Reviews

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.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

If you’re looking for a family-friendly film that appeals to—and is appropriate for—nearly all ages, and that isn’t animated, you don’t often have a lot of options. Of course, Disney has been churning out live-action remakes of many of its classics, but this is a category many other studios have decided to avoid.

 

But since my daughters are 3½ and 13, I’m always interested in films that can work for all of us. So, when I saw that Dora and the Lost City of Gold was available for 4K HDR download at the Kaleidescape Store a full two weeks before its disc release, I queued it up for a family movie night.

 

Based on the animated Nickelodeon series, Dora the Explorer, the movie modernizes many of the beloved characters and puts them on a jungle adventure. My oldest, Lauryn, used to watch the animated series, so I was familiar with the main characters: Dora (Isabela Merced), her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, nephew of those other Wahlbergs), Swiper the stealing fox (voiced [unnecessarily] by Benicio Del Toro), and Boots the monkey (voiced bizarrely—but, thankfully, briefly—by Danny Trejo). I also knew about Dora’s talking Map and Backpack, whose voices are reprised by original voice actors Marc Weiner and Sasha Toro respectively.

 

Fortunately, you aren’t required to know anything about the animated series to jump right in and enjoy City of Gold, but those who are will certainly appreciate some of the clever overt and subtle nods and references sprinkled throughout the film, such as how Dora occasionally turns to the camera and says things like, “This is a golden poison frog. Can you say, ‘severe neuro-toxicity?’” which is one of cartoon Dora’s signature educational moves.

 

The film begins with six-year-old Dora (Madelyn Miranda) living in the Peruvian jungle with her explorer parents Elena (Eva Longoria) and Cole (Michael Peña). Dora spends her days playing and exploring with Boots and Diego, learning a lot about jungle life and survival. Cut to ten years later. Believing they’ve finally cracked the clues needed to locate the hidden Inca city of Parapata, Dora’s parents send her off to stay with Diego, who has since relocated with his family to Southern California. This move takes Dora way outside of her comfort zone, forcing her to experience an entirely new culture where she most definitely doesn’t fit in: High school.

 

After being waylaid during a class field trip, Dora, Diego, and two other students find themselves in Peru, where Dora learns her parents have gone missing. From there, the group embarks on an adventure to rescue Dora’s parents and get back to civilization, which forces them to work as a team to overcome a variety of obstacles and challenges, and ultimately locate and explore Parapata.

 

There is a fair bit of action for a kid’s movie, certainly enough to keep adults entertained, but most of it is fairly tame. And while there is some peril, there are no fatalities or gunplay. Much of the adventure is Goonies-style, with rolling logs, underground water slides, and different puzzle-traps to solve. It also reminded me a bit of Lara Croft-light, with adventuring Dora taking point and using her wits and skills to lead the group.

 

Both Boots and Swiper are animated in a far more cartoony style than the hyper-realistic animals featured in The Lion King (2019), but this is by design. However, a couple of other animals—namely a boa constrictor and pair of scorpions—show their too obvious CGI origins. The film does contain one fully animated scene, which is a great homage to the original series.

 

One of my favorite things about the film was Dora herself. She is determined, self-confident, smart, optimistic, and always sees the good in others. She doesn’t spend the movie obsessing over a boy, or worrying what others think of her, or endlessly gazing into a cellphone. This is the kind of positive “girl power” image I want my daughters to see. There are enough mean-girls films out there, with know-it-all kids surrounded by clueless adults, and it was incredibly refreshing to watch a movie about a 16-year-old girl who is trying to make the world a better place without needing to tear anyone else down to do so.

 

Dora on 4K HDR looks way better than any kid’s movie has any right to. My first note on the film was, “Image is super clean and sharp.” Filmed in ArriRaw in 3.4 and 4.5K, Dora is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the image quality 

definitely shows. Closeups reveal individual strands of hair, the texture of clothing fabric, and the detail of the jungle terrain.

 

Colors are also vibrant throughout, with lots of bright yellows, greens, blues, and reds. This is especially true in the closing credits song-and-dance number, where the school student body comes together in multi-colored outfits. The bright, daytime jungle scenes also look terrific. And there are a few shots of bright fires and blazing sunsets that also benefit from the wider color gamut, as well as the brilliant, lustrous gold of statues and idols.

 

HDR is used throughout to deliver deep blacks, especially during the night scenes or when the gang is inside some location solving a puzzle. In one scene, the group needs to use sunlight and mirrors to bounce bright light around a room using reflective bowls, producing both dark blacks and piercing brightness.

