Movies

The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King (2019)

While it’s tempting to refer to Disney’s 2019 remake of The Lion King as the latest in the studio’s string of live-action remakes, following in the successful footsteps of Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), and Aladdin (2019), it would technically be inaccurate to refer to it as such.

 

Why? Because, well, it’s not live action at all. As director Jon Favreau revealed in an Instagram post, “There are 1,490 rendered shots created by animators and CG artists. I slipped in one single shot that we actually photographed in Africa to see if anyone would notice. It is the first shot of the movie that begins The Circle of Life.”

 

Yup. Following that opening shot, it’s fake. All of it. So, just because it looks like a live-action remake, The Lion King is actually more correctly described as a full computer-generated-imagery (CGI) remake.

 

Call it whatever you want, this film takes animation photo-realism to the next level with animals and landscapes so detailed and real-looking, the lines between “real” and “digital” are blurred into non-existence. In fact, if you were to just walk into the room with the volume turned down, you could be forgiven if you thought you were watching a documentary on the habits of a dysfunctional lion pride.

 

But the film’s strict adherence to ultra-realism is also a bit of its downfall, as it removes some of the heart and connection to the characters. In the original 1994 animated version, Disney’s animators humanized the characters by giving them human

emotions and expressions. In reality, though, lions—and most jungle animals—only have so many facial expressions, none of which are designed to express sadness or pleasure. So, without the musical and voice cues, you’d often be hard-pressed to know what the characters are feeling.

 

Fortunately, the voice casting is spot on, and definitely helps in connecting you with the animals and understanding the emotions they’re feeling.

 

While the remake runs 30 minutes longer than the animated version, it doesn’t feel like much has been added; rather, scenes just open and develop at a slower pace, giving you more time to absorb all of the glorious CGI realism.

 

It’s hard to imagine the story not being familiar to anyone at this point, but in a nutshell, the movie opens with king of the jungle, Mufasa (voiced once again by James Earl Jones, who returns 25 years after his original performance, and gives the alpha-lion patriarch the much-needed gravitas), introducing new cub Simba (Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino) to the jungle. Mufasa’s outcast brother, Scar

(Chiwetel Ejiofor), is jealous of this new heir to the throne, and he teams up with a pack of ravenous hyenas to overthrow Mufasa and banish Simba from the pride.

 

Young Simba stumbles across the comedic duo of a warthog, Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and a meerkat, Timon (Billy Eichner), who also take on the role of raising Simba in a secluded paradise-like section of the jungle. After growing up, Simba runs across Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter), who tells him how bad things have become under Scar’s rule, causing Simba to return to assert his rightful claim to the throne. Other notable roles include John Kani voicing shaman and adviser Rafiki, and John Oliver voicing hornbill and jungle gossip Zazu.

 

Part of what made the original so memorable was the score by Hans Zimmer and songs by Elton John and Time Rice, and those remain intact here, with some new songs added, and with the two pop stars, Glover and Beyonce, teaming up to perform “Can you feel the love tonight” and Rogen and Eichner putting their spin on “Hakuna Matata.”

 

As mentioned, the film’s CGI is beyond reproach. Only in a couple of instances (some water splashing and some of the jungle scenes) did the visuals look anything but lifelike. Colors have a golden, natural shade, with lots of sun and earth tones. There are many shots of wide African vistas, surprising me a bit that they opted to film this in a 16:9 aspect ratio instead of the more cinematic 2.4:1.

 

Closeup detail throughout is fantastic, especially of landscape and animals. In fact, closeups look so good, they only add to the illusion that you’re looking at real life. Individual whiskers and strands of fur are clearly visible, as are subtle eye expressions and mouth movements. You can clearly see the claws extend from the lions’ paws as they walk, the wrinkle and texture in elephants’ skin, and individual wisps of hair around Rafiki’s face. The detail and realism are nothing short of stunning, and represent a generational leap in CGI technology on par with Jurassic Park.

 

While shot in ArriRaw at 6.5K, this transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. While this doesn’t “doom” a movie to lower picture quality or mean it isn’t “true 4K” (see Dennis Burger’s post for a terrific explanation of why), I did feel that while

closeups had incredible detail and texture, backgrounds didn’t have that next level of detail found in some films. Backgrounds had a general softness and lack of detail that stood out, with forest leaves blending together and lacking sharpness, especially when contrasted with the terrific detail on tight shots.

 

With the sun appearing in many shots, HDR is used nicely to deliver a lifelike image. The sun is bright, with the landscape retaining shadow and detail. I also appreciated that the bright orange hues of the sun or the varied shades of blue in the sky had no hints of banding. Some lightning strikes and a roaring fire at the finale also benefit from the HDR grading.

 

Sonically, I wouldn’t call The Lion King‘s Dolby Atmos track aggressive by any means, but it did offer some nice moments, and served its source material well enough. Dialogue is always clear and understandable (though Simba/Glover does tend to mumble a bit), and music is mixed up into the ceiling speakers to give it some more dimension. The sound mixers took some opportunities to add echo to voices and sounds inside of caves and canyons, to have animals running past your head, or to have some atmospheric sounds in the jungle, but I would have liked them to push these a bit further.

The Lion King (2019)

They get a little playful with Zazu’s voice as he flies around spouting out bits of news, and there are some lightning and thunder effects that crack overhead. While there aren’t a lot of bass-heavy moments, the sound mixers choose the right moments—like the stampede and pivotal lion roars—to push the LFE channel and heighten the emotional impact.

