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When you get right down it, for a pop-culture icon like King Kong, it’s surprising that the Big Ape hasn’t had a whole lot of cinematic success. Sure, the 1933 RKO original is an all-time masterwork, but you can’t say the same about its hastily produced sequel “Son of Kong,” its decent – if not somewhat overlooked – 1976 Dino DeLaurentiis remake, or that version’s own, terrible follow-up “King Kong Lives.” A pair of ‘60s Toho productions brought Kong to Japan – including a silly skirmish with Godzilla – and the best you can say about them is that they’re at least more fun than Peter Jackson’s self-indulgent 2005 remake of the original, which was both miscast and painfully overlong.

All of those mostly misfired adventures make KONG: SKULL ISLAND (***, 118 mins., 2017, PG-13; Warner) a solid monster romp that fans will likely savor – very much a modern studio concoction that’s light on things like character development and heavy on what most will want to see out of the premise, including Kong battling an assortment of prehistoric/mythical beasties that populate the title locale.

This companion piece to Legendary Pictures’ 2014 “Godzilla” sends an overpopulation of characters to Skull Island during the mid ‘70s, including a pair of “Monarch” scientists (John Goodman, current “24″ hero Corey Hawkins) who want to utilize the mission to prove giant monsters exist. Accompanying their journey are a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a pretty photographer (Brie Larson) fresh from working in Vietnam, and an overzealous military colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) and his men, uncertain of the dangers lurking ahead. Once on the island, the group very quickly runs into the island’s big primate, a guardian protecting its native people – and an American pilot (John C. Reilly) stranded on the island since WWII – from horrors that stretch beyond giant bananas.

With ILM’s special effects triumphantly rendering a new Kong, “Skull Island”’s hero is brilliantly articulated and impressive to behold, towering above the human characters as he takes on a giant octopus and weird, reptile-like beasts. The monster mayhem is entertaining and convincingly animated, particularly where scale is concerned – an area that greatly improves upon Peter Jackson’s conception of the character, as none-too-subtle dialogue lines are dropped here and there that Kong’s not done “growing” yet (setting us up for the inevitable rematch with Godzilla in 2020).

If only the human element was as satisfying: with a brisk, sub-two hour running time, there’s not enough room to develop the movie’s vast array of characters, with one getting the feeling that scenes are often missing (i.e. no introductions between certain people, side characters who just show up). Case in point is Tom Hiddleston’s character, who could’ve been digitally removed from the movie at no cost. Who is he? Why is he there? The character serves almost no purpose – and yet he’s your top billed “lead”!

Much like “Star Wars: Rogue One,” the characters fall completely into paper-thin “types” – the crazy military colonel, the attractive photographer, the nerdy scientist – and you walk out of the theater being completely unable to recall any of their names. John C. Reilly’s character is also an odd duck, starting off as what feels like comic relief before morphing into the movie’s heart, soul and moral compass – but it would’ve been more effective if the character wasn’t portrayed so broadly, and more emotion had been developed as part of his performance.

These days, though, things like “heart” are held to a minimum in order to sell these blockbuster behemoths to foreign markets – and the bottom line is “Kong: Skull Island” does get the job done. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only other feature credit is the amiable 2013 indie film “The Kings of Summer,” harbors none of “Godzilla” auteur Gareth Edwards’ pretentiousness, and delivers the goods right out of the gate in so far as unveiling Kong himself and letting fans enjoy what they paid to see. Make no mistake about who’s King in this cinematic dojo.

4K Rundown: A smashing UHD release from Warner, “Skull Island”’s gorgeous use of HDR should make it a favorite among 4K owners. Unsurprisingly, the special effects sequences – Kong’s fight with the main underground monsters, Hiddleston and company slaying small versions of those same creatures – are the biggest beneficiaries of the UHD enhancements, and the image quality is spectacular throughout. Dolby Atmos audio is constantly active, a Blu-Ray copy is also included, and light extras include a commentary, only four minutes of deleted scenes, brief featurettes and a Digital HD copy.

It seems like Hollywood’s major offerings over recent years have basically fallen into several camps: sequels, super-hero films, kid-pics and raunchy R-rated comedies stockpiled with bodily fluid jokes. That roster hasn’t made for a memorable era at the movies, yet one “reboot” (I shudder at using the term) embraced its heritage and utilized modern technology to produce a fresh take on familiar material.

That distinction goes to Fox’s recent “Planet of the Apes” films, which launched with the surprisingly terrific RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (****, 105 mins., 2011, PG-13), a movie that at one time sounded like a bad joke – perhaps understandably given its premise of “James Franco starring with CGI monkeys” and a series still trying to shake off the general disappointment that greeted Tim Burton’s quirky but uneven 2001 semi-homage.

This genuine reworking of the franchise did what Burton’s remake failed to accomplish: take the series’ original concept, alter it for modern sensibilities, update it with cutting-edge special effects and infuse it with an emotional range no prior “Apes” film offered beyond the ‘68 original. Briskly paced at barely 90-minutes plus (minus its lengthy end credits), exciting and decidedly different than its predecessors, “Rise” wasn’t just the surprise film of its season but one of the best films of 2011 altogether.

Franco plays a genetic scientist trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s (he’s personally invested because his father, played by John Lithgow, suffers from it), and thinks he’s found it after testing on a primate named Bright Eyes who shows enhanced intelligence. Unfortunately the ape goes berserk in front of the corporate board members funding the research, leaving Franco to reluctantly take home her infant after his boss tells him to euthanize all the remaining chimps.

