Saturday, August 26, 2017

4K UHD/3D/HD Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Movie: **** 1/2 out of 5
4K Video: *****
3D Video: **** 1/2
HD Video: ****
Dolby Atmos Audio: *****
7.1 Dolby TrueHD Audio: ****
Extras: ***

It’s interesting to think what took Disney so long to jump in the 4K game. With Blu-ray discs that have always been stellar by nature, it should not have taken the studio 18 months to make the leap. Leave it to Marvel Studios to finally get them to change their tune with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 paving the way for what are bound to be more spectacularly stunning features. Ultra HD is not a gimmick. While that could be said about 3D — a home format I still love — 4K presentation is just about as close to the director’s original intent as we’re bound to see for years to come. As for Vol. 2, the easiest way to put how it looks? This new demo disc could sell a lot of TVs.

Starting in 1980, Missouri, Earth, a young Ego (Kurt Russell) is eager to show Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) what he’s planted behind the local Dairy Queen. Cut to 34 years later and we catch up with our favorite ragtag team of Guardians — Peter Quill/Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — as they’re keeping the Sovereign’s batteries safe from the multi-dimensional creature Abilisk. Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is thankful for their service and turn over their prize, Nebula (Karen Gillan), herself captured also trying to steal their batteries.

With plans to return Nebula back to Xandar, the Guardians are quickly on the run from the Sovereign because Rocket decided to steal the batteries himself. They’re saved by the celestial Ego (Russell) and brought to his home planet where he explains his wishes to turn over his kingdom to Peter, his only progeny in the whole galaxy carrying his celestial genes. Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and the Sovereign are hot on Peter’s trail and soon enough, the Guardians find themselves having to save the galaxy once again from an even greater threat.

Disney/Marvel Studios shot for the stars with their first 2160p 4K Ultra HD disc and wound up with a demo-worthy disc of stellar proportions. It is framed in the film’s 2.40:1 aspect ratio — if only it had the alternating aspect ratios of the IMAX presentation — but this is still nothing short of breathtaking from start to finish. There’s been some debate about the film’s completed digital intermediate (DI), but Gunn himself has stated that the film was finished at both 4K and 2K despite being filmed at 8K. With how good the film looks as it is, it boggles my mind to think it could possibly have looked even better. Given a fantastic HDR treatment, it’s also a shame they didn’t jump to give us our first live-action Dolby Vision presentation — supposedly available via VUDU. My own 75” LG UH8500 is equipped with DV so I was holding out hope — seeing how the DV presentation is Gunn’s own favorite — even still, the HDR is a stunner.

A colleague was in house when UPS dropped off the review disc and we quickly popped it in to watch the first two opening scenes. We then decided to put in the standard Blu-ray and rewatch those scenes for comparison. And there is none. 4K is the only way Vol. 2 should be watched. He was instantly saddened that the 1080p video was all he got to go home to. Colors explode off the screen with perfect contrast and brightness. Both waver greatly when watching in standard HD. The fireside scene later in the film is a perfect example. While the Blu-ray suffers from some noticeable crush, the 4K disc brightens the image where you can clearly see the forest behind the characters. Another area where it devastatingly trumps the Blu-ray is with fine line detail. Every creature throughout the film, whether CGI or practical, are completely photorealistic. Rocket is a perfect example. In 4K, every single piece of fur is visible and finite whereas on the Blu-ray he looks fuzzy in every shot. Same thing goes for Groot, he is so lifelike in 4K you feel like you can reach in and grab him right out of your set.

The only anomaly visible is a weird instance of possible banding in the yellow walls of Ego’s ship. Whatever it may be, it’s definitely artifacting. It was something I also noticed watching John Wick Chapter 2. It seems to involve neon swarming and only some may notice it. However it’s a tiny distraction; thankfully the scenes aboard Ego’s ship come and go quickly. Otherwise, true banding is nowhere to be found. There are more than a few scenes of jaw dropping beauty throughout the runtime: the opening Abilisk fight, the Sovereign asteroid chase, a visit to the planet Contraxia, Gamora sitting in a field on Ego’s planet, Yondu’s prison escape, the entire final battle, and, of course, the Ravager funeral — but  every scene is honestly a showstopper.

