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Parasite

Parasite

Three thoughts occurred to me pretty much simultaneously as I sat and reflected upon Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite as the closing credits scrolled by.

 

Thought the first: How on earth am I going to say anything meaningful about this film without spoiling the entire experience? I’ve never been one for rehashing plots, so it’s easy enough to shy away from giving away story beats or plot twists. What a

film means and how well it’s made are generally far more interesting to me than the what-had-happened of it all.

 

With Parasite, though, the themes are so nuanced and ever-evolving that to go down that road would be to rob you of half the experience of watching the film. Just as you think you’ve figured out what Parasite is really about, it 

becomes about something subtly different, in a way that seems shocking at first but utterly inevitable in retrospect.

 

Thought the second: What a fascinating counterpart to Todd Phillips’ Joker this film is. It isn’t, I think, a spoiler to say that on the surface Parasite is about wealth inequality and class struggles, territory Joker explored as well. But while Phillips uses this thematic kick-starter primarily as fuel for one of the most enthralling character studies of the past few years, Bong uses it as the bedrock of a tightly scripted narrative that doesn’t merely encourage rapt attention—it downright demands it.

 

While Joker lives or dies by Joaquin Phoenix’ improvisation, and indeed feels like it could have been cut together a hundred different ways resulting in a hundred different films, Parasite by contrast comes across as a meticulous orchestration that hinges upon every piece of punctuation in the screenplay. Shorten one lingering glance or snip one line of dialogue, and I 

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Joker

can’t help but feel as if it would be akin to playing Rush’s “YYZ” in 4/4 time.

 

Of course, comparisons between the two films can only go so far, as one is a drama based on a comic book and the other is a wholly original black comedy that morphs into farce before shifting gears into thriller territory before evolving into . . . well, something else altogether. And yet, I can’t help but see the two films as opposite sides of the same coin. Perhaps due to the proximity of their release? Maybe. But it feels like there’s a deeper connection going on here. Something both zeitgeisty and timeless.

In addition to surface thematic similarities, the films do share one other thing in common: Stunning cinematography and absolutely unimpeachable home video presentations. Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR release seems to be an absolutely faithful transfer of the 4K digital intermediate of the film, which was shot on Arri Alexa 65 cameras and captured at 6.5K resolution. The transfer doesn’t lean too heavily on intense highlights, but has a wonderfully high-contrast look that makes most use of its expanded dynamic range at the lower end of the value scale. Colors are simply sumptuous, but more than anything else, it’s cinematographer Hong Gyeong-pyo’s eye for framing and composition that makes Parasite such a visual feast.

 

Kaleidescape presents the film with your choice of 5.1 or stereo sound, both in Korean despite being labeled as English. There are no caption options, as subtitles are baked into the transfer and positioned within the 2.39:1 frame.

 

There will be some controversy, I’m sure, over the fact that Universal decided to release the film here in the U.S. without its original Atmos soundtrack. This is true of both its digital release now as well as its disc release (Blu-ray only, no UHD) later in

the month. Interestingly, other local distributors (The Jokers Films in France, for example) are delivering Parasite with its object-based audio intact, and I’ll admit even I’m intrigued to hear what that sounds like, because the surround mix is as bold and cheeky as the film itself. Aggressive pans from the surround soundstage into the front channels are employed frequently, though not gratuitously, to redirect the viewer’s attention and extend the fabricated reality of the film out into the room.

 

If I had to speculate about why we’re not getting Atmos in the U.S. (and let’s be clear here, this is nothing more than speculation), I would guess that the 5.1 option we’ve received is a new nearfield mix intended for the relatively more intimate confines of home theaters or media rooms. Whatever the reality, it’s hard to complain about such a brilliantly crafted audio experience, and it does up-mix quite nicely into Atmos, if that’s your preference.

 

Thought the third: If Parasite wins a condescending Best International Feature Film Oscar and gets snubbed for Best Picture, I’m going to pitch a hissy. (And I say this as someone who normally puts as much stock in the Academy Awards as I do the serving-size suggestions on a box of Cheez-Its.) This isn’t the sort of token foreign film Hollywood trots out every year and then dislocates its collective 

Parasite

shoulders in an effort to pat its own back for patronizingly celebrating a film with subtitles. It’s a universally applicable work of art whose themes resonate across cultural boundaries.

