Movies

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai has never been a great-looking film. I mean, at least not in my lifetime. Whether via VHS, widescreen VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, or even high-definition Blu-ray, it has long been plagued by an overly contrasty, crushed, murky look that didn’t quash its emotional impact but nonetheless seemed like a missed opportunity, especially given the film’s lush setting.

 

Since the biggest problem marring the look of the film has been blacks that are too black and highlights that are too bright, an HDR release may seem somewhat pointless—or even perhaps detrimental. But if anything, The Bridge on the River Kwai’s 4K HDR release via Kaleidescape does a wonderful job of conveying the difference between “contrast” and “dynamic range.” Yes, the new HDR grade darkens the darks a little, and brightens the highlights spectacularly. But the most important thing it does is to introduce more steps between those two extremes, breathing subtlety and richness into the shadows and bringing the image to life in ways I never would have imagined possible. In short, it delivers the nuances inherent to the original film that have never survived before now in the transition to home video.

 

That’s not to say that the film now looks perfect, mind you. Kwai was shot with cobbled-together CinemaScope cameras, without the benefit of zoom lenses. As such, the very first scene we see, of a soaring and circling hawk, was quite obviously blown up extensively, resulting in an overly grainy, noisy mess.

 

Thankfully, such scenes are rare. A more common occurrence, though, is the optical fade transition between scenes. These have always looked rough, but here they look even rougher, if only by comparison to the gorgeous presentation of the rest of the film. To my eyes, it appears that these fade transitions weren’t sourced from the original negative that served as the basis

The Bridge on the River Kwai

for the bulk of the restoration. They look at least a generation removed, and my guess is that in restoring the film, they had to pull the fades from a print. So, as one scene transitions into the next, you’ll go from a vibrant, gorgeously textured scene into an overly contrasty, noisier fade, then right into another lovely scene.

 

Until you get used to this, scene transitions can be a little more jarring in the 4K HDR presentation than they are in the Blu-ray-quality download also included with this release. So, you’re left with a choice: Do you watch the film in truly lovely quality with the occasional, fleeting downgrade to a second-generation source, or do you opt for a sort of bleh-but-acceptable presentation that’s more consistent from beginning to end?

 

Personally, I’ll opt for the former any day, secure in the knowledge that this is absolutely the best The Bridge on the River Kwai will ever look. I’m guessing that the original negatives for those fade transitions were damaged beyond repair in post-production, and as such there’s no good source for additional restoration. But once you accept the fact that a second or two here and there will look a little less than stunning, the HDR download of the film—released here in its proper 2.55:1 aspect ratio, not 2.40:1 as the tech specs would indicate—is an absolute revelation.

 

The Kaleidescape download is also supported by a 5.1 surround soundtrack that seems to be identical to the 2010 Blu-ray release (which itself was based on the restored and enhanced audio track I believe I first remember hearing on the 1994 LaserDisc release). There are some additional ambient sound effects I don’t remember hearing on the VHS releases, which I 

The Bridge on the River Kwai

no longer have the ability to play. The good news is, this isn’t one of those ham-fisted surround remixes that attempt to make the film sound more modern. Everything in the mix evokes the original (which I think was a four-track magnetic soundtrack).

 

I almost completely skipped the Atmos soundtrack included with this release, since I’m not fond of that format for movies to begin with, much less 60-year-old classics. But I’m glad I gave it a listen on a whim. It sounds like the Atmos mix was mostly based on the 2010 remix, which itself was based on the 1993 reconstruction of the original audio elements, but there are a few key differences. Dialogue that was obviously overdubbed sounds less obviously overdubbed, and the height channels open up the sound field and expand the film’s ambience in a truly subtle but effective way. If you’re looking for a soundtrack that pushes your ceiling speakers to their extremes, keep on looking. But if you’re looking for an audio experience that’s true to the original, just with some extra breathing room, give this one a listen. Even if 

you generally like Atmos less than I do.

 

As for extras, you’ll have to download the Blu-ray-quality version of the film from Kaleidescape to check them out, but it’s worth the extra effort. In addition to a trio of period promotional materials and a short documentary about film criticism made for USC film students, there’s a really fantastic retrospective documentary by Laurent Bouzereau made for the two-disc collector’s edition DVD release from 2000. While somewhat glossing over the film’s historical inaccuracies, the doc is a bit more forthright than most retrospectives, and is certainly worth a look.

 

Even if you don’t care about supplemental material, though, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that belongs in any good film collection. This isn’t one you want to wait for TCM to air, since it rewards repeated viewings. Consider, for example, how its complex themes evolve as you shift attention from William Holden, Alec Guinness, and even Sessue Hayakawa, and focus on one above the others as the story’s main driving force. It isn’t really until you watch it again, placing all three on equal footing, that you can get to the heart of what the film is about: The consequences of ideology crashing into principles, when neither completely comports with reality.

And unless you’re still buying discs, Kaleidescape is just about the only way to own this 4K HDR presentation, since for whatever reason Vudu, Amazon, and many other digital providers are limited to the HD release.

 

Again, due to the way it was shot and edited, and the ravages of time, The Bridge on the River Kwai isn’t a technically perfect film. But Kaleidescape’s presentation so far exceeded my expectations that all of the above nitpicking feels like pedantry. For the first time, the film lives in a form that’s worthy of the best display in your home. And if for whatever reason you’ve never seen it, I must admit, I’m a little jealous that this is how you’ll get to experience for the first 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.

The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid

This must be the anniversary 4K HDR re-release film season, since, after doing recent reviews of the 30-year-anniversary release of Field of Dreams, followed by the 40-year-anniversary release of Alien, this review finds us right in the middle with a 35-year-anniversary release of The Karate Kid. While a classic film, one has to wonder if KK benefitted from the recent Cobra Kai series on You Tube Red, introducing a whole new generation to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and the “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy” Cobra Kai dojo?

 

Either way, we benefit from The Karate Kid looking its best in a 4K HDR release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which has a proven track record of doing some terrific restorations and re-releases (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The film has been fully restored from the original 35mm camera negative. As is common on many recent re-issues, KK also includes a newly mixed Dolby Atmos audio track.

