Movies

Air Force One

Air Force One

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Air Force One

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

Air Force One

making this the best AF1 has looked by far.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Air Force One

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel

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

 

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

 

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

RELATED REVIEW

Mortal Engines

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Alita: Battle Angel

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Avengers: Endgame

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

 

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

 

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

Avengers: Endgame

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Avengers: Endgame

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

A Few Good Men

A Few Good Men

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

A Few Good Men

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

A Few Good Men

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Shazam!

Shazam

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Shazam

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Batman Returns

Batman Returns

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Batman Returns

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Batman Returns

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

I think we can all agree that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films is the greatest series of superhero films yet produced, with the middle film—The Dark Knight—transcending the superhero genre to just being a great film, and with Heath Ledger’s Academy Award-winning turn as The Joker representing some of the best acting ever in a superhero film.

 

And you could make a strong argument that, if not for Tim Burton’s Batman reboot in 1989, we would have never had Nolan’s films 20 years later. Remember, back in 1989 superhero films were mainly limited to Superman, with the notable exception of 1980’s Flash Gordon. And Superman’s final film to that point—the abysmal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987—didn’t exactly end the series on a high note, financially or critically. 

 

Also, superhero stories to that point were mostly light, geared towards attracting families with kids. They drew clear lines of good guys and bad guys. Think of the original Batman TV series with Adam West. It dripped with camp and positive 

messages, with Batman never crossing the line into dark vigilantism.

 

Up until 1989, that was the Batman the majority of the world knew.

 

But Warner Bros. decided to create a tentpole franchise around the Bat, featuring a dark style inspired by Frank Miller’s four-part The Dark Knight Returns comic series from 1986. They also selected an unlikely director, going with Tim Burton, who was fresh off the success of Beetlejuice and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but who had few other credits to his name, and certainly nothing on the size, scope, and budget allocated to Batman.

 

But hiring Burton proved fortuitous, as he bought into the idea of a darkly-toned film, with his own quirky sensibility, style, and world-building being just the thing to launch a darker vision of Gotham.

 

Another thing that separated Batman from previous films was its unique marketing and merchandising, which was 

designed to build hype and launch the film to blockbuster status. Sure, there had been blockbusters before, but many of these were “accidental” such as Jaws or Star Wars, or were sequels. Batman was for all intents and purposes an original film, but one with a storied history to pull from.

 

An interesting documentary, Batman: The Birth of the Modern Blockbuster (included on the previous “Diamond Luxe Edition” Blu-ray, but unfortunately not part of the numerous extras included here) does a great job of analyzing the film’s marketing efforts to raise Bat awareness to a fever pitch. And I can recall my own excitement surrounding the film. In the summer of 1989, it was the film all my friends and I had to attend, and we waited hours in line to view it in a packed opening-night theater.

 

The strategy definitely paid off, as Batman shattered opening-weekend records, bringing in $40.49 million and trouncing the previous record holder, Ghostbusters II, by over $12 million. Batman also earned $100 million faster than any previous film, doing so in just 11 days, and ended up grossing over $410 million, becoming one of the highest-grossing films to that time.

Batman (1989)

While everyone seemed thrilled at the prospect of Jack Nicholson portraying The Joker (including Warner, which agreed to some incredible demands by the actor, including not filming during any Lakers home games), fans were considerably less supportive of Michael Keaton’s casting in the titular role. But I think Keaton did a great job, especially with his quirky, slightly-uncomfortable-in-public turn as Bruce Wayne, and feel he’s the second best of the modern Bat-men, behind Christian Bale, but ahead of Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and Val Kilmer—and with no WTF?! distracting nipples on the Bat-suit.

 

I’ve seen Batman numerous times, but what I mainly remember is watching it on a VHS copy and constantly struggling to see any detail in the image. Many scenes are so dark, I would constantly fiddle with my TV’s brightness control to try to find the optimal level between washed out and lost in darkness.