 

It’s also one of those rare films that manages to be both poignant and approachable. It asks tough questions without offering pandering answers and it somehow manages to not be even slightly opaque in the process. Quite frankly, if it doesn’t win Best Picture, I can only assume it’s because the Academy jealously recognizes that few modern American directors would have had the courage to make this film, at least not in quite this way.

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.

Gemini Man

Gemini Man

Between Men in Black, Bad Boys, and Independence Day, there was a time when Will Smith ruled the summer box office with hit after hit. He was a bankable star studios could count on to carry tentpole films, but then a string of disappointments took some of the shine out of Smith’s star, and he stopped being offered those marquee roles.

 

Smith’s latest bid to return to box office bankability was Gemini Man, which is available as a 4K HDR download with Dolby Atmos soundtrack from the Kaleidescape Store a full three weeks prior to its January 14th 4K Blu-ray release. Unfortunately for Smith—and Paramount Pictures—Gemini was a flop at the box office, costing an estimated $138 million to make, and grossing just $173 million worldwide against an estimated $275 million needed to break even. Further, Gemini belongs to that increasing list of films that sees a real divide between critics—receiving a measly 26% on Rotten Tomatoes—and viewers—scoring 83% from audiences, making you wonder, “Who’s right?”

 

According to Wikipedia, Gemini Man was originally conceived in 1997, but “the film went through development hell for nearly 20 years.” Over that time, multiple directors were attached along with numerous actors, with Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Nicholas Cage, Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Dwayne Johnson, and many others set to star at

various points. This kind of struggle to get a film to screen rarely results in box office success.

 

Another challenge Gemini faced was director Ang Lee’s insistence on shooting the film at a high frame rate (HFR) of 120 frames-per-second (fps), five times the 24fps Hollywood standard. Besides adding to the cost and complexity of production, this limited the number of screens that could actually show the film at Lee’s desired frame rate, with just 14 Dolby Cinema screens in the US able to show the film at the full 120fps. (Even then, the Dolby Cinemas were limited to showing it at 2K resolution, being unable to display 3D, 120fps, and 4K simultaneously.)

Lee’s previous HFR release, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was given a chance for a wider audience in its home video release, becoming the first major title to be released in 4K HDR at 60fps, the technical limit of the 4K Blu-ray format. And while the film had some stunning, truly reference-caliber visuals, it had a distinctly un-filmlike video look that distanced many viewers.

 

While the 4K Blu-ray disc of Gemini Man will include the film at 4K 60fps, the digital download is currently limited to the traditional 24fps, which is the version currently available from Kaleidescape and what I’m reviewing here. (It’s important to note that Billy Lynn was initially available from Kaleidescape at only 24fps, but later became available at 60fps as a free upgrade, so it’s possible the same will be true for Gemini Man. According to Kaleidescape, “There is no announcement at this time. Paramount hasn’t made a 60 fps file available for digital, but we have made them aware that we are interested.”)

 

Smith plays Henry Brogan, a former Marine Scout Sniper now working as a top-tier assassin for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Brogan’s skills behind a rifle are legendary, but he’s a bit haunted from years of killing and the 72 people he’s dispatched, and decides to retire when he feels he’s losing his edge.

 

When he learns that his latest kill might not have actually been guilty and that he has been used, Brogan starts investigating. In retaliation, the DIA decides to get rid of all loose ends, including sending kill squads to take care of Brogan and his former team. When Brogan dispatches the first hit team, Clay Varris (Clive Owen), who heads a black-ops unit codenamed Gemini, unleashes a young new assassin to finish the job.

 

This young assassin named Junior (a digitally de-aged version of Smith) bears a striking resemblance to Smith and seems to know and anticipate all of his moves. After a test reveals that Brogan and Junior share identical DNA, Brogan is determined to learn where this clone came from and what the government is using him to do.

