Movies

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

Stan & Ollie, the recent movie about Laurel and Hardy’s final years together, introduced or re-introduced many people to the incredibly influential comedy team that bridged the gap between formal theater and vaudeville and the silent and sound eras. That touching film helped spur new interest in the legendary comedy duo.

 

The fine new four-disc Blu-ray collection Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations uses restored versions of many of the team’s classic films and a bounty of extras to celebrate their work. These are perhaps as definitive versions as we will ever 

get to see. Painstakingly restored in 2K and 4K resolution, this is the best some of these films have looked since the time of their original release.

 

While I don’t claim to be the world’s leading authority on vintage film from the black & white era—though I do love a lot of early films!—the clarity found on Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations is unlike any versions of their movies I’ve seen to date. Sure, they display a certain amount of grain inherent to the early film equipment. But now you can clearly see the surprisingly wonderful sets and lighting supporting the never-ending gags, puns, and all manner of campy comebacks that have kept audiences laughing for decades. Click here, here, and here to see some side-by-

THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS
AT A GLANCE

Some of the comedy duo’s signature features & shorts receive 2K and 4K restorations in this four-disc Blu-ray set brimming with extras

 

PICTURE     

Purged of their jitter, blur, blotches, and scratches, this is probably the best these films have looked since they were originally released.

side before-and-after examples of the restorations—but they don’t quite convey the experience of just sitting down and letting yourself get immersed in the Laurel and Hardy universe.

 

This set includes some of their earliest films as a team, including a legendary reel that has not been seen in its complete form since its original presentation in 1927. Portions of their short “Battle of the Century” were lost over the years but after painstaking research most of it has been reassembled from original elements. This is apparently a world-premiere release, making its consumer-video debut after being effectively lost for 90 years!

 

The 2K and 4K transfers were done from restorations originally created for theatrical distribution by Jeff Joseph/SabuCat for the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress using the best surviving 35mm elements, including nitrate prints. So, unlike versions you may have seen on TV, YouTube, or earlier DVD collections, these are not blurry, jittery old movies. Most of the films sport a very distinct clear and steady look. I immediately noticed a stronger depth of field than I ever remembered seeing before. The Definitive Restorations allows you to better appreciate the detail captured, with lots of location shots around Hollywood and Los Angeles (and probably other locations) back in the day. The films used to just look flat (and scratchy!), but now you can fully experience the joyful cinematography underlying these gems. 

 

While there is no fancy packaging on this Blu-ray set, the bonus materials more than make up for the lack of any sort of booklet and box that would have driven up the price. There are audio commentaries for most of the films, which makes for a great education. While I’m still working my way through them, I found the one for “Battle of the Century” (1927) especially enlightening. It is very much like taking a film-history class, with commentaries by Laurel and Hardy experts Randy Skretvedt (Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind Movies) and Richard W. Bann. (Another Fine Mess: Laurel and Hardy’s Legacy).

 

The eight hours of extras include 2,500 rare photographs, studio documents, interviews with people who worked with Laurel and Hardy, trailers, and versions of some films with alternate soundtracks. You’ll even get to see a fully restored version of 

their one surviving color film, “The Tree in a Test Tube” (1942) (a very curious clip celebrating the glories of wood impacting everyday life, made for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and distributed by the U.S. Forest Service . . . for real!)

 

Some of my favorites in this set include the Academy Award-winning ridiculous-but-epic short about the two piano movers called “The Music Box” (1932). I loved “The Chimp” (1932), if only to be able to see Oliver Hardy show up on screen in a tutu! (Speaking of drag, that theme comes up numerous times in Laurel and 

Hardy films.) In “Twice Two” (1933), we get to see both Laurel and Hardy playing each other’s sisters, whom they each married in the story. Surprisingly convincing early special effects and clever editing make this mad romp all the more fascinating. The restoration allows the satin of Hardy’s dress to simply shimmer!

 

“Brats” (1930) is  a great short where Laurel and Hardy not only play themselves as adults, but also as their spoiled bratty children. The use of fantastic oversized stage props makes the film as fascinating to watch as it is funny. Be on the lookout for the animated mouse!

 

The full-length movie Way Out West (1937) looks especially crisp, and includes that classic scene of them dancing together in front of the saloon. There too you’ll see numerous clever early special effects. Be sure to watch for the recurring gag where Stan is able to light an imaginary cigarette lighter from his thumb. There is also a nifty moment where Hardy’s neck stretches like a rubber band as Laurel tries to pull him out of a hole in a piece of wooden floorboard.

 

My favorite film thus far is perhaps the rarest of the set, the aforementioned “Battle of the Century.” It is just completely over-the-top madcap fun! And even though it is technically still not complete (some scenes are missing, connected by surviving stills), it is worth putting those minor concerns aside to just take in the joy of the epic pie-fight sequence. (They reportedly used 3,000 real cream pies.) But don’t skip over the opening boxing match—the genesis of which has a fascinating history, as described in the bonus commentary. Be sure to look for the uncredited appearance of a pre-fame, 21-year-old Lou Costello, who is an extra in the crowd, a full 13 years before the first Abbott and Costello film debuted!

 

There are many other great bonus features, such as trailers for many of their films (including ones not in this package). And there is a fascinating audio-only section that allows you to hear 12 different music sequences that were backing for different movies/scenes. These were apparently taken off of one-of-a-kind transcription discs that were transferred over when discovered in 1980. 

 

There is much more I have yet to explore on this set, so I’m looking forward to continuing my journey. I also plan to order a film that isn’t included here but which I loved as a kid seeing it on TV reruns every holiday season: Babes in Toyland, based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta. Exploring Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations has been an extremely satisfying experience and is a great place to start collecting their movies.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Emma. (2020)

Emma (2020)

And, yes, before you think to ask, the title does include a period after “Emma”. According to Autumn de Wilde, making his big-screen directorial debut here, this is to signify the movie as a “period piece” set in the original era.

 

Emma. was one of the first films Universal decided to release on premium video on demand (along with The Invisible Man and The Hunt) due to the theatrical shutdown, bringing it to the home market as a $19.99 48-hour rental just 10 days after

its theatrical debut. The initial release was limited to just 1080p resolution, causing some to hold off.

 

Emma. is now available for purchase from Kaleidescape for that same $19.99 price, but with a 4K HDR transfer. (The film had a theatrical Dolby Digital sound mix, and it is provided with a DTS-HD Master 5.1-mix for home.)

 

As a movie lover, I’m always up to watch just about anything, but I’ll admit that Emma. was a bit outside the wheelhouse of films I usually take on for review. I didn’t remember anything of the story, and all the I could recall from the previous Emma (1996) was Gwyneth Paltrow holding a bow and arrow. (Spoiler: There is no archery in this version whatsoever!) Fortunately, my wife, Dana, is a huge Jane Austen fan and she was game for reviewing the film portion and offering a bit of perspective from an Austen-loving background:

EMMA AT A GLANCE

While this may look & sound better than the 1996 take on the Jane Austen classic, Gwyneth Paltrow’s earlier portrayal of Emma was far more likable than Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance here. 