 

Sonically, Dora also benefits from a fairly dynamic Dolby Atmos soundtrack. The jungle is filled with atmospheric sounds like birds, insects, and dripping water that immerse you in the location. During one scene, arrows whip past and overhead or thunk into walls. The sound team takes other opportunities to get creative with the sound placement, like a ringing school bell, Boots racing around the 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

jungle treetops, water flooding the room, or voices. Bass is also appropriately deep and engaging when called for, especially during the finale at Parapata.

 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold makes for a fun family night at the movies—entertaining and humorous for adults (my wife especially liked the “dig a pooh hole” song), without being too intense or mature for kids. It’s a film younger viewers may want to visit more than once, drawn to Dora’s infectious charm. It also has the bonus of looking and sounding terrific in your home system, making it a real win in my book.

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.

Rocky

Rocky

While by no means the first boxing movie, Rocky is without a doubt one of the very best, ranking No. 57 on the AFI Top 100 Movies List and going on to launch five sequels and two spinoffs (Creed and Creed II).

 

However, while it is nearly always described as a “boxing movie,” there is actually surprisingly little boxing in the movie. Other than an opening scene to establish that Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) can take and dish out a beating, some training on the speed and heavy bags, and the final fight with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the film spends just a few minutes of its nearly two-hour runtime in the ring.

 

Instead Rocky dedicates the vast majority of its time to character and relationship development, and, in a way, it reminded me of Jaws in the way it builds and builds towards the big fight/shark reveal. Even the title fight at the end doesn’t dedicate a ton of screen time to the boxing, but rather shows a few key choreographed fight sequences from different rounds, followed by girls flashing round cards to show that the fight is progressing towards the 15th and final round.

 

Without question, Rocky launched the mega career of Stallone, establishing him as a leading action hero, and, to a lesser degree, gave ex-NFL player Weathers his big Hollywood break as Creed. Stallone wrote the original screenplay for the film (apparently in a feverish three-and-a-half-day period after watching a fight between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner), and famously held out on selling the script to United Artists until the studio agreed to cast him in the starring role—a decision that turned out the be the best of Stallone’s career.

 

But as good as the screenplay is, Rocky likely wouldn’t have had nearly the success it had if not for the quality of the acting throughout, with everyone doing exactly what they needed to enrich their characters and flesh out the story. Beyond the boxing, Rocky is a movie about relationships—between Rocky and love interest Adrian (Talia Shire), Rocky and trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith), Rocky and friend-antagonist Paulie (Burt Young), and Rocky and mob-boss Gazzo (Joe Spinell)—and for these to work, the acting had to be spot-on.

Rocky

What you might not remember is just how successful Rocky was at the 1977 Academy Awards. Besides winning three awards for Best Director (John Avildsen), Best Editing, and Best Picture, it received nominations for Best Actor (Stallone), Best Actress (Shire), Best Original Screenplay (Stallone), Best Sound Mixing, Best Music (Bill Conti), and Best Supporting Actor (both Meredith and Young).

 

Rocky was also one of the first (but not the first) films to use the new Steadicam process for smooth photography during action scenes and the iconic run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Not too shabby for a movie made for under $1 million that went on to gross $225 million!

 

Something else that can’t be understated is Stallone’s shape and conditioning for this film. While it isn’t unusual today to see stars getting jacked and shredded for roles—often spending months preparing and training—Rocky came out six years before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role in Conan the Barbarian, and this level of fitness certainly wasn’t the norm for leading men of the day. But Stallone brought a legitimate level of strength and conditioning to the role, and you can see this in his thighs during an early training session with Mick and in the one-arm pushups he knocks out.

 

Rocky comes to the Kaleidescape Store in a 4K HDR transfer, one of the first batch of titles to be available following a distribution agreement signed with MGM. 

 

Shot using Panaflex cameras and Panavision lenses on 35mm film, Rocky’s negative is actually 1.33:1 aspect ratio but matted down to the 1.85:1 aspect shown. There’s no information on the restoration process or on the digital intermediate used.

 

The transfer is a bit of a mixed bag at times. Unlike many of the re-releases from Sony that I’ve raved over, there were quite a few scenes in Rocky that look like they could have used a bit more time in restoration or digital cleanup. (Though it’s possible that the original film elements just didn’t lend themselves to further improvement.) Dark and low-lit scenes such as the boxing match at the opening and the early scenes inside Rocky’s apartment reveal lots of noise and grain in the image. Also, the pale blue of the early morning and day sky scenes seems especially susceptible to showing tons of noise, such as during Rocky’s first morning run (after he famously chugs the five raw eggs).

 

Images look cleaner and less noisy starting at Rocky’s first visit to Adrian at the pet store, and there are many closeups in the film that have startling detail and clarity, with razor-sharp edges that are clean and detailed. Other scenes, though, have almost uneven focus as if the camera’s focal point was off, most notably in one scene where Rocky and Adrian are sitting on the couch at Paulie’s, where half of Rocky’s face is almost blurry.