 

While The Lion King offers nothing new from a storytelling perspective, it is gamechanging for its use of CGI, and is a terrific looking film. While there are a couple of scenes that might be intense for younger viewers (my 3½-year old left the room during a couple of scenes saying, “Scary!”), it is mostly family-friendly fare that is nearly as educational as a documentary and likely more entertaining.

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.

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4

First, let me just put this out there: I’m a huge Pixar fan. Like huge. For years, I felt the studio could do no wrong, as they churned out one brilliant, original, entertaining film after another. In fact, I would put Pixar up there with Lucasfilm as a studio whose next film I am going to see regardless of what it is or what it is about. Pixar makes a movie? I’m going. Automatic.

 

And that Pixar films are animated is almost irrelevant, as they have heart, head and shoulders above most of what other studios are putting out. And they seemed to have cracked the code on how to make films that simultaneously appealed to a wide generation of viewers, offering something engaging for toddlers and grown-ups alike, with characters you truly care about.

 

But recently, Pixar seems to have veered away from its originality roots and has been relying fairly heavily on sequels, with Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Monsters Inc. all getting the multi-film treatment. So, it shouldn’t have come as a real surprise that they would return to their original goldmine one more time with another entry in the Toy Story franchise.

 

When I initially heard about the plans to release Toy Story 4, I was actually upset. Not because I’m not a fan of the franchise—rather, exactly the opposite. It’s because I’m such a big fan, and I felt the story arc had been so wonderfully and perfectly completed in Toy Story 3, that I feared any additional movies would only dilute the emotional conclusion of that film, one that never fails to cause me to tear up no matter how many times I watch it.

 

Sure, give us some further exploits of our toy friends playing with Bonnie such as the Toy Story Toons Hawaiian Vacation, Small Fry, and Partysaurus Rex or the longer shorts Toy Story That Time Forgot or Toy Story of Terror, but let Toy Story 3 remain the perfect end note to the main story.

Toy Story 4

However, with its early release in 4K HDR at the Kaleidescape Store (a week prior to the UltraHD Blu-ray), I decided to take the plunge and complete my Toy Story film collection.

 

I’ve watched TS4 twice now, once in theaters and once at home in 4K HDR, and my heart has definitely softened to this latest entry in the series. While much of the story feels more forced than the more organic events of 1—new toy, Buzz, comes in and shakes up things in the toys’ world—2—Woody is stolen and discovers he is a celebrity—and 3—the toys come to terms with Andy growing up and leaving them behind, it gives our toys another great adventure while advancing Woody’s story and ultimately giving his character some nice closure. (And a new beginning.)

 

The movie opens nine years in the past, showing us what happened to Sheriff Woody’s (Tom Hanks) true love, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), when she is given away to another child. We then cut back to the present where, following the events of Toy Story 3, young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is growing, and Sheriff Woody finds himself being played with less and less. On the first day of kindergarten, Woody sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack to make sure she has a good first day, and while at school, Bonnie crafts a new friend, Forky (Tony Hale), from miscellaneous scraps of trash. When brought into Bonnie’s room, Forky magically comes to life and spends much of the movie trying to throw himself in the garbage.

 

When Bonnie’s family takes a road trip, Woody tries to convince the other toys—and Forky himself—that Forky is important to Bonnie. And when Forky throws himself out of the RV’s window, Woody goes after him, setting the stage for a variety of adventures, and the bringing together of old friends and new acquaintances.

 

All of your favorite characters from the previous films are here, including Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), Trixie (Kristen Schaal), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark, 

Toy Story 4

Duke Caboom

taking over for the late Jim Varney). Significant among the new characters are Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), and ultimate stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).

 

Toy Story 4 is Pixar doing what Pixar does best, which is putting a bunch of interesting characters together in humorous situations and milking each scene for maximum humor and heart. They nail the little moments like 

Rex being impressed with how long Forky’s pipe-cleaner arms are, or Snow Combat Carl (Carl Weathers) missing out on a high five. This is definitely not the best of the Toy Story films, but it is still a lot of fun to watch.

 

We’ve been having a bit of a resurgence of Toy Story watching in our house, as my 3 year old has become obsessed with the first three films, wanting to watch them on our Kaleidescape system over and over. She is especially fond of Bo Peep, who plays a significant role in this movie as a surviving tough gal who knows how to stay alive and get things done.

 

What you really notice is the generational leaps in animation improvement from film to film. Whereas the first movie now looks almost like a student project, this one has many moments that border on photo-realistic. The opening scenes look stunningly real, with incredible depth and detail in every frame. Taken from a 4K digital intermediate, there is striking micro detail in every closeup, a testament to the fanatical level of attention paid by the Pixar team. From the ultra-fine texture in Bo’s bonnet, to the detail in every one of Bonnie’s eye lashes, to the scuffs and scrapes on Woody’s hat (visible only in certain lighting and angles, mind you), each frame is bursting with detail. Just sit and watch as each rain drop in the beginning hits, splashes, and ripples. It’s amazing work.

 

The outdoor scenes all look unbelievably real—from the exterior of Bonnie’s school, to the road and landscape while Woody and Forky are walking, to the interior of the Second Chance antiques store, it’s all 4K eye candy. One scene in the antiques 

store where Bo and Woody look at a variety of illuminated chandeliers is especially fantastic looking.

