any bearing on the quality of Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 big-screen adaption of the comic, but more as a heads-up that things might get a little geekier than usual in this review. The thing is, when Hellboy hit theaters 15 years ago this year, most people had probably never heard of the comic book on which it was based, and as 

such had little concern for how faithful it was to the source.

 

Times have changed, though, and fandom has become more toxic across the board in almost every respect, so it’s become somewhat trendy to bash the movie for taking some significant liberties with the comic. Less so in this first installment than in its followup, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, but still. There’s no denying that in bringing the characters and mythology of the Mignolaverse to the screen, del Toro decided to adapt and interpret rather than be a slave to the printed page.

 

And to that I say, “Thank goodness.” One only needs to look at the most recent cinematic adaptation of Hellboy—Neil 

Marshall’s unimaginative regurgitation of the comic stories “Darkness Calls,” “The Wild Hunt,” and “The Storm and the Fury”—for proof that translating material between two mediums isn’t as simple as copying and pasting. It’s true the 2019 Hellboy reboot is more faithful to the storylines, dialogue, and even the overall structure of the comic than the 2004 film. What the new film overlooks, though, in its attempt to be a gritty R-rated gorefest, is the comic book’s profoundly ironic humanity.

 

That emotional human core is exactly what del Toro latched onto it formulating his own version of Hellboy. And most of the deviations from the comics storyline it leans heavily on—”Seed of Destruction,” in case you’re curious—ultimately boil down to bringing themes about family to the forefront and building the rest of the story around them. Such motivation results in some substantial character changes—Selma Blair’s Liz Sherman, for example, bears only the most superficial resemblance to her comic-book counterpart.

 

A subtler deviation comes in the form of a slight genre shift. Whereas del Toro’s Hellboy maintains the gothic horror and action elements of its inspiration, the comic’s folklore underpinnings do get dropped in favor of pure fantasy. But all of these modifications work in service of Hellboy as a movie, no matter what you want to say about their effect on it as an adaptation. 

 

A relative failure though it may have been at the box office, Hellboy has always been treated well on home video, starting with a fantastic three-disc Director’s Cut DVD in 2004, on through a wonderful early Blu-ray release in 2007 and a lot of re-

packagings in between and since. Now, for its 15th anniversary, Sony Pictures has graced the movie with a ground-up 4K restoration, which serves as the source of Kaleidescape’s recent UHD/HDR release.

 

This release proves once again that films shot on 35mm film stand to benefit more from UHD/HDR than do newer, all-digital efforts. The imagery here is 

Hellboy (2004)

simply sumptuous, reference-quality in virtually every respect, with the exception of a handful of computer-generated effects that don’t quite stand up to the quality of their practical counterparts. For what it’s worth, even the worst of Hellboy 2004’s CG effects look better than the best of Hellboy 2019’s, so don’t take this as too harsh a criticism. Overall, this new remastered transfer is simply stunning.

 

Unsurprisingly, the new high dynamic range transfer really flexes its muscles in portraying the film’s shadows, of which there are plenty, although it does take the opportunity to dazzle when called upon to do so. For my money, though, the biggest improvement over the decade-old 1080p transfer is in its more refined handling of the movie’s mostly muted color palette. Though there’s simply no denying that there is oodles more detail onscreen here than we’ve ever seen on any previous home video release of Hellboy. Textures, too, get a big boost, all the way down to the fine organic grain structure of the original film elements.

 

Truth be told, I’m not quite as sweet on the new Dolby Atmos remix of the movie’s soundtrack, although your mileage may vary. If you like tons of overhead sound effects, you’ll be in heaven here, because the Atmos redux never misses an opportunity to employ the height channels to their fullest effect. Oftentimes, it does so in the interest of atmosphere, which is where the remix really worked for me. When the action cranks up, though, so do the height channels, and I found it to be frankly a little too distracting, although that’s a common complaint on my part when it comes to object-based surround sound.

 

The good new is, over-done though it may be, the remix is utterly seamless, and sounds exactly the way I imagine the movie would have always sounded if modern audio technology had existed in 2004. So, again, if you’re a big fan of Atmos, I think you’ll get a real kick out of this one. The new mix maintains all of the dynamic oomph that has made this movie a go-to home

theater demo since the DVD days, and it does so while also maintaining excellent dialogue intelligibility and unimpeachable fidelity for the movie’s memorable score.

 

If, on the other hand, you fall into my camp when it comes to Atmos, you may be disappointed to find that the new Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround remix available on the recent UHD Blu-ray release is missing from the Kaleidescape download. The only other soundtrack options here are low-bitrate Dolby Digital (not Plus, just Dolby Digital) 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio stereo.

 

The UHD/HDR download is also missing not one, but two new audio commentaries recorded for the theatrical cut of the movie, which is also missing here. The Kaleidescape version includes the Director’s Cut only, which—to be fair—is a substantially superior version of the movie, even if its differences mostly amount to five or six seconds of footage here and 30 or 40 seconds of footage there. Also missing is a 15th-anniversary retrospective called To Hell and Back, along with a brief new introduction by director del Toro.

 

Don’t think that Kaleidescape is alone in its exclusion of these new bonus features, by the way. Sony seems fit to have withheld them from almost every digital release of this new UHD/HDR version of the movie, except, oddly enough, 

Hellboy (2004)

the iTunes download, which ports over all of the supplements included on the UHD Blu-ray. The good news is, buying the UHD version on Kaleidescape also gives you access to the Blu-ray quality download, which brings with it a cornucopia of wonderful bonus features, most notably the six-part documentary The Seeds of Creation, which at 143 minutes runs longer than the movie itself. So, you’re really not missing out on too much, unless you’re an audio commentary junky like I am.