 

I was 14 when KK was released, and can remember seeing it in the theater. Being close to Daniel’s age (well, at least thinking I was close in age; Ralph Macchio was actually an incredibly baby-faced 23 at the time of playing the high-school senior), it was easy to identify with and root for this underdog who discovers an unlikely mentor in building handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), who slyly teaches Daniel karate in order to confront the gang of Cobra Kai bullies led by Johnny and evil Sensei Kreese (Martin Kove). 

 

I didn’t realize until writing this review that KK’s director, John Avildsen, also directed another famous underdog-battles-the-odds movie, Rocky, but there are actually many similarities between the stories and styles. Also, the fighters were all trained by Pat. E Johnson, a 9th-degree black belt, who also choreographed the fight scenes, and whose actual knowledge and love of karate and tournament fighting definitely added some legitimacy and authenticity to the fighting styles and techniques.

 

Where karate films prior to KK mostly focused on fighting, and featured accomplished real-life fighters like Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee taking on hordes of attackers with nothing but fists and feet flying, KK was different in that it positioned karate as a tool to avoid fighting, and examined the spiritual aspect. This was possible only because of Norita’s fantastic portrayal of Miyagi, in a role that earned him a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination. (He lost to Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields.) His performance—and timeless wisdom—definitely hold up, and the relationship between Miyagi and Daniel is the heart and soul of this film. And watching Miyagi, you believe that you could learn to defend yourself by a little waxing, sanding, and painting.

 

Of course, the reality is likely far different, as lampooned in a recent Modern Family episode.

 

“This Daniel dude is about to get his ass kicked. He’s had no real training. You gotta do push-ups, cardio . . . Waxing a car? That’s how we haze the probies at the firehouse. The old dude has no idea what he’s talking about.”

 

“Yeah, why is the kid still listening to that crazy old man? It seems like he’s just using him to do chores.”

 

Time has not been as kind to Macchio’s Daniel, who often comes across as whiny—a bit like how we choose to forget how Luke acted with Uncle Owen on the moisture farm in Star Wars . . . Also, it’s tough to imagine a seasoned karate champion like Cobra Kai Sensei Kreese openly threatening to attack a young boy and old man, but this film uses no grey strokes when painting its villains.

The Karate Kid

Visually, The Karate Kid is a bit of a mixed bag. Many scenes look terrific, but other scenes exhibit a fairly significant amount of grain and noise. As the movie opens with Daniel and his mom driving from New Jersey to California, there is so much grain in the daytime sky scenes, I stopped the film and checked to ensure I was actually watching the 4K version. The grain was also noticeable in other outdoor day scenes, such as when Miyagi is practicing the Crane technique at the ocean.

The Karate Kid

The night scenes generally looked far less noisy, exhibiting clean, dark blacks. The scene with Daniel and Ali (Elizabeth Shue) at the mini-golf course looked especially good, with the HDR highlights used to good effect. HDR is also used effectively in the scene where Daniel is practicing balance on a boat on the water, with the bright

sunlight highlights contrasting nicely with the black shadows. The tournament fight scenes also benefit here, along with colors that are rich and vibrant, especially the canary yellow Chevy convertible that Miyagi gives Daniel.

 

Fine detail is revealed in closeups. There were a few scenes of Ali’s sweaters where you could see individual threads; same with Miyagi’s bonsai trees, where single needles are visible. This level of detail reveals just a bit too much during the scene where Miyagi and Daniel try to catch a fly with chopsticks, and the wire used to move the fly is clearly visible.

 

Sonically, the new Dolby Atmos soundtrack is used sparingly but effectively. Many scenes, such as at the school, tournament, and arcade, benefit from increased spaciousness and ambience. There are some effective hard-pans, such as when we first enter the Cobra Kai dojo and hear Sensei barking orders well off to the side, or when they’re harassing Daniel on motorbikes. Bill Conti’s score is also mixed wide and high, letting the music stand out nicely in key scenes. Don’t expect a lot of low bass here, but dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout.

 

The Karate Kid is one of those films you can revisit and share with new viewers. I watched it with my 12-year-old, and am pleased to say she enjoyed it as much as I did. And the scene where all of Miyagi’s training finally clicks with Daniel is still as great and powerful today as it was 35 years ago. At just $17.99 from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, this is an easy recommendation for any collection.

John Sciacca

The Karate Kid

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 Avengers & Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Like millions of others around the world, my family and I went to see Avengers: Endgame last week when it was released. Rest assured, this will not reveal anything about that film, short of it further cementing my feelings that I would way rather watch movies in the comfort and seclusion of my own home, and that I’m an alpha candidate for day-and-date viewing. (Someone actually brought a toddler, who sat and watched an iPad during the entire movie! Fortunately, the Pad was out of my eyeline or I think I would have flipped out!)

 

After watching Endgame, we decided we should really go back and watch some of the other 21 films that had led us to this, many of which we haven’t seen in years. Since my 12-year-old had never seen The Avengers or the followup, Avengers: Age of Ultron, those seemed like two good choices to start our re-watch journey.

 

Fortuitously, both of these films have been recently re-released with new 4K HDR transfers with Dolby Atmos soundtracks, so that made another terrific reason to revisit. After downloading from the Kaleidescape store, we watched The Avengers on Monday and Ultron on Tuesday.

 

The Avengers is part of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which includes the six films released between 2008 and 2012, and comes after each of the principal characters—Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Loki, and Captain America—have been introduced in their own films. (Clint Barton/Hawkeye [Jeremy Renner] had been introduced via a small cameo in Thor, and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow [Scarlett Johansson] was introduced in Iron Man 2.)

 

After teasing us with the Tesseract in a post-credits scene in Thor, and then making it a major part of Cap’s focus in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Tesseract (which holds the Space Infinity Stone) has a starring role here in The Avengers. While the previous films had been hinting and playing at cross-pollinating the MCU’s heroes, here they bring all the heroes together, which makes for a far more entertaining experience. I was impressed with how Joss Whedon—who both wrote and directed—was able to build a story by slowly and organically bringing all the characters together, and then giving them near-equal screen time, which allowed them to interact with each other, and play to their strengths and personalities.