 

Shot in a combination of 3.2 and 4K at 120fps, Gemini’s transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the images look reference-quality throughout. Closeups bristle with detail, showing every pore, whisker, and strand of hair. Images of Smith’s hands and fingers while he’s holding his sniper rifle reveal every whorl and loop in his fingerprints. Apparel shows fine textural details like the weave of a linen shirt, the loops in a terrycloth robe, or even the individual gold links in a necklace.

 

Without question, this film put all the resolution and detail up on the screen, and it looks gorgeous. Only once, at the very beginning, did I notice any video that was anything short of reference—a small bit of line twitter in the lines and structure of the roof complex.

 

The plot takes Brogan to multiple locations around the world, and outdoor scenes are bright, sharp, and very detailed, with long-range shots featuring rich depth and dimension. The scenes in Cartegena are especially vibrant and rich with color. Some scenes, like in Budapest, look like they were obviously filmed against a green screen—one of the dangers of 4K’s ultra-revealing nature.

 

Blacks are clean and detailed, though many night shots on the ocean are lit like via a full moon and aren’t totally dark. HDR is used nicely to create shadow and dark-level detail in outdoor scenes resulting in beautifully realistic images. A scene in some catacombs includes a fight where a flare is thrown into water, creating layers of shadows with no hints of banding. And a

scene in Varris’ office is bathed in various shades and layers of black while still revealing rich detail and clean images.

 

One of the film’s big gimmicks is Smith’s digital de-aging, where you get him fighting a much younger version of himself. The first big encounter/fight between the two Smiths played out like a non-stop video game battle, with them running, jumping, leaping, and chasing each other from building to building and through the streets, including a John Wick-esque motorcycle fight, as if each character had multiple lives in reserve. At a distance, the de-ageing effect worked very convincingly.

 

But closeups of young Smith looked just slightly . . . off. His face was a bit waxy and smooth, like he’d undergone excessive digital noise reduction, and his mouth while talking looked somewhat digitized or like the audio was out of sync. My wife felt Junior looked like a videogame character. Since the movie’s premise rides on the believability of this effect, I have to say that as good as Smith looked, you were often aware that you were watching an effect.

 

As mentioned, the Kaleidescape download includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and the audio is used nicely to create some ambience in scenes, such as birds and bugs buzzing about on Brogan’s farm. Gunshots also have nice snap and 

Gemini Man

impact. The Atmos mix also provides a ton of width to the front images, making sounds extend well out into the room and far beyond the screen.

 

While I found the soundtrack adequate, it wasn’t especially dynamic or immersive. Whether this was because I was so caught up in the movie and enjoying the drama or just because the mix actually was a bit restrained, I can’t honestly say.

 

While Gemini Man is far from perfect, it is entertaining, with a plot that’s just complex enough to stay interesting; and the picture quality looks fantastic on a luxury home cinema system. This might not be a movie we’ll still be watching years from now, but it does make for an entertaining night in your own 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.

Joker

Joker

I had to watch Todd Phillips’ Joker twice to write this review. And it required two viewings because I realized, as the credits rolled the first time around, that I had absolutely nothing meaningful to say about the video transfer or the sound mix. From beginning to end, I was so hypnotized (and indeed horrified) by Joaquin Phoenix’ performance as the titular character that I honestly forgot I was supposed to be reviewing a home video release.

 

Had I gone ahead and put fingers to keyboard after that first viewing based on my hazy impressions, I would have told you a story about a grungy, filmic 4K HDR transfer that evoked the gritty neo-noir classics of the 1970s and ’80s. It took a second pass to realize that Joker’s cinematography is actually pristine, which makes sense given that it was captured digitally in a mix of 3.4K, 4.5K, and 5.1K resolutions, and finished in a true 4K digital intermediate. It’s the set dressing, the lighting, the framing, and indeed the movement of the camera that evokes the look of the cinematic era the film aspires to. When you get right down to it, though, Joker is an objectively gorgeous film with a wonderfully revealing home video presentation.