In a rather fortuitous case of good fortune, my Best Buy exclusive Steelbook with the 3D disc showed up before finishing the review! How does it look in the third dimension? It’s obviously not as great as the 4K presentation, but it absolutely kicks the 2D disc’s keester. The best part is that it includes the IMAX formatted alternating aspect ratio changes — something that could have made the 4K disc even better had this version been used. I can’t help but think that being 3D, it didn’t have a 4K DI. Either way, the opened format breathes some much needed life into the action scenes that the standard 2D disc just doesn’t deliver. While some studios keep trying to stray away from the admittedly dwindling format, 3D still has plenty to offer at home and Vol. 2 is a standout full of impeccable detail, pop-out effects, as well as tons of depth in every scene. I dare you not to flinch when Yondu’s arrow comes flying at your face.

Considering how good the video looks, how does the audio fare? Let’s face it, we all know what to expect from a standard 7.1 Dolby TrueHD Master Audio track, so it’s especially nice to see Disney/Marvel finally make the leap not just to 4K, but they’ve brought along their first Dolby Atmos track with it. While the 2D/3D 7.1 track is every bit as good as usual, it’s a typical affair. The Atmos track is where they kick things up a notch. Surrounds are always engaged with overhead filling in the gaps while directionality is always spot on. The sound design manages to make the tape bit in the finale even funnier as we hear Quill move from speaker to speaker asking for tape. Bass is deeper and more refined, while the dialogue is also precise, clear, and never overpowered. Additional audio tracks are included on the 4K disc: English/Spanish 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus and a French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1; subtitles come in English, English SDH, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin (Traditional).

While the special features have all been relegated to the Blu-ray disc — the 3D also has no features, a plus in my book — Vol. 2 has more than your usual assortment for a Marvel release. While they’re still of the standard EPK variety, the cast and crew at least help make them more fun than usual.

Bonus Round: The Making of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a four-segment feature that comes with a Play All option. “In the Director’s Chair with James Gunn” (8:36) covers the surprise success of the first film and how Gunn set out to make an even better film the second time around now that he can write for the cast as well as their characters. “Reunion Tour: The Music of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (7:37) gives Gunn a chance to rave about how important music is to the creation of a Guardians film. Examples being how the film was scored mostly to the screenplay and how every song was written in and not treated as an afterthought. “Living Planets and Talking Trees: The Visual Effects of Vol. 2” (10:44) allows us a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the films exemplary special effects. “Showtime: The Cast of Vol. 2” (10:41) gives a swift overview of the cast, showing how much fun was had on set and loved working together.

“Guardians Inferno Music Video” (3:35) is a full length music video of the Sneepers song featured in the end credits starring/featuring David Hasselhoff and some fun cameos. “Gag Reel” (3:41) is more clowning around, however, the best part comes from witnessing Russell trying to say Starlord’s name. “Deleted Scenes” (5:04) is armed with a Play All option and include “Adolescent Groot Extended” (1:01), “Memorial to the War on Xandar” (1:18), “Kraglin and Quill Talk Tunes” (0:41), and “Mantis and Drax Feel the Sadness Extended” (2:03). None of these necessarily strengthen the story, but there are some really funny jokes that wouldn’t have been out of place for a second had they been included.

And finally, an “Audio Commentary” is a fun listen with Gunn sitting down to discuss the development and execution of the film. Typical Gunn anecdotes and BFF shoutouts abound, but there is a nice now-poignant story about how one scene was inspired by a campfire performance by Glen Campbell that he was lucky enough to have been part of during a party at Jane Seymour’s house.