 

PICTURE     

Kaleidescape’s 4K download is true to the film’s pastel tones, but the digital intermediate seems soft compared to some recent 4K transfers.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master 5.1 soundtrack does a nice job conveying the dialogue, atmospherics, and evocative classical score.

I discovered Jane Austin at 14. I first read Pride and Prejudice, followed in quick succession by Emma, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Austen’s writing draws you into a world of grand houses, ladies and gentlemen, and the proper manners expected of such people. In spite of the sometimes pretentious and flowery speeches, the wit and humor is easily understood, and the banter between characters is a bit like looking in on a 200-year-old sitcom.

 

Of all Austen’s novels, Emma is actually one of my least favorites. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a spoiled snob, both self-centered and vacuous. In contrast, Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine from my favorite Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice, is well-read, intelligent, and caring. In Emma, Emma’s neighbor and friend, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) berates and corrects her, causing her to pout as if she were a child, whereas in Pride, Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy banter back and forth, sharing interesting ideas and concepts more as equals.

 

So far, there have been two film versions of Emma, the previous being the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. (There have also been at least three TV mini-series versions.)  [JS: And not to mention 1995’s Clueless, which is a very modern retelling of the story.] While the costumes and locations are similar in both films, I found the color scheme of the 1996 version more somber. While I initially thought Taylor-Joy was actually of English descent, it turns out she was born in Miami, Florida, was raised in Argentina until she was six, and then moved to London, where she spent the next eight years. While English was not her first language—she spoke only Spanish until she was six—her English accent here is solidly believable throughout.

 

Many scenes from this retelling have a grander scope, revealing more of the vast countryside views. [JS: While the theatrical resolution is listed as 1.85:1, the home release is actually 16:9, or 1.78:1.] Some of the framing, pacing, and closeups feel a bit Wes Anderson-esque, with title cards occasionally breaking up scenes, or the way some background characters moved in scenes. 

Emma (2020)

As with many of Austen’s works, there are numerous characters and names to keep track of. In the opening scenes, Emma’s governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) weds a local gentleman, and Emma is convinced she orchestrated their union and that matchmaking is her calling.  When a Miss Harriet Smith “Biddy” (Letty Thomas) enrolls in the local ladies’ school, Emma takes her under her wing and is determined to find a suitable husband for the young lady. Though Miss Smith’s parentage is unknown—meaning she is probably someone’s illegitimate daughter—Emma is convinced Miss Smith is actually the daughter of a gentleman, and thus suitable for a good match. However, in 19th-century England, no respectable gentleman would marry someone with Miss Smith’s unknown background. Yet this doesn’t stop Emma from setting her sights on the local rector Bartholomew (Angus Imrie) as the perfect choice for Miss Smith, even convincing Miss Smith to decline a marriage proposal from someone she is quite fond of.

 

The just-over two-hour film spends most of its time with Emma negotiating and arranging meetings between characters in beautiful settings and gorgeously detailed costumes and hoping to arrange her own chance encounter with Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner). As the most well-off of Austen’s heroines, Emma sees herself as the perfect match for Churchhill as he is set to inherit one of the largest estates and salaries around.

 

As is typical of films, a lot of detail and storytelling from the book are omitted, but this version doesn’t provide as much backstory into Emma’s life or give us any sense of the history she has with the other characters as the ’96 film. For example, we know very little about Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) or why she is Emma’s chosen frenemy, and just a throwaway line tells you she has not family or fortune. Also, in the novel, Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), is an extreme hypochondriac, constantly worried about all manner of things such as what people are eating and if they will get sick, but here, while Nighy superbly supplies most of the comic relief, his fears of catching ill have been reduced to concerns over cold drafts and having a doctor on routine call.

 

Compared to Taylor-Joy’s portrayal, Paltrow played Emma with more compassion, not as if matchmaking is just some game for her amusement, but rather as if she actually cares for the people involved. Also, Paltrow comes across as kinder and less snobbish, where Taylor-Joy seems like she is above others and has the proverbial stick lodged up her corset from the get-go. Also, Mr. Knightley—who is some 17 years Emma’s senior—treats her more like a child or irritating little sister.

 

While this version is beautiful-looking from a cinematography standpoint, and you get to appreciate far more of the well-appointed and -dressed interiors of the fine Woodhouse estate compared to the ’96 film, much of which takes place outdoors, I actually preferred the previous version due to Paltrow’s more likable portrayal.

 

Shot on ArriRaw at 4.5K and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you’d expect Emma. to look good, and it does. However, I never felt I was getting that hyper-resolution of some modern true 4K DI’s. Closeups were certainly rich with 

texture and detail, especially on the many finely detailed costumes and delicate lace that Emma wears, and the resolution also helps you to appreciate the fabric, patterns, and detail of the many suits and dresses throughout, but I would have bet that it was taken from a 2K DI. Perhaps I’ve just gotten spoiled by some terrific transfers lately.

 

Many of the interior scenes throughout Woodhouse estate feature rooms painted in a host of pastel colors—powdery blues, mint greens, carnation pinks—that are well represented but not necessarily saturated or pushing the boundaries of the wider color gamut. Where the video quality really shines is during the interior scenes that are lit by an abundance of candles. Here we get rich, warm tones, lighting the room and characters with glowing skin and deep shadows that look very lifelike and true with the use of HDR. Of course, the flickering flames also benefit from the added dynamic range, as do scenes where sunlight is pouring in through open windows, or exterior scenes under what seems to be a perpetually overcast British sky that have some nice punch.

 

Sonically, Emma. doesn’t offer much to write about. As mentioned previously, we are given just a basic 5.1-channel track, and there a just a few moments of atmospheric audio, such as the occasional bird chirps or wind blowing, or the 

Emma (2020)

crunch of carriage wheels and the creaks and groans of a carriage as it moves along. Interior scenes are given the appropriate sense of audio space, being flat when appropriate, or lively and echoey, such as inside the church.

 

The soundtrack is actually quite nice, featuring many classical pieces that are spread well across the front channels and that upmix nicely into the height speakers. There are also a few choral pieces that offer some nice room-fill. Of course, the most important part to a dialogue-driven film like Emma. is being able to clearly understand what characters are saying, and it definitely accomplishes this, even giving them some nice movement across the front channels that tracks on-screen location.

 

Of all the versions of Jane Austen’s Emma available, this one certainly looks the best and is available in the highest quality via Kaleidescape. If you are into period films, or just need a mental palate-cleanser after the recent slate of action films that have been released, Emma. is easy on the eyes and offers a new presentation to a classic tale.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island

I know people like the characters in The King of Staten Island exist but I don’t like paying to be reminded of that fact, especially over a grueling two hours and 17 minutes. I felt the same revulsion watching American Factory, another grisly reminder of the underclass spawned by successive generations of callous, punitive economics and an increasingly toxic pop culture. Yes, this is who we’ve become, but it’s nothing to be proud of.

 

I can’t imagine what kept Judd Apatow motivated through the protracted process of developing, writing, shooting, and doing post on something like this. When he sat down every morning, what did he see in this dung heap that gave him the energy to carry on?