 

The higher resolution also makes some things like the heavy makeup used for “the vegetation” on Mickey’s ear or some of the fight damage appear less real. And there are shots during the big fight near the end where large crowd shots that were mixed 

to make it appear like a much larger crowd is watching look obviously cut in.

 

Compared to the earlier Blu-ray releases, however, this Rocky looks better in nearly every regard. Skin tones are more natural, colors in the ring at the end are more vibrant, as is the sun in Rocky’s big morning run, and the blacks of Rocky’s leather jacket, pants, and felt hat are nice, deep, clean and noise-free. (You also notice how Rocky almost never changes his outfit . . .) Images are noticeably sharper in almost every shot, especially things in the background.

 

Originally featuring a mono sound mix, the DTS-HD 5.1-channel mix found on both the 4K and Blu-ray versions does a nice job of spreading audio across the front channels. It even gets a bit of crowd noise into the surrounds during the big fight and moves Conti’s iconic “Gonna Fly Now” out into the room. But this is not a movie you’ll ever use to demo your theater system. As much as I’m all for a new immersive Dolby Atmos mix with a re-release, I’m not sure there was much in the original material that would benefit.

 

Unfortunately, dialogue can be difficult to understand at times, especially near the big fight at the end, where there is so much going on sonically that I struggled to hear the ring announcers over all of the music and crowd noise. But this is a case

Rocky

where the fists are really doing most of the talking, and missing a phrase here or there doesn’t have a big impact on enjoyment.

 

Remembering Rocky was filmed on a shoestring budget 44 years ago, it’s safe to say no one will mistake this latest 4K transfer as a modern film shot in native 4K on Arri cameras. But this is likely the best Rocky has ever looked, with the HDR and color grading giving the image life and depth without any flatness, and this is a classic that belongs in every collection.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Marvel’s Spider-Man

Marvel's Spider-Man

It may seem somewhat odd to shine a spotlight on a game that was released more than a year ago—or to even be talking about gaming at all on a site devoted largely to luxury home cinema. But the simple truth of the matter is that when Marvel’s Spider-Man was released for PlayStation 4 back in September 2018, I found myself in the middle of a long hiatus from console gaming to focus on some more strategic PC games that had been piling up in my Steam library. What drew me back was an unused PlayStation Network gift card my dad had given me for my birthday, as well as the relatively new release of Spider-Man: Game of the Year Edition, which hit store shelves recently. What I discovered when I finally dug in was one of the most compelling home cinema experiences I’ve had in ages.

 

For those of you who aren’t deeply imbedded in video-gaming culture, “Game of the Year Edition” is common vernacular for a soft relaunch of a popular game that generally includes all of the little add-ons that have been released since, bundled with the original title, for one lower price. In the case of Spider-Man, that includes three mini-sequels, collectively dubbed Spider-Man: The City that Never Sleeps, which sold for $9.99 a pop in the months following the main release. Spider-Man: Game of the Year Edition collects all of this content—the original game and its followups—on one disc (or in one download) for $35.

 

As for why I’m taking the time to write up a year-old game on a site like Cineluxe, there’s a good reason for that, which has nothing to do with my long delay in finally picking it up and playing it. Simply put, Marvel’s Spider-Man is one of the most cinematic games I’ve played in ages, both in its gameplay and its AV presentation. But not in the most intuitive of ways.

At its heart, Spider-Man is what’s known as an open-world game, the world in this case being a slightly scaled-down and very Marvel-specific version of Manhattan circa 2014 (when development of the game began). Simply put, this playground in and of itself is a technological wonder, not only in its relatively faithful recreation of Times Square, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, etc., but also in the way it captures the feeling of moving through the city from district to district, squinting at the sunlight gleaming off buildings in the daytime and the stunning array of neon, halogen, and LED lights piercing what little darkness exists in the shadows at night. The way the game uses its deep shadows and intense highlights to convey the Manhttanhenge effect is simply among the best applications of HDR I’ve seen to date.

 

All of this could be written off as mere eye-candy, of course, but it’s more than that. The developers of Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac Games, spent so much time working on the web-swinging mechanic—making sure webs would only attach to buildings or flagpoles or what have you rather than clinging to empty air as in past Spidey games, for example, and also 

making sure the parabolic physics of such swinging felt genuine—that if there weren’t some verisimilitude to the look of the city itself, the illusion of Tarzaning through its vertical landscapes would be broken. 