 

For me, that is the greatest benefit 4K HDR brings to the 30th-anniversary release. Dark, nighttime, and low-lit interior scenes—of which there are many—look absolutely gorgeous. Blacks are incredibly clean and detailed, with no noise or banding. Warner did a fantastic job on this restoration, allowing you to see things that were likely never visible before, especially on any prior home video release. There are still plenty of deep, dark shadows, with many scenes featuring black-on-black-on-black imagery, between the night, set color, layers of black on Batman’s suit, the black uniforms worn by The Joker’s henchmen, and more, but each retains its own level and layer of black. Batman is still a visually dark film, but now you don’t feel like you’re missing anything.

 

Also, even though this 4K transfer was taken from a 4K digital intermediate from the original 35mm negative—which can often introduce grain and noise into certain scenes—grain is almost non-existent here. Even in outdoor scenes or when there is lots of smoke wafting in the air, images are always clean and clear.

 

Detail also abounds, letting you really appreciate the art and set decoration for which the film won an Academy Award. Great care was taken to create a believable Gotham, and this transfer lets you see all of it. You can really notice the texture of the fabrics—the heavy wools of The Joker’s suits and overcoats; the dense, leathery weightiness of Batman’s cape; the smooth metallic shell of the Batmobile; and the high-tech carbon-looking skin of the Bat-wing. Also, I noticed for the first time that the buttons on The Joker’s suit near the end of the film actually have all the playing-card suits on them—another subtle touch the enhanced resolution makes apparent. The minor drawback to all this extra resolution is that some shots reveal themselves to be matte paintings, but that’s a small price to pay.

Being such a dark film, there’s not a lot of room for the wider color gamut to shine, but some scenes do benefit, such as the flames in the explosion of the Axis Chemicals plant or the brilliant purples of The Joker’s numerous suits, and especially his beret in the museum scene. The warm golden tones in Bruce Wayne’s mansion also feel extremely natural.

 

From the opening moments, Danny Elfman’s score really has room to breathe and shine in this new Dolby True HD Atmos mix. The opening-title scene presents his score wide and crystal clear across the front channels, letting you easily discern all of the instrumentation. While I wouldn’t call this an overly active mix, Atmos does a really nice job of expanding the soundstage, especially in key scenes throughout the film. I noticed a ton of width in the front channels, with objects traveling great distances outside the left and right speakers.

 

The overhead and surround speakers are used effectively throughout to create ambience and atmospheric sounds on the city streets of Gotham, or add layers of echoes in the spacious and stately Wayne Manor. During big action scenes, such as the gunfight at Axis Chemicals or the Bat-wing swooping over The Joker’s  

Batman (1989)

parade near the end, the speakers effectively and appropriately immerse you in sound, with things whisking by overhead, bullets ricocheting around the room, or voices calling from distant offscreen locations. Considering that this is a 30-year-old sound mix, Warner did a stellar job.

 

If there’s any shortcoming to the audio, it’s that the LFE is generally a bit restrained, especially by modern standards. Bass has its moments to shine, like during the explosion at the Axis Chemicals factory, but there are other key moments—like the massive destruction of the tower bell near the finale —where a few extra dB in the bass channel would have been welcome.

 

Both the Blu-ray disc and the digital download from the Kaleidescape Store include numerous special features, letting fans dig into multiple aspects of the film’s production and design, and the history of Batman.

 

Batman set the stage for the modern superhero genre, and it has never looked or sounded as good as it does here. While not as great at Nolan’s films—and arguably not even the best of Burton’s Batman films—this movie still makes for terrifically fun viewing and is highly recommended.

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 Natural

The Natural

Widely regarded as one of the best sports films ever made, The Natural celebrates its 35th anniversary this year with a full 4K HDR restoration and newly remixed Dolby Atmos soundtrack, available now both on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and download from the Kaleidescape Store.

 

This continues the recent trend of re-releasing classic fare in fresh new Ultra HD resolution transfers, as we’ve recently enjoyed the 30-year anniversary release of Field of Dreams, the 35-year release of The Karate Kid, and a spectacular 40-year anniversary release of Alien.

 

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has a proven track record of doing some terrific restorations and re-releases (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and The Natural has been fully restored from the original 35mm

camera negative, supervised and approved by both director of photography Caleb Deschanel and director Barry Levinson.

 

Nominated for four Academy Awards in 1985—Best Cinematography (Deschanel), Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close), Best Original Score (Randy Newman), and Art Direction—The Natural was based on the novel by Bernard Malamud, which I’ll admit to disliking immensely. Where Malamud made Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) bitter and wholly unlikable, Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry’s screenplay instead makes him a likable, believable character who just caught a bad break, making him easy to root for, especially when played by Redford with his signature easygoing charm.