 

I did find the colors throughout to be a bit subdued and muted. Whether this was to give it a more grown-up, film-like, and realistic look or due to some other creative choice, colors aren’t as overly saturated and “pumped up” as they are in many animated titles, including others in the TS series. There are still scenes where colors pop, such as the shimmer of Bo’s deep purple cloak, the flashing colored lights in the secret club inside an old pinball machine, the gleaming chrome on Duke’s cycle, the midway at the carnival, and especially the carnival lit up at night.

 

This film is gorgeous to behold throughout, and reference-quality video in every way.

 

I found the Dolby Atmos audio track to be mostly restrained, with the vast majority of the audio action happening in the front of the room. There were some nice moments where the height speakers were called into creative use to expand the on-screen dialogue—for example Woody hearing things inside Bonnie’s backpack, or Ducky and Bunny talking off screen—or where the audio 

Toy Story 4

soundstage is expanded with a variety of ticking clocks in the antique store. But Toy Story 4 isn’t really an audio showcase. Having said that, this is frequently a dialogue-driven film, and the dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, and there is appropriate use of surrounds when called on, but just not aggressively.

 

There are multiple end-credits and a post-credits scene that are definitely worth hanging around for.

 

If you have kids or grandkids, or just want a fantastic-looking movie with a bunch of heart, Toy Story 4 is sure to please.

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.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far from Home

Like James Bonds—and maybe even Batmans—people undoubtedly have a favorite Spider-Man between Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland, the latest webslinger to wear the red and blue. For me, I think it has less to do with the man behind the mask—although, I’ll admit to being partial to Holland’s portrayal—and more to do with the storyline and relationships that makes the latest Spider-Man films the best of the bunch.

 

This third franchise reboot can trace its roots back to Captain America: Civil War, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) took young Spidey under his Iron wing, gave him a better suit, and helped him in his fight against Cap and the Avengers. That mentor relationship continued in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Holland’s first turn carrying a film as Peter Parker and Spidey 

and one that, thankfully, didn’t make us relive the entire “bit by a spider, hunted down my uncle’s killer” origin. Of course, Spidey’s relationship with Tony Stark played a role in both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far from Home picks up and continues that storyline.

 

There will be some major story spoilers if you’ve yet to see Endgame, as much of Far from Home’s first act revolves around the ramifications of both Infinity and Endgame. So I would strongly suggest watching both of those films first—plus, they’re just a ton of fun to watch.

 

Home picks up about 8 months after the events of Endgame, and the world has come to call this time “The Blip.” We get a nice bit of exposition in an opening newscast from Peter’s high school, where we find how the kids are dealing with the ramifications of the Blip, where some have missed five years of their lives, while others who were previously much younger are now older. (If you’ve seen Endgame, you understand.) Peter is still personally reeling from Stark’s death, and he sees signs of Tony/Iron Man literally everywhere.

 

During a class trip to Europe, Peter is called on by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to help a new superhero, Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who comes from another earth in the Multiverse, battle giant Elementals bent on destroying the planet. Peter is reluctant to help, wanting to just have a chance to relax and be a kid and profess his love for MJ (Zendaya), but Fury rearranges the trip’s itinerary to continue putting Peter in a position to help.

 

Of course, not all is as it seems, and Peter is forced to make some tough decisions while trying to win the girl, save his friends, and keep his identity secret.

 

As I mentioned at the beginning, it’s the continued relationships developed over the years of the MCU that make these latest Spidey films so much more enjoyable and feel so much richer. In Home, we get Happy (Jon Favreau) trying to step in as a Stark mentor replacement, while also romancing Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who looks terrific here. Fury is trying to restructure after losing so many Avengers, and trying to get Spider-Man to step up to fill a bigger role.

 

The relationship between Peter and man-in-the-chair Ned (Jacob Batalon) continues here, but complicated by a new romantic interest, along with douchey Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) who admires Spider-Man but loathes Parker. The humor is deftly handled, and there are several references to other Marvel characters. (Pay close attention to the movie options Peter browses for his in-flight film!)

Definitely stick around for both the mid-credits scene—which potentially alters Peter’s life forever—and the post-credits scene, which has a nice callback to another recent Marvel film. And, while it in no way impacts the film, there is sadly no Stan Lee cameo here.

 

Far from Home looks fantastic. Filmed in a combination of 2.8 and 3.4K resolution, this transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, but it is never wanting for pop or detail. This is a marquee title, and it absolutely looks it. Both closeup and long shots have great detail and texture, and razor-sharp edge detail with incredible depth and dimension—things like the metallic texture of Spidey’s Iron Spider suit or the fine detail in Ned’s hat.

 

The film travels through three major European cities, which all have their own look. While in Venice, many of the scenes are outdoors during the day, and the city looks so beautiful you could be watching a travelogue. At night, interiors are lit by the soft glow of lamps, revealing warm and natural colors. In contrast, much of the scenes in Prague are at night, and we get the bright lights and color of fireworks at a carnival.

