John Sciacca Tag

John Wick 3: Parabellum

John Wick 3

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Winston: “Of course you will.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Wick 3

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin (2019)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Aladdin (2019)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Men in Black: International

Men in Black: International

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Men in Black: International

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Air Force One

Air Force One

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Air Force One

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

Air Force One

making this the best AF1 has looked by far.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Air Force One

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel

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

 

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

 

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

RELATED REVIEW

Mortal Engines

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Alita: Battle Angel

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

A Few Good Men

A Few Good Men

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

A Few Good Men

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

A Few Good Men

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Shazam!

Shazam

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Shazam

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Batman (1989)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Batman (1989)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Natural

The Natural

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

The Natural

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

The Natural

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Captain Marvel

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

 

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

 

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

 

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.