The baby simian, who Lithgow names Caesar, displays the same level of intelligence as his late parent, but as he grows, Caesar becomes aware that he’s not like the humans who raised him. After Lithgow ends up in a confrontation with a hothead neighbor, Caesar rushes to his defense and is subsequently forced to live in a primate facility overseen by Brian Cox and his unsympathetic, cruel assistant (Tom Felton from the “Harry Potter” films). Caesar also doesn’t get along with his fellow apes at first, but soon learns to turn the tables on his captors…

Rupert Wyatt, a British director with only a couple of credits behind him, helmed “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa penned the movie’s screenplay. All of them, along with WETA Digital which produced the special effects and Andy Serkis who performed Caesar in motion-capture form, deserved an enormous amount of credit for making one of the best science-fiction films in recent memory. Serkis’ articulation as Caesar is moving and sympathetic, enhanced by a photo-realistic design of the primates that could’ve never been duplicated by having men in monkey suits act out these particular roles.

The film taps into modern science and establishes a Frankenstein-like premise, yet never becomes preachy; it chronicles Caesar’s rebellion and cruel treatment at the hands of Cox and Felton, but refrains from becoming overly violent or depressing; it culminates in a big action climax (one of the finest set-pieces I’ve seen on-screen in years), but accentuates character development – especially Caesar’s relationship with his fellow apes – instead of just a litany of haphazardly edited action scenes like most modern blockbusters. This refreshing tone carries the picture through its lean running time splendidly, and the ending is a big surprise as well – instead of being foreboding and downbeat, it’s inspiring and downright poignant, two feelings none of its series predecessors instilled in viewers.

Fans of the old films will enjoy the mostly subtle references to the originals (from character names to quick on-screen allusions), but the filmmakers wisely follow the reprise of one of Charlton Heston’s legendary lines with a big dramatic moment that’s tremendously well executed. Patrick Doyle’s score lacks the primal, percussive drive of Danny Elfman’s 2001 soundtrack, yet still works well, particularly in its concluding moments.

4K Rundown: Fox’s 4K UHD presentation of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” benefits from improved clarity and HDR enhancements, though truthfully, the movie’s use of CGI – as effective as it is – is a little bit more problematic in the new UHD transfer. The movie’s relatively frugal budget – considering its material – does result in some of the lesser animations in the picture to be more evident in its UHD transfer, which benefits from increased detail in darker sequences. Overall, I’d say this is a decent, slight upgrade to the already-superb Blu-Ray transfer (the 5.1 DTS MA audio is the same mix as the Blu-Ray), with the UHD retaining a pair of interesting commentary tracks: one from director Wyatt and another featuring the writers, who attribute the film’s surprising conclusion and tonal shift from the dark and depressing to the director. According to those who read an early draft of the picture’s script, it’s worth noting that the collaboration of the filmmakers with Serkis, the cast and effects team resulted in something more substantial than the more depressing, and predictable, script that the picture had in its initial stages.

Sturdy and entertaining, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (***, 130 mins., PG-13) followed in 2014, finding ape and man – what’s left of it in a post-plague San Francisco – existing tenuously in this worthy, if overall less satisfying, sequel.

At the end of “Rise,” Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the advanced primates, established an evolving ape colony in the forests outside Frisco – when director Matt Reeves’ film opens, humans haven’t been seen in a few years, enabling the apes to set family roots and lay the groundwork for their own world. Eventually, humans do cross their paths – led by the understanding Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Part of a dwindling society holed up inside the city, Malcolm tells Caesar that the humans need access to a dam that will generate power for the surviving populace. Despite hesitation on the part of suspicious apes that recall their imprisonment and scientific experimentation in “Rise,” Caesar sets a truce that enables the humans to carry out their work – but both sides find peace difficult to attain.

Taking a cue from its predecessor, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is rich with characterizations, and the Mark Bomback/Rick Jaffa/Amanda Silver script plays out on a refreshing course that’s ultimately unexpected (one hot-headed human character proves to be a red herring for the movie’s main turn of events). It’s a credit to the filmmakers that the movie manages to convey a number of social messages without becoming overly preachy – something that marred the original “Apes” films back in the ’60s and ‘70s.

Reeves integrates the motion-captured primates with his human cast – used here as supporting characters – as effectively as Rupert Wyatt did in “Rise,” once again relying on Serkis’ strengths to create a leading character in Caesar whom audiences can root for and identify with. Most of the apes use sign language instead of speech, and the film’s opening set-piece is rousingly executed without dialogue. Human performers like Clarke and Russell, meanwhile, fare well with what they have to work with, though the movie feels a bit incomplete with a few of their subplots left unresolved (or simply neglected) by the picture’s end.

When the bleep hits the fan in the final third, “Dawn” turns up the special effects and action sequences, and while they’re reasonably well-done, this proves to be the least compelling segment of the film. Despite having a larger budget and more elaborate FX, “Dawn”‘s added bombast doesn’t add up to a whole lot emotionally, whereas its predecessor told a more poignant story on a smaller scale. I was also surprised at how little the film’s overall “world” is advanced by the time the movie is over, with “Dawn” ending just a step or two ahead of where it starts – promising even more “war” to follow in the upcoming third entry (which looks distressingly like a retread of this film). After the finely-crafted characterizations and more intimate drama established in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” – as well as the first two-thirds of this film – I hope the filmmakers don’t give in to the temptation to simply “turn up the apocalypse” in future installments.

4K Rundown: Another superb UHD release, Fox’s “Dawn” 4K platter is marked by stronger detail in blacks, which given the movie’s dank, foresty surroundings, makes it a nice enhancement from 1080p presentations. The movie’s CGI also acquits itself a little better here, seeing as Fox spent a bit more money in “Dawn”’s production budget, resulting in a first-class 4K presentation all the way. The 7.1 DTS MA audio is the same mix that was found on the Blu-ray, with extras housed on the 1080p platter (deleted scenes, commentary, numerous featurettes). Both “Apes” discs also include a Digital HD copy.

