My Two Cents
Friday, 15 November 2019 18:57

Criterion’s Feb slate revealed, plus the Star Wars Prequels, Rogue One & Force Awakens in 4K

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All right, first things first today: Criterion has just announced its February 2020 slate of Blu-ray and DVD titles.

Look for it to include Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (Spine #1014 – Blu-ray and DVD) on 2/11, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (Spine #1013 – Blu-ray and DVD) and an updating of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antoni Gaudí (Spine #425 – Blu-ray and DVD) on 2/18, and Jeannie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (Spine #1018 – Blu-ray and DVD) and Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman (Blu-ray and DVD) on 2/25. That last set includes Journey to the Beginning of Time (Spine #1015), Invention for Destruction (Spine #1016), and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Spine #1017). You can read more here at the Criterion website.

Those are all fine titles, but Roma is particularly appreciated given that it was a Netflix release last year and hasn’t been available on physical media yet.

Also today, our own Michael Coate has a new History, Legacy & Showmanship column here at The Bits—first posted yesterday afternoon—in which he looks back at James Cameron’s The Abyss with historian Matthew Kapell in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary. It’s a great piece, so do give it a look. And who knows? Maybe it will remind the director that he’s got a new 4K HDR grade of the film to approve so we can all watch it on Blu-ray and UHD sooner rather than later. [Read on here...]

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Now then… I believe I promised to offer my thoughts on the other Star Wars titles on Disney+. So here goes....

Let me speak generally first: All three of the prequel films look better than I expected them to in 4K. The upsampling is generally strong and the HDR grades are a little more aggressive, which fits the material. As with the classic Star Wars Trilogy, both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are available and I think the latter does a slightly better job optimizing the imagery for your display. And Lucasfilm appears to have applied state of the art processing to give them each a more filmic look. When these films came out on Blu-ray, for example, they were very digital looking. The opening battle scene of Episode III straight-up looked like video… which of course it was. So now they each look a tad more cinematic, and that’s appreciated. But these films are still limited by the circumstances of their production.

The Phantom Menace fares the least well here, which is odd because it was mostly shot on actual 35 mm film. If they’d rescanned the OCN, they’d have gotten a significant bump in resolution. The problem is that the filmed footage is massively integrated with CG visual effects in nearly every shot. So the native 4K material would stick out like a sore thumb and the only way to correct that would be to redo literally all of the visual effects shots. Which, of course, they didn’t. So what they’ve done instead is upsampled the DI and applied a modest Digital Noise Reduction pass to basically the entire film, more so in some shots than others. That means there’s edge enhancement baked into many shots, though it does look like the algorithm has minimized it a bit. Then they color graded the final image. The result is a mixed bag. There’s no improvement in detail (and the DNR means there is sometimes even less detail), but the HDR grade and filmic processing are pleasing. I suppose it’s about the best we could hope for—and again it at least looks better than I expected.

Attack of the Clones… this one is a little tougher for me. So much of what’s in this film just induces a groan from me every time I think about it. But whatever, it is what it is. This was obviously the first Star Wars film shot entirely digitally using the Sony CineAlta HDW-F900 in HDCAM format at 1080/24p and it was finished as a 2K DI. And while detail is still soft, it’s also much more consistent than Phantom and features none of Phantom’s defects. I detect no DNR that wasn’t already there in the first place. The upsampling is quite nice. The color grade is gorgeous, with HDR that really pops nicely. And the post-processing here gives the film a very nice and highly cinematic look. Again, the Blu-ray had a very digital appearance and I like this presentation much more. So there’s that. Once again, it’s better than I expected.

Revenge of the Sith is very much on par with Attack of the Clones in terms of image quality. It too was shot on digitally in HDCAM format at 1080/24p and finished as a 2K DI. But fine image detail and texturing seem a little tighter and more nuanced here, and there are fewer flaws in the image that might be exaggerated by upsampling. I suspect that’s due to improvements in camera technology; this film used the upgraded Sony CineAlta HDC-F950 (vs the earlier HDR-F900). There’s also a LOT more for high dynamic range to work with in this film, and both HDR10 and Dolby Vision really give the image a lovely pop. The highlights still have a slightly video look (meaning they’re a bit hot and tend to lack detail), but on the whole this is the most consistently pleasing image of the three Prequels. By no means does it compare to the classic Star Wars Trilogy in 4K, but as with Phantom and Sith, this film looks better than I expected in 4K.

The Atmos sound mixes for all three of these films are spectacular. I’ll review them in much more detail when the physical 4K UHDs arrive next year, but these are definitely demo worth mixes. The Podrace sequence in Phantom is spectacular, the Jango Fett/Obi-Wan asteroid chance in Clones is great too (that seismic charge blast effect is terrific in the height channels), and Sith thrills sonically from start to finish. Not to mention the fact that these three films offer some of John Williams’ best and most expansive scores in the Saga.

I should note that I haven’t watched all three films end-to-end yet, so I can’t comment on any additional changes or tweaks George Lucas may have made to them. I don’t know of any at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a few.

If I were to grade these Disney+ presentations compared to other 4K, I’d do so thusly:

The Phentom Menace (Video/Audio): C-/A
Attack of the Clones: C+/A
Revenge of the Sith: B-/A+

Again, I’ll be curious to see how these streams compared to the full-bandwidth presentations on physical 4K Ultra HD next year.

Now for the newer stuff… The Force Awakens was shot on 35 mm film once more, and looks it. Image detail is abundant, while texturing has a lovely and natural quality. Grain is present, as it should be, but it’s appealing and never excessive. The film was finished originally as a native 4K DI and it shows. The wider gamut expands the color palette nicely (particularly appreciated in the Jakku desert scenes) and the HDR grade doesn’t alter it. High dynamic range deepens the shadows yet retains detail, while the highlights have a nice luminous glow. The improvement in detail is not insignificant and I think the HDR really enhances the image; I definitely prefer this presentation to the 1080p Blu-ray. And I can’t wait to see how this will look on physical 4K with less compression. The Atmos mix on this film is quite good, though not as impressive as or aggressive as the Prequels.

The Force Awakens: A-/A-

And here’s great news… Rogue One looks straight-up terrific in 4K. This one was shot digitally in the ARRIRAW codec at 6.5K using the Arri Alexa 65 and it was finished as a native 4K Digital Intermediate. So it’s just bursting with lovely fine detail. Texturing is nuanced and exquisite. The HDR grade enhances both the darkest shadows and brightest highlights—both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are excellent. Color is lush, rich, and natural. And the combination of the higher resolution, wider color gamut, and HDR gives the film a highly dimensional look throughout, but especially in the film’s climatic battle sequence. When the X-Wings dive toward the Scarif shield generator, you’ll feel like you’re right there in the middle of them. Really the only strike against this presentation, in my mind, is that it’s compressed for streaming. I REALLY can’t wait to see this film in physical 4K with max data rates. The Atmos mix here is fantastic too, and the height channels are used to great effect when the Death Star fires on Jedda and during the space battle. Even as a stream, this 4K presentation thrills from start to finish.

Rogue One: A/A+

All right that’s enough Star Wars discussion for one week. I’ll talk about The Mandalorian and Disney+ more generally here in my column on Monday.

But before we go, let me first take a moment to acknowledge the passing of the great film production designer Lawrence G. Paull, who died on Sunday at the age of 81. Paull’s work on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner stands for all time as a testament to his talents, and he worked on such films as Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone as well. I’ve very glad that Paull got to live long enough to see the future he helped create become the present. Cinephiles owe him a debt. You can read more here at the Hollywood Reporter.

Okay... have a good weekend, folks! See you back here on Monday.

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)



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