 

It isn’t just graphics and physics that drive the experience, though. The sound also elevates the AV presentation of the game, 

Marvel's Spider-Man

with a rich real-time uncompressed 7.1 soundscape and cinematic score that whips and whirs around you as you swing through the city or walk its streets, or even poke around in the science lab where Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) works when the red-and-blue pajamas come off. (By the way, not that this really affects the gameplay, but you’re far from limited to the default two-toned onesie, as one of the game’s most compelling Easter-egg hunts is an ongoing search for the badges and components that allow you to craft or unlock all manner of other Spidey-suits.)

 

Of course, whooshing around from skyscraper to skyscraper or tinkering with circuit boards in the lab isn’t all there is to do here. There’s an overarching story—based not on any of the previous versions of the Spider-Man mythos, but rather a new amalgamation that draws elements from the best that movies and cartoons and comics have to offer—and you’re drawn to new story beats by way of police-scanner alerts or cellphone calls from allies and loved ones.

 

Quite frankly, it’s a more emotionally engaging story than that of any Spider-Man film to date, in part due to its complex ethical and moral themes, but also due to its length. Simply burn through the main storyline without stopping to thwart muggers or

Marvel's Spider-Man

terrorists or take perfectly framed photos of Manhattan’s numerous landmarks and you could probably reach the story’s conclusion in 20 or 25 hours.

 

That’s certainly enough time to become attached to the characters and invested in the relationships, but it would also be completely contrary to the point of the game. 

The beauty of Marvel’s Spider-Man is the freedom it gives you to explore this world and its wonderful original storyline at your own pace.

 

As I approached the end of the main quest, my wife and I sat on our sofa—me an active participant in this wonderful interactive storytelling-and-exploration experience; her a very willing passive viewer—and openly wept at the poignant and impactful emotional resolution of it all. It’s honestly that engaging.

 

Of course, having the Game of the Year Edition meant I still had three more intertwining stories to explore, more petty crimes to deal with in the byways and back alleys between the Church of the Intercession and Battery Park, and more time to rummage around in the city’s sewers and abandoned subways. And while feeling a little tacked on at first, this trilogy of mini-sequels eventually evolves into yet another web of intrigue that picks up on threads only hinted at in the main storyline. It may lack some of the personal emotional resonance of the main game, but it does amp the moral complexity up to new levels.

 

Whether you merely play through the primary questline of Marvel’s Spider-Man or pick every achievement and side quest clean, as I’ve done (purely as a consequence of wanting to spend more time in this amazing world), you owe it to yourself to play it on the best AV system in the house. And yes, that even includes an Atmos sound system.

 

I know I’ve grumped in the past about not being the biggest fan of object-based surround sound with movies, but the 7.1 soundtrack of Spider-Man upmixed into Atmos opens the landscape of Manhattan up, bringing it into the third dimension in a way that meaningfully enhances the open nature of this exploration-based interactive experience. Hearing the roll of thunder and crack of lightning not merely around you, but also above you, helps transform the game world into something you exist within, rather than merely a backdrop you navigate through. 

 

By the way, if you do play the game through a reference-quality sound system, make sure to dip into the audio settings and make one essential tweak. Change the default sound mode from “Home Theater,” which is really intended more for soundbars and smaller sound systems, to “Maximum,” which is mixed for “premium home theater systems or studio playback.”

 

Little touches like that prove at least some game developers realize the home cinema potential of their efforts, even if the AV industry continues to treat video games like mere children’s entertainment.

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 Wonderful 4K “Wizard of Oz”

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

As much as we tend to discuss Ultra HD video and high dynamic range in relation to the latest that Hollywood and Netflix have to offer, it’s sometimes easy to forget something quite important: The films that stand to benefit most from current home-video standards aren’t the newest digital spectacles but rather classic works created entirely in the analog domain. Older films simply possess a level of detail and nuance no previous home-video format has been capable of replicating, and short of

cinema revivals, most of us have never seen them in all their splendor.

 

That said, I don’t know of any film as old as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz to make the leap into 4K/HDR before now. For that matter, I don’t know of any other movies filmed in three-strip Technicolor that have been remastered for 4K/HDR. That alone makes this new home-video release academically interesting, even if the Judy Garland classic holds no emotional sway over you.

 

Not that it matters, of course, but it does for me. Hold emotional sway, that is. I’ve owned Oz on every home-

video format available in the U.S., including every VHS release, every Laserdisc release, every DVD and Blu-ray. But my love affair goes further back than that. One of my earliest memories is of lying belly-flat on the rug in our den, watching Dorothy and friends traipse down the Gray Brick Road on our old black-and-white tube TV. Much to my dad’s chagrin, that was the start of a yearly tradition for me—one I uphold to this day, every Thanksgiving.