GHOST IN THE SHELL 4K Combo Pack (**, 106 mins., 2017, PG-13; Paramount): Disappointing live-action version of the famous Japanese anime drew controversy for its casting of Scarlett Johansson in the main role of a mechanically-enhanced female created to take down cyber criminals. What “Major” finds, however, is that her own identity has been corrupted by the corporation that created her, leading her on a journey of self-discovery along with causing all kinds of mayhem along the way. This long-gestating Dreamworks production, helmed by Rupert Sanders, offers little in the way of surprises, along with a convoluted story that’s never appealing as executed, though the visuals are nice.

4K Rundown: Paramount’s UHD combo pack boasts Dolby Atmos audio along with High Dynamic Range capability that really sings on the 4K UHD disc. Reds and blacks are the most obvious upgrades on the 4K disc, with a slight bump in definition present but colors being the strongest beneficiary of the enhancements from 4K. The Dolby Atmos audio is unsurprisingly boisterous, and extras on the standard Blu-Ray offer just a few standard featurettes and a Digital HD copy.

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS 4K UHD Combo Pack (**, 136 mins., 2017, PG-13; Universal): “Fast and the Furious VIII” marks the series’ first entry without star Paul Walker (not counting the underrated “Tokyo Drift”), as series writer Chris Morgan and new director F. Gary Gray here direct the franchise squarely into the realm of “Mission: Impossible” ridiculousness – all the better to sell the film to foreign markets.

This time out, Vin Diesel’s “Dom” turns his back on his crew (returning Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) by shockingly aligning himself with a mysterious hacker named Cipher (Charlize Theron) who’s tops on the government’s most wanted list. Speaking of them, top dog Kurt Russell assembles Dom’s group – with the addition of ex-agent Dwayne Johnson and his former nemesis Jason Statham – in the hopes of taking down Cipher and understanding what Dom’s true  motivation happens to be.

“Fate of the Furious” throws in a couple of patently absurd action sequences – including a one-of-a-kind “car ski” sequence set in Russia – to keep fans engaged, but it’s pretty clear early on that “sequelitis” has firmly entrenched itself here. Characters are sketchily defined at best in a silly story that feels awfully fragmented, even for this series: scenes with Johnson and Statham are more entertaining than the rest of the film, which plays out as a dumb, bloated slice of modern escapism inferior to most of its predecessors (including its high watermark, “Fast 5”). After just a few minutes, many may feel as if they’ve seen enough.

4K Rundown: Universal’s 4K combo pack of “Fate and the Furious” gives you exactly what you’d anticipate: a razor-sharp and boldly colorful HVEC encode that offers a blazing use of HDR. Reds, blues and especially blacks are expertly delivered in a 4K transfer that, by itself, is well worth watching simply for its flawless delivery of the movie’s visual design. This is a movie where something is always happening from a visual perspective – be it an array of special effects or international locales (Cuba is a setting early on) – and on an eye-candy level, it’s an easy recommend for UHD owners. The DTS X audio is hugely immersive and extras include commentary from Gray, a handful of featurettes, a Blu-Ray copy, and both a Digital HD version of the film and a digital-only “Extended Director’s Cut” adding some 12 minutes of footage.

SONG TO SONG 4K Ultra HD/Blu-Ray (**, 129 mins., 2016, R; Broadgreen): If you’ve watched just portions of Terrence Malick’s recent outings, you know what to expect from “Song to Song.” This long-in-development outing (as all of his films typically are) features a loose “story” set in Austin, Texas, where aspiring songwriter Rooney Mara struggles to choose between fellow music scribe Ryan Gosling and an industry executive (Michael Fassbender), while Natalie Portman is a waitress the latter is also infatuated with. All four find themselves in thinly-defined relationships with plenty of music…and terrible dialogue. Lots of it, in fact. “Song to Song” was not well-received on the festival circuit and isn’t likely to appeal to anyone other than Malick’s most devoted admirers as it spins a good-looking but narratively barren, unappealing story few are going to want to crack open.

4K Rundown: Malick’s UHD debut turns out to be a solid 4K presentation, with the movie’s moody atmosphere being heightened by the standout (as always) work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The director’s use of evocative visuals laid over sometimes disconnected narration – or what’s worse, cringe-inducing dialogue – does lend itself to the highest quality transfer available, and Broadgreen’s 4K UHD disc conveys a wider pallet of colors and minute details more clearly than the standard (though still very strong) Blu-Ray edition, which is also included here. “The Music Behind the Movie” featurette and a superbly engineered 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack (the same mix on both UHD and Blu-Ray) round out the release.



Sony New Releases

THE FIFTH ELEMENT 4K UHD Combo Pack (***½, 126 mins., 1997, PG-13; Sony): Bruce Willis is an intergalactic taxi driver, Milla Jovovich is a Ronald McDonald-haired outer-space goddess who holds the key to the galaxy, and Gary Oldman does a Russ Perot accent in “The Fifth Element,” an inventive sci-fi fantasy that surprised box-office prognosticators upon its release in May ’97. These days, it’s pure eye candy courtesy of writer-director Luc Besson — it doesn’t matter that the plot is recycled out of a number of genre films — that’s part of the point of Besson’s tongue-in-cheek script, which makes just enough sense to hang all of his outlandish and simply spectacular visuals on. Speaking of which…

4K Rundown: “The Fifth Element”’s main enhancement in the UHD realm isn’t so much HDR and a wider color spectrum but its general grain structure. The movie seems much more detailed here, especially the closer one looks at the finer elements in the image – and when compared with prior Blu-Ray releases from Sony (the first of which was a botched transfer from the get-go). On the sound end, Dolby Atmos audio is constantly active with effects while still retaining a clear line for the movie’s dialogue. What’s more, an exclusive special feature on the 4K UHD disc is a new interview with Luc Besson, sweetening a strong special features package on the Blu-Ray end (trivia track and multiple featurettes on the production). A Digital HD copy rounds out what should be a satisfying upgrade for “Fifth Element” fans.