Disney/Marvel’s first jump into the 4K arena with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was the perfect place to start. It’s a stupendous presentation from beginning to end and earns the highest marks possible. Giving us a 4K display of the alternating aspect ratio version is just about the only possible way for it to have been even better. As it stands, I think just about everyone is ready for Marvel/Disney to kick it into gear and start releasing their catalogue titles — Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange being the top of the list, considering they’re 4K DI. Even with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales waiting in the wings, Vol. 2 is a disc that could sell 4K TVs like never before. Coupled with an outstanding Dolby Atmos track, Vol. 2 is going to be the disc to beat this year. For the time being, it’s the best 4K disc on the market, period. Obviously.

Article first published on Blogcritics

Blu-ray Review: “Kung Fu Yoga”

Movie: *** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: *****
Extras: ***

In June, Well Go USA released a fun Jackie Chan throwback picture that showed the actor still has plenty of spunk. Now, they’re releasing one of his newest team ups with director Stanley Tong. Together they created some of Chan’s best films: Rumble in the Bronx and Supercop. Now, the two may be showing their age, but Kung Fu Yoga manages to bring out the best in both of them with a quick pace and plenty of Chan’s trademark fight choreography to help in the midst of some horrible acting and questionable CGI.

Jack (Chan), an archeology professor, has come up with one of the best restoration tools ever invented. One day, Ashmita (Disha Patani) arrives from India hoping that Jack can help her. She’s found the map to an ancient treasure and wants Jack to assist in finding it. Along for the ride are Jack’s two assistants — Xiaoguang (Yixing Zhang) and Nuomin (Miya Muqi) — and Kyra (Amyra Dastur), Ashmita’s assistant. Before they know it, they’re having adventures through Tibetan ice caves and mountain temples in India, while the nefarious Randall (Sonu Sood) is hot on their heels. Randall is a descendent of a rebel army leader and wants what feels is rightfully his.

You can tell almost instantly — without looking that is — when a Well Go USA title is on a 50GB disc instead of a 25. Details are sharper, colors are brighter, compression issues are non-existent. And Kung Fu Yoga is no exception. Watching this upscaled on a 75” 4K TV you’d think the picture would look strained, but everything looks better than watching in standard 1080p. It’s great when a disc looks better upscaled, not all of them do.

It’s a good thing they put it on a larger disc considering the included Mandarin DTS:X track. It raises a ruckus with hard hitting punches, pinpoint directionality, and with all the commotion in some scenes, dialogue is never drowned out. So you  never have to worry about that. The film includes a mix of Mandarin, Indian, and English, but if you turn on the English subtitles — hilariously English 5.1 DTS-HDMA and 2.0 Stereo tracks are also offered — they play through the entire movie regardless of whether English is being spoken or not. Chinese subtitles are also available, along with a Mandarin 2.0 Stereo and DTS Headphones:X option.

The special features may not be the best, but with any Chan film they’re bound to at least have some laughs or two. “Best of Both Worlds” (3:41) discusses the fun of crafting a co-production between China and India. “The Dynamic Duo” (2:43) covers the teamwork of Chan and Tong, mentioning this is their eighth film together. “The Making Of” is a standard EPK with cast/crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. “Jackie Chan Featurette” (2:37) is a nice piece with everyone talking about how amazing it is to work alongside Chan and how sincere he is. “Bloopers” (3:23) are self explanatory, as is “Bollywood Dance Featurette” (3:16). The film’s “Trailer” (1:39) rounds things out, along with trailers for additional trailers for This Is Not What I Expected, Railroad Tigers, and Greater.

Kung Fu Yoga never tries to break the mold, but it’s nice to see Chan can still make ’em almost like he used to. The story is a fun throwback to the Indiana Jones films with plenty of nods and references, while the cast gets to show off some practical fight skills amidst some horrible acting from being forced to speak English. If it weren’t for one sequence with some questionable CGI involving hyenas and a tiger, the film could have been a touch tighter and would have flown by even faster. With the help of a fantastic 1080p presentation and a stellar DTS:X track, Kung Fu Yoga is a another welcome addition to Chan’s exhaustive résumé.