 

Avengers definitely lays the groundwork for the various relationships between the characters that continues to play out over the next films. We see the ties between Hawkeye and Black Widow, the roots of animosity between Tony Stark (Robert 

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), which culminates in Captain America: Civil War (which should really have been titled Avengers 3), and the developing frenemy-ship between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), which plays out in Thor: Ragnarok. Also, the mid-credits scene reveals ultimate baddy, Thanos,though his skin here looks far more purple than blue.

 

The 4K HDR image looks fantastic, with tons of detail and HDR used effectively throughout, bringing

added pop and detail to images. The terrific detail in the costume design is revealed, letting you see the weave in Cap’s suit, and all the scrapes and damage to Iron Man. During one scene between Romanoff and Barton, you see the wear and pores in Barton’s face starkly contrasted with the smooth foundation makeup that makes Romanoff’s skin glow. The added resolution really does a wonderful job revealing those micro-details and texture throughout.

 

HDR is apparent from the outset, illuminating the Tesseract in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secure fortress as well as the multiple explosions. Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor, boot jets, and energy blasts also benefit nicely from the brightness boost, as does Loki’s glowing scepter and Thor’s lightning blasts. Color throughout is rich and vivid, and wonderfully saturated. Visually, the film looks fantastic, and you’d be hard pressed to tell it is seven years old.

Sonically, The Avengers follows in Disney’s frustrating habit of recording at significantly lower levels and being inconsistent with the depth and impact of bass performance. Fortunately, the first issue is solved by just playing the film back at a higher level than you’d normally use. In my case, we went about 6 dB louder on my Marantz preamp than normal movie-watching levels. With this adjustment, Avengers delivers a pretty engaging Dolby 

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Atmos mix, with a lot of surround and height channel information, specifically in the opening sequence with Loki stealing the Tesseract, the big battle scene aboard the flying aircraft carrier, and the final battle scene in New York.

 

Other scenes benefit from added sonic spaciousness that really opens up both the scenes and your listening room. Bass performance is fairly uneven, providing nice thuds and low-end during some scenes, but is missing or non-existent in others. Overall, though, the Atmos mix here does a good job of immersing you in the swirl of action happening on screen, and dialogue is well recorded and easily understandable throughout.

 

Released in 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron has Whedon reprising his role as writer and director, and is part of Phase Two of the MCU, which includes six films released between 2013 and 2015. Taking place approximately three years after the events of Avengers, Ultron sees our heroes called on once again to band together to retrieve Loki’s staff, stolen by Hydra. The staff is then used to create Ultron (voiced by James Spader), which was intended to be a Stark global defense program to protect the earth from further alien attack, but which becomes a sentient being intent on wiping out humanity to save the earth. Ultron brings in James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) to the action, and also introduces us to twins Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), as well as Jarvis-brought-to-life, Vision (Paul Bettany), making for a fuller character ensemble than the first film.

 

Something about James Spader voicing Ultron just takes me out of this movie. Maybe it’s his smug attitude, or maybe it’s from watching him as Robert California on the The Office or as Raymond Reddington on Blacklist. But for whatever reason, this voice casting didn’t work for me, and kept Ultron from being as intimidating as he could.

 

While some of Ultron feels a bit like “let’s build another Death Star” in that you have our band of heroes battling a huge horde of enemies—the Chitauri in Avengers, Ultron’s robot army here—relentlessly attacking a city—New York in Avengers, Sokovia here—Ultron still offers a lot to enjoy. The developing comradery and interactions between our heroes offers some funny moments (the group trying to pick up Thor’s hammer for one) and continues the MCU storyline that eventually brings us to Endgame. The biggest contribution to the story is that the gem inside of Loki’s scepter is actually the Mind Stone, which ends up being implanted in Vision, and revealing just how powerful Scarlet Witch is. The mid-credits scene also shows us Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet saying, “Fine, I’ll do it myself.” (Cue ominous music . . .)

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Visually, Ultron is a treat, with tons of detail in every scene. As with Avengers, HDR is used effectively throughout to enhance bright objects like lightning blasts, explosions, and the glowing blue trim on Black Widow’s suit. Perhaps one of the best examples of how HDR improves the image is when you see the visualization of Jarvis as an orange glowing sphere of light along with Ultron as a blue light sphere inside the Avenger Tower. This scene just glows off the screen in this version, and has far better color depth.

 

Sonically, the levels here are once again low, requiring a liberal adjustment of your normal listening level. Other than that, the audio is really inconsistent and anemic in the low-bass frequencies. For example, the Hulkbuster versus Hulk scene has plenty of moments that should be pounding you in the chest and making your sub flex its muscles, but there is virtually nothing in the low end until the building destruction at the end of the scene.

 

Same with the conclusion. There is some really low-end info when Sokovia is lifting off the ground, but very little in the remainder of the battle. For a big action film, this is definitely disappointing. The rest of the Atmos mix is enjoyable, though I didn’t find it as aggressive as Avengers, and the lack of deep-bass engagement keeps this from being as demo-worthy as it could be.

 

For Marvel fans, these films connect the dots to get us to where Endgame finishes this cycle of the MCU, and now in a 4K HDR presentation, they look as good as you’ve ever seen.

John Sciacca

Avengers & Age of Ultron
Avengers & Age of Ultron
Avengers & Age of Ultron

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.

Alien

Alien (1979)

Forty years. That’s how old the seminal sci-fi, suspense, horror film Alien turns this year. And to celebrate the milestone, 20tth Century Fox has given the film a complete 4K HDR restoration, supervised by director Ridley Scott, with the transfer taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate.

 

At this point, what can be said about Alien that hasn’t been said in hundreds of other reviews, columns, blogs, and forums? Released in 1979, the movie has a different look, feel, and style than anything else that had come before it. And like throwing a boulder into a pond, it caused a ripple-effect through the filmmaking world that influenced the style and storytelling of virtually every sci-fi film that followed—principally Scott’s own Blade Runner, which came two years later. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley—looking incredibly young and fresh-faced here—launched the idea of the female action hero, and Scott’s gritty, decaying Nostromo showed that the future didn’t need to be shiny and new.