 

I can’t imagine too many readers not being familiar with the story, but I’ll keep it spoiler-free just in case. Hobbs discovers an almost superhuman “natural” talent for baseball growing up, and carves himself a bat named “Wonderboy” from a mighty oak tree struck by lightning outside his home. He leaves his childhood sweetheart Iris (Close) to pursue his dream of joining the majors, but just as he is about to get his big break, he has a chance encounter with a Babe Ruth-esque character named The Whammer (Joe Don Baker), which results in an even more tragic encounter with Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), who could best be described as a sports super-fan psycho killer.

 

Sixteen years later, Hobbs once again gives baseball a go after a scout signs him to join the struggling New York Knights. Manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) takes an

instant dislike to Hobbs due to his age, but ultimately gives him a chance, at which point Hobbs’ near-mystical baseball abilities lift the team toward hopes of winning the pennant.

 

The Natural has a bit of a supernatural feel to it and asks you to check your skepticism at the door. Hobbs has essentially two modes—homerun or strike out—and these are often directly impacted by his moral decisions at the time. Stay on the straight and narrow, good things happen, but allow yourself to be distracted by booze and dames in the form of Kim Basinger’s Memo Paris, and you’ll face struggles. But the story, the acting, and the cinematography are all so good, it’s easy to get swept up in the tale, and you can’t help but get chills during the film’s climax.

 

Visually, The Natural is an absolute treat. As mentioned previously, Sony knows how to lovingly restore old films to their greatest potential, and this is another winner. Early on, you can see all of the wood grain and detail in Wonderboy, and every 

The Natural

stitch in the Glen plaid pattern of The Whammer’s suit. The detail lets you feel the wooly texture of the ball uniforms, even seeing the pilling.

 

Closeups show tremendous detail, with incredible sharpness and depth. One example is the image of Iris’s hat shown at left, which, sadly, the pixel structure of my camera doesn’t do justice. This image features almost single-pixel fine detail that holds up without any jaggies or loss of resolution. Powdery-blue skies often create issues with noise and grain from older film stock, and that is evident in some scenes, but not overly so.

 

I’m not sure I fully appreciated Deschanel’s cinematography as a younger viewer, or perhaps it was just because it 

wasn’t allowed to truly shine on previous home video releases, but here we are treated to sumptuous golden hues and sunbathed tones in early scenes, as well as carefully lit interiors (likely to help disguise the actual ages of stars Redford and 

Close). Lighting is used to create deep shadows in many scenes, to conceal detail and reveal just what is intended, and here HDR does a great job keeping black levels clean. This is especially evident in the dugout scenes and the conversations between Hobbs and The Judge (Robert Prosky) in his dark office. Bright outdoor scenes also benefit from HDR’s boost, with exploding Klieg lights having extra punch.

 

I was surprised by how much the new Atmos mix elevated the audio experience. Right from the opening scene, it is used to expand the room’s size and atmosphere, placing you in a train station with all the surrounding sounds and noises. This continues through other outdoor scenes and those at the ballpark, where audio is lifted overhead and around you to smartly place you in the action. One nice use of the overhead speakers was when Chicago’s El train goes charging overhead. Bass is also used judiciously to add just the right amount of dynamic energy to key scenes.

 

The new audio mix also helps you to appreciate Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated score, and I felt I could hear hints of musical themes heard in his later work, such as Toy Story. Also, voices are clear and easy to understand, vitally important in a dialogue-driven film.

The Natural

Both the Blu-ray disc and the Kaleidescape download feature numerous special features that will keep film buffs busy for hours. These include “When Lightning Strikes,” “Pre-Game—A Novelist Steps Up to the Plate,” “The Line-Up—Assembling the Moviemaking Team,” “Let’s Play Ball—Filming the Show,” “Clubhouse Conversations,” “A Natural Gunned Down: The Stalking of Eddie Waitkus,” and “Knights in Shining Armor: The Mythology of The Natural.

 

The Natural is a fantastic film the definitely holds up 35 years later, and this new release makes for a spectacular evening’s entertainment. Highly recommended.