 

The sound mix, too, would have gotten an inaccurate assessment had I not gone back for a double dip. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s brilliant, minimalist cello score would have certainly been the focus of my discussion, as it dominates the sound mix, or at least one’s memory of it. But other than that, nothing really stuck to my ribs in terms of the overall delivery of audio, aside from a few distant ringing phones, ignored in the background, which struck me as being rendered with a wonderful illusion of space.

It wasn’t until the second time through that I even realized the soundtrack for the Kaleidescape release of the film is Dolby Atmos, but you shouldn’t take that oversight as an indication that the mix is subtle. Focusing more on the technical presentation than the performance at the heart of the film, it’s an ambitious and at times aggressive mix, one that uses its height channels to enhance the vertical elements of the filth-ridden cityscape of Gotham. (Not the stylized Gotham of the Burton or Nolan films, but a blatant homage to the New York City of ’70s cinema.) The fact that I barely noticed the height channels the first time through is as much a credit to the artistry of the mix as it is to Phoenix’ mesmerizing performance. As with the imagery, the sound simply works in service of the narrative, and never serves to distract from it.

 

If it seems as if the only aspect of the film itself I can focus on is the acting of its lead, there’s a reason for that. Joker isn’t a story-driven work. It’s as pure a character study as I’ve seen in ages. For those of us who love comic books and the movies based on them, it’s easy to go into a film like this—ostensibly an origin story about a character who has never had a consistent canonical backstory—with a ton of baggage. The thing is, though, Joker isn’t interested in your baggage. It isn’t interested in the 79-year history of the character as Batman’s archnemesis. Hell, it isn’t interested in Batman at all. Indeed, the overall mythology of Gotham City and its most famous residents is so tangential it could have been left out of the film altogether and it wouldn’t have had any major effect on the plot, what little of it there is.

 

Director/co-writer Phillips seems so completely uninterested in any of the normal trappings of comic-book films that to call this a comic-book film at all feels dishonest. To discuss it in relation to the four-color serialized stories on which it is (very) loosely based would be to miss the point entirely. To understand the film, we have to view it for what it is: An exploration of the internal and external forces—personally and societally—that combine to create not merely a villain, not merely a criminal, but an unabashed agent of chaos, one that is, in this film, more man than myth.

 

In exploring all of this, Phillips touches upon a lot of conflict familiar to modern audiences—wealth inequality and the rage of the working class aimed at the apathetic ruling class, the failures of bureaucracy, media bias, our weird attitudes toward mental illness, our complex and often contradictory attitudes toward nonconformity.

 

As I mentioned above, there isn’t a lot by way of plot here, and it’s often difficult to figure out what Phillips wants us to take away from the film on any of these topics. Indeed, in the supplemental material included with the Kaleidescape download (and due to be included on the UHD Blu-ray release in January), he claims that the film isn’t really about any of these things. I’m not sure I really buy that. I think it was easier to hide behind that dismissal than it was to admit that he doesn’t really have the answers. He simply wants us as an audience to do some of the heavy lifting and accept the unique part we play in creating such monsters, individually and collectively.

Joker

But it’s entirely possible you’ll come away from Joker with completely different impressions than I did about whatever underlying message there may be. I, for example, couldn’t help but read into the narrative some serious thematic exploration about agency and free will, both topics I think about quite a bit. But in a few brief discussions with others who’ve seen the film, I seem to be alone in that, at least within my friend circle.

 

I think a lot of that has to do with how abstract Joker is at times. I referred to it earlier as pure character study, and I stick by that. There are plenty of wonderful actors sharing the screen with Phoenix, namely Zazie Beetz, as well as Robert De Niro, whose character is largely a nod to The King of Comedy, a film that very much inspired elements of this one. But Arthur Fleck, aka “Joker,” is the film’s only real character.

 

As well as pure character study, Joker is also pure cinema—a work of art that simply couldn’t have existed in any other form than as a motion picture. Imagery and audio sit in the passenger seat alongside character development, and story just sort of seems to be dragged along for the chaotic ride, hanging onto the rear bumper for dear life (and I assure you, I don’t mean that as a slight in any way).