 

I remember the first time I saw Alien. It was on a free Showtime weekend right after we had just moved to a new home in Bakersfield, California. I was in fifth grade, had the flu, and was couch-ridden and under-supervised. This was way pre-

onscreen guide days, so you basically just flipped around at the top of the hour hoping you would catch something good. 

 

When I saw that Alien was coming on—and that my parents were busy elsewhere—I settled in. All I really knew about the movie was the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The original trailer had an incredibly 

slow build, almost a full-minute of a slow pan down to an egg, followed by a lot of dark scenes with people running and panicking. And not a single spoken word. Not. One.

 

Of course, as an 11-year-old, the infamous chest-burster scene was shocking, but not actually the nightmare fuel one might think. No, what lingered in my brain was nightmares of running through a darkened ship, klaxons blaring, strobes flashing, being chased by a monster, as a countdown timer steadily wound down towards destruction. Fun times.

 

Unfortunately, Alien has never really lived up to its potential on the home screen. DVD and LaserDisc versions were overly grainy and noisy, and the previous remastered Blu-ray version couldn’t do the shadow and black-level detail the justice it deserved. Rest assured, all of that is made right with this new 4K HDR version, which looks fantastic. Fortunately, the restoration is not overly heavy-handed, getting rid of the bad bits of noise and deterioration while keeping Scott’s look and stylistic feel solidly intact.

 

The film begins with the unrestored 20th Century Fox logo showing you just how grainy and noisy the source material was, but once we jump into the movie, the image is clean, clear, and beautifully solid. The blackness of space is deep, inky, and clean, with the stars as bright pinpoints of light. They definitely took a mild touch with HDR here, not overdriving the film but enhancing key scenes, punching up the appropriate highlights like the ship’s drive engines, spotlights, flames, and strobes. Much—and I mean much—of the film takes place in the dark, with many things hidden in shadows, and it is here where the cleaned-up transfer and HDR have the greatest impact.

Alien (1979)

Occasionally, there are scenes where the boosted brightness of a spotlight will highlight a bit of extra noise in the image, but these scenes are few and unobjectionable. There is a brutal video torture test at 24:30 into the film, where the crew is exploring LV-426, the moon that is the source of the spurious radio signal. Here we have myriad shades of grey illuminated by various lighting sources and swirling smoke that could be an absolute banding nightmare, but the image holds up wonderfully.

 

While Alien will never be accused of being a colorful film, 4K’s wider color gamut is used modestly to enhance the bright reds and oranges of the many indicator lights located around the Nostromo.

 

Alien isn’t your typical sci-fi, horror, space-exploration film, rather being an amalgam. It’s been years since I’ve watched the film, and I couldn’t entirely recall the storyline, so it was nice to go into it semi-fresh. What I really appreciated was the total lack of exposition. You’re thrown into the Nostromo with the crew as they’re awakened out of hyper-sleep, and you have to figure out things along with them. Several minutes pass in the film before a word is spoken. During that time, we’re treated to a slow, wandering journey through the empty Nostromo, and the depth of image is almost 3D. HDR is used nicely here, allowing us to see more shadow detail than ever before, letting you appreciate the lengths taken with the practical sets. The same can be said for The Derelict, the spacecraft the crew discovers on LV-426. Here you can marvel at H.R. Giger’s design style and really appreciate the look of the Space Jockey and leathery texture of the eggs in the egg farm. 

 

The film’s first act really plays more like a documentary of the life of space miners, hearing the crew grouse about bonuses, and wanting to get home. The film is equally slow about revealing Ripley as the hero, keeping you guessing as to who will and won’t die. And whether by design or technical limitation, the glimpses of the Xenomorph are kept few, and are often just snatches or in shadows. This reminded me of Jaws, where Spielberg keeps the huge great white a visual mystery for much of the film, proving that the dangers we can’t see are often the most terrifying.

For a film that’s celebrating 40 years, I was amazed how well the story and effects held up. The only things that really date the film’s look are the ancient displays and computer tech located around the Nostromo. Some of the graphics on these screens look a bit of a mess, while others—namely the text on Mother’s (MU-TH-UR 6000) screen—are razor-sharp. The alien looks just as terrifying as ever, with the inner-workings of its glistening, goo-filled inner jaws clearly visible.

 

Part of the danger of making a 40-year-old film look so good and visible are that some things best left unseen are revealed. There were a couple of moments where it was too obvious that the alien’s movements were a tad too human-in-a-costume or that we were looking at models instead of full-sized crafts. Fortunately, these were minor, and certainly didn’t detract from enjoying the film. (One thing my wife and I both commented on was the bizarre choice for Ripley to be wearing underwear during the finale that appears to be about five sizes too small for her. Perhaps that was the style of the day—or will be the trend in 2122 . . .)

 

One thing not changed from the previous Blu-ray release was the audio, with the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio being retained here. Would I have loved a new Dolby Atmos or DTS:X mix? Absolutely. There are many scenes where an immersive track could have been used to great effect, but this mix plays well in a luxury cinema, and my processor’s upmixer did a great job of putting blaring alarm klaxons up into the overheads.

 

Both the 4K disc and the Kaleidescape download include the original theatrical cut and the director’s cut (which actually plays a minute shorter) along with two commentary tracks and two isolated soundtrack scores.

 

Alien is a must-have for any movie fan, and I dare say it will never look better than what we have here.

John Sciacca

Alien (1979)

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 Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

The Lego Movie 2

It’s been five years since The Lego Movie hit the big screen. That film’s near $500 MM box office take all but guaranteed a sequel, which arrives with a very on-the-nose, Emmet-esque title The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, available on 4K HDR download from Kaleidescape a full three weeks before the disc release.

 

The first film is a popular one in our household, with an incredibly original story that brings together multiple disparate aspects of the Lego universe and features some wonderful cameos and voice acting that make it very rewatchable. I was skeptical a sequel wouldn’t be able recapture the brilliance of the original, but the 2017 spinoff, The Lego Batman Movie, proved the writers could keep it fresh and clever, thus keeping me hopeful.