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Blu-ray Review: “The Final Master”

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: **

Article first published on Blogcritics.

While not all of the Well Go USA Blu-ray releases have been gold, they do try their hardest to get the rights to some mighty entertaining martial arts films. Granted, some are better than others, but when they’re good, they’re damn good. In the case of The Final Master, Haofeng Xu manages to pull off a triple threat as not just writer/director, but the film is also based on his own novel. After garnering attention from co-writing Kar-Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster — one of the best martial arts films this decade — it’s not surprising to find himself behind the camera. While this may be his third film, he comes armed with spectacular choreography and a wicked sense of humor. The Final Master may not be Grandmaster good, but he’s getting there.

Wing Chung Grandmaster Chen (Liao Fan) — that’s Ip Man to you and me — just wants to honor his master by opening his own school in Tianjin. Master Zheng (Chin Shi-Chieh) wants to help Chen, but wants to make sure he prepares Chen for his journey. The Tianjin Martial Arts Committee has a set of rules, one being that he must prove he’s not on an ego trip and must defeat eight schools. He also needs a wife and a protege. The headstrong Zhao (Song Jia) will do for the wife and he settles on the impressive street fighter Geng (Song Yang) to train under his strict guidance. Soon enough, Chen finds himself under the scrutiny of the Committee and becomes a pawn in a battle with Zheng, underworld kingpin Master Zou (Jiang Wenli), and the local military where Chen stands to lose everything.

Reviewing Well Go USA Blu-rays feels like a broken record. The only major difference between discs seems to be whether they are afforded a 25 or 50 GB disc. Depending on a number of extras, and audio track, most are on a 25, such is the case with The Final Master. Featuring only a Mandarin 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 Dolby Digital track helps visually when there are also only three short special features vying for space.

Banding is non-existent, crush never creeps in to ruin shadow detail — it helps that most of the film takes place during the day. While possibly being filmed digitally, there’s a nice filmic image — if slightly noisy — when watched upscaled on a 75” 4K TV. Close-ups provide exemplary detail even when costumes start to lose the slightest bit of detail from long shots. Contrast and colors are also spot on. The audio track could have used a 7.1, Atmos, or DTS:X track, but the 5.1 mix still packs a pretty good punch. Surrounds don’t come into play as often as they could, the film feels extremely front heavy, but music, sound effects, and dialogue are all clean and discernible. Panning effects and directionality are used to great effect considering a number of fight scenes. English and Spanish subtitles are included.

The special features could have been a little more sprawling — they clock in at less than eight minutes combined — but are pretty fun while they last. “The Weapons” (3:26) is a basic look at the weapons used throughout the film, while a “Director Featurette” (2:37) is a standard EPK praising Xu. The film’s trailer (1:38) is included, along with front-loaded previews for additional Well Go USA titles: God of War, The Game Changer, and Railroad Tigers.

Considering how many films have been made covering the legacy of Ip Man, it takes something different to stand out from the crowd. Xu’s The Final Master has a hilarious sense of humor and the prerequisite fight scenes to pique one’s interest. Ip Man fans will no doubt rush to pick this one up and have made a wise choice. It was nice to sit back and be entertained for a change with a martial arts film that didn’t take itself completely seriously. Sometimes that can make them just feel silly by the final fight. But with Well Go’s track record on the A/V end, and Xu keeping you entertained from start to finish. The Final Master may not be the final Ip Man film,  but it’s a fantastic addition to the pack.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Movie Review: “Annabelle: Creation”

Annabelle: Creation

***** out of 5
109 minutes
Rated R for horror violence and terror
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at

A few issues were working against Annabelle: Creation. Mostly, that the first movie was not that great. While the first Annabelle had a few moments that helped it find a place as a Conjuring spin-off, it was nowhere near on par with either of the Conjurings. Then there’s director David F. Sandberg — whose own Lights Out was one of the worst films of last year — and screenwriter Gary Dauberman returning from the first Annabelle. But something funny happened on Annabelle’s return to the big screen: they got everything right and Creation is the scariest film of the year so far!