Home definitely benefits from the high dynamic range and wide color gamut of UltraHD, and both are used well throughout to push images to their best. From the vivid red of Spidey’s suit, to Mysterio’s green blasts, to the broiling red-orange of the Fire Elemental, images pop off the screen when they should. Also, HDR just lends an overall better sense of depth to the image. Black levels are also deep and clean throughout, with clear differences between shades of black, such as Happy’s black suit, Peter’s black shirt and pants, and Fury’s black leather trench coat and turtleneck. The film’s Images are all reference-quality and offer no room for criticism.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track is also an absolute treat, with near constant and aggressive use of the surround and height speakers. There is a scene in a hotel in Venice where you hear workers hammering overhead even with no visible construction happening on screen, which is a great audio moment letting you know exactly what’s going on even without seeing it.

 

The battles also offer a complete hemispherical experience, with things crashing and being destroyed all around, or water splashing and raining down from the ceiling. Another scene where Spidey is inside the Illusion has voices swirling

Spider-Man: Far from Home

constantly overhead, moving from speaker to speaker all around and above you, creating a sonic illusion I don’t think I’ve heard in any other film.

 

Available now for download in 4K HDR from the Kaleidescape Store a full two weeks before the physical disc is released, Spider-Man: Far from Home is a fun and engaging movie that looks and sounds fantastic, making for a great home cinema selection.

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.

Yesterday

Yesterday

Of all the possible director/writer combinations that the world of cinema could possible throw together, the pairing of Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine) and Richard Curtis (About Time, Love Actually, Blackadder) wouldn’t have occurred to me if you’d left me alone in a room for a couple of years with nothing but access to IMDb. So, it’s no real surprise that Yesterday—a new fantasy/romantic comedy with a preposterously adorable premise—feels so unlike anything either man has created to date.

 

Boyle, for all of his kinetic style, generally seems to make films that lack tenderness, whereas Curtis has the magical ability to throw a bunch of clichés in a bag, shake them up, and always pull out something sweet and unforgettable. But his films are rarely noteworthy in terms of aesthetic panache.

 

Despite not being the best work of either Boyle or Curtis (those would be Trainspotting and About Time in my book), Yesterday does manage to bring out the best of each man’s strengths. Boyle’s visual palette for the film, while certainly energetic at times, is admirably reserved at others. That balance takes a little of the saccharine out of Curtis’ story and

characters. (Saccharine that I enjoy, mind you; I’ll watch Love Actually any minute of any day. But let’s be honest: That movie is dessert, not a healthy meal.)

 

Yesterday also happens to be one of the simplest stories either Boyle or Curtis has committed to film, despite it’s convoluted-sounding premise. It goes a little something like this: Singer/songwriter Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) is on the verge of giving up on his musical career, 

despite the protestations of his manager and longtime friend Ellie Appleton (played by an almost unrecognizable Lily James, who distances herself from her famous Downton Abbey character not through accent or wardrobe, but in the very way she carries herself—her facial expressions, her body language, her laugh, even her smile).

 

Then fate intervenes. A 12-second blackout mysteriously envelops the entire world. When the power comes back on, Jack is lying on the side of the road, having been struck by a bus. He awakes in the hospital to discover that he alone remembers the Beatles. And, oddly enough, Coca-Cola. And, not so oddly given the initial premise, the band Oasis. As such, he sets out to recreate the Beatles catalog, taking credit for writing these forgotten songs, and becomes an international superstar.

 

I could go on, but as I said, aside from one half-hearted attempt at a plot twist that’s really more of a red herring, Yesterday is ultimately a simple tale. A fairy tale, almost. At its heart, it’s really the story of a girl who loves a boy but wants him to make the first move, and a boy who loves a girl, but thinks himself unworthy of her until he’s the biggest star in the world, at which point she can’t imagine him being with a simple middle-class girl.

 

Franky, if it weren’t such a straightforward narrative, Yesterday would probably collapse under its own weight. But by ignoring the historical significance of the Beatles’ catalog or the organic evolution thereof, and simply focusing on the inherent brilliance of this body of work one song a time, it works as a sweet and infectious modern fable that whizzes right by, despite its nearly two-hour length.

 

My only real beef with the film is that Kate McKinnon, whom I normally love as an actor and comedian, is woefully miscast in the minor role of Jack’s new agent. I can’t help but imagine that if Curtis were still directing his own screenplays, this part would have been played by regular collaborator Bill Nighy, as it seems to have been written for him. For what it’s worth, though, Ed Sheeran is perfect in the role of Ed Sheeran. The rest of the cast also excels—especially Patel, who has to perform the greatest hits of the Beatles in a way that’s not slavish, yet still faithful to the originals in spirit and also believable as modern popular music.

A few minutes into the film, I jotted down in the notebook I keep beside my seat: “Sound mix is too aggressive.” I quickly changed my mind, though. It’s true, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track included with the 4K/HDR Kaleidescape download of the film leans on the surround speakers and subwoofers way more than is generally my preference for feel-good comedies. But it works for Yesterday, especially in the way it uses samples, remixes, and remakes of Beatles hooks as a replacement for a more traditional score. Concert sequences, of which there are plenty, also benefit from the big, bold, dynamic sound design.

 

I also have to eat an early note I made about the 4K/HDR presentation. My first impression was that the film would work just as well in HD. Some quick comparisons between the 4K and 1080p versions did reveal, though, that the former is sharper, more nuanced in its contrasts, and is just generally less distracting and more engaging overall, even if its black levels are a little uneven.