 

I can almost define each era of my life in relation to how I experienced that annual ritual. My first time viewing it on a color TV was, it should go without saying, a significant revelation. And although there have been upgrades down the road since (the 1989 restoration of the sepia tones in the opening and closing acts, the 2005 restoration and re-alignment of the original Technicolor film strips), rarely has any viewing of Oz blown my mind quite to the same degree as seeing it in color for the first time.

 

Until now, that is. This new 4K/HDR release of The Wizard of Oz is the first that actually manages to replicate the experience of viewing the movie by way of a pristine 35mm print. And this is evident as early as those early sepia-toned shots in Kansas, which you wouldn’t think would make for a great HDR demo. But it’s important to remember that, for all the talk about peak 

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

brightness and nits and whatnot, the most significant boost to dynamic range that HDR delivers is in the lower end of the value scale. There are simply more steps of near-black to work with here, and that’s put to good use in the opening scenes of Oz by dragging detail out of the shadows without brightening the overall image.

 

It should come as no surprise, though, that this new transfer doesn’t really come to life until Dorothy steps through the

monochromatic door of her wind-tossed home into the rainbow land of Oz. But again, the benefits here may not be what you’re expecting.

 

If you go in anticipating tons of intense specular highlights, you’re going to be left wanting. Some vibrant peak brightness is used to bring out the sparkle of Glinda’s jewels and of course the gleaming glimmer of Dorothy’s ruby slippers. But in all cases, this higher-intensity brightness is organic and tastefully done. So much so that it may only affect you subliminally.

 

There’s simply no mistaking the color palette of this new transfer for that of any previous home-video release. Early video offerings of Oz did what they could with their limited color gamut. Around the time of the aforementioned remaster in the mid-2000s, though, Warner saw fit to actually boost the color saturation of the movie in order to approximate the Crayola hues Technicolor was capable of delivering.

 

The problem with this is that the entire color palette of Oz was dragged along for the ride. So, although the Wicked Witch’s verdant skin tones may have looked close enough, subtler colors like the pastel tones of the Lullaby League were overly boosted, overly intense—just plain wrong, when you get right down to it.

 

When viewed via Kaleidescape, the 10-bit palette of this new release (which was taken from an 8K, 16-bit scan of the original film elements) puts all of the colors in their proper proportions. So, for example, in certain scenes in Munchkinland, subdued pastels share the screen with luscious primary hues—something most of us have never seen outside of the film’s more recent theatrical revivals.

 

The detail and definition of this new transfer will also henceforth be my response to those who say we don’t need 4K resolution at home. Subtle details that were obscured by previous 1080p and lower-resolution releases are restored for all the world to see—even down to the individual hairs on Dorothy’s head.

 

Granted, there is, of course, a hefty helping of softness to the image in places, especially in closeup shots of Billie Burke (Glinda). My point is, it’s taken us until this point to finally bring all of the detail in the image—softened, filtered, gauzed though it may be in some scenes—to home displays. I’m struggling to see where even an 8K release could improve on what I’m seeing here in terms of detail and definition, much less color and contrast.

 

If I have a nit to pick, it’s that this new color grade still gets the opening and closing sepia-toned scenes a little wrong. It’s important to remember that this footage was shot in black-and-white and hand-tinted sepia—and then hand-tinted sepia again in the ‘80s. And, as with every release of the past couple decades, this version takes that sepia tinting just a touch too far, with slightly too much warmth. But that’s really only a concern if you get overly fussy about “filmmaker’s intent.” (Incidentally, 

if you’re curious about how I can speak to “filmmaker’s intent” in this case, given that there were so many chefs stirring this pot, we can look to a scene later in the movie in which Dorothy peers into the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball and sees her Aunt Em in Kansas, in all her sepia-tinted glory. That’s what Kansas is supposed to look like.)

 

And . . . [checks notes] Yep. That’s it. That’s literally the only pedantic niggle I can come up with. 

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

Some viewers may take issue with the fact that those sepia scenes don’t quite hold up to the clarity and definition of the film’s colorful middle. That’s largely due to the fact that the original film negatives for the first and last act were lost in a fire in the 1970s, and have since been sourced from an optical intermediate struck in the 1960s. The only original negatives we have at this point are for the color parts of the film. So this is the best Kansas is ever going to look.

 

The purist in me also wants to half-heartedly complain about the lack of the the original mono soundtrack with this new release, but I just can’t bring myself to grump about that, given how great the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix sounds. And this is a new remix, by the way—not the same lossless 5.1 mix that was included with the 70th- and 75th-anniversary Blu-rays.