 

That focus on fundamental human truths, combined with the undeniable ’70s and ’80s aesthetic, keeps Joker from feeling too zeitgeisty, despite the current subject matter it grapples with. There is one thing, though, that betrays the film as absolutely not a product of the bygone era it emulates. Many parallels have been drawn between Joker and Taxi Driver, and they’re not unfair. One crucial difference, though, is that Phoenix’ Joker could not, in any light, be viewed as a hero or anti-hero or anything other than a force of nature unleashed by circumstance and his own weaknesses. To write it off as a mere mashup of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, as I imagine some will do, would be intellectual laziness of the highest (and snottiest) order.

 

Phillips walks a very thin line here: He wants you to understand this character without sympathizing with him. He doesn’t want you to want to watch the world burn; he simply wants you to recognize and acknowledge why some people do. And as with the best interpretations of this character (or at least the character that goes by this name) in print and on screen, Phillips

wants you to admit that, as wrong as he may be, and as dangerous as he may be, there’s an alluring element of truth behind the Joker’s lies; and refusing to admit as much is why we struggle to honestly understand the seemingly senseless acts of violence that have become so commonplace they barely register in the 24-hour news cycle unless the body count is truly catastrophic. To tiptoe right up to that line without crossing over into the territory of glorification is perhaps this film’s neatest trick.

 

In the end, though, I can imagine some viewers taking uncomfortable issue with this approach, with the lack of moralizing, the lack of overt condemnation for this murderous clown.

 

Speaking for myself alone, I don’t think the film needs it. I think it’s implicit. I can’t imagine anyone cheering at the end of this cinematic tone poem. Then again, I didn’t see Joker in commercial cinemas, and I’m glad I didn’t. Because anything other than slack-jawed silence as its credits rolled would have confirmed my worst suspicions about humanity. 

 

Viewed at home, via my own AV system, with no rustling snack packaging, no whispering, no cellphones glaring from the periphery, no obtrusive snickering at

Joker

the two or three overt references to comics history that the film makes when it serves its purposes—in other words, taken on its own terms, and viewed without distraction—I can honestly say that this is one of the best films of 2019.

 

I can also say, without hesitation, that it’s one I’ll return to again and again, to meditate on its themes, its red herrings, and, most importantly, one of the most captivating, heartbreaking, frustrating, and fascinating character portrayals I’ve witnessed in ages. But it almost seems vulgar to discuss how beautifully shot it is, and how wonderfully this home video presentation preserves its sumptuous cinematography. 

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.

Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump

It’s time for another anniversary re-release review here at Cineluxe. Forrest Gump recently received a 25th-anniversary 4K HDR makeover, and is available on 4K Blu-ray disc as well as for download from the Kaleidescape Store, which is how I enjoyed it.

 

I remember watching Forrest in the theater at the time of its original release back in 1994 (and several times afterwards on both VHS and LaserDisc) and being blown away by its innovative use of CGI to create Forrest’s (Tom Hanks) incredible life. Industrial Light and Magic used CGI in a way unlike any other film at that time—from the feather that floats and dances around at both the beginning and end of the film, to Forrest shaking hands with a number of former presidents at the White House or standing behind Governor Wallace on the steps of Alabama University, to removing Lieutenant Dan’s (Gary Sinise) legs so convincingly that I actually thought Sinise was legless.

 

Today, we take CGI imagery for granted, with filmmakers able to create entire worlds (à la Disney’s recent “live action” Lion King remake), but in 1994, Forrest Gump was an effects tour de force that didn’t feel like you were watching a movie driven by effects. This was a case of the technology being used to help tell the story and immerse you in Forrest’s life, instead of being the story.

 

At its heart, Forrest Gump is really a pretty simple film—a life recapped in a series of flashback memories by Hanks while he’s sitting on a bench waiting for a bus. But it is heart—propelled by Hanks’ genuine and spot-on portrayal of Gump and by Robert Zemeckis’ deft directing—that makes the film still hold up after all these years.

 

There are actors who so inhabit roles that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing them—Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones. And Hanks’ portrayal of Gump certainly deserves to be on that list. From the first time he says, “My name is Forrest, Forrest Gump,” Hanks is Forrest, and there is no separating the two.