LEON THE PROFESSIONAL 4K UHD Combo Pack (***, 109/133 mins., 1994, R/Not Rated; Sony): One of Luc Besson’s most satisfying works, chronicling the unlikely pairing of a pre-teen (Natalie Portman) with a New York City hitman (Jean Reno) as they seek revenge against a crazed gangster (Gary Oldman), is also the beneficiary of the 4K UHD treatment this month from Sony. The movie is stylish, entertaining and well-acted, particularly from the two leads, and solidified Besson as a viable player in North America, a market he had previously struggled to gain much traction in.

4K Rundown: Sporting both the film’s original theatrical version (109 minutes) as well as its more leisurely paced Director’s Cut (133 minutes), “Leon” has never looked or sounded better than it does here – in fact, I found the overall cinematography of the film to benefit even more from UHD than “The Fifth Element.” The film’s various colors, contrasts and deep blacks are more pronounced on UHD than Blu-Ray, while grain is enhanced without getting out of control (as it did in sections of, say, Sony’s “Ghostbusters” 4K transfer). The 4K presentation here deftly enhances the movie’s sleek widescreen visuals while a potent Dolby Atmos soundtrack provides the backing for a highly active sound design and Eric Serra’s score. This is a marvelous package that should prove to be essential for “Leon” devotees (though it is a Best Buy exclusive for the time being).

Blu-Ray extras, meanwhile, are carried over from prior DVD editions and are quite satisfying: “Natalie Portman: Starting Young” contains a retrospective interview with the actress, reflecting back on her still-discussed, career-launching role; “Jean Reno: The Road to Leon” offers then-recent comments from the international star, while the 25-minute “10 Year Retrospective” includes comments from Portman, Reno, and other cast/crew members, with the notable omission of Besson. There’s also a Digital HD copy and additional trivia track on the extended cut.

SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE 4K UHD Combo Pack (**, 90 mins., 2017, PG; Sony): The third big-screen “Smurfs” movie in this current run of Sony-produced features wisely drops the human component, opting instead for an “all-blue” animated affair that has Smurfette and the boys uncovering a hidden Smurfs village in the Forbidden Forest. There, the group uncovers a secret group of smurfs (girls!) who help Smurfette “sort out her identity” (kind of) and uncover their origins, all the while being pursued by the vile sorcerer Gargamel.

Kids might enjoy the frivolous “Smurfs: The Lost Village” quite a bit more than its predecessors. There’s no Neil Patrick Harris or Hank Azaria here, camping it up while the Smurfs play second fiddle to cartoonish human characters – make no mistake, this is still a silly cartoon in its own way, naturally, but at least it’s more direct in speaking to its intended audience.

4K Rundown: “Smurfs: The Lost Village” makes for a dynamite 4K release from Sony. The pure-digital master and candy-coated animation are perfectly suited for HDR and the movie benefits enormously from its flawless UHD transfer, which ranks as one of the easy “go to” titles to show off the differences between 4K (which also boasts a Dolby Atmos soundtrack) and 1080p HD, which is still quite excellent by itself. The spectrum of colors, lights and darks, however, is clearly more impressive on the UHD end. Extras on the Blu-Ray side are extensive, including format-exclusive deleted scenes and “Lost Auditions,” plus a slew of behind the scenes featurettes, music videos and more.

Also New & Noteworthy

JOHN WICK – CHAPTER 2 4K UHD Combo Pack (***, 122 mins., 2017, R; Lionsgate): If you are looking for two hours of pounding, bone-crunching action, this sequel to the Keanu Reeves sleeper hit delivers it in a dizzying fashion. A bigger/better sequel that’s not necessarily any more cultivated narratively than its predecessor (despite an additional half-hour running time), this follow-up finds our native gunslinger caught in the middle of an assassination plot that takes him back and forth to Rome and New York City. Along the way, “John Wick – Chapter 2? offers one of the largest body counts in film history, plus some choice bits of humor to break up its bombastic, blazing gun battles.

That said, at two full hours, director Chad Stahelski’s movie does become somewhat repetitious, and boasts precious little character development, story or dramatic engagement. It’s basically just cool, well-choreographed fight sequences strung out with a throbbing musical score – yet if you’re into it, the movie is undeniably exciting for what it is, not so much ending but rather stopping as the door is left fully ajar for Chapter 3. Definitely a way to shake the summer-movie doldrums – or clear your sinuses, provided the volume was as loud in my theater as it could be in yours!

4K Rundown: Lionsgate has delivered a spectacular UHD package with “John Wick – Chapter 2.” A movie that embraces a wide spectrum of colors to begin with, the movie was tailor-made for the benefits of HDR, which the UHD platter presents in an eye-popping blast of visuals. The standard Blu-Ray is, naturally, fine, but there is a clear benefit to the HDR enhancements and the 4K UHD is clearly a step-up in terms of resolution and color over its 1080p counterpart. Both are contained in Lionsgate’s combo pack along with a throbbing Dolby Atmos soundtrack that’s wall-to-wall active in nearly every sequence. Extras include deleted scenes and Making Of featurettes, the trailer, a commentary from Stahelski and Keanu Reeves, and a Digital HD copy.