 

The surround channels are employed a little more frequently this time around, and there’s an appreciable boost to dialogue intelligibility and vocal clarity across the board, along with some enhanced bass, especially during the tornado sequence. But 

all in all, this surround sound mix is true to the sprit and overall aesthetic of the film. It’s certainly not as egregious or aggressive as some recent remixes for classic films. So even if the original mono were present, I can’t imagine I would ever listen to it.

 

As for the Kaleidescape presentation of this new release, my only beef is that, in addition to the 4K/HDR version, you’ll also need to download the Blu-ray-quality version if you want access to all of the bonus goodies—including the audio commentary with historian and author John Fricke, which carries over from every home-video release since 2005. There’s also the excellent The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic from 1990, hosted by Angela Lansbury, which for some reason was dropped from the 75th-anniversary home video releases but makes a welcome reappearance here.

 

Oodles of other bonus features are certainly worth your time if you’re a dedicated fan, but these two are essential viewing/listening for everyone, so go ahead and download both versions of the film from the giddy-up. Why you can’t simply download the bonus features without double-dipping on the film itself is beyond me.

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

But what else is there to be said, really? If you’re reading this, you already know what the film means to you—you’re simply deciding whether or not it’s worth the 4K/HDR upgrade for an 80-year-old film. The answer to that is a resounding, enthusiastic, unapologetic “Yes!” Few films have benefited from the increased resolution, enhanced dynamic range, and most importantly the wider color gamut of our current home video standards nearly so much as this one. My biggest regret is that I can’t put 4K/HDR screen grabs in front of you and let you see the improvements with your own eyes. Unfortunately, the limitations of the web make that impossible. 

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.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

If you’re looking for a realistic action/heist movie, the Fast & Furious franchise probably isn’t the right one for you.

 

Scratch that. If you’re into realism at all, Fast & Furious definitely isn’t for you.

 

These films frequently involve supercharged cars used to either commit or prevent some kind of crime, and the franchise has grown in both size and scope over the series to now be on the international, world-affecting scale—which often forces you to lean heavily on your suspension of disbelief and just sit back and enjoy the big chases and action pieces.

 

Things like a Russian nuclear submarine chasing sports cars across an icy tundra (Fate of the Furious) or cars racing and jumping parkour style between floors of high-rise buildings (Furious 7) or somebody jumping out of a moving vehicle and catching someone else in mid-air across two freeway lanes on a bridge expanse (Fast & Furious 6) or a Dodge Charger ripping out a massive bank vault and then dragging it down the highway at high speed (Fast Five) abound. So, yeah, the Furious franchise and reality—and things like gravity, physics, and the fragility of the human body— are really more like nodding acquaintances.

 

But if you can look past that and just sit back with a bucket of popcorn and a drink, these movies can be a lot of fun.

 

After eight films that have amassed nearly $5 billion worldwide since 2001, it isn’t surprising that Hollywood looked for more ways to get some gold from this goose. This latest installment, however, isn’t really a Fast & Furious film, but rather a new story set in the same universe involving two spinoff characters: former Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and former British Special Air Service Major, Deckard Shaw (Jason Stratham). Of course, making an action film starring The Rock and Stratham isn’t really much of a gamble, as the two have enough star power individually to carry a film.

 

Fans of the series will know there has been little love lost between Hobbs and Shaw, and calling them “frenemies” would be generous as the two have a history of animosity and trying to out-macho each other while wanting to beat each other to death. This movie embraces that, with the two frequently trading barbs and insults to comedic effect. The chemistry between the actors works well, as does the juxtaposition between the Rock’s hulking mass and rough-around-the-edges ways, compared to the posh, stylish, and subtle Stratham. (The film’s opening is literally a split screen highlighting the stark differences of how the two begin their day.)

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

While a team of MI6 agents is attempting to retrieve a super virus named “Snowflake” from a terrorist group, they’re overrun by another group of terrorists from an organization known as Eteon led by a cybernetically enhanced super-agent named Brixton Lore (Idris Elba). Not wanting the virus to fall into enemy hands, MI6 agent and Deckard’s younger sister, Hattie Shaw (Vanessa Kirby) injects herself with the virus and goes on the run. Lore kills the remaining MI6 agents and frames Hattie for the crime and virus theft, and from there the story takes us around the world—from London to Moscow to Ukraine to Samoa—in search of clearing Hattie’s name and finding a way to extract the virus before it kills her . . . along with everyone else on the planet.

 

Two big stars, Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart, make uncredited cameos in the film, and their scenes are some of the best and most hilarious, showing that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. Reynolds plays CIA agent Locke, responsible for getting Hobbs on board to help track down Hattie, and his dialogue is fantastic, reminding me of a PG-version of his Deadpool character. Hart plays Air Marshal Dinkley, who desperately wants to join Hobbs and Shaw in their mission and get involved in something bigger and get out of his “can of farts.”