 

The answer may lie with the Apatow house brand—which is something distinctly different from his style as a filmmaker, which I’ll get to it a minute. Imagine Freaks & Greeks grafted onto Buñuel’s Los olvidados, and you’ll have some idea of where he was trying to go with Staten Island. And that could have potentially been fertile ground. Problem is he couldn’t resist the

impulse to apply his patented warm and fuzzy formula in an effort to redeem his irredeemable characters, so what starts out like Trainspotting ends up a lot like It’s a Wonderful Life. The former rings true, but something nobody really needs to be exposed to; the latter is just nauseating.

 

His distinctive style has been apparent from his earliest directorial efforts. (Even a casual observer can see the clear through-line from the freeze-pop scene in Freaks & Geeks to Staten Island.) And his work has the potential of being tremendously expressive—if he can ever find the right material. The problem is, Freaks remains his strongest effort to date, aside from some occasional moments in 40 Year Old Virgin and This is 40. Whenever he’s tried to bring some discipline to his work and act more like a “filmmaker”—like with Knocked Up, the egregious Funny People, and here—he always goes seriously awry. But he’s definitely onto something, and might actually somehow someday get far enough out of his own way to latch onto a more promising subject.

STATEN ISLAND AT A GLANCE

Judd Apatow’s latest is two-plus hours of unpleasantness, a kind of Trainspotting-meets-It’s a Wonderful Life mashup yanked from theaters right before its release date and dumped onto the video market. 

 

PICTURE     

Faux documentary visuals done in the patented “independent film” style, neither helped nor hindered by the 4K HDR treatment.

 

SOUND

The clean-enough audio can’t really be held responsible for the pervasive, unpleasant Staten Island accents and fights a losing battle against the mumbled line delivery.

Staten Island was supposed to have had a limited theatrical run, mainly at drive-ins, but Universal at the last minute decided to send it straight to video. My guess is they couldn’t figure out who the audience was supposed to be and were afraid it would flop hard even at a time when people are starved for entertainment.

 

But premium video on demand wasn’t such a great alternative. I had to fork over two hard-earned sawbucks to watch this on Amazon—that’s a hefty amount to wager on a film that doesn’t give you much of a clue of what you’re in for. The bigger problem is that you can be halfway through the seemingly interminable slog of watching it and still not have a clue.

 

I know it’s heresy to bring this up at a time when every film sprawls and nobody has the creative discipline, or a strong enough sense of mercy, to cut anything to the length it actually deserves, but Staten Island could have easily been a nice, tight 90 minutes and still have been, for better or worse, the same film. At least I would have gotten 45 minutes of my life back.

 

I don’t have much to say about the acting except that, if you’ve ever seen an Apatow film, you’re seen all of these performances before. And there’s the recurring problem of nepotism. What has to happen to keep Apatow from casting his own family members? His daughter Maude is OK as Pete Davidson’s responsible, grounded, empathetic (insert morally laudable trait here: _____) sister, but is in no way exceptional and is a kind of poster child for the daughters of privilege swelling the acting ranks in New York and LA, people with only modest abilities but terrific connections.

 

There’s nothing exceptional happening on the technical side either. Staten Island is shot in the standard-issue faux documentary, “independent film” style that’s been dragging down serious films for at least a decade now. (Did I mention that this isn’t really a comedy?) Everything is well enough shot and assembled, but this could have been presented as a radio play with pretty much the same impact. Part of the almost $20 price of admission can be attributed to Staten Island being a 4K HDR release, but I couldn’t see where that really helped or hindered anything.

 

The audio is perfectly serviceable, and can’t be held accountable for the unpleasant accents and some of the actors’ inability to articulate their lines. There are the obligatory pop-music cues meant to create a false sense of energy, and some firearms are discharged during a robbery scene. I guess the gunshots sounded realistic. I’m kind of glad to say I have no way of knowing for sure.

 

Maybe this thing panders just enough to have an audience beyond self-pitying brats. God only knows Staten Island embodies the corrosive masochism that lies at the black heart of the culture. I just know that trying make our dance with Thanatos (no, not that Thanatos) more palatable by turning it into something that veers awful close to becoming a musical isn’t healthy for anybody. If you really feel like you need to piss away $20 online, go play some poker instead.

Michael Gaughn

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

King Creole

King Creole

So often when we techie types attempt to explain the benefits of High Dynamic Range to the masses, we fall back on the clichés of “blacker blacks!’ and “brighter highlights!” as if that were the beginning and end of the story. If anything, though, Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR release of King Creole—Elvis Presley’s fourth film and the last before he went into the Army and came out the other side as an amphetamine-addled self-parody—proves that this simple explanation is woefully inadequate 

when it comes to explaining the actual benefits of HDR video.

 

Compare the 4K HDR download of the film to the Blu-ray release (the best you’ll find on disc, since the 4K transfer is a digital exclusive), and you’ll see that the blacks are no more black, the whites no more vibrant. The difference HDR makes is on the journey from one end of the value scale to the other. What the 4K HDR download has that the 1080p disc doesn’t is a proper richness and nuance between those two extremes. Rather than merely cranking the overall brightness of the image to drag it out of the shadows, this transfer allows the bright spots to shine and the darkness to revel in its inkiness, while also allowing for some middle ground. And the result is an image that’s wholly dimensional, with believable depth and oodles of texture that’s lost in the overly contrasty 1080p transfer.

 

It helps, of course, that the film was beautifully shot to 

CREOLE AT A GLANCE

One of the few “good” Elvis movies, thanks partly to Michael Curtiz’ expert direction, atmospheric Big Easy locations, and a provocative turn by Carolyn (Morticia Addams) Jones. 

 

PICTURE     

4K honors Russell Harlan’s evocative cinematography, which benefits greatly from a non-gimmicky application of HDR.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix is primarily mono, until Elvis bursts into song, when it blossoms into multichannel splendor.

begin with. Director Michael Curtiz (best known for Casablanca and White Christmas) and cinematographer Russell Harlan (who deserves more credit for the success of Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird) approached this musical noir/melodrama as if they were filming Olivier instead of Elvis, and their choice of New Orleans as setting lends the film a gritty verisimilitude that’s positively captivating.

 

It isn’t just the HDR treatment that helps push this download into must-see territory, though. The 4K transfer also reveals fine details—the filigree in the iron terrace railings on Bourbon Street, the fine mesh of screen windows—that simply get lost in the film’s 1080p transfer.

The visuals alone more than make up for Creole’s occasional shortcomings—the uneven performances (especially by Dolores Hart of The Virginian fame) and the often-laughable lip-syncing during Elvis’ barnburner performances. There’s also the weird sexual tension between Presley and Carolyn Jones, who slinks her way through every scene in a way that’s wholly distinct from her turn as Morticia Addams on the small screen just a few years later. When Presley’s down-on-his-luck Danny Fisher and Jones’ gangster concubine Ronnie share the frame, there’s a dangerous energy that’s unmatched by most films of the era. Watching them together, one can’t help but wonder what could’ve been—what Presley’s film career might have been like if Colonel Parker hadn’t kept the King on a leash, forcing him to take roles in fluff like Girls! Girls! Girls! and Viva Las Vegas when he returned to the spotlight a couple years later.

 

But go too far down that road and one also can’t help but wonder what King Creole would have been had James Dean lived to play the role of Danny Fisher, which was written for him before it was rejiggered as a musical about a New Orleans singing sensation rather than as a straight drama about a New York boxer.