DREDD 4K UHD Combo Pack (**, 96 mins., 2012, R; Lionsgate): At first I had a hard time wrapping my head around Pete Travis’ 2012 adaptation of the British comic (is “Dredd” really five years old already?). On the one hand, his “Dredd” is stylishly made, opens well, and has some exciting moments in its early stages. On the other, it basically ends up following Dredd (Karl Urban) and his psychic female rookie partner (Olivia Thirlby) down dark corridors for nearly 80 minutes thereafter, with no story and scant dramatic tension. The movie quickly transitions from a strong treatment of the comic book to a typically low-brow Lionsgate shlocker with Lena Headey’s “edgy” villainess (look, she’s got tattoos and a facial scar!) serving drugs to the residents of a futuristic tenement. The editing and camerawork from this point on are also completely routine — and after you’ve seen bullets piercing the flesh in slow-motion a few dozen times, I felt like I had seen everything “Dredd” had to offer (3D added nothing as well outside of some colorful “effects” during the drug-hallucination sequences).

While the much maligned Sylvester Stallone movie may not have been a “proper” treatment of the comic book, at least it was a lot more fun with a human component in its colorful performances (not to mention Alan Silvestri’s score). It also felt a lot more “sci-fi” in scale and tone than this film, which pays scant attention to time and place outside of the gun Dredd uses. This film is relentlessly brooding and ultimately unsatisfying – though a favorite among its fans, it’s no surprise “Dredd” was a box-office bomb around the world.

4K Rundown: Fans should groove to Lionsgate’s 4K UHD presentation of “Dredd,” which ranks with the studio’s best catalog releases so far. Just by bouncing back and forth from the included 1080p Blu-Ray presentation, one can tell that “Dredd”’s HVEC encoded 2.40 UHD transfer benefits from HDR enhancement and deeper blacks. Explosions and the various “bullet effects” stand out a bit more here in 4K, though the movie’s overall visual scheme is one of dank backdrops. Viewed in the dark, especially, though, one can detect a level of detail absent from the Blu-Ray, which by itself is still very good (and Lionsgate’s BD also included a 3D presentation on the same platter). The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is a “wow” with its expertly engineered blend of effects, dialogue and brooding score, and extras carried over from the earlier release include a half-dozen featurettes, “Motion Comic” prequel and the trailer.

EX MACHINA 4K UHD Combo Pack (**½, 108 mins., 2014, R; Lionsgate): Alex Harland’s acclaimed film offers something of a commentary on artificial intelligence after a computer programmer (Dominhall Gleeson) wins the opportunity to interview a reclusive genius (Oscar Isaac) whose latest creation is a fetching robot automaton (Alicia Vikander). Issac’s top-secret program – naturally – has a mind of its own, which eventually causes all kinds of trouble in a movie that’s more successful for its disturbing tone than its screenplay, which concludes in a predictable manner. Still, Vikander’s creation is compelling and the questions the film raises are timely, to say the least.

4K Rundown: “Ex Machina” was released just a couple of years ago by Lionsgate in a potent 1080p Blu-Ray transfer. This 4K UHD presentation does boast more detail in certain sequences even if the movie’s glossy cinematography and dark surroundings don’t always employ the benefits of HDR. Those with larger sets, sitting up close, and in dim lighting conditions, are most likely to see an appreciable difference over the Blu-Ray. The movie’s fine soundtrack is once again presented in a DTS X presentation, though this is an often subtle mix that does not, typically, employ the entire sound field. Extras on the Blu-Ray offer a five-part examination of the picture’s production, eight behind-the-scenes vignettes, and a SXSW Q&A with the cast/crew.

SNITCH 4K UHD Combo Pack (***, 112 mins., 2013, PG-13; Lionsgate): Dwayne Johnson gave one of his better performances to date in the surprisingly good 2013 thriller “Snitch,” with the action star giving more of a dramatic rendering as a family man whose son ends up landing a 10 year conviction for drug possession. In order to save the day, Johnson decides to become an undercover informant for the feds and has to infiltrate a cartel as a result. Ric Woman Waugh’s “Snitch” did decently at the box-office last spring and boasts a fine supporting cast (Barry Pepper, Benjamin Bratt, Susan Sarandon) but it’s really Johnson’s show, and the star gives a strong turn in a film that demands more of him than just flexing his muscles.

4K Rundown: Another winning UHD catalog release from Lionsgate, “Snitch”’s fine details shine in its HDR-enhanced HVEC transfer (2.40). Though the film doesn’t embrace a particularly wide color gamut, the dark blacks and contrasts display enhanced benefits over the Blu-Ray release, which appears glossier and lacks the precision detail one can see from the UHD platter. The Dolby Atmos audio shines when called upon, though the differences between it and the DTS MA 5.1 Blu-Ray track did not appear to be overly noticeable when I selected certain sequences to compare. Extras carried over from the also-included Blu-Ray boast commentary from director Ric Roman Waugh and editor Jonathan Chibnall and a Making Of, plus deleted scenes and the trailer. All the Lionsgate UHD releases also come with Digital HD copies.

LIFE 4K UHD Combo Pack (**, 104 mins., 2017, R; Sony): A crew on the International Space Station makes contact with a cell organism that consumed whatever life was once on Mars. Naturally, when one of the ISS scientists attempts to make “contact” with it, the spore turns out to have parasitic properties that claim the crew one by one with mankind’s entire existence on the line.

That’s the premise of “Life,” a well-made but creatively bankrupt Columbia release that puts its audience through a viewing experience they have seen countless times by now. Daniel Espinosa directed Rhet Reese and Paul Wernick’s screenplay, but the script offers no surprises whatsoever as the hapless victims are picked off in a painful succession of repetitive death scenes (“don’t do it! I’ve got you!”) that all lead to an especially cruel end for whoever’s left. The cast tries hard — Jake Gyllenhall, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds leading the way — yet the material is so obvious and pedestrian that there is little life (no pun intended) any of them can interject into genre cliches that are long past their expiration date.