 

That’s nitpicking, though. My one substantial grump about this early digital release is that it lacks the alternate ending and deleted scenes exclusive to the upcoming UHD Blu-ray release, as well as a couple of featurettes. The disc also promises to include a Dolby Atmos sound mix, which the download lacks. It remains to be

Yesterday

seen whether any of those bonuses and niceties are worth the wait. I can say this for certain, though: Yesterday isn’t a renter. It’s one to own, no doubt, even despite the fact that it’s not exactly high art. This is going to be my go-to watch on sick days or just when I need a pick-me-up for quite some 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.

John Wick 3: Parabellum

John Wick 3

The John Wick series manages to do something I’m not sure any other film trilogy/franchise has been able to pull off—each film has scored a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than the previous one, with John Wick 3: Parabellum garnering a trilogy-high of 90%.

 

Think of that for a moment—not Star Wars, Toy Story, The Godfather, Alien, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Matrix, or Hunger Games can boast continued improvement across their initial three films. (Though, Toy Story did score a tough-to-beat 100/100/98, and Rings managed a similarly impressive 91/95/93.)

 

What that means is that if you’re a fan of the Wick franchise, the story just keeps getting better, and this latest installment is more of what you love, with amped-up story, stunts, exotic locales, and, of course, tons of Wick-fu.

 

In many ways, John Wick is the perfect character for Keanu Reeves. Wick is a man of few words, and Reeves often comes across best (and least reminiscent of Ted Theodore Logan) when he isn’t delivering lots of dialogue. Reeves is also quite accomplished in mixed martial arts, with Wick’s fighting style and combat moves tailored to Reeves’ actual strengths. And Reeves is an avid motorcycle collector and rider, making him comfortable zooming around New York streets in Wick’s black suit. And damn, John Wick is just so cool.

 

If you are new to the John Wick franchise, definitely start with the first film as it will give you the much-needed background as to why John Wick is the man he is, a top-shelf retired assassin, and why crossing the Baba Yaga is such a terrible thing to fear. Also, it’s just a fun film, introducing you to a great underworld where assassins live and work amongst us, trading gold coins for a variety of services and favors.

 

The pattern of the series keeps building in intensity as we have Wick reluctantly forced “back to work,” on the run and doing what he does best. The first film begins with John retired and living a solitary life. However, after the son of a Russian crime boss murders a puppy Wick was given by his dying wife, Wick seeks revenge, killing all that stand between him and the puppy killer.

 

In the second film, John is once again forced to return to work after an Italian crime lord, Santino, calls in a old marker, a blood oath that can be exchanged for any favor or request, and which cannot be ignored by the rules of the underground. John fulfills the terms of the marker, but then Santino puts a $7 million contract on him, forcing Wick to kill him to once again gain his freedom.

 

If you’re up to speed on Wick 1 and 2 then this exchange at the very end of John Wick 2 is really all you need to know about Parabellum:

 

John Wick: “Tell them. Tell them all. Whoever comes, whoever it is, I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them all.”

Winston: “Of course you will.”

 

Parabellum begins immediately following the events of John Wick 2, with Wick being excommunicado for “working” on the grounds of the Continental and on the run in New York with a $14 million global bounty on his head from the members of the High Table. Cut off from all “privileges” of the Continental and any other underworld resources, Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) has given John a one-hour head start before his contract is open and every killer in New York starts coming to cash in.

 

With ruthless attackers closing in from all sides, John is forced to call in some old favors to find safe passage out of the city and locate the one man above the High Table who can call off the contract, allowing John to return to his life. This leads John to Casablanca, Morocco where old “friend” Sofia (Halle Berry) reluctantly agrees to help him.

 

JW3 takes the Latin adage from its title—Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”)—to heart, and the 2 hour and 11 minute run time is almost non-stop action, with even the few quiet bits filled with tension and some bit of storytelling that moves the film forward or fills in some bit of John’s past.

 

The fight scenes are lightning quick, brutal, and choreographed to perfection, often involving multiple people, usually with a variety of weapons, with Wick using anything and everything at his disposal to dispatch those coming after him. This includes knives, an axe, a book, a belt, a horse, a dog, a motorcycle, and guns. Lots of guns. (To be fair, he did say he’d kill them all . . .)

 

While shot on ARRIRAW at 3.2K resolution and taken from a 2K digital intermediate, I never felt the image wanted for detail or resolution. Images were consistently sharp and detailed throughout, whether it is the weave in fabric, the texture in walls and surfaces, or the lines and pores in actors’ faces, JW3 looks great throughout.

 

Even better than the resolution is what HDR does for this movie. With much of the film either in dark exteriors or interiors, or at the far opposite end of the spectrum in the brightly lit desert or harsh fluorescent lighting, HDR makes images in Wick pop. Blacks—of which there are many and, in many shades and degrees throughout—look consistently clean, noise-free and true black. For example, John’s signature black ensemble—including jacket, shirt, tie, belt, and shoes—is distinctly visible even in

dark rooms. The film’s early night scenes over New York look especially terrific, with the black night sky punctuated by the bright city lights reminding me a bit of an Apple 4K screensaver.

 

Colors are also pushed, such as the bright yellow of taxis in the city, or the deep red of brake- and taillights, or the cool blue of interiors. During a night fight in Casablanca, there are multiple torches burning brightly against a black night sky and dark interiors, something that could definitely cause banding, but the image remained stable and solid. Another interior of a large ballet theater had sumptuous red and ornate gold designs, reminding me of a Theo Kalomirakis design brought to life on a grand scale.