 

If you’re not a bonus feature completist, there’s really nothing about this release to criticize. Hellboy is a fun, beautifully shot, often sweet, and utterly charming movie that’s better served by this new 4K restoration than any previous home video effort. The improvements in picture quality—especially in terms of color, shadow detail, and black levels—simply cannot be overstated.

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.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

If you’re looking for a family-friendly film that appeals to—and is appropriate for—nearly all ages, and that isn’t animated, you don’t often have a lot of options. Of course, Disney has been churning out live-action remakes of many of its classics, but this is a category many other studios have decided to avoid.

 

But since my daughters are 3½ and 13, I’m always interested in films that can work for all of us. So, when I saw that Dora and the Lost City of Gold was available for 4K HDR download at the Kaleidescape Store a full two weeks before its disc release, I queued it up for a family movie night.

 

Based on the animated Nickelodeon series, Dora the Explorer, the movie modernizes many of the beloved characters and puts them on a jungle adventure. My oldest, Lauryn, used to watch the animated series, so I was familiar with the main characters: Dora (Isabela Merced), her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, nephew of those other Wahlbergs), Swiper the stealing fox (voiced [unnecessarily] by Benicio Del Toro), and Boots the monkey (voiced bizarrely—but, thankfully, briefly—by Danny Trejo). I also knew about Dora’s talking Map and Backpack, whose voices are reprised by original voice actors Marc Weiner and Sasha Toro respectively.

 

Fortunately, you aren’t required to know anything about the animated series to jump right in and enjoy City of Gold, but those who are will certainly appreciate some of the clever overt and subtle nods and references sprinkled throughout the film, such as how Dora occasionally turns to the camera and says things like, “This is a golden poison frog. Can you say, ‘severe neuro-toxicity?’” which is one of cartoon Dora’s signature educational moves.

 

The film begins with six-year-old Dora (Madelyn Miranda) living in the Peruvian jungle with her explorer parents Elena (Eva Longoria) and Cole (Michael Peña). Dora spends her days playing and exploring with Boots and Diego, learning a lot about jungle life and survival. Cut to ten years later. Believing they’ve finally cracked the clues needed to locate the hidden Inca city of Parapata, Dora’s parents send her off to stay with Diego, who has since relocated with his family to Southern California. This move takes Dora way outside of her comfort zone, forcing her to experience an entirely new culture where she most definitely doesn’t fit in: High school.

 

After being waylaid during a class field trip, Dora, Diego, and two other students find themselves in Peru, where Dora learns her parents have gone missing. From there, the group embarks on an adventure to rescue Dora’s parents and get back to civilization, which forces them to work as a team to overcome a variety of obstacles and challenges, and ultimately locate and explore Parapata.

 

There is a fair bit of action for a kid’s movie, certainly enough to keep adults entertained, but most of it is fairly tame. And while there is some peril, there are no fatalities or gunplay. Much of the adventure is Goonies-style, with rolling logs, underground water slides, and different puzzle-traps to solve. It also reminded me a bit of Lara Croft-light, with adventuring Dora taking point and using her wits and skills to lead the group.

 

Both Boots and Swiper are animated in a far more cartoony style than the hyper-realistic animals featured in The Lion King (2019), but this is by design. However, a couple of other animals—namely a boa constrictor and pair of scorpions—show their too obvious CGI origins. The film does contain one fully animated scene, which is a great homage to the original series.

 

One of my favorite things about the film was Dora herself. She is determined, self-confident, smart, optimistic, and always sees the good in others. She doesn’t spend the movie obsessing over a boy, or worrying what others think of her, or endlessly gazing into a cellphone. This is the kind of positive “girl power” image I want my daughters to see. There are enough mean-girls films out there, with know-it-all kids surrounded by clueless adults, and it was incredibly refreshing to watch a movie about a 16-year-old girl who is trying to make the world a better place without needing to tear anyone else down to do so.

 

Dora on 4K HDR looks way better than any kid’s movie has any right to. My first note on the film was, “Image is super clean and sharp.” Filmed in ArriRaw in 3.4 and 4.5K, Dora is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the image quality 

definitely shows. Closeups reveal individual strands of hair, the texture of clothing fabric, and the detail of the jungle terrain.

 

Colors are also vibrant throughout, with lots of bright yellows, greens, blues, and reds. This is especially true in the closing credits song-and-dance number, where the school student body comes together in multi-colored outfits. The bright, daytime jungle scenes also look terrific. And there are a few shots of bright fires and blazing sunsets that also benefit from the wider color gamut, as well as the brilliant, lustrous gold of statues and idols.

 

HDR is used throughout to deliver deep blacks, especially during the night scenes or when the gang is inside some location solving a puzzle. In one scene, the group needs to use sunlight and mirrors to bounce bright light around a room using reflective bowls, producing both dark blacks and piercing brightness.

 

Sonically, Dora also benefits from a fairly dynamic Dolby Atmos soundtrack. The jungle is filled with atmospheric sounds like birds, insects, and dripping water that immerse you in the location. During one scene, arrows whip past and overhead or thunk into walls. The sound team takes other opportunities to get creative with the sound placement, like a ringing school bell, Boots racing around the 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

jungle treetops, water flooding the room, or voices. Bass is also appropriately deep and engaging when called for, especially during the finale at Parapata.

 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold makes for a fun family night at the movies—entertaining and humorous for adults (my wife especially liked the “dig a pooh hole” song), without being too intense or mature for kids. It’s a film younger viewers may want to visit more than once, drawn to Dora’s infectious charm. It also has the bonus of looking and sounding terrific in your home system, making it a real win in my book.

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.