4K Rundown: Sony’s 4K Ultra HD presentation of “Life” is stellar. Though shot in claustrophobic confines, the visual presentation of the film boasts a subtle but effective use of lighting and colors that do take advantage of HDR — from shots of the ISS orbiting the Earth to occasional flashes of primary colors. Though obviously not an overly “bright” film given its setting, “Life” eschews a stylized or dim approach to its environments, instead favoring “realism” in its depiction of the scientists and the ISS in general. The overall result is a superlative 4K release with equally outstanding Dolby Atmos audio that’s forceful in its directional activity. Extras on the Blu-Ray include deleted scenes and a handful of featurettes, plus a Digital HD copy. Though not a particularly praiseworthy film, the technical presentation of “Life” should warrant a view for 4K owners.

Warner 4K New Releases

Clint Eastwood’s masterwork UNFORGIVEN (***½, 132 mins., 1992, R) marked the star’s farewell to the western – a beautifully layered film about the sins of the past, the folly of youth, and a meditation on heroism. David Webb Peoples, who co-authored the script for “Blade Runner,” orchestrated the perfect vehicle for Eastwood’s adieu to the genre that served him so well for decades, and Eastwood the director brought onboard a peerless supporting cast to aid his efforts, including Gene Hackman as the town sheriff, Morgan Freeman as Eastwood’s partner during their outlaw days, and Richard Harris as an arrogant sniper – all trying to collect a bounty on the men who slashed the face of a prostitute in Hackman’s gun-free town. Jack N. Green’s widescreen lensing adds the perfect “autumnal” component to “Unforgiven”’s rich storyline, which ranks with some of Eastwood’s finest work.

4K Rundown: A Best Picture winner that also earned additional Oscars for Hackman, Eastwood’s direction and Joel Cox’s editing, “Unforgiven” was previously released on Blu-Ray in the format’s early days. That antiquated (though not terrible) VC-1 encoded transfer has now been upstaged by a superior 4K UHD combo pack (also sporting a remastered Blu-Ray) that offers immediate enhancements in color, clarity and overall image definition. Green’s cinematography seems to have more of a three-dimensional effect in the HDR-backed HVEC transfer, with details in the background having much more prominence and sharpness, though the muted color scheme of the film does not, in general, necessarily make this demo material for 4K enhancement. Colors do seem better balanced, and many of the movie’s dark sequences are better replicated by the 4K presentation, but it’s not a night/day upgrade — often just a subtle one. On the audio end, the 5.1 DTS MA sound affords a larger canvas for the movie’s sound design. A Digital HD copy is also included along with the remastered Blu-Ray (AVC encode and 5.1 DTS MA sound), while extras carried over from prior releases include Richard Schickel’s commentary, four documentaries, the trailer, and a classic “Maverick” episode starring Eastwood.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE 4K UHD Combo Pack (**½, 104 mins., 2017, PG; Warner): Intermittently funny but also somewhat grating follow-up to the box-office triumph of “The Lego Movie” didn’t make nearly as much noise at the box-office, to the surprise of some analysts. A closer inspection, though, reveals an obvious reason for “The Lego Batman Movie”’s inferior commercial performance: this way-overlong follow-up focuses on an annoying Batman whose personality is so obnoxious even Gotham rogue’s gallery of villains, led by The Joker, want nothing to do with him. After the bad guys decide to turn themselves in, Batman is left having to spend time, alone, and face an empty, introspective inner-soul.

Director Chris McKay’s film is filled with abundant visual color and in-jokes – including ample comedy poked at the expense of every Batman project that’s come before. Some of this is, indeed, amusing, but the bloated 104-minute running time overstays its welcome by a good 15-20 minutes. It’s easy to see how kids will be entertained by the film, perhaps, but even they might become exhausted by the repetitious comedy – and, worst of all, Will Arnett’s Batman proves to be a real turnoff. While this not-really-Dark Knight eventually has a change of heart, he’s a Scrooge that’s just plain obnoxious for most of the picture and difficult to take, obscuring the picture’s playful visual invention.

4K Rundown: This Warner UHD presentation of “The Lego Batman Movie” offers the most sensational array of colors I’ve seen in 4K to date. Every frame is packed with eye-popping visuals, beautifully detailed and highlighed by deep blacks, robust reds and everything inbetween – while the standard Blu-Ray is also excellent on its own merits, “Lego Batman” makes a very strong case for the enhancements of HDR, so much that I would rank this presentation as one of the best in the UHD format. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is superb also, with extras including filmmaker commentary, four all-new animated shorts, a quartet of deleted scenes and six featurettes on the production.

Cult Corner

THE HEARSE Blu-Ray (**½, 99 mins., 1980, PG; Vinegar Syndrome). WHAT IT IS: Quite watchable Crown International release stars Trish Van Devere as a school teacher who tries to put her life back together after she heads to her aunt’s country home during summer break. There, she’s quickly stalked by a black hearse that motors around backroads at night while uncovering her aunt’s dealings with witchcraft – as well as cranky townsfolk who just want to see her gone. “The Hearse” isn’t as much fun as “The Car” but it’s a nicely executed atmosphere piece from its era, with Joseph Cotten and David Geautreaux (the man who was once supposed to be Spock’s replacement on the ‘70s Star Trek TV revival that never happened) playing opposite George C. Scott’s wife. VINEGAR SYNDROME TECH SPECS: Vinegar Syndrome’s marvelous Blu-Ray offers a beautifully detailed new 2K transfer, restored from the original 35mm camera negative. Details are in abundance and the entire image offers a spectacular clarity that far surpasses any prior release of this modestly-budgeted thriller on home video before. Extras include trailers, TV spots and a promo still gallery. There’s also a terrific new interview with Geautreaux, who discusses the challenges of working with director George Bowers and also talks about auditioning for the third “Omen” movie, a role he lost out on to a young Sam Neill. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Genre fans who enjoy leisurely-paced horror pieces without an abundance of gore might warm to “The Hearse,” with Vinegar Syndrome’s flawless Blu-Ray presentation immeasurably enhancing its modest appeal.