Traveling even further back in time (1957), Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) is a doll maker who has just finished creating the first ever Annabelle doll. Life is good for the Mullins — including his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and daughter Bee (Samara Lee), but not before Bee is run over by a car and killed. Twelve years later, the Mullins have turned their home into an orphanage. Along comes a busload of children and teens — most importantly Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Talitha Bateman) who has a bum leg thanks to polio — brought by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) who just wants the girls to have some kind of normalcy. But just wouldn’t you know it, a locked door holds dark secrets and soon enough, demons, possession, and terror abound.

Sandberg instantly seems to be paying homage to Guillermo del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone putting the Mullins’ home in the middle of a deserted countryside full of evil spirits. It also shares the honor of being every bit as terrifying, if not more so. You’d be hardpressed to find a bigger fright machine that Annabelle: Creation, and can proudly wear the moniker until Pennywise returns next month in It (which Dauberman also co-wrote only making me even more excited for it). Until then, Creation is full of terrifying visuals and scare sequences that don’t simply rely on jump scares. Sandberg and Dauberman make sure to squeeze every ounce of mayhem possible out of every situation. Where most films would cut away after something horrific happens, the camera never moves and we get to watch the horrific sequence continue. Scarecrows, crawl spaces, chair lifts, even a crucifix, are all used to maximum effort.

It helps having such a game cast to put through the wringer. While Wilson is no stranger to the genre — a standout against the older cast in the other superior prequel Ouija: Origin of Evil — Bateman manages to steal the show away from everyone. She gives Janice an arc most horror characters could only dream of. To put it bluntly, Sandberg and Dauberman have outdone their previous efforts and are completely forgiven for their past discretions. The Conjuring finally has a usurper, yes, Creation is even scarier than that first film that kicked off the whole Ed and Lorraine Warren Universe. But if they keep making them even halfway as scary as Creation is — next up is The Nun (Dauberman again) — then Warner Bros. certainly has their own horror multiverse full of carefully crafted monsters the likes of which Universal can only envy. Annabelle: Creation is the best and scariest horror film of the year, now that’s something for horror fans to scream about.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Movie Review: “The Dark Tower”

The Dark Tower

*** out of 5
95 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including sequences of gun violence and action
Sony Pictures