King Creole

We’ll never know, of course. But I do know this: King Creole has never truly thrived on home video until now, until our residential display technology finally caught up with the capabilities of good old-fashioned film stock. Indeed, the film sounds better than ever as well. True, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remains a mostly mono affair except during Elvis’ musical numbers, when the soundstage comes to life thanks the multitrack recordings of those songs. But much like the rest of this wonderfully and captivatingly imperfect film, somehow it just works.

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.

Gladiator

Gladiator

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

GLADIATOR AT A GLANCE

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

 

PICTURE     

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

 

SOUND

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Gladiator

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow

Live Die Repeat

Having already covered Top Gun from the recent spate of HDR releases from the Tom Cruise catalog (which includes War of the Worlds, Vanilla Sky, and The Firm), we thought we would dip back in and take a look at Live Die Repeat, which was released theatrically as Edge of Tomorrow before being rebranded for the home video market. While Repeat was released on Blu-ray several years ago, it never got a higher-resolution release on physical disc. Fortunately, you can now enjoy the movie in its full potential via Kaleidescape, which offers it in a near 60 GB download featuring 4K HDR video with a Dolby TrueHD Atmos immersive audio soundtrack.

I belong to what I can only imagine is a fair-sized group of people that doesn’t really care for Tom Cruise the person but who really respects the choices made by Tom Cruise the actor. Say what you will about the guy’s antics, he gets a first look at some amazing scripts, he makes a lot of really smart choices of roles that work for him, and his decision to perform his own stunts is well documented. (His role as Jack Reacher aside, something I’ll never forgive the casting department for. I mean, Reacher stands 6 feet 5 inches and weighs about 250. Cruise wouldn’t even come up to his armpit! But I digress . . .)

 

My wife and I saw Repeat when it was released theatrically back in the summer of 2014, but it wasn’t our first choice for a movie that night. I recall we had a babysitter lined up that evening, and we went to the theater to see something else (X-Men: Days of Future Past, I think). When X-Men was 

REPEAT AT A GLANCE

One of the earliest takes on the “let’s kill off the  lead character repeatedly” trope, the film is hugely entertaining, because of—and despite—the presence of Tom Cruise in the starring role.

 

PICTURE     

Not the last word in razor-sharp detail, but the clean and clear Kaleidescape download is a big step up from the Blu-ray release.

 

SOUND

An aggressive and fun Atmos mix will keep all your speakers active, with lots of room-rattling seismic subwoofer action for the bass-head crowd.

sold out, we turned to whatever was playing at a similar time and bought tickets to Repeat.

 

I don’t recall knowing much of anything about the film as we went into the theater, but I clearly remember turning to my wife about halfway in and saying, “Man! I am really loving this movie!” Boasting Rotten Tomatoes critics and audience scores of 90%, I’m really surprised Repeat wasn’t a bigger success than it was. Perhaps it was the title, thus the rebranding for home release. Whatever the case, Repeat is a really entertaining and clever sci-fi film based on the Japanese short novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

 

Imagine Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds and you’ll have a rough idea what Repeat is about.

 

Against his will, Major William Cage (Cruise) is stripped of his rank and sent to Heathrow Airport to join a misfit bunch of soldiers in J-Squad who are preparing to head to the front lines as part of a major invasion force to combat an army of aliens known as “Mimics.” Cage has just enough time to piss off everyone in his new squad before suiting up in a mechanized armored suit and being loaded on a dropship into the heart of combat. Just moments after hitting the beach, he manages to kill a rare alien known as an “Alpha”—but in the process of doing so, manages to get himself killed as well.

 

Moments later, Cage jolts awake exactly 24 hours prior, back at Heathrow ready to join J-Squad and prepare for the fight.

 

He lives the same day over and over (and over . . .), retaining knowledge of each prior day before being jolted awake in the same instant. Each time he learns a bit more about the fighting pattern and habits of the Mimics (and of the people around him), and we watch his character and story slowly continue and develop. What keeps it from being dull and repetitive are some great turns by supporting actors Brendan Gleeson as the general ordering the assault, Bill Paxton as Cage’s new J-Squad master sergeant, and Noah Taylor as Mimic expert Dr. Carter.

 

Even better is the relationship between Cage and war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). Vrataski uniquely understands Cage’s predicament as she too once had the power to reset the clock, using it to defeat the Mimics in the battle of Verdun . . . before losing it.

 

Instead of the usual cocksure, toughest/smartest-guy-in-the-room character Cruise typically portrays, here he starts way out of his element, and it is Blunt who takes on the alpha role. With no warfighting experience—Cage was part of the Army’s media relations following a failed career in advertising—Cage relies heavily on Vrataski for combat training, and she is merciless, repeatedly killing him over and over (and over . . .) at any sign of a wound. The results are humorous and keep the film interesting as Cage and Vrataski work together to figure out strategies to continue advancing their day and problem solving.

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, this 4K HDR transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. Images are not bristling with micro detail, but the transfer is just incredibly clean and clear. I really wasn’t impressed with the image quality until I went back and compared it with my Blu-ray version, and that is when the fine layers of detail and benefit of higher contrast really come through.

 

Comparing closeups, the 4K transfer is considerably sharper, producing more fine detail like pores, whiskers, and lines in the actors’ faces. During one shot, you can see the fine weave on Cage’s collared shirt, and one tight closeup on him would enable a dermatologist to conduct a full exam. In another lengthy shot, you can clearly make out the individual strands of razor wire on a fence in the 4K version; they were small blob-dots on the Blu-ray.

 

While the movie retains its film-like image quality, what really impressed me throughout was just the clean, clear, noise-free quality.

 

Much of the film is on a dirty, drab battlefield under grey French skies, so there isn’t a lot of room to push the color gamut here. However, HDR does a nice job of keeping blacks deep and dark and clean, while still allowing for bright highlights—nothing that really pushes the boundary, but that just results in very natural-looking images. There are some scenes where 

HDR is used to boost the brightness, such as in fluorescent lights in the barracks, or lights inside the dropships, some bright red fires burning in the dark of night, or the bright blue-white glow of an alien underwater.

 

Even more entertaining was the Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which makes full use of all the speakers in your system. There is a lot of combat in this film, and the sound mix does a great job of placing you in the midst of the mayhem. We get helicopter blades and turbine fans blowing, jets streaking past overhead, troopers falling out of dropships swinging past you, along with all matter of ordnance blasting around the room. The area where Vrataski trains Cage has these spinning metal blades that slice and dice around the large space, clearly traveling 360 degrees around the listening position. There are also some nice, subtler audio moments— just the rattles and hum that put you aboard the dropship, hearing Mimics climbing and crawling on metal structures up over your head, or the drips of water and echoes of cavernous spaces with Mimics moving all around the room.

 

Also, be warned that this soundtrack features some serious low-frequency information. Bass heads will love it, as the many explosions definitely hit you in the chest and rattle your couch. And for no apparent reason, the very opening 

Live Die Repeat

scene has some of the most seismically huge deep-bass notes you will hear outside of a test tone. That ultrasonic bass will energize every air molecule in your room and possibly damage your subwoofer if it isn’t up to the task, so set your volume knob—and alert your neighbors!—accordingly.