 

The movie has a 2-hour 17-minute runtime, and while it never feels slow, it does feel a bit long. I mean, there are only so many fights and chases one can handle, no matter how well they look, how many people are in the fray, or the weapons and choreography involved. Though even the most jaded car-chase viewers will find it tough to not feel a bit of an adrenaline rush during the terrific London chase with Shaw behind the wheel of a McLaren 720S being chased by Lore on a Triumph Triple Speed motorcycle.

 

Filmed in ArriRaw in a combination of 2.8 and 3.4K, Hobbs & Shaw is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. Detail in closeups is always sharp, clear, and detailed. There are plenty of opportunities to see fine details, like the well-groomed stubble on Shaw’s face, individual drops of sweat glistening on The Rock’s significant dome, or the texture and grain in Lore’s black-leather uniform. The image is always totally clean and noise-free, with blacks that are deep and pristine.

 

What really makes the image look great is the use of HDR throughout. Many of the film’s big scenes are at night, and really come to life with the HDR grading. This is apparent from the opening nighttime robbery in London, with bright lights against deep blacks, along with vibrant greens, golds, and reds, and near the end when lightning flashes and huge fireballs had me squinting, while the image maintained lifelike, deep-black levels. In contrast, the non-HDR Blu-ray version just has a flatness to it that is especially noticeable on larger screens like my new 4K projector and 115-inch screen.

The disparity in picture quality is apparent in the opening when we watch Hobbs and Shaw walking through clubs in LA and London surrounded by lots of bright lights and neon. The 4K HDR version makes these lights glow brightly like neon, where the 1080p non-HDR version just looks like blue, red, and purple lights without any pop or vibrancy to them. The 4K HDR version has far more depth and realism throughout.

 

Sonically, H&S is a big film, with a big and dynamic soundtrack with some significant bass when called for, which is often, due to the fights and explosions throughout. Unfortunately, NBCUniversal continues to refuse to provide Kaleidescape with the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, so the digital download only contains a DTS HD-Master 5.1-channel mix. While not as impressive as a discrete Atmos or DTS:X mix, the H&S soundtrack sounds quite exciting and immersive when run through an upmixer like Dolby Surround or DTS:Neural.

 

Drones zip past overhead, cars screech along the sides of the room, glass shatters and debris falls all around, and even the gentle outside wind, ocean, and bird sounds fill the room.

Fast & Furious Present: Hobbs & Shaw

If I had one quibble with the audio. it’s that the dialogue was a bit difficult to understand during some scenes. Whether this was due to the music and effects levels, the British accents, or just poor dialogue recording or mixing I can’t say. Fortunately, these moments are infrequent.

 

If you can look past some moments that defy credibility—like Hobbs lassoing and holding down a Blackhawk helicopter —Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw can make for a fun night at the movies. It’s available for full 4K HDR download from the Kaleidescape Movie Store now, a full three weeks before its release on physical media November 5.

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.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth

El laberinto del fauno—released in non-Spanish-speaking territories as Pan’s Labyrinth for whatever reason—is a fantasy film for people who have no patience for fantasy. It’s a war film for people who don’t like war films. It’s a fairy tale for people who prefer the Brothers Grimm to Disney. It’s allegory that avoids so many of the lazy conventions that made J.R.R. Tolkien such a vehement detractor of allegory. It’s a rich and nuanced, deeply symbolic and personal work that I believe will go down in

history as Guillermo del Toro’s best, topping even El espinazo del diablo (aka The Devil’s Backbone), with which it shares a lot of thematic and narrative similarities.

 

If it weren’t obvious from the above gushing, I’m an unabashed devotee of this haunting little film. But I’ve never really been overly thrilled with any of its home video releases. The 

original Blu-ray from 2007 was excessively smoothed and de-noised, robbing the imagery of much of its grit and impact. It also suffered from lackluster black levels, which is a sin for a film that lives so unapologetically in the shadows.

 

The Criterion Collection release from 2016 was a vast improvement, thanks in part to the contributions of del Toro himself, who supervised a new color grade and a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. But that release dropped at a time when I was already spoiled by HDR, so I couldn’t help but be distracted by the lack thereof, and the richer shadow detail a UHD release would bring with it.

 

Fast forward to 2019, and we finally have that UHD/HDR release—not from Criterion, but rather Warner Bros. Unsurprisingly, this release isn’t sourced from the same regraded transfer as the 2016 Blu-ray, which one has to assume is owned by

Pan's Labyrinth

Criterion. And that’s a bit of a shame, because the superior color timing of that transfer plus the improvements brought by HDR would make for a near-perfect representation of this film.