 

Sonically, the Atmos mix is also first rate, with the sound designers taking every opportunity to fill the room with sound, whether it is the massive report of gunshots, a pouring rainstorm, the squeal of tires and engines, or ambient street and outdoor sounds.

 

New York here seems to be under a perpetual deluge, and the room is drenched in audio as rain splashes down all around you. The dynamics of gunshots also

John Wick 3

add serious realism, with you feeling several concussive bass waves blast you in the chest, and wood and stone splinter and shatter debris around you from near misses.

 

Music has also been an integral part to the feeling of the Wick series, and that continues here. One great example is, as John is preparing for one of the big gun battles at the end in the Continental, Vivaldi’s “Winter” plays loudly through the speaker channels, adding an interesting score as he prepares to go on the hunt.

 

The film’s conclusion couldn’t scream, “There will be a fourth movie!” any louder if it had been printed in neon letters in the closing credits, and Wick fans will be happy to know that following Parabellum’s success, John Wick: Chapter 4 has already been announced with a May 2021 release date.

 

John Wick 3: Parabellum is available now for early download prior to its disc release on September 10.

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.

Aquarela

Aquarela

I recently saw Victor Kossakovsky’s astonishing Aquarela (Portuguese for “watercolor”) at The Landmark theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan. This is not your typical documentary.

 

First off, it’s filmed at a frame rate of 96 frames per second. Projectors capable of showing it at this speed are extremely rare, but many theaters, including The Landmark, are showing it at 48 frames per second (as opposed to the typical 24). This

translated to incredible detail, especially of water spray, ice crystals, any kind of small particles. It also provided very smooth, seamless camera pans that felt very natural.

 

This visually breathtaking nature documentary contains zero voiceover narration, minimal dialogue, and very little music score. What scoring there is is original rock 

music, which was not my favorite, but worked whenever used (which was sparingly, fortunately). The sound (in Dolby Atmos), though not the star of the film, was a vital supporting player and was especially effective in the sequence of Greenland’s calving glaciers. Hearing glacial shifts, cracks, and bellows all around you was very powerful. I suspect this will be equally effective experienced in a reference-quality home theater, when Aquarela receive its inevitable UHD Blu-ray and streaming release.

 

But the true star of this film is water, captured in its many different forms all around the world.

 

The first sequence takes place atop a frozen lake in Siberia, where, during the coldest months, people drive across to get from one place to another. What we soon discover, however, is that the ice has begun to melt (three weeks earlier than usual,

Aquarela

according to one victim of the thaw) and cars are actually falling through the ice while people are driving them! It is one of the scariest parts of the film, and an unexpected choice to open with. I found myself on the edge of my seat; and the matter of life and death, juxtaposed with the calmness of the expanse of glass-like ice, was chilling (pardon the expression).

 

The next sequence, possibly my favorite, showed the glaciers of Greenland as they calved then fell, bobbed, rolled, and floated in the icy waters below. Their dramatic, smooth, and graceful movements made me feel like I was watching a well-choreographed ballet. Also, as the ice emerged from the water, I couldn’t help but think of a scene from a film I watched over and over as a kid, Superman: The Movie, specifically the moment when the Fortress of Solitude was being created, with shards of ice rising to the surface. But, astonishingly, Aquarela is real. No special effects here.

 

A calmer moment showed icebergs silently drifting in the sea. Like one might when looking at the clouds, I found myself seeing things in their shapes. One iceberg looked like a dragon, for example, as it slithered past a sailboat with a busy crew

that took no notice of the creature. On a side note, the floating bergs also reminded me of the incredible pastel art of Zaria Forman (shown at right).

 

At times I found it difficult to tell the scale of what I was looking at, but that is part of Aquarela’s magic. And, like many great magic tricks, the solution is even more impressive than the 

Aquarela

trick itself. Kossakovsky masterfully keeps us guessing until he gives us a long shot of a large sailing vessel anchored alongside an immense, mountainous glacier. The sailboat resembles a tiny toy next to it.

 

Next, we see icebergs from a vantage I had never seen before, neither in film nor photograph. Shot from underneath, along their crystalline surfaces, are some of the most beautiful closeups in the film, of which there are many. This portion is probably the most abstract of the entire film and it’s like a visual fantasy straight out of Fantasia. The color and quality of the light glowing through the ice and water is something to behold.

 

Subsequent sequences include more man versus nature (a theme sprinkled throughout) including a crew of two navigating a sailboat in a storm, evacuation and devastation from the Oroville Dam crisis in California, and a riveting drive through the streets of Miami in the heart of Hurricane Irma.

Aquarela

The film ends with gorgeous shots of Angel Falls in Veneruela, but my other favorite sequence (and certainly one of the more magnificent moments in the film) comes about 3/4 of the way through, consisting of beautiful closeups of ocean waves. The detail of the sea spray, the fluidity of the water, and the crispness of the image (the high frame rate certainly helps here) are truly mesmerizing. And again, what is the scale? Are these waves actually just tiny ripples or giant tsunamis?

 

My overall reaction to Aquarela was one of wonder, amazement, and fear. Wonder of how the actual filming of it is, in and of itself, man versus nature. Amazement at how very small we as humans are and how much of our world is water. And fear of what’s happening to our planet and how delicate the balance between man and nature really is.