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.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World

How to Train Your Dragon 3

The Hidden World is the third and final film in the How to Train Your Dragon series. It has been five long years since last we saw Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his beloved dragon Toothless on the big screen. If you followed any of the off-screen drama surrounding The Hidden World, you know that the film’s release was pushed back multiple times—partially due to the financial woes and restructuring of DreamWorks, but also due to script concerns. Apparently it took a few passes to nail the landing, but The Hidden World proved worth the wait.

 

The story takes place one year after the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup is the king of Berk, Toothless is the alpha dragon, and together with their merry band of dragon-riding misfits, they are freeing dragons from all sorts of ne’er-do-wells and bringing them home to live safely and peacefully in Berk.

 

Enter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), the ultimate dragon hunter, singlehandedly responsible for the killing of all the Night Furies. All but one, that is—which is something Grimmel intends to rectify. He threatens to destroy everything that Hiccup loves unless Hiccup turns over Toothless, and with his own set of powerful (and powerfully drugged) dragons, he has the means to do it. Hiccup sets off to find the mythical Hidden World, a place where dragons and dragon-loving humans will be forever protected from evil men.

 

Meanwhile, Toothless has found himself a girlfriend . . .  and it’s adorable.

 

After seeing The Hidden World three times in the theater (you can read about that adventure here), I knew one thing for certain: The Ultra HD version would be a sight to behold. And indeed it is. The film’s animation is simply gorgeous, with

exceptional detail, a rich color palette, and a lot of complex interplay between light and shadow. If you’ve got an HDR-capable display, you should absolutely watch this film through a provider that supports HDR playback. I went with the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, which offers HDR10 video. The scenes in the hidden world are perfect demo material, both for their HDR and their color. But really the entire movie is stunning, and there are also a number of scenes that will challenge your display’s ability to render deep, dark blacks and fine shadow details.

 

The disc includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that makes good use of the complete channel palette. It’s a well-

balanced presentation with clear dialogue and a lot of music and ambient sounds in the surround channels. It’s not really an Atmos showpiece, however. The film contains several battle sequences that could make aggressive use of the height channels, and a few such moments will catch your ears, but for the most part it’s a fairly conservative mix.

 

The UHD Blu-ray package also includes the Blu-ray disc and a digital copy, plus bonus features like deleted scenes, an alternate opening, some fun featurettes, and a full-length commentary track by writer/director Dean DuBlois, producer Bradford Lewis, and Head of Character Animation Simon Otto.

 

The Hidden World is a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful trilogy that will delight children and reduce grown men to tears. (No, really—I saw this myself in theaters.) If your family loves How to Train Your Dragon as much as mine does, this installment will be spending a lot of time on your TV screen, so it’s worth it to pay more to get the top-shelf UHD presentation.

 

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

Like millions of others around the world, my family and I have been following the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over the years as it gradually built to the global phenomenon of a climax that was Avengers: Endgame. But my favorite film in the franchise remains Avengers: Infinity War, and if you’ll recall from the end-credits scene, just as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is about to disappear into a Thanos-snapped dust cloud, he pulls out an ancient-looking pager and manages to send off one final message. As the pager falls from his fingers and starts sending the message, its screen changes to reveal a logo familiar only to hardcore Marvel fans.

 

That brief end-scene introduced us to one of the most powerful characters in the MCU, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). (And those who have seen Endgame—which, seriously, by now should be all of you—will attest to her abilities.) It also perfectly set up Captain Marvel as the 21st and final Marvel film that would precede Endgame. I’ll admit, I didn’t recognize the logo on the pager, nor did I know who Captain Marvel was or anything about her story, so I went into the film fresh, and curious about what bits of the MCU puzzle this might fill in.

 

While Marvel films are usually met with excitement and anticipation, there was actually a lot of hate surrounding Marvel’s release—so much so that Rotten Tomatoes adjusted its rating policy when it was clear trolls were posting negative reviews and hatred over Larson’s casting and acting before the film was even released. Further adding to the controversy, Captain 

Marvel was originally a male character in the comics (although, different characters have taken up the Marvel mantle, and there is precedence for the character to be a woman), and many felt that casting Larson was a way to push a social agenda.