 

Live Die Repeat is just a really fun movie that retains its entertainment value. If you’ve never seen it, it is definitely worth a viewing. If you avoided it because you’re not a Tom Cruise fan, I assure you watching him get killed over and over (and over . . .) is highly entertaining. And if you haven’t seen it with the Dolby Atmos audio soundtrack, then you will definitely enjoy giving it another viewing. They are rumored to be working on a sequel—Live Die Repeat and Repeat—so now is a perfect time to (re)watch the original.

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.

Jaws

Jaws

Widely regarded as one of Steven Spielberg’s best films, residing well within the AFI Top 100 list, and holding the honor as the first-ever true summer blockbuster film are all fine reasons to pick up the new 45th Anniversary 4K HDR transfer of Jaws, but none of them are why the film still resonates with me to this day. 

 

Nope.

 

I was five when Jaws came out in the summer of 1975, and for some reason my dad thought it would be a good idea to take 

our family to see it at a drive-in theater. So, I remember Jaws for absolutely ruining night swimming for me for my entire life, and for giving me a fairly unhealthy fear of the water that persists.

 

I don’t remember a lot about my childhood from age five, but I do remember seeing Jaws. (Well, all of it except the very opening, where my dad made me cover my eyes as Chrissie [Susan Backlinie] runs naked out into the ocean for what turns out to be a very unfortunate evening swim. So, yeah, watching a Great White shark brutalize and eat people was somehow OK for a five-year-old, but catching a brief glimpse of Chrissie’s shadowed side-boob, not so much. Go figure.)

 

I remember drawing pictures of a lone stick floating on top of the water inspired by Pippet, the black lab that played fetch with a stick. I also recall recoiling at Quint’s (Robert Shaw) strangled, bloody screams at the end at he is slowly eaten whole alive. But the real doozy for me was when old 

JAWS AT A GLANCE

The first summer blockbuster ever, and the film that launched Spielberg’s career, gets a restrained but effective makeover in this 45th-anniversary edition.

 

PICTURE     

The restoration respects the looks of the original 35mm film stock, sticking to freshening it up a bit and showing a light touch with the HDR enhancements.

 

SOUND

The new Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t venture far from the original mono track, but does add some nice atmospheric effects and effectively places John Williams’ score among the surround channels.

Ben Gardner’s (Craig Kingsbury) head pops out of the bottom of his boat punctuated by a sudden intense burst of music, likely the first jump-scream in my life.

 

For the rest of that summer, I kept expecting that head to come popping out of anywhere there was water. The toilet, the bathtub, you name it. I can also thank Jaws for the fear that the tile mermaid at the bottom of my grandparents’ black-bottomed pool would somehow come to life and drag me under whenever I went swimming.

 

So, yeah. Jaws has been a part of my life for just about as long as I remember.

 

And you know what? The film still totally holds up. The acting, the dialogue, the chemistry, the editing . . . it’s all still great and all still works. The best parts of the film are aboard the Orca with Quint, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) interacting. The dynamic between the three of them is fantastic, and Quint’s monologue about surviving the USS Indianapolis is still powerful and compelling (despite the fact that he was apparently black-out drunk when filming that scene initially).

 

Of course, John Williams’ Academy Award-winning score retains all the tension and drama to enhance each scene, but even the shark scenes and effects remain believable and frightening after 45 years. Sure, there are scarier, more brutal, and bloodier shark films out there today, but Jaws sets the standard for scary things in the water, and the bar remains high.

 

There are actually some close-to-home parallels between Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) arguing to keep the beaches open for all of the 4th of July festivities and our current economy and states deciding on what and when to reopen. With tourists set to pour into the town, bringing needed lifeblood to the little beach town’s economy in light of a giant alpha predator turning the shallow waters into a smorgasbord, the Mayor argues that closing the beaches shouldn’t be an option.

 

About the only things that really date the film are Mayor Vaughn’s suits and the variety of clearly out-of-fashion swimwear seen on the beaches of Amity.

Jaws

One thing I really noticed on this viewing was just how little we actually get to see that 25-foot Great White shark. In fact, it isn’t until an hour in that you finally get your first brief glimpse. But this turns out to be one of Spielberg’s master strokes in creating suspense and unease, wondering every time someone enters the water if there will be an attack or sudden reveal. In fact, Jaws is an example of a film that succeeded because of its technical challenges, rather than in spite of them. The shark model, “Bruce,” was notoriously buggy during production, frequently causing Spielberg to shoot around it, but instead of hampering the film, it makes it work that much better.

 

Another thing that struck me on this viewing of Jaws was the dearth of end credits. Compared to modern films, where it isn’t unusual to have eight or more minutes of credits, with the screen packed with hundreds of names at a time, usually of those serving on a variety of visual effects teams, here they run just over a minute and most of the screens feature just a couple of names. This really showed the stark contrast in production back in the ‘70s, relying entirely on practical effects, and how much Spielberg was able to accomplish with just a relative handful of help compared to modern blockbusters.

 

For its 45th Anniversary release, Universal Studios has given Jaws a full 4K HDR restoration, and this transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Originally shot on 35mm film, this new transfer retains the look of its photochemical origins, with grain visible in the pale blue and low-lit evening or sunsetting skies, but it is as if layers of age have been wiped away in the restoration to produce images that are just clean and new-looking.

 

This isn’t a movie with lots of sharp, detailed edges—though it appears to look sharper and more detailed later in the film aboard the Orca—or one that has micro-details leaping off the screen, but rather a transfer that retains the best of both its film and digital look to present something that looks both new and correct for its period.

 

Closeups occasionally reveal plenty of detail, with one shot of the Mayor’s anchor-festooned suit revealing fine, sharp blue single-line pinstriping detail that i is horizontal on the lapel and diagonal on the breast and arms; and foreground objects have nice defined edges. But this transfer is more about the overall pristine look than moments of single-strands-of-hair pixel resolution. Some shots look a bit soft and defocused, but this appears to be more an issue with the original focal point during filming than a lack of resolution in the transfer.

 

They took a pretty delicate touch with the HDR grading here, with occasional bright highlights such as the opening flames of the beach fires, or bright lights aboard ships, but the added dynamic range lends itself to more natural and realistic-looking images as light levels get low, and we retain deep blacks but still plenty of shadow details. There are several underwater scenes with a variety of lighting, or with bright lights probing through smoke and mist on top of the water that could cause banding issues, but images remain clean and distortion-free.

 

When I heard Jaws had been given a Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio makeover I was . . . curious. I mean, what could an immersive sound mix do with a 45-year-old mono master short of possibly being used to gimmicky effect that spoiled a classic? Well, much like the video, the new audio track takes the best of the Jaws soundtrack and uses modern technology to expand and improve it. This is most noticeable in John Williams’ fantastic score, which is now lifted above the front channels and mixed into an enveloping canopy overhead, filling the room and surrounding you in the iconic music.

Beyond that, they have used audio cues to subtly enhance other moments throughout the film. There are bird chirps, ocean waves crashing or lapping against things, wind sounds, or creaks and groans of the boat rolling in the water that all pull you into the scenes. On the beach, we get a nice mix of radios playing, and a helicopter flyover as it patrols the waters for sharks.