 

Make no mistake about it: The UHD/HDR is a big improvement over the original Blu-ray release, despite being sourced 

from the same 2K digital intermediate. Black levels are vastly deeper, shadow detail is much improved, depth of field and edge definition are a substantial step up, and the frustrating, plasticky smoothness of the original HD release is thankfully a thing of the past. The grain of the original 35mm negative, though not pronounced or distracting, gives this new transfer an earthiness that greatly benefits it. It’s even an improvement over the Criterion release in terms of contrasts and dynamic range. I just wish a few of the key color-grading changes del Toro made for Criterion could have been incorporated here.

 

I’m picking nits, of course, if only because I adore this beautiful work so deeply. I do need to get a little pedantic about what I mean by “beautiful,” though. While an utter treat for the eyes from a cinephile’s perspective, Pan’s Labyrinth is not videophile demo material. This is, after all, a low-budget Mexican film, shot for less than $20 million. There is some softness to the image, some rough edges and textures here and there, and some compromises that result from the original digital intermediate that could only be rectified by a full-scale restoration sourced from the original film negatives. That would mean

re-rendering the computer-generated effects, which—to be frank—don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny, especially in this more revealing UHD transfer.

 

Thankfully, though, most of the effects work is practical, with heavy reliance on makeup, costuming, and animatronics. (del Toro fans will immediately

Pan's Labyrinth

recognize longtime collaborator Doug Jones beneath tons of latex as both the Faun and the Pale Man—two of the film’s creepiest fantastical creatures—if only due to his inimitable pantomime and distinctive lithe physique.)

 

This Warner Bros. release oddly does carry over the new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack from the Criterion release, which I suppose could be considered a downgrade from the 7.1-channel track of the original Blu-ray in terms of channel count, but is undeniably a subtle upgrade in every other respect. Honestly, you won’t miss the extra channels. But if you comprehend any Spanish, you’ll appreciate the enhanced dialogue intelligibility, as well as the improved clarity and spatial refinement of the mix. And, hey, if don’t hable español, the English subtitles for this film were actually written by del Toro himself, due in large part to his frustration with the awful translated subtitles for El espinazo del diablo.

 

All of the above, I guess, is a roundabout way of saying  if you love El laberinto del fauno and want to view it at its best, this new UHD/HDR release is that, just by a hair. It’s worth the upgrade even if you own the Criterion Blu-ray release, if only because its remaining flaws are less distracting.

 

But if you’re averse to dark parables and are simply looking for demo material to stress every pixel of your 4K display, you can probably safely pass. This isn’t a mindless, feel-good film. It’s a challenging and at times troubling look at the stark realities of 

war (actually, technically, the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, as the film is set in Francoist Spain in 1944) and the dual-edged sword of escapism from such horrors. It’s also, though, a wondrous and magical fable that defiantly spits in the face of the notion that fantasy films cannot be serious art.

 

By the way, for those of you who pick up the new UHD release on Kaleidescape, know that you’ll need to download the Blu-ray version included with your purchase if you want to access the bonus features. And you do. Granted, a few key goodies from the Criterion release are missing (I’ll certainly be hanging onto that physical release for the exclusive interview with del Toro and novelist Cornelia Funke), but what’s presented here still counts as a wealth of supplemental material that genuinely adds value and insight into not only the filmmaking process, but also the deep symbolism of the film. Granted, two of those supplements—the short documentary “The Power of Myth” and the audio commentary by del Toro—do rob you of the opportunity to interpret some of the story’s more ambiguous aspects for yourself, so make sure you’ve seen the movie a few times, as least, to solidify your own interpretations.

 

The truly great thing about El laberinto del fauno, though, is that it rewards multiple re-watches, even after you think you’ve got it all figured out (in terms of 

Pan's Labyrinth

meaning, that is; narratively speaking, it’s an incredibly simple tale that requires no parsing). I hesitate to recommend buying the film sight-unseen, if only for the fact that some viewers (my wife included) find the ruthlessness of the film’s human antagonists too much to bear. Try as I might, she can’t bring herself to give it a second chance. And that’s fair. But I would argue that none of the brutality on display is gratuitous. It’s thematically, narratively, and emotionally necessary. It’s also, thankfully, infrequent.

 

For my money, El laberinto del fauno is as near to perfection as any work of cinema made in the past quarter century. And while I can’t say the same for any of its home video releases, this new UHD/HDR release gets closer to the mark than past efforts. Quite frankly, that’s enough for me to recommend it as a worthy upgrade for those who are already under the film’s spell.

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 Lion King (2019)

The Lion King (2019)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

The Lion King (2019)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Toy Story 4

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Toy Story 4

Duke Caboom

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Toy Story 4

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far from Home

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Spider-Man: Far from Home

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.