THE STENDAHL SYNDROME 3-Disc Limited Edition Blu-Ray (**, 119 mins., 1995; Blue Underground). WHAT IT IS: I’ve never been a huge fan of Dario Argento but some of his fans are sure to love Blue Underground’s new 3-disc Limited Edition of “The Stendahl Syndrome,” presented here in a fresh 2K reatoration from the original camera negative. This freaky and uncomfortable thriller stars Argento’s daughter Asia as a detective who encounters a phenomena which causes her to go insane after being around certain works of art…and also helps her track down a serial killer in Italy. With music by Ennio Morricone, “The Stendhal Syndrome” is a stylish looking film though even Argento die-hards were split over the picture’s eventual release, with many finding it to be a disappointment. Aficionados of the movie, though, will at least appreciate Blue Underground’s new effort, which supplants their prior Blu-Ray of nearly a decade ago. BLUE UNDERGROUND TECH SPECS: A fresh 2K transfer (1.85) is one of the main draws to Blue Underground’s limited edition, which also includes 7.1 DTS MA Italian audio (along with 2.0 DTS MA Italian/English dub tracks) and offers a number of new extras, including commentary from author Troy Howarth and recent interviews with star Asia Argento, co-writer Franco Ferrini and makeup artist Franco Casagni. In addition to trailers and still galleries, the set also includes prior featurettes with Argento, “psychological consultant” Graziella Magherini, effects master Sergio Stivaletti, assistant director (and veteran filmmaker) Luigi Cozzi, a DVD copy, and a booklet with commentary from author Michael Gingold. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Though a divisive outing even among Argento faithful, there’s no quibbling with Blue Underground’s superb presentation of “The Stendahl Syndrme” in a remastered, uncut edition that’s superior to its earlier Blu-Ray rendering.

Criterion New Releases

LOST IN AMERICA Blu-Ray (***, 91 mins., 1985, R; Criterion): One of Albert Brooks’ more consistently funny features – and arguably his most acclaimed – “Lost in America” finds Brooks’ harried advertising executive losing out on a promotion, pushing his wife (Julie Hagerty) to leave her current place of employment, buy a Winnebago and head out on a cross-country trip…where she promptly loses nearly everything in Las Vegas, and not even a talk with the casino manager (Garry Marshall) can amend the situation. Things, naturally, go downhill even more so from there, and there are moments of choice observational comedy in Brooks’ critique of the ‘80s rat-race and a yuppie’s attempt to live an idealistic “life on the road” that goes alternately hilariously or depressingly wrong.

Brooks’ “Lost in America” made a modest sum at the box-office despite being buoyed by positive notices from Siskel & Ebert among others. Criterion’s Blu-Ray offers a pinpoint detailed 2K transfer (1.85) licensed through Warner Bros., supervised by Brooks and with an uncompressed mono soundtrack. Extras include a new conversation with Brooks and filmmaker Robert Weide; additional new interviews with Hagerty, executive producer Herb Nanas and screenwriter James L. Brooks, and the original trailer.

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT Blu-Ray (95 mins., 1948; Criterion): Nicholas Ray’s first directorial feature came with this 1948 film noir, where an unfairly convicted fugitive (Farley Granger) is sprung from prison and goes on the lam with bank robbers with whom he plans another score. After meeting the daughter (Cathy O’Donnell) of a gas station owner (Howard DaSilva), however, Granger’s Bowie attempts to go straight…but finds doing so is more difficult than it appears. Ray’s “They Live By Night” is a character-driven melodrama that reads soapier than it plays out, and has been restored by Criterion in a superb new 2K digital restoration with uncompressed mono sound. A commentary from 2007 featuring Granger and historian Eddie Muller is insightful with a new interview with critic Imogen Smith, a 2007 featurette with Oliver Stone, Christopher Coppola, critic Molly Haskell and film noir experts Alain Silver and James Silver, and illustrated audio excerpts from a 1956 talk with producer John Houseman rounding out the release.

THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG Blu-Ray (90 mins., 1927): Alfred Hitchcock’s third feature is a silent thriller marked by stark black-and-white cinematography, telling the story of a mysterious lodger (Ivor Novello) who rents a room at a London boarding house just as a Jack the Ripper-esque killer dubbed the Avenger begins to claim the lives of young women around the city. Cited by critics as one of Hitch’s seminal silent works, “The Lodger” is a crisp and effective film that’s been restored here in a 2K digital restoration that offers a new score by Neil Brand and the Orchestra of Saint Paul, one which fans of the film may or may not warm to given prior releases of the picture. Extra features are glowing, including Hitchcock’s silent feature “Downhill,” also presented in a 2K restoration; a new interview with scholar William Rothman; a video essay by art historian Steven Jacobs; excerpts from audio interviews with Hitchcock, conducted separately by Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdoanovich; a 1940 radio adaptation directed by Hitch; and a new interview with Brand on his score.

Quick Takes

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE Blu-Ray Combo Pack (**½ , 126 mins., 2016, PG-13; Universal): The true story of a Polish woman (played by Jessica Chastain) who runs a zoo in Warsaw just as WWII breaks out made for an acclaimed novel by Diane Ackerman. This film adaptation from “Whale Rider” director Niki Caro, regrettably, is little more than a serviceable take on its source material, with Chastain’s Antonia Zabinska trying to not only save her animals but keep Jews and others out of sight from Nazis by way of the zoo’s tunnels and cages. Angela Workman’s script adds a number of fictional elements to the story, and Chastain frequently appears ill at ease with a dodgy faux-Euro accent. The compelling premise of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” still makes this project watchable, but a better movie should have resulted from its profound story. Universal’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p (2.40) transfer, 5.1 DTS MA sound, deleted scenes, two featurettes, a DVD and Digital HD copy.