 

Dialogue is mostly clear and understandable throughout—especially with Williams’ score given room up in the height speakers—except for a few moments where many people are talking/shouting at once in some of the crowded exterior scenes. Also, don’t expect much from your subwoofer, though it does get a little room to show off during the finale.

 

The best word I can use to describe this 45th Anniversary release is “restraint.” They used technology where available to improve the experience while being careful not to do anything that would be detrimental to the Jaws so many of us remember.

 

While the Kaleidescape download doesn’t include any of the fairly extensive extras that accompany the 4K Blu-ray disc—which include two near feature-length documentaries, The Making of Jaws and The Shark is Still Working: The Impact &

Jaws

Legacy of Jaws—these are the same extras included with the 2012 Blu-ray release, so if you have that, you aren’t missing out on anything new. On the plus side, the 4K HDR version is available from Kaleidescape for an incredibly reasonable $15.99—or just $11.99 if you are upgrading from the Blu-ray version—which helps offset this, and makes it an absolute must buy.

 

Jaws is one of my favorite films and this newly restored version illustrates why it remains a classic that belongs in every 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.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away (aka Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), makes me long for a time machine. Not necessarily so I could dial back the last 18 years and view the film again for the first time (although that would be a treat), but rather so I could capture my impressions after having just seen the film with fresh eyes.

 

I say this only because I come to Spirited Away with so much baggage that I find it difficult to discuss the film in and of itself. After nearly two decades of reading doctoral theses about linguistic symbolism, of devouring literary and film analyses, of falling down rabbit holes of spiritual, religious, and philosophical themes and the interconnections between those themes—

after all of that, it isn’t easy to simply sit back and consume the film as a self-contained work of art.

 

So I did the next-best thing. I sat beside my wife this weekend as she experienced this weird and captivating journey for the first time, unburdened by even cursory familiarity with its plot, much less its deeper meanings. Glancing out of the corner of my eye to see her giggle and applaud, weep and gasp, I was reminded of that first viewing. And I was also reminded that you don’t really need to know a damned thing about Spirited Away to appreciate it as one of the best animated films ever made.

 

But, then again, of course you don’t. After all, if it weren’t such a wonderful (and wonderfully made) adventure on the surface, would film scholars and critics and folklorists and pop-culture pontificators and linguists and PhD candidates still be struggling to deconstruct it in 2020?

SPIRITED AWAY AT A GLANCE

The anime classic is well served by the Kaleidescape download, which bests the Blu-ray release and provides both the original Japanese soundtrack and an excellent English dub.

 

PICTURE     

The 1080p presentation captures all of the details of the original animation.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix extends the world of the film out into the room, giving both weight and depth to the onscreen action.

So, forget all of the symbolism. Forget the film’s deep ties to Shintoism and Japanese cultural norms (some admirable, some deplorable). What makes Spirited Away work as a two-hour adventure that has the power to capture the heart even if you know no more about the concept of kamikakushi than you do about differential calculus?

 

The animation certainly helps. Not only is this Miyazaki’s most visually stunning work, it also represents perhaps the most artful (and subtle) marriage of hand-drawn 2D and computer-rendered 3D animation ever committed to the screen. The worlds of our ten-year-old hero Chihiro (both the material world and the spirit world) seem more real and more tangible than most cinematic settings captured in live action.

 

It isn’t merely the animation that creates this perception, though. What makes Miyazaki a master filmmaker (medium be damned) is that he understands how to lead the viewer through a story—and through the world in which it takes place—in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a passive viewing experience.

 

Perhaps the best example of this is the film’s denouement, in which Chihiro must travel to confront the twin sister of the sorceress who stole her name and employed her in a bathhouse for gods and spirits. (It sounds like gibberish, I know, but it all makes sense in the context of the story.)

 

In most films—especially fantasy films—Chihiro’s journey would have been written as an epic quest, fraught with danger and excitement. In Miyazaki’s hands, though, this journey is a quiet and contemplative train ride. This shouldn’t necessarily work, but it does, on two levels: It gives both little Chihiro and the viewer alike a chance to reflect, to contemplate, to catch our breaths together.

It’s a technique Miyazaki employs in most of his films, and one he describes using the Japanese word ma, which roughly translates into “pause” or “gap,” but which is probably best described as kinetic negative space. But no film—from the oeuvre or Miyazaki or any other filmmaker—makes such effective use of this technique as does this scene. And I think the reason it works so well here is that this ma doesn’t simply work on a narrative level. It isn’t simply a quiet, contemplative break from the action. It also gives the viewer the opportunity to revel in Spirited Away on the level of pure audiovisual experience. It may be the first time most viewers fully appreciate how seamlessly the 2D and 3D animation blend in this film. It may also be the first time you have room to truly meditate on Joe Hisaishi’s melancholic score. (Unfortunately, the clip above cuts this passage of the score short. Fortunately, you can enjoy this movement in its entirety here.)

 

I could go on, but to say more would be to rob you of experiencing—and indeed interpreting—this beautiful film for yourself. Then again, there’s so much to appreciate here even if you have no interest in interpreting a thing. Spirited Away has been likened to stories like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with good reason. It is, on one level, simply an amazing coming-of-age tale framed through the lens of the fantastical, the mysterious, the inscrutable, and at times even the grotesque. But despite all of that—indeed, despite its deep roots in Japanese mythology and folklore—there’s something uniquely universal about Spirited Away.

 

It’s a film that rewards further exploration, sure. But again, all of that would be pointless if not for the fact that it’s a film worth watching over and over and over again purely on its own terms, with its patently obvious themes about greed and kindness and the nature of the self. Force me to construct a list of films that demand to be owned rather than merely rented (or

borrowed by way of a subscription service like HBO Max, soon to be the temporary home of this and all of Miyazaki’s other animated films in the U.S.) and Spirited Away would be on it.

 

Thankfully, Kaleidescape’s download of the film is a wonderful way to own it. We’re presented with both the original Japanese soundtrack and the surprisingly good English-language dub (overseen by Pixar’s John Lasseter) in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The film defaults to Japanese with English subtitles, as it should. But if you’re watching with younger viewers (or simply refuse to read captions), just know that the English dub maintains the film’s delightful score, as well as its effective and atmospheric sound mix. Both versions use the surround channels and subwoofer alike to extend the worlds of the film out into the room, and to give both weight and depth to the onscreen action.

 

Kaleidescape does present the film without the bonus features found on both Disney’s 2015 Blu-ray release and the 2017 follow-up by GKIDS (after Disney relinquished distribution rights in the U.S.). But that’s honestly of little consequence. Those bonus goodies did little to enrich the film.

 

What’s more important is that the Kaleidescape presentation is superior to the 

Spirited Away

already excellent 2017 Blu-ray. You could, I suppose, complain that Spirited Away isn’t available in 4K, but this better-than-Blu-ray-quality 1080p presentation lacks for nothing in terms of capturing all the details of the original animation. There is, perhaps, a second or two here or there that might benefit from a wider color gamut, but without the ability to A/B this transfer against a hypothetical 4K re-scan of the film elements, I can’t say that for sure.