 

Hanks never uses Gump’s being “different” and his 75 IQ (borderline impaired) for laughs or for pity. Instead, he portrays him as curious, honest, and pure, always looking for the best in those around him. Ultimately Gump is driven by the desire to please people, but especially his loving and protecting mama (Sally Field); his best good friend, Bubba (Mykelti Williamson); his best gal, Jenny (Robin Wright); and his Vietnam officer-in-charge cum First Mate, Lt. Dan.

 

Due to Hanks’ portrayal, we never feel sorry for Forrest or even think about his IQ after it’s initially mentioned, but rather we root for him as he lives a bigger-than-life life where he just happens to be in all the right places at all the right times and displays his ability to run like the wind blows.

 

For the film’s 25th anniversary, Paramount created a true 4K scan of the original 35mm print and gave the audio a Dolby Atmos makeover. If I had to summarize the image quality of the new 4K HDR transfer in a word, it would be “uneven.” The images are mostly clean and sharp, and there are scenes where they look tack sharp with tons of detail; but other scenes are almost out of focus and lack real definition.

 

As with many film-to-4K transfers, closeups often show the real improvements in image quality, revealing the texture in curtains, drapes, bed linens, clothing, and actors’ faces. In an early scene where Forrest is being fitted with his leg braces—to help his back “being as crooked as a politician”—the tiny dots inside the plaid pattern of his shirt are clearly resolved.

 

It’s longer shots or things in the background that often don’t have the same sharpness and detail. Leaves on trees, fields of grass, and stalks of corn tend to look softer and less defined. The opening shots of the sky reveal a fair bit of noise and grain, 

which isn’t uncommon, since that particular shade of blue tends to wreak havoc with film capture. Also, a couple of scenes have some brief aliasing in fine edges. The archival footage is also very soft and definitely shows its age, especially when contrasted with the sharpness of the rest of the film.

 

HDR is used sparingly throughout, not really pushing dynamic-range boundaries. There are scenes where whites are fairly brilliant, such as the shoelaces in Forrest’s Nikes or the T-shirts worn in the Army barracks. The napalm strike in Vietnam benefits from the additional dynamics. Blacks are also deep and noise-free. Colors are rich and vibrant, such as the bright Crimson red jacket worn by Alabama’s football coach, Bear Bryant. The greens in Vietnam are also lush, with clear distinctions between the different shades of green in the uniforms, helmets, camouflage, canteens, weaponry, etc.; and the golden-orange sunset on the bayou looks beautiful.

 

Gump is known for its fantastic soundtrack, featuring nearly 50 songs that capture the sound and feel of the period. Thus, I had high hopes for the Dolby Atmos mix, but it’s even more restrained than the film’s use of HDR. The height speakers are used very sparingly throughout, coming into play to add some atmosphere like rumbling thunder, bird chirps, or some reverb to add space to the Washington

Forrest Gump

speech scene. A helicopter flyover in Vietnam is also mixed nicely into the height speakers.

 

Most of the soundtrack is mixed across the front three speakers, which gives the music nice separation, and keeps dialogue clear and understandable. The big Vietnam firefight has some bullets that whiz into the surround speakers and the hurricane scene pushes wind and the groaning ship out to the surrounds, but the mix is sonically tame by today’s standards.

 

Forrest Gump is an undeniable classic, ranking No. 76 on the AFI’s Top 100 list, and receiving 13 Academy Award nominations and taking home six statues for Best Picture, Directing, Actor in a Leading Role, Writing, Film Editing, and Visual Effects. In 2011, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” While this isn’t a perfect transfer, it retains all the heart and feel, and belongs in any film collection.

 

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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.

Ad Astra

Ad Astra

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And . . . not so much.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fortunately, yes.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Ad Astra

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Downton Abbey

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Downton Abbey

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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

 

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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

Die Hard

Die Hard

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

and personality to keep the film from being too dark.

 

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

 

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

Die Hard

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Die Hard

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Angel Has Fallen

Angel Has Fallen

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Angel Has Fallen

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Hellboy (2004)

Hellboy (2004)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Hellboy (2004)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Hellboy (2004)

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

 

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

Dennis Burger

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