UNDERGROUND Season 2 DVD (470 mins., 2017; Sony): Jurnee Smollett-Bell opens Season 2 of the WGN original series with her character, Rosalee, working with Harriet Tubman and a pair of abolitionists (Marc Blucas, Jessica de Gouw) to keep the Underground Railroad running even as the country begins to be embroiled in the Civil War. Sony’s “Underground” Season 2 DVD offers the series’ 10 sophomore-season episodes in fine 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Extra features include a gag reel and deleted scenes from selected episodes. Unfortunately for fans, WGN has since canceled the series, making this release also its “Final Season,” unless it finds a home elsewhere.

THE LOST CITY OF Z Blu-Ray (***, 140 mins., 2016, PG-13; Amazon/Broadgreen): Charlie Hunnam stars in this true story as British explorer Percy Fawcett, a man who ventures into the Amazon in the early 20th century, uncovers a previously unknown native tribe and spends much of his life tracking down a lost city – eventually with the help of his wife (Sienna Miller), son (Tom Holland) and devoted companion (Robert Pattinson). A superb supporting cast – Angus MacFadyen, Ian McDiarmid and Franco Nero among them – also appear with Hunnam in James Gray’s leisurely yet still compelling adaptation of David Grann’s book, which is superbly shot by Darius Khondji. Amazon’s Blu-Ray includes a commentary from Gray, three featurettes, a superb 1080p (2.39) AVC encoded transfer and 5.1 DTS MA sound.

RESIDENT EVIL: VENDETTA Blu-Ray (97 mins., 2017, R; Sony): The live-action “Resident Evil” movie series may have wrapped up but the franchise is still going strong in the gaming world. In fact, gamers will be better served with “Resident Evil: Vendetta” than any of those Milla Jovovich vehicles, seeing as this CG-animated feature is a fun, action-filled romp that better reflects the storyline of the games themselves. Here, Chris Redfield teams up with series favorite Leon S. Kennedy and professor Rebecca Chambers to save New York City from “The Death Merchant,” who’s unleashed a horde of beasties fans will recognize from the Capcom video games. A lot more exciting than its live-action counterparts, “Vendetta” is a smoothly animated Japanese production debuting on Blu-Ray this week from Sony. The 1080p (1.78) AVC encoded transfer and 5.1 DTS MA sound are both exemplary; extras in the 2-disc set include commentary, extensive Making Of content, Tokyo Game Show footage and other goodies.

Lionsgate New Releases: Despite touting an Executive Producer credit for Martin Scorsese, FREE FIRE (90 mins., 2016, R) is a weak attempt at making a “stylized” 70s action picture. In fact, all director Ben Wheatley tries to do here is spend an hour-and-a-half on a single shootout, set in Boston where an IRA arms deal goes bad. Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer and Brie Larson are a few of the names who pop up and try and to avoid getting shot at in a bullet-laden assault that quickly grows tiresome. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray includes a commentary with Wheatley, a Making Of featurette, attractive 1080p (2.39) AVC encoded transfer and 5.1 DTS MA sound plus a Digital HD copy…Coming July 25thfrom Lionsgate is BLACK BUTTERFLY (93 mins., 2017, R), the Lionsgate/Grindstone remake of Herve Korian’s French hit “Papillon Noir.” Here, Antonio Banderas essays a writer’s block-afflicted author residing in a small Colorado town who’s shaken by the arrival of a mysterious drifter (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) at the same time a serial killer is preying upon local residents. Piper Perabo co-stars in a twisty thriller that ends with one of the oldest twists in the book – but at least it’s a fairly effective usage of a hoary old trope. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray includes commentary with director Brian Goodman and writer Marc Frydman, a featurette, 1080p (2.40) transfer, 5.1 DTS MA sound and a Digital HD copy.

UNFORGETTABLE Blu-Ray/DVD (** 100 mins., 2017, R; Warner): Inauspicious directorial debut for long-time producer Denise DiNovi plays out like a familiar retread of “Fatal Attraction”/”Hand That Rocks the Cradle” clichés. Katherine Heigl plays a cracked, spurned wife who’s lost her husband (Geoff Stults) and daughter to another woman (Rosario Dawson), who’s in turn quickly besieged by her increasingly insane behavior. Next to no surprises are offered to the viewer though Dawson and Heigl have some fun in over-the-top performances that carry this winter box-office disappointment to a degree. Maybe worth a rental, “Unforgettable” bows on Blu-Ray this week from Warner. A deleted scene, commentary by DiNovi, featurette, 1080p (1.85) transfer (the film was shot by the great Caleb Deschanel), 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack and Digital HD copy comprise Warner’s release.

THE TUNNEL – SABOTAGE Season 2 Blu-Ray (400 mins., 2016; PBS): The Scandinavian series “The Bridge” has already been brought to the US on FX and continues its UK rendition with Season 2 of “The Tunnel,” which reunites a French detective (Celemence Poesy) with her British counterpart (Stephen Dillane) as they work a new case involving the abduction of a French couple in the English Channel Eurotunnel. Over 30 minutes of extras include a Making Of featurette, “Anatomy of a Scene” and bonus extras, a 1080i transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. The episodes are also contained – as they are with most all PBS releases – in their original UK-length episodes.

ALIVE AND KICKING DVD (89 mins., 2017, Not Rated; Magnolia): Swing dancing is the subject of Susan Glatzer’s documentary, which charts the history of the medium through its modern-day impacts on performers and amateurs who just enjoy the fun of it. Commentary with Galtzer and her cinematographer, deleted scenes, an interview with Glatzer, the trailer, a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound comprise Magnolia’s just-released DVD edition.

NEXT TIME: Kino Lorber July Releases, WARLOCK and more! Until then, don’t forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!



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