 

This film offers us the chance to witness nature in a way that few ever can, and I think it will translate well to Blu-ray. This will be something to watch on your biggest screen with your best playback system when it does become available for home viewing. And if you can catch it in the theaters, check the movie listing for HFR (high frame rate) to see it at 48 frames per second.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett is a bit of a Renaissance man (designer, artist, writer, director, and actor) living
in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats, Bruno and Roxy. Most recently, he was
production designer on the upcoming independent shorts Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed
Tanner
. Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an 
original
musical thriller, Dig a Little Deeper, which had a developmental reading last year starring Tony
Award-winner Alice Ripley. He is currently designing the set for Salt Marsh Opera 
Company’s
fall production of Pagliacci.

Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin (2019)

Has any studio mastered the art of the re-release better than Disney? Between their “vault,” where films would disappear from circulation for years, to Diamond Collection disc re-releases with new bonus features, to newly re-mastered 4K Ultra HD titles, Disney knows how to wring the most dollars from its catalog of titles. One of its most successful re-release strategies in recent years is remaking hit animated films into live-action titles. Recent examples include Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), Aladdin (2019), and the wildly successful The Lion King (2019).

 

While admittedly a huge Disney fan, I was skeptical about Aladdin, and skipped the theatrical release. I was a big fan of Robin Williams’ role as the genie from the 1992 original animated version, and I thought that anyone trying to fill his manic-comic shoes would just sully the role. Also, I’m equally not a Will Smith fan (though I am optimistic about his upcoming Gemini Man . . .), so it just seemed to be piling on. But when the movie dropped this week at the Kaleidescape Store—a full two weeks before the disc release—it seemed like the perfect opportunity to rub the lamp.

 

While not germane to this review, one thought I had as I purchased this movie was, “Will this be the final Disney movie I actually buy?” With Disney’s new streaming service imminently approaching, and with the studio’s entire catalog supposedly being available in the highest resolution possible (4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos) for a mere $6.99 a month, is the company going to be cutting off its faithful disc buyers in the process? For little more than the price of Aladdin, I could get six months of Disney’s entire catalog. Food for thought . . .

 

If you’re familiar with the 1992 movie, then you know all the plot points of this re-telling. “Street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) wanders the streets and alleys of Agrabah, living by stealing what he and his monkey, Abu, need to survive. One day he stumbles across Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who is bored with her life in the castle and wanders the streets in disguise, and he becomes smitten. Aladdin is tricked into going into the Cave of Wonder to retrieve a magic lamp by the Sultan’s evil counselor, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Inside, he discovers a magic carpet and a lamp that causes the Genie (Will Smith) to appear, granting him three wishes. Aladdin uses his wishes to become a prince to win Jasmine’s heart, but he must contend with Jafar, who has his own nefarious plans for the lamp.

 

Two things made the original Aladdin so successful: The soundtrack and Williams’ performance as Genie. The film won two Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “A Whole New World,” and all of the hits—including “One Jump Ahead,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali”—are featured here.

 

While Williams’ performance was widely praised and loved, some at the time criticized it because his jokes were too current and thought not to be timeless. (How wrong they were!) As skeptical as I was about Smith, he manages to make the Genie his own, and he does a lot to carry the film and add much-needed fun and humor—the film feels far more like a drama until Genie arrives. Smith’s Genie is far more subtle than Williams’, and his performance works very well here. Of course, Smith’s Fresh Prince musical background also serves him quite well during the musical numbers.

 

Aladdin reminded me a lot of a musical, with many of the song lyrics delivered in a more dialogue manner to drive the story as opposed to just straight singing. Also, they did a nice job of making the characters more believable, especially the Sultan (Navid Negahban), who comes across as a bumbling idiot for most of the animated film. Disney has also proved itself quite adept at making digital animals, and both Abu and Rajah (Jasmine’s Bengal tiger) appear quite realistic. This live-action version is also 38 minutes longer than the animated one, giving the story a bit more room to develop.

 

Filmed in ARRIRAW at 2.8 and 3.4K, I felt like Aladdin rarely bristled with as much detail as I’ve seen from other modern blockbusters. Not to say that the video doesn’t look good or feature detail, with sharp-edged images. It’s more like I often wasn’t seeing that ultra-pixel micro-level detail that some full-4K Digital Intermediates can resolve. Even with that nit, there 

are many closeups where you can examine the threads and ornate stitching in the costumes, or the texture in walls and rocks.

 

The HDR image does a lot to help the night and dark scenes, such as the city lights when flying over Agrabah on the magic carpet or the dark interior of the Cave of Wonders. Black levels are deep and clean throughout, with no noise. Golds and jewels shimmer and sparkle with colors that leap off the screen, as do fireworks and the many brightly colored costumes, specifically Genie’s rich, deep purple. This is a very colorful film featuring Bollywood-esque costume design, and the images are definitely bright and punchy, but never at the expense of skin tones. (Well, except the Genie, who is cerulean for much of the film.)