Article first published at 

My first trip to the top of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series was unsuccessful. After plowing my way through the first four books, I hit a roadblock when I reached the fifth. I considered it unreadable and stopped, dead in my tracks. Cut to a few years later and the Tower kept calling me back. I wanted to finish the series and decided that maybe the best way to do it would be to embark on a quest of my own. After weeks of research I put together a pretty definitive reading list, putting them in order by how they’re connected, and started from scratch. (The reading order will be listed below for interested parties.) Taking just over a year to complete, I made my way through and came out the other side of the door, say thankya. So with the film finally on its way after 10 years in development hell, I knew it was time to hit the road with my favorite literary ka-tet and try to make another run through before it came out. While I may only have made it 70 percent through Wolves of the Calla, The Dark Tower screening has come and gone. I have seen the film and while it’s far from perfect, it’s still another turn of the wheel. For those who feel the most burned, it comes down to this: the film in their head was way better than what co-writer/director Nikolaj Arcel finally delivered. And while it may come with King’s own blessing, along with Robin Furth’s (Stephen King research assistant, Dark Tower Concordance author, DT comic book writer), there’s no denying that this Dark Tower may be an empty shell of an epic eight book series. There’s plenty of fun to be had for those willing to chuck khef out the window and just be thankful that we ever got anything at all. While the film may never have lived up to expectations, the best thing to do is just skip the first four steps of the grieving process and come to accept that this is the cinematic Dark Tower. We still have the books at our disposal. While it may not be new and improved, if Star Trek can have an alternate universe, then so can The Dark Tower. The whole series runs on the existence of multiverses and this movie just exists on a different level of the tower — which is the whole point to begin with. It was always said to be a “sequel” to the books. Even though this may be the loosest use of the word — Roland (Idris Elba) being in possession of the Horn of Eld as the only clue — therein lies the film’s biggest flaw. There are only one or two lines of dialogue that even remotely reference the books. One is better than the other, while the other is a huge spoiler for anyone who may not get through the books before the movie comes out. For the rest of us, we’re left scratching our heads as to how a complete reboot can be considered a sequel. t Then there’s the issue with Arcel — and co-writers Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and somehow-Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman — cramming in as many references to other King films rather than focusing on what makes the series work: character. Thank Ka we got Elba cast as Roland. The man is our beloved Gunslinger, he’s just stuck in a really bad reimagining. If there happens to be more films — we’ll see what happens with the TV series, which is supposedly going to be a straight adaptation of the fourth book, Wizard and Glass — Sony Pictures has some serious making up to do. Aside from the film’s many, many issues, Matthew McConaughey is surprisingly being one of the biggest flaws. He always looks bored, completely sleepwalking his way through a literary icon and it shows that he only spent a few days in the role. (Confirmed by Elba on Jimmy Fallon.) The last scene of the film is one of the most obviously tacked on studio-meddling sequences in recent memory. There’s no way studio interference didn’t bring this one about. It’s abominable. Let’s just say that with how meta the books get, I’ve got a great idea to make the next movie even more so. Call me! As it stands, The Dark Tower seemed to have three camps walking out. 1) Those who love the core books and are more casual King readers loathed the film with every ounce of their being. 2) Those who have never read a single book who seemed to enjoy it for what it is. 3) Those who may be a little in over our heads when it comes to The Dark Tower who feel complacent. That’s really the only word for it. The saddest part is they cater so much to fans while dumbing it down for everyone else that it turns the whole movie into a giant muddled mess. Even my wife — currently finishing up Wizard and Glass — was thoroughly confused. They spend so much time simplifying the story and even more time on exposition. It doesn’t help that the plot is culled from multiple books, some even from outside the core. For anyone who wants more information as to why the Breakers are so important, read Black House immediately! Long story short, there was no way The Dark Tower was ever going to live up to anyone’s expectations. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the film exists at all. Arcel does the best he can in trying to wrangle in an entire multiverse of storytelling. Could it have been better if he was given free reign to make a straight adaptation? Absolutely! But it could have been far worse. Early versions of the script were way worse from early reports so it’s a testament to Arcel for getting anything up on the big screen. Let alone something that so dearly loves King and all his works. For those willing to go along for the ride, most of the gang’s all here. Sombra, Taheen, Manni, oh my! Even the opening production logos features one for the Tet Corporation. Now that I think about it, maybe that should be the first clue for what you’re getting into. Maybe this is their version of the books? It certainly puts an even more meta spin on things. Considering how lazy some of the movie is, that’s giving it too much credit. However, if they would like to take credit, I’m happy to provide a mailing address for a royalty check. The Dark Tower was always bound to piss most people off. After 40 years, there’s no denying the power of the beams was too powerful to make something palatable to modern audiences while appeasing the rest of us. On the flip side, considering we live in a time where we have three Lord of the Rings/Hobbit films, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones, it only shows how much more room there was for Arcel to get it right. As it stands, a Dark Tower film finally exists and that is the truth.

*As promised, in order:
The Eyes of the Dragon
The Little Sisters of Eluria
The Gunslinger (Book 1)
The Drawing of the Three (Book II)
The Stand
Night Surf
The Talisman
The Waste Lands (Book III)
Rose Madder
Wizard and Glass (Book IV)
’Salem’s Lot
Jerusalem’s Lot
From a Buick 8
The Wind Through the Keyhole (Book IV.5)
Low Men in Yellow Coats
The Shining
Doctor Sleep
Wolves of the Calla (Book V)
The Dead Zone
Bag of Bones
Song of Susannah (Book VI)
Duma Key
The Mist
Lisey’s Story
Black House
Everything’s Eventual
The Dark Tower (Book VII)