 

All of which didn’t interest me or sway my opinion in the least.

 

Give me a good movie I can sit and enjoy for two hours, and I don’t care if the lead is a man, woman, animal, or robot. I’ve got two daughters and I’m all for female empowerment. (And for the record, my 12-year-old loved it, saying “Captain Marvel was so cool and tough!”) And, if you avoided Captain Marvel for fear it would try to cram some social agenda down your throat, I’d strongly suggest you reconsider.

 

The first thing you’ll notice about Captain Marvel is a change to the opening credits scene. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say the folks at Marvel once again know how to give you the feels.

 

It seems like the Marvel team knew Captain Marvel would be a new character to many, and they chose a storytelling style that played into this, as we discover things about Larson’s character’s past along with her. The story opens with Vers (Larson) as an elite member of the Kree Starforce Military living on Planet Hala. Vers suffers from amnesia and just has snatches of visions and images of a previous life, but none of which she can assemble into a cohesive whole.

 

During a mission to rescue a deep-cover operative from a band of alien shapeshifters known as Skrulls, Vers is 

captured and her memories are probed by the Skrulls as they try to determine the location of some experimental tech Vers was involved with in her previous life on earth as Air Force fighter pilot Carol Danvers.

 

These memories lead both the Skrulls and Vers to Planet C-53—aka Earth—where we encounter a digitally de-aged and fresh-on-the-job S.H.I.E.L.D. agent with two working eyes by the name of Fury. (“Not Nicholas. Not Joseph. Just Fury.”) From here, the film moves forward with a steady stream of action, with Danvers gradually regaining memories of her life on earth as they piece together clues to hunt the experimental tech developed by Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) and avoid Skrull shapeshifters hot on their trail.

 

Taking place in 1995, the movie features a soundtrack that includes lots of era-appropriate tunes including “Waterfalls,” “Come as You Are,” “Just a Girl,” “Man on the Moon,” and more. Sometimes the songs are subtle and in the background; other times they take center stage à la Guardians of the Galaxy and Star-Lord’s Awesome Mix Tapes. There are also some other nice ‘90s-era references to bygone culture like Blockbuster and Radio Shack.

 

Visually, Marvel is a treat. Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR presentation has gobs of detail in every scene. Closeups abound with texture, letting you see the pebbling and grain in Fury’s shoulder holster, or an alien’s skin, or the metallic surfaces of the various spaceships. There is a scene about 10 minutes into the movie where Vers and a band of Starforce soldiers visit a planet that is covered in a smoky, hazy mist. This is a total video torture for noise and banding, especially as the smoke is 

illuminated in a variety of ways from lights, fire, and streaking laser bolts, but the image is always stable, clean, and noise-free.

 

The movie greatly benefits from HDR, with lots of brightly lit screen displays and readouts throughout that really pop. There are also lots of scenes in dark interiors that benefit from the wider dynamic range, letting you appreciate the detail of the set design. Near the end, when Marvel embraces her full powers, she literally glows with energy and power, and the effect works especially well in HDR.

 

Sonically, while many recent Disney releases have stumbled, I think Captain Marvel’s Dolby Atmos mix does a lot to correct this. The sound mixers seem to have eased off on the heavy-handed compression and uneven bass mixes that have plagued other releases (see my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron), and this movie has some very scene-appropriate low end that will take your subwoofers to church and flutter your pant legs. Explosions have dynamic depth and punch, and space engines thrum with authoritative bottom end.

 

The audio mix is definitely active and immersive but not overly aggressive. The height speakers are used to good effect to expand the sonic ambience and sense of space, and come into play during the big action scenes. One especially nice 

Captain Marvel

and clever use of the height speakers is during the scene where they’re picking through Danver’s memories, with off-camera voices moving about overhead.

 

While not required viewing prior to seeing Endgame, Captain Marvel does a nice job of filling in some little holes and fleshing out the MCU, and would technically be the first film in the timeline (if you start counting from when Captain America comes out of his ice coma). Its end-credits scene also does a nice job of marrying right into Endgame and explaining why Captain Marvel was absent from the big battle in Wakanda.

 

Available now for early download at the Kaleidescape store, Captain Marvel will be available on 4K HDR Blu-ray June 11.

 

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.