 

What I can say for sure is that this one belongs in your collection whether you’re a fan of Japanese animation or not. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself so enraptured by Miyazaki’s magical worlds and his talents as a filmmaker that you end up exploring the rest of his catalog almost immediately. If you’re looking for a little guidance, I would suggest next diving into My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle, both of which are also available on Kaleidescape, along with rest of Studio Ghibli’s long-form catalog.

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.

Top Gun (1986)

Top Gun (1986)

The United States Navy could scarcely have crafted a better or more effective recruiting film for promoting naval aviation than if they had actually written, produced, and directed Top Gun. (The Navy was involved in the production, providing access to jets and pilots, allowing filming on an active carrier, and suggesting some script rewrites.)

 

Tony Scott’s fast-paced film introduced viewers to a world most have never heard of—a school where the top 1% of fighter pilots went to hone their craft—and does everything possible to glamorize the fast-paced, life-on-the-edge, alpha-male lifestyle that is being the best-of-the-best: A member of the Navy’s elite carrier-based fighter squadron. Beyond its huge 

success at the box office—and launching a bomber-jacket craze across the country—the movie actually led to a huge recruiting increase for the Navy, to the point where recruiters actually set up stations at some theaters showing the film!

 

Beyond establishing his bona fides as a big-budget action director, Top Gun was Scott’s first collaboration with the dynamic production duo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. The film also features a host of young rising stars, including Tom Cruise in the lead role of something-to-prove renegade, Maverick; Val Kilmer as the mechanical, precise, and aloof Iceman; Anthony Edwards as Maverick’s RIO (Radio Intercept Officer, aka “back seater”) and wingman, Goose; and the too-cute Meg Griffin as Goose’s wife, Carole. (Also, keep an eye out for an incredibly young-looking Tim Robbins as Merlin on the carrier at the end when he removes his flight helmet.)

 

Released in 1986, Top Gun holds up remarkably well. (Except for the technology shown in the post-flight briefs, 

TOP GUN AT A GLANCE

The Tom Cruise mega-hit celebration of alpha-male fighter pilots gets a 4K HDR/Atmos upgrade that enhances its impact while staying faithful to its mid-’80s shot-on-film roots.

 

PICTURE     

Don’t expect the laser sharpness of contemporary digital photography, but do expect to see lots of detail, faithfully rendered colors, and punchy highlights.

 

SOUND

Atmos not only enhances the sense of being on the carrier deck and aboard the fighter planes but turns the climactic skirmish with the MiGs into a solid home theater demo.

which looks like a worn-out VHS tape badly in need of some head tracking!) Sure, some of the banter is cheesy, and there’s that random shirtless volleyball scene, but overall the film remains very entertaining, with enough of a plot and character development to keep you involved and caring about the characters until the next aerial dogfight. The numerous air-combat scenes feature actual planes opposed to the “let’s do it in CGI” world most effects films now live in. And the camera angles and pacing remain dynamic and exciting and offer a sense of what it is like to sit in the cockpit as you pull high-G maneuvers and go head-to-head against another jet with closing speeds exceeding 1,000 miles per hour. And the soundtrack is still every bit as catchy—and now better sounding!—as you remember.

 

Top Gun was filmed in Super 35 format (apparently because the anamorphic lenses were too large to fit inside the F-14 Tomcat’s cockpit) and comes to the home market with a new scan of the film taken from a true 4K digital intermediate. This release was likely designed to coincide with—and build excitement for—the upcoming sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, originally scheduled for theatrical release on June 24, now pushed to December 23.

 

As good as the film looks—which, without question, is the best it has ever looked—it isn’t realistic to expect it to have the same razor-sharp edges and micro detail of modern films shot digitally. The opening shots of the jets sitting on the carrier deck with the early morning light and smoke billowing around reveal a fair bit of grain and noise—as do some of the flying scenes taken in low-lighting conditions—but this is rarely distracting, and stays true to the film’s look instead of taking too heavy a hand with the digital noise reduction.

Top Gun (1986)

Edges are sharp and defined throughout, and closeups reveal tons of detail. For example, every star is clearly visible on the shoulder flag patches worn on uniforms, and you see the scratches, scuffs, and even seams in the detail tape used to decorate the pilots’ flight helmets. Tight shots on actors faces reveal every pore and whisker (including one distracting whisker Viper [Tom Skerrit] obviously missed while shaving near the end), along with Cruise’s unibrow, which has various stages throughout.

 

Something both my wife and I commented on was just how sweaty the actors are. Like, a lot. Faces are almost always covered, nay drenched in beads of sweat, even when there is apparently no reason for it. I mean, I’ve no doubt the US Navy Fighter Weapons School is an intense program, but actors frequently look like they have just finished a lengthy Bikram Yoga class. But these are the kinds of details the 4K transfer makes you aware of.

 

Colors are natural and lifelike throughout, with that orange-pink-purple color of West Coast evening sunsets looking very accurate and free of noise and banding—something difficult for a streaming service to do on a highly compressed delivery. The HDR gives some nice punch to the gleaming white T-shits, adds some nice brightness boosts to the Tomcat engines on full afterburners, and provides images with more overall depth and dimension.

 

The audio mix has been given a full Dolby TrueHD Atmos makeover, and while not as dynamic as a modern mix, it does a fantastic job of breathing new sonic life into this near-35-year-old film. Right from the start, Harold Faltermeyer’s “Top Gun 

Anthem” is given more space and room, then come the sounds of the mechanical noises aboard the carrier deck—the whipping winds, the ratcheting of gears and retracting chains, the roar as jet engines spool up for launch, and the steam from the catapult launch.

 

Once in the air, you can appreciate the increased dynamics of the high-powered jet engines, with jets streaking and roaring past overhead or ripping back along the side walls. Beyond the throaty roar of the engines, the missile impacts and explosions have a ton of bass output that will energize your room. The final scene, as Maverick and Ice hold off the Russian MiGs, sounds fantastic, and will likely become part of your home theater demo reel.

 

The soundtrack also does a nice job of delivering subtle (and not so subtle) atmospheric effects. For example, there is a completely different sonic quality when the camera is inside the cockpit, with the sounds of wind outside and breathing through the oxygen mask, compared to outside the jet. And when in the classroom, you’ll hear a variety of appropriate background sounds in the distance, including a variety of planes and helicopters, as well as a jet periodically ripping past overhead.

Top Gun

Top Gun is a classic for a reason, and it remains as much fun to watch now as the first time I saw it at a matinee back in the summer of 1986. Paramount did a wonderful job restoring the film, and this new 4K HDR version with Dolby Atmos audio is guaranteed to make your home theater feel the need . . . the need for speed!

 

(I was fortunate enough to do an overnight stay aboard a US aircraft carrier on deployment, and got to stand on the “foul line” and watch them launch and recover F-18s—a sound that feels like it is going to shred your ears and shake your body to bits! Click here to read more about my real-life adventure.)

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

“The Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire”

The Hunger Games

Never mind that they’re categorized as YA (Young Adult) fiction, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy—The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay—was a must-read between 2008 and 2010. Now, nearly 10 years after the last book in the trilogy, Collins is bringing readers back to Panem with a prequel novel titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which takes place about 50 years before heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is born and will follow Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) long before he rises to power as President.