 

The Dolby Atmos audio mix feels mostly restrained, with the vast majority of audio presented from the front of the room. Some ambient sounds and the music are mixed up into the front height channels to add spaciousness, but most of the film is heavily focused to the screen. There are some scenes where the overhead speakers are called in to good effect, such as the Genie flying around the room, zipping front and back and swirling about in the Cave of Wonders, or Iago, the bright red macaw (not voiced here by Gilbert Godfrey, which just seems wrong), flying around, and some nice echoes that bounce off the walls in the Cave. The  

Aladdin (2019)

whole “Never Had a Friend Like Me” sequence is a great example of the film’s more dynamic audio moments. But for most of the film, the sound mixers definitely err on the side of subtlety, as opposed to looking for opportunities to get aggressive and push the sonic boundaries. Bass is mostly reserved throughout, but the sub channel is called into play nicely when the action calls for it. Fortunately, for a movie where singing and talking are key, dialogue is always clear and intelligible.

 

I enjoyed Aladdin much more than I thought I would, and it is a film I can see returning to. Also, with a Common Sense Media rating of 8+, Aladdin is a movie you can absolutely enjoy with family members of all ages.

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.

Men in Black: International

Men in Black: International

Released this past summer, Men in Black: International (MiB:I, going forward) is the fourth film in the MiB franchise, but actually serves more as a reboot/spinoff as opposed to an actual film in the series. The movie was released on digital in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack from Kaleidescape on August 20, well ahead of its disc release on September 3.

 

Instead of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reprising their roles from the original trilogy, MiB:I offers essentially an entirely new cast in the form of Chris Hemsworth (Agent H), Tessa Thompson (Agent M), and Liam Neeson (Agent High T). The only real continuity in actors is Emma Thompson reprising her role of Agent O from MiB: 3 and Tim Blaney returning to voice Frank the Pug in one brief scene. (There is a “blink and miss it” painting shown in a boardroom that appears to feature Smith and Jones in battle, the only actual nod to their characters.)

 

Now, this is not to say that spinoffs can’t be successful and work on their own. 20th Century Fox did a great job with Wolverine’s character from the X-Men series, the new Creed films have done a fantastic job of lighting new fire and continuing the Rocky saga, and Disney/Lucasfilm will be giving us new tales from the Star Wars universe long into the foreseeable future. But one of the things that makes a spinoff work is when the new film offers a solid connection to the rest of the series, and this is where MiB:I fails. And, unfortunately, it just isn’t a strong enough film to be able to stand on its own.

 

Still present are the memory-wiping neuralyzers, the ubiquitous black suits and ties, Rayban sunglasses, and Hamilton Ventura watches, advanced alien weaponry, modified vehicles, and a plethora of various alien creatures wandering around intent on reeking planetary havoc. But what seems to be missing is the actual fun found in the first films, with many scenes feeling like retreads.

 

Largely this is because the first three films gave us great chemistry and humor by juxtaposing the young and brash Smith against the old and grumpy Jones, while here the relationship between Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson just doesn’t work on the same level. While the interaction and repartee between these two is the highpoint of the film—which is actually the fourth time these actors have shared screen time (previously in Thor: Ragnorak and both Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame)—they just aren’t given enough to work with to carry it solely on their own. Even Hemsworth, who has shown great comic ability in his role as Thor, feels a bit forced here.

 

According to Wikipedia, the film had a “troubled production,” with clashes between the director and producer, resulting in multiple rewrites and edits, and it comes across a bit meandering and uninspired, and frankly left me feeling a bit like I’d been neuralyzed afterwards, unable to really recall any of specific points the following day.

 

What isn’t missing is a quality audio and video production, something for which Sony has come to be known for in its home releases. While filmed in a combination of ARRIRAW 3.4 and 6.5K, this is taken from a 2K Digital Intermediate, not uncommon for heavily effects-laden films. Even still, the video quality is terrific throughout, with tons of detail. Images are

always sharp and clear, both in closeups and wide shots. Blacks—of which there are a lot—are always deep, clean, and noise-free. Images like black ties against black jackets with black pocket squares are clearly visible.

 

HDR is also used to good effect throughout, pumping the bright lights, while keeping the dark night sky and the agents’ uniforms in deep black. The opening shot of the Eiffel Tower is a great example, with the Tower brightly illuminated against the black Paris night. The MiB offices are also brightly lit in white, with many colorful screens, and the HDR presentation really makes them pop. The Alien Twins, who bristle with energy, also benefit from HDR’s added brightness and color space, especially during their first fight with H and M.

 

Equally impressive is the Dolby Atmos soundmix, which is incredibly dynamic and immersive. The sound designers take every opportunity to expand the audio around the room and overhead, and this is a film that offers the kind of wow-factor home theater owners crave. There is also a ton of bass energy when appropriate, with explosions generating loads of ultra-low frequency that you’ll feel in your chest. Dialogue is also well recorded, clean, and clearly understandable even at reference-volume playback.

Men in Black: International

And while the big action scenes definitely benefit from the expanded and aggressive audio mix, quieter scenes also have a lot of ambient effects to capture the onscreen atmosphere. There were several instances where I turned around to investigate a sound behind me, thinking it was our cat or my daughter, when it was some audio effect.

 

With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 22%, MiB:I likely isn’t going to be the best film you see this year, though my 12-year-old really enjoyed it. However, what it lacks in story, it more than makes up for in effects and bombast, and looks and sounds fantastic while doing it.

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.

Air Force One

Air Force One

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Air Force One

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

Air Force One

making this the best AF1 has looked by far.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Air Force One

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel

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

 

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

 

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

RELATED REVIEW

Mortal Engines

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Alita: Battle Angel

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.