 

The Lego Movie 2 does what a sequel needs to do, picking up where the story left off and bringing the original gang of beloved characters back and throwing them into new adventures. Returning from the original are the main characters of 

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), Wyldstyle/Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie), Spaceman Benny (Charlie Day), and MetalBeard (Nick Offerman).

 

The benefit of a sequel is that you can jump right into the story, which The Second Part does. While viewers of the first movie will definitely get more 

of the jokes, watching the original isn’t a prerequisite. (But if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should.) The sequel picks up immediately after the events of the first film, when President Business/Dad (Will Ferrell) decided to open up his basement Lego sanctuary to his son, Finn (Jadon Sand). Of course, now that Finn can play, that means younger daughter, Bianca (Brooklynn Prince), also gets in on the fun as well.

 

The film then jumps five years forward, keeping both real time and movie time in sync. The kids have grown and have radically different playing—errr, building—styles. Bianca’s Duplo characters come in and wreak havoc on Finn’s Bricksburg, destroying everything new he builds. (For the uninformed, Duplo is the Lego product designed for kids under 5, being larger than traditional bricks, making them easier for little hands to handle and less likely to be swallowed. And, yes, I had to look 

that up.)  This causes the characters to live in a new town, Apocalypseburg—a dusty, unfinished, Mad Max-esque world where everyone has to be cynical and tough to live. Except, of course, Emmet, who remains as optimistic and happy as ever.

 

Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) soon attacks, capturing our main band of heroes and taking them to the Systar System, where Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi—“Whatever I want to be”—wants to throw a wedding ceremony that will either stop or summon the world-ending event, Armamageddon. 

The Lego Movie 2

Emmet goes off to rescue them, traveling through a portal called The Stairgate to dimensions unknown, where he runs into Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Pratt), a tougher, “Galaxy-defending archaeologist, cowboy, and raptor trainer” who has “chiseled features previously hidden under baby fat!”—a much cooler, braver, alter-ego version of himself.

 

The trick for animated titles is to have jokes, dialogue, and a storyline that plays across a wide range of ages, letting adults and kids enjoy the film equally on separate levels. And The Second Part succeeded here, keeping myself, my 3-year-old, and my 12-year-old engaged throughout. One huge difference between this and the first film is that The Second Part has so many song breaks, it almost plays like a musical. (The ever-aware characters even make jokes about this.) Where the first film had one big song moment, here there are seven. Fortunately, the lyrics are pretty hilarious and the tunes catchy, and as one character advises, “Just listen to the music and let your mind go.” 

 

Sometimes, the film seems to be trying too hard to recapture the formula of the first one. For example, Lego Movie 2 is clearly trying to repeat the earworm success of the first film’s ultra-catchy hit “Everything is Awesome!” This time around the song is literally called “Catchy Song,” with the repeating chorus of, “This song’s gonna get stuck inside your head.” And yes, it does.

 

We also get a ton of call backs, cameos, and pop culture references, one wonderfully played by Bruce Willis.

The Lego Movie 2

The Second Part also has Beck’s “Super Cool”—one of the best end-credits songs ever. Featuring Robyn and The Lonely Island, it has brilliant lyrics like, “It’s the credits, yeah that’s the best part / When the movie ends and the reading starts / You can keep your adventure and all that action / ‘cause the credits of the film are the main attraction.”

 

Modern computer animation nearly always looks fantastic on home video, and the 4K HDR video here just looks stellar. Every closeup reveals remarkable detail from the mini-figs or bricks being played with, showing minute scratches, fingerprints, wear, and pebbly or plastic texture. The lighting is also amazingly well done, revealing subtly different features and details in the bricks and characters as they move and rotate. As a result, nearly every frame is a feast for the eyes. The colors also really pop, especially the deep, vibrant reds, with HDR highlights used throughout.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is not the most aggressive ever, but it does a good job serving the onscreen action and offers a lot of directional audio placing sounds all around the room. The overhead height speakers are called into action in key scenes, further adding to the immersive experience and expanding the sonic space or environment of the scenes. Dialogue also remains clear and intelligible throughout. 

 

The Blu-ray-quality download (included at no charge with the 4K HDR version) includes a variety of extras and features, including some making-of docs, deleted scenes, the short “Emmet’s Holiday Party,” and the full-length “Everything Is Awesome Sing-Along Version” that makes for a fun second (or third) viewing, with a lot of trivia and extras littered throughout.

 

While the jury is out on whether The Lego Movie 2 will have the replay value of the first film, one thing that isn’t in question is how well this movie looks on a quality 4K HDR display. This makes a fantastic option for gathering the family together for a fun movie night.

John Sciacca

The Lego Movie 2

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.

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront isn’t Elia Kazan’s best film. I’ll get crucified for admitting that opinion, I know, but compare this effort to Kazan’s next feature, James Dean’s East of Eden, and the uneven performances of Waterfront start to become a little more distracting.

 

But only a little. On the balance sheet, On the Waterfront is a powerful and at times shocking work that, while a product of its time—as any good work of art is—remains vibrant and accessible today. Only Leonard Bernstein’s score, which is often heralded as a masterwork but in truth runs a bit too maudlin and sappy in some of the film’s most poignant scenes, really anchors the film in the past. But that was true when it was released in 1954. Simply put, the score is too often a throwback to the melodramatic orchestrations of the late 1930s, and while I love it as a work in and of itself, sometimes it just conflicts too much with the imagery to which it’s attached. (Incidentally, this is another thing that makes East of Eden work better overall. In the year between, Kazan seemed to have learned when to leave music on the cutting-room floor.)

 

If all of the above sounds overly critical, it isn’t intended to be. I absolutely adore this Marlon Brando vehicle, warts and all. In fact, I may love it all the more for its flaws, since the film is ultimately about flawed humans. It’s also a film about honesty and fairness, themes that also ring through in its presentation, especially in Brando’s intense portrayal of former boxer Terry Malloy, who testifies against a mobbed-up union boss at great personal cost.