Several weeks ago, Dennis Burger wrote about his and his wife’s annual tradition of watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy, returning to the films much like comfort food. The Hunger Games has a similar quality for me and my wife. When browsing through the onscreen cover-art display on our Kaleidescape system, one of the four titles in the tetralogy is bound to pop up, prompting us to say, “Oh! The Hunger Games. I’d totally be up for watching that again!”

 

I can’t say just what it is I love so much about these movies. Perhaps it’s because the films—particularly The Hunger Games—do such a wonderful job of staying true to the fantastic source material. Perhaps it’s because even though the first film revolves around an almost entirely teenage cast, it never treats it as a kid’s story. Perhaps it’s because with all the films clocking in at over two hours—with the first two just shy of two and a half—it’s because they have plenty of time to develop, giving you an opportunity to actually care about these characters and their life-and-death struggle. Perhaps it’s the fantastic acting, including the role

GAMES AND FIRE AT A GLANCE

With a Hunger Games prequel novel about to hit stores, now is an ideal time to revisit the film adaptations of the original book series. The first two movies—The Hunger Games and Catching Firehaving been shot on film, especially benefit from the 4K/HDR treatment.

 

PICTURE     

HDR adds depth and dimension to the shots, and punch to brighter elements like flames, fireballs, and Caesar’s smile.

 

SOUND

The Atmos mixes feature tons of immersive atmospheric effects, hard-directional cues, and generous use of the height channels.

that turned Lawrence into a superstar and Woody Harrelson’s perfect take on former Games winner now mentor Haymitch Abernathy.

 

For those not familiar with the story, I’d urge you to first visit the novels, as they do help to flesh out some bits that will increase your appreciation for the series. If reading isn’t in your future, then I’ll offer a spoiler-free summary.

 

In a dystopian future, the nation of Panem is divided into 12 districts. Rebellion nearly tore the nation apart, and as the opening titles inform, “In penance for their uprising, each district shall offer up a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 at a public ‘Reaping.’ These Tributes shall be delivered to the custody of The Capital. And then transferred to a public arena where they will Fight to the Death, until a lone victor remains.”

 

Hailing from District 12—one of the poorest in Panem—Katniss volunteers as Tribute after her younger sister’s name is initially selected for participation in the 74th annual Hunger Games. Katniss and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are then whisked away to the Capital, where they are given makeovers along with time to train and to hone their skills, both in order to survive the Games and to hopefully impress viewers in an effort to curry favor with wealthy sponsors who can potentially save a Tribute’s life by sending gifts into the Games.

 

If you like to draw parallels between films and our country’s current political situation, there are elements here between the charged climate in Panem and our national divide, should you want to look for them. Panem is pretty clearly divided between the haves of Districts 1 and 2 and the have-nots of everyone else, which can be a nod to the 1%-ers. There are also those who support and love the Capital and those who want to start a rebellion against it. The tenuous role of Gamekeeper—kept alive and in position at the whim of President Snow—could also be compared to the current administration’s revolving Chief of Staff position.

The Hunger Games

Of the four films—the final installment of the book trilogy, Mockingjay, being split into two parts—The Hunger Games is my favorite. Getting to know Katniss, Peeta, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Haymitch, Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and over-the-top host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) establishes and draws you into the series.

 

Taking place almost a year 

after the events of The Hunger Games, the second film, Catching Fire, uses the Quarter Quell to turn victors’ lives upside down—“What we game makers like to call ‘a wrinkle.’” It also tells you far more about life in the Capital and sets the spark of the rebellion that occurs in the final two films, both of which take place almost immediately after the second film ends.

 

With 24 teens fighting in The Hunger Games until a “lone victor remains,” you’d expect a lot of death, and the filmmakers handle this in a PG-13 manner without shying away from it or glorifying it. By far, the most action happens at the Cornucopia at the very start of the games, but this is filmed in a frantic, handheld style with quick cutaways and edits that give you the sense of what is happening—and who is dying—while sparing you the gore.

 

All four films are available in both UHD Blu-ray and via Kaleidescape in full 4K HDR. The first two were filmed in 35mm and were taken from a 2K digital intermediate for home release, while the final two were shot on ArriRaw at 2.8K and taken from a true 4K DI.

 

The filmmakers frequently push in tight on actors, often with a face almost filling the screen, and you can appreciate the terrific detail here. Every pore, scar, and stray hair—even Effie’s pancake makeup—is clearly on display. You can also see all the texture and detail in clothing, with the jackets worn by Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg) having fine single-line detail on the shoulders that is sharp and clear. The only artifacting I noticed was some jaggies in the shadows of fallen spears at the 42 minute mark in the first movie.

 

Longer shots in The Hunger Games are softer, however, with the leaves and trees in the forest not having razor-sharp edges. Also, there is a large tree in Catching Fire that is pretty obviously CGI that looks soft in the 4K transfer.

 

Night plays a key role in the first two films—it’s the best time to move around undetected when you’re being hunted or to hunker down and sleep—and while blacks were deep with nice low-level detail, there is a bit of noise in parts of the first film I didn’t notice in the second. Also, there’s a tad of grain in some of the shots in the first film, but it’s not distracting.

 

HDR’s enhanced contrast adds depth and dimension to the images, and gives additional punch to things like roaring flames, fireballs, or even Caesar’s enhanced smile. It also creates a wonderfully natural image in the second film when some characters are talking next to a fire with their faces lit with a warm glow from the flames. You can appreciate the wider color gamut and HDR in Catching Fire, where you see the elaborate costumes at the Capital party, the glowing lights on Caesar’s 

set, or Katniss’ “girl on fire” dress with colors that burn off the screen.

 

All four films feature Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtracks, and while the mixes for the first two aren’t overly aggressive, they certainly do a great job of putting you in the action, with tons of immersive atmospheric sounds, hard-directional cues, and generous use of the height speakers when appropriate.

 

During the many outdoor scenes, the room fills with the sounds of insects buzzing, leaves rustling, and birds chirping. The room also fills with the sounds of Caesar’s roaring crowds, or the buzz and hum of machinery and lighting inside the Game room. There are also a couple of moments where 

The Hunger Games
Catching Fire

you’re alerted to someone behind you by the snap of a twig from the rear or the angry bzzzzz of a tracker-jacker nest. PA announcements are mixed into the height speakers to good effect, making it sound like the voice is booming into the arena.

 

The couple of moments in Catching Fire that feature gunfire are loud, sharp, and dynamic, and when there is a moment that calls for deep bass—fireballs crashing into trees, trees crackling and splintering, the cannon boom announcing the death of a Tribute—the soundtrack delivers.

 

Dialogue remains well presented and clear no matter the action, making sure you never miss an important exchange between characters.

 

The Hunger Games series has great replay value. It’s entertaining from start to finish, whether you’re watching it for the first time or the tenth. (Seeing the first two movies for the first time even inspired my 13-year-old daughter to go read the books.) If you haven’t watched it presented in full 4K HDR with the Atmos soundtrack, now is the perfect time to get ready for your return to Panem when Collins’ new book arrives on May 19.

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.