It’s a film that I return to frequently, but what drew me in for my most recent viewing is Kaleidescape’s Ultra HD presentation. Unsurprisingly, On the Waterfront only seems to be making the jump from high-def to 4K purely in the digital domain (maybe because the Criterion Collection hasn’t kept up with modern AV standards), which means Kaleidescape is the film’s only opportunity, for now, to shine in all its high-

On the Waterfront

bandwidth 4K glory. Frankly, it’s such a grainy and gritty film that I’m skeptical as to whether or not streaming could do it justice without becoming too noisy—even with high-quality streaming formats like Vudu, which often excel with the hyper-slick, digitally assembled output of today’s Hollywood but struggle with the organic nature of old celluloid stock.

 

At any rate, it takes but a few moments of comparison between the Kaleidescape 4K download and the excellent Criterion Blu-ray release from 2013 to see what a difference UHD makes. In the famous “I coulda been a contender!” scene in particular, the 4K really brings out the subtlest, but most important of details, like the sheen of sweat on Rod Steiger’s face, as well as Brando’s, as the scene ramps up in intensity. It’s true, the 4K resolution also brings with it an enhancement of the film’s prominent grain (which was overly sanitized in the streaming version presented on the now-defunct Filmstruck streaming service), but that’s part of Waterfront’s visual charm, and it’s nice to see it maintained here.

 

Speaking of the visuals, the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release was noteworthy for its inclusion of three versions of the film, all identical in terms of content, but differing in their aspect ratio. On the Waterfront was shot at a time when movie theaters were transitioning from 1.33:1 (the shape of your old standard-definition CRT TV) to wider aspect ratios like 1.85:1 (similar to 

the shape of your new UHD TV). As such, director of photography Boris Kaufman shot the film so it would work on screens of either shape. But he chose to compose the action for the less-common 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-ray release included all three compositions: 1.66:1 on one disc, and 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 on another.

 

The Kaleidescape download is solely 1.66:1, and if a choice had to be made to include only one version of the film, this was the right call. The

tighter framing enhances the intimacy—and indeed the intensity—of the film, without cutting out key visual details, and the black bars along the left and right of the image are so slight you’ll forget they’re there within minutes.

 

Unfortunately, you’ll still need to download the film twice if you want to see the included bonus features—a short documentary, an interview with Elia Kazan, and a photo gallery—since these are available only with the DVD-quality download. Honestly, though, you’re probably better off skipping these and saving space on your hard drive. Most of the compelling bonus features for the film remain with the Criterion Collection, including the excellent audio commentary by authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young, as well as a number of wonderful interviews.

 

The goods news is, you don’t even really need those, either. On the Waterfront stands on its own two legs, and forced to choose between the superior presentation on Kaleidescape and the superior historical perspective afforded by the Criterion release, I would opt for the former any day.

Dennis Burger

On the Waterfront

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 Star is Born

A Star is Born (2018)

In one sense, the 2018 version of A Star Is Born is nothing new. This is the fourth version of the film, after all—and countless other movies have borrowed heavily from the basic premise: An aging, addiction-stricken star takes a young, talented woman under his wings, falls in love, and watches her star soar while his comes crashing brutally to the ground.

 

Generation Xers like myself probably have a strong tie to the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It’s one of those “soundtrack to my childhood” kind of movies that I just remember being on my TV all the time. Then there’s the classic 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason. The original version dates all the way back to 1937. When I first heard that Bradley Cooper was going to direct and star in a new version, my reaction was, “Eh, just another unnecessary remake.”

 

But I have to give credit where credit is due. There’s an in-the-moment newness to Cooper’s version, due in large part to a script and a director that seem like they left a lot of room for improvisation. Everything about the film—from its pacing to its performances to its cinematography—makes you feel like you’ve been dropped in the middle of these people’s lives, right now. And that’s not always a comfortable place to be. In a film era defined by witty repartee and slick editing, you might find yourself growing frustrated as you watch people sometimes struggle to find or at least speak the right words. It’s awkward, but it works.

A Star is Born (2018)

The chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga is undeniable, and the decision to cast a musician and not an actress in the role of Ally just reinforces that sense of authenticity.

 

All that being said, the glue that really holds this film together is the music. Everything else takes a backseat to the fantastic musical performances, which means there’s some great demo material available in the Dolby Atmos soundtrack to show off your surround sound system. The concert sequences are mixed to sound like you’re listening to a concert, with lots of space and ambience in the surrounds.

A Star is Born (2018)

The 4K HDR image in the iTunes version I watched (it’s available in Dolby Vision if your system supports the format) looked excellent, with rich color and a high level of detail. This isn’t a super-stylistic movie, so the HDR is employed subtly to just flesh out that you-are-there sense of contrast. I didn’t see a lot of noise or compression artifacts in the iTunes version.

 

If you’ve decided that you don’t need to see A Star Is Born because you’ve already seen it, trust me, you haven’t. You haven’t heard it like this, and you haven’t felt it like this. You may know where the story ends up, but this is definitely one of those movies that’s more about the journey than the destination.

—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.

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams

Nothing shows you how much time has passed more than when you wake up one morning and see that one of your favorite movies is celebrating its 30-year anniversary! Yep, Field of Dreams turns 30 this year, and as a gift to fans, Universal Pictures has given the movie the full 4K HDR restoration makeover. While disc purchasers will have to wait until May 14 to grab a copy, Kaleidescape owners are able to download and enjoy the film more than a month ahead of time.

 

Field is one of my favorite films, and I’ve seen it multiple times over the years, though I actually missed it during its theatrical release. Perhaps the trailer didn’t catch my 19-year-old attention, or maybe it had a limited initial run,. But I can remember watching for the first time on a rented VHS tape at a friend’s house and absolutely loving it. I bought the DVD when it was released, but that transfer was never terrific looking, featuring a lot of noise and soft images.

 

It’s tough to think any movie lover wouldn’t be familiar with the plot at this point, but I’ll keep it spoiler-free just in case. Baseball-loving Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner, starring in his second consecutive baseball film following Bull Durham) marries college sweetheart, Annie (Amy Madigan), and they move to Iowa where they buy a farm. One day while in the cornfields, Ray hears a mysterious voice. “If you build it, he will come…” Build what? And who will come? After the voice won’t go away, Ray has an epiphany one evening: The voice wants him to plow under most of his cornfield and turn into a baseball diamond where players from the notorious Chicago Black Sox (who threw the 1919 Series) will return to play ball. (My wife was quick to point out how surprisingly supportive Annie was of this seemingly insane idea.) The voice continues delivering cryptic 

Field of Dreams

messages, sending Ray off on a quest to right some past wrongs and meet a group of interesting characters including Shoeless Joe Jackson (an incredibly young-looking Ray Liotta), Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), and Dr. Graham (Burt Lancaster).

 

Field is considered one of the best sports films ever made, and was nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture, Best Writing (adapted screenplay), and Best Original Score. In a time when most movies rely on special effects, 

explosions, elaborate schemes, and confusing plot twists, Field of Dreams is an entirely story and character-driven film with virtually no effects or gimmicks. The movie works because it keeps you genuinely interested, has you caring for the characters, and has so much heart that the ending leaves me teary-eyed every time.

 

As bad as my DVD version looked, I hadn’t been in a real hurry to revisit the movie, so this was not only an opportunity to see one of my favorites, but also the perfect opportunity to share it with my 12-year-old daughter for the first time. Not a sports fan at all, I was hoping she’d be caught up in the story, and she was. (She also now understands why it means a lot to me when I ask her to go and have a catch.)

 

While the new 4K HDR transfer isn’t perfect, I dare say this is the best that Field will ever look. The film has many outdoor scenes, which often exhibit wonderful detail and sharpness. Fortunately, they didn’t take too heavy a hand on the cleanup, leaving enough grain to let you know this is inherently from 35 mm stock. The detail is some scenes is fantastic, such as being able to see the wooly texture in Shoeless Joe’s cap, or the blades of grass and dirt on the baseball diamond, or the clear detail in the rows of corn. As a comparison, I checked a couple of scenes from the DVD, and they were all soft, grain-filled mush. While the HDR pass was pretty light, there are some nighttime scenes in Boston that benefit, as do some of the night ball games. Equally important, black levels are deep and clean throughout. I also noticed that the reds in some scenes were very saturated, likely pushing the color boundaries from previous releases.

 

As I said, the transfer isn’t perfect, and there is still some excessive noise and grain in some of the dusky, twilight sky scenes, when the sky hits a faded, powder blue/grey color that reveals a lot of noise, likely from the original film stock. Also, there were a couple of scenes where faces looked a bit too red.

 

Not much has changed on the audio front from the Blu-ray release 10 years ago, as we still get a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix. (The 4K disc will include a new DTS:X immersive audio mix, that hopefully will find its way to Kaleidescape at some point, NBCUniversal willing.) Even so, I found the dialogue to be very well recorded, important for a film that is entirely story-driven, and James Horner’s score shines through nicely. I did notice that my Dolby Atmos upmixer did a nice job lifting the Voice up into the ceiling speakers, creating a nice, other-worldly effect that worked well.

 

I can’t recommend this movie enough, whether you’ve seen it or not. Field of Dreams is a timeless classic that is suitable to share with family member of all ages, but it especially translates well to watching with your dad or your kids. And at $15.99 from Kaleidescape, it should be a part of everyone’s collection.

John Sciacca

Field of Dreams

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.

Glass

Glass

There was a time when writer/director M. Night Shyamalan was considered the virtual heir to Hitchcock’s throne. He had a way of crafting intricate stories with unpredictable and shocking endings that left moviegoers talking for days afterwards. (He also adopted the Hitchcockian move of including himself in all of his films.) And from 1999-2002 when he delivered The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, Shyamalan was a guaranteed box office draw and one of the hottest tickets in Hollywood.

 

But then . . .

 

Well, in golf we had a saying for what happened to M. Night: “The wheels came off.” His next string of films—The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth—were all critical and box office bombs.

 

He had lost not only his magic touch but also seemingly his way, and now his name was more of a punchline for bad endings you see coming a mile away.

 

But then something truly unexpected happened in 2016—he gave us Split, which featured a fantastic performance by James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder, with 23 distinct personalities known 

collectively as “The Horde” that abducts teenage girls. Beyond McAvoy’s change-on-a-dime performance and an engaging story, Split finished with a total WTF?! moment—an end credits scene that delivered a fantastic callback to Unbreakable, arguably one of Shyamalan’s best films.

 

With that single scene, M. Night delivered Hollywood’s first stealth sequel and placed Split firmly in the  

Unbreakable world, where superhuman vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and his archenemy—criminal mastermind with extremely brittle bones Elija “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson)—still live and breathe.

 

This set the stage for the highly anticipated Glass, the third film in the Unbreakable series.

 

Glass takes place 15-19 years after Unbreakable (both times are mentioned in the film), but only weeks after Split. It begins with four cheerleaders being held captive by Crumb in an old warehouse, and with the city of Philadelphia in a panic over a recent string of murders.

 

Dunn now owns a security firm he runs with his son, Joseph (with Spencer Treat Clark reprising his Unbreakable role), where he continues his covert, rain poncho-wearing role as “The Overseer,” walking the city streets looking for evildoers to beat some justice into. (This also sets the stage for a rather forced cameo by Shyamalan, who returns as his role of Jai from Unbreakable.)

 

Dunn ultimately happens upon Crumb, who transforms into “The Beast,” a dominant personality with cannibal tendencies and superhuman abilities that is an amalgam of various zoo animals. After a massive fight, both end up being captured by a special police division and sent to a woefully understaffed institution for the criminally insane. There they are studied by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, returning in her role from Split) who keeps them locked in isolation cells designed to control their powers. It’s soon revealed that this is the same institution that has been housing Mr. Glass for the past number of years, and that Dr. Staple is working on a special branch of psychology where she tries to convince people who think they’re superhuman that they’re actually normal.

 

While Jackson’s Mr. Glass is the titular character, he spends more than half of the film saying and doing nothing, heavily medicated and slumped in a wheelchair. When Glass finally encounters Crumb, he decides to waken The Beast and have him fight Dunn in a massive public battle that will finally reveal the existence of superheroes to the world.

 

The film has a 129-minute run time, but I felt it was well paced for a long film, with a story that held my interest and attention. Shyamalan also did a nice job of marrying the two stories, coming up with a film that brings the characters together in a believable manner, though the pacing and style make it feel more a sequel to Split than to Unbreakable. The ending was a bit lackluster, but it did pave the way for future spinoffs.

 

McAvoy is again fantastic in his portrayal of Crumb, deftly switching between completely different personalitie, often multiple times within a single scene. These changes are not only in his voice and mannerisms, but in his physical appearance and emotion. It was also nice to see Willis back in his Unbreakable role, albeit he doesn’t get as much screen time as fans of the original would hope.

 

You can’t fault Glass for is its picture quality, which is terrific. Shot on ARRIRAW at 3.4K resolution, this transfer is taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate, and the image is sharp and clear, with tons of detail and definition. Edges are all razor sharp, and fine detail abounds in closeups, showing nearly every hair and pore on the actor’s faces (once revealing too-much makeup on Dr. Ellie), single-stitch fabric texture in garments, and micro-scratches in metal surfaces. HDR isn’t used extensively, but there are several low-light night scenes where its benefits are visible and welcome.

 

Audio on the Kaleidescape download is 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master. M. Night films are not big on typical superhero bombast and explosions, but the soundtrack serves the film well, with some nice directional cues and other ambient sounds and effects to place you in the right sonic environment. Of equal importance, dialogue is well recorded and clear.

 

Glass is available now from Kaleidescape, a full two weeks before its 4/16 disc release.

John Sciacca

Glass

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.

Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen

On paper, Welcome to Marwen should have been a hit. Helmed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Contact, Polar Express), starring Steve Carell and Leslie Mann, with supporting performances from Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger, and Eiza Gonzalez, and featuring some fantastic visual effects, this could have been a call-back to the brilliance of Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump.

 

Unfortunately, what we got was an estimated $50-60 million loss for Universal Studios, largely due to a bevy of poor reviews spurred by clumsy and disjointed storytelling that makes it difficult to connect with, learn about, or even care for any of the characters. Also, Zemeckis seems to have gotten too caught up in relying on the effects-laden scenes rather than telling a great story.

 

Marwen is based on the tragic real-life events of artist Mark Hogancamp, played here by Carell. (The acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol also examined Hogancamp’s life and art.) Back in 2000, Mark was out drinking one night when he casually admitted that he likes to collect and wear women’s shoes to feel closer to their essence. This admission was overheard by a group of five guys (portrayed as white supremacist, neo-Nazis in the film, but actually homophobes in real life) who took him outside and brutally beat him, leaving him for dead.

 

The beating left Hogancamp in a coma for nine days and brain damaged, with absolutely no memories of his life before. Barely able to even write his name following the incident, it also robbed him of his ability to draw. Hogancamp turned to photography instead, where he created the elaborate, fictional World War II-era Belgian city Marwen where he stages dolls in elaborate sets and situations, all to perfect 1/6-scale.

 

The film begins a few years after the beating, where Mark is established in his photography career, and has an upcoming exhibition. Also looming over him is the trial of his attackers, which his lawyer wants him to attend to read a victim’s impact statement to ensure it’s entered into the record so they don’t get off lightly.

 

On the one hand, I understand what I think Zemeckis was going for in his story. Mark can’t remember anything about his life prior to the attack, so we’re given only very limited information about him from before. What we do glean is from quick snatches of images flipping through old scrap books, or snippets of conversations overheard from others. Old Mark apparently drank a lot, served in the Navy, and was an illustrator for some comics.

 

Current Mark suffers pretty severe PTSD from the beating. He is shy, awkward, afraid, closed-off, and fairly heavily medicated. We get the sense he could die in his home and no one would notice for days. He also leads a very controlled and structured life, with his only pleasure coming from photographing Marwen and wearing his massive—more than 280-pair—collection of women’s shoes. Carrell does a great job in the role, rising above the uneven storytelling, showing us Hogancamp’s pain and vulnerability, with nary a trace of Michael Scott to be found.

 

To compensate for his sad reality, Mark creates the alter-ego hero, Cap’n Hogie, who is a dame-lovin’, Nazi-killin’, lady-shoe-wearin’, alpha male of Marwen, a town populated entirely by women representing important people in Mark’s life. Unfortunately, all is not perfect in Marwen, as it comes under repeated attack from Nazi SS soldiers, and any women that Hogie gets close to are zapped light years into the future by the Belgian Witch, Deja Thoris (voiced by Kruger), who actually represents Mark’s growing addiction to pain medication.

 

Further complicating our ability to connect with Mark is the fact that the scenes in Marwen-town are so unlike his real-life that they end up feeling disjointed from the rest of the film. These random scenes are filled with action, humor, and life, along with Nazi ambushes and brutal gun fights where Hogie frequently finds himself captured and nearly killed by a band of Nazis that continually comes back to life. The Nazis clearly represent his real-life attackers regularly returning to Marwen to inflict damage and re-enact the trauma of Mark’s beating, where ultimately he is always saved by his women of Marwen. 

 

Whereas the real-life scenes are a bit soft by design, the doll scenes are all fascinating visually and razor detailed. You can see every pebble-grain of texture in Hogie’s bomber jacket, along with the intricate outfits of the women. These scenes are often filmed up close—like Mark’s photographs—so we see every articulated joint and intricate movement from the dolls along with the fine detail Mark puts into his set decoration. It all looks great.

 

Audio here is presented via 5.1 DTS-HD Master, with the all-important dialogue well recorded and intelligible. The battle scenes in Marwen provide some sonic excitement, as does the film’s opening plane crash, with my processor’s Dolby Atmos upmixing doing a nice job of placing flak explosions overhead.

 

Ultimately, Marwen is an interesting but forgettable film, but it’s not a total waste. Its effects scenes look fantastic on the home screen, with a truly unique visual style somewhere between animation and stop motion. And the story was interesting enough to keep me curious and watching to see how it concluded, and to turn to the Internet to find out more about the actual events behind it. Also, due to its dismal box office performance, it currently appears that Marwen’s 4K disc release has been scrubbed, meaning the only way to enjoy it in better-than-cinema quality is to get the 4K HDR download from Kaleidescape, available now for a very reasonable $19.99.

John Sciacca

Welcome to Marwen

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.