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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Mystery > Thriller > Melodrama > Comedy > British > Politics > China > Art > Terrorism > Pop > Ad Astra 4K (2019/Fox 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray w/Blu-ray)/Downton Abbey (2019 Movie/Universal Blu-ray w/DVD)/An Elephant Sitting Still (2018/KimStim Blu-ray)/The Goldfinch (2019/Warner Blu-ray)/Once Upon A

Ad Astra 4K (2019/Fox 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray w/Blu-ray)/Downton Abbey (2019 Movie/Universal Blu-ray w/DVD)/An Elephant Sitting Still (2018/KimStim Blu-ray)/The Goldfinch (2019/Warner Blu-ray)/Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood (2019/R-rated/Sony/Columbia Blu-ray w/DVD)

4K Ultra HD Picture: B+ Picture: B/B & C/B+/B/B & C+ Sound: B+ & B/B & C+/C+/B/B & C+ Extras: B/C+/C/C/C+ Films: B/C+/B/C/B-

Well, here's awards season and here comes the heavy-hitters you should know about...

James Gray's Ad Astra (2019) is one of the best films of the year and is up there with the recent Blade Runner sequel as one of the best science fiction films of the last few years, yet is also a solid space film up there with First Man (both reviewed elsewhere on this site), so it did some business, but deserves to be a much bigger hit. Brad Pitt (who is on a roll this year acting-wise) is an astronaut in the near future who has discovered that his father (Tommy Lee Jones) who was presumed dead, may be alive near Neptune after many years and the current space administration body wants to find out how and why.

They ask the son to join a trip to find out and he is visited by an older astronaut (Donald Sutherland) who may know more about what is going on than he is letting on. As all this starts to transpire, we also hear the son's throughs in excellent voice over throughout, then we keep encountering surprises throughout.

My only guess is that this was yet another Fox film that got lost in the shuffle when the studio was purchased by Disney, but it is one of the only moderate hits in that transition and I want to see this pick up and surprise everyone. It should also be remembered during awards season, even if it is more likely to get tech nods than acting, but the acting and actors here are great. They also include Ruth Negga, an interesting turn by Liv Tyler (hopefully not to make us remember Armageddon too much), Kimberly Elise, Ravi Kapoor, LisaGay Hamilton, Loren Dean, Natasha Lyonne and others I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of soon.

As for Gray, he is one of the most underrated directors working today, whose back to back crime films The Yards and We Own The Night remain extraordinary as they do underrated, then he moved into different directions for Two Lovers, The Immigrant and The Lost City Of Z. This is his larg3est production to date and he pulls it off in style, substance and once this film gets started, it never lets up. Yes, we have seen a little of of this before, but I was surprised by the new things and ideas it offers, how it puts most space operas and overblown big budget films to shame, all while still having the money on the screen to match it. It is smart the way Duncan Jones' Moon (now on 4K) was and is, so anyone who wants more than just the next Star Wars (or its imitators) and something for smart, mature adults, Ad Astra really delivers and is worth going way out of your way for.

Extras include Digital Code, plus Deleted Scenes with Optional Audio Commentary by James Gray

'The Void'


  • To the Stars

  • A Man Named Roy

  • The Crew of the Cepheus

  • The Art of Ad Astra

  • Reach for the Stars

  • Audio Commentary by Director James Gray*

  • Space Age: The VFX**

*Available on both the Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD
**Available on Digital only

Michael Engler's Downton Abbey is the 2019 feature film continuation of the surprise hit TV series (a hit overseas, NBC turned it down, only to see PBS score huge ratings) and the question immediately was, what would be the storyline to make a big screen version work. The makers chose having the King and Queen of England of the time (the 1920s) visit and this was remarkably, enough to make this modestly budgeted project a hit.

Having seen the series in parts, I have only been so impressed and will say right now that this is for fans only, if that, but in comparison to its 1970s spiritual cousin (the original Upstairs, Downstairs, which all three U.S. networks turned down, only to see PBS with a big hit) which had more of an edge (which the remake did not) and the Merchant/Ivory classic The Remains Of The Day (reviewed on Blu-ray elsewhere on this site) is far more realistic and honest, including on an issue the entire Downton franchise is happy to gloss over: U.K. class division!

Thus, no doubt this can have its moments, look good and has the undeniable gift of a great cast headed by Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Imelda Stanton, but even they cannot distract from the liberties taken with honesty and history. At the same time, this does manage to avoid being snobby more than you might think, but it is too often an at least slightly fantasy version of the past and should not be taken more seriously, even if the clothes, production design and locations ring authentic.

Now you can judge for yourself, but I doubt you need to see the show to get this film.

Extras include Digital Code, then (per the press release) we get Deleted Scenes, Cast Conversations - Exclusive roundtable interviews with the cast.

    • Upstairs Cast

    • Downstairs Cast

  • The Royal Visit - A look at how the royal visit proved to be an ambitious event both on and behind the camera.

  • True to the Twenties - Fans of DOWNTON ABBEY are charmed by the sheer grandeur of the aristocracy in the early 20th Century. Learn how DOWNTON ABBEY maintains a reputation of being true to the time period.

  • Welcome to Downton Abbey - A behind-the-scenes look at the grandeur of Highclere Castle and how it serves as a cornerstone in the Downton Abbey franchise.

  • The Brilliance of Julian Fellowes - Writer Julian Fellowes has created a story and beloved characters that resonate with people across the world. This piece celebrates Julian's brilliant creativity and reveals his approach to bringing Downton Abbey to the big screen.

  • Downton Abbey Series Recap - (Blu-ray only) Whether you're new or just need a refresher, this series recap will catch you up on the story so far.

  • and Feature Commentary with Director Michael Engler

In an unnamed northern industrial city in China, four people's fate are more tied closely together than they know, a boy, a girl, an old man and a gangster. Wei Bu a high school boy, only wants to stand up against the bully that terrorizes his school. Huang Ling, Wei Bu's classmate who seems like the normal girl, but has a secret affair with her teacher the vice principal. Wang Jin, a neighborhood old man who's family members wants him to sell his home and move him into a nursing home. Yu Cheng a local gangster and older brother to the bully, while he never does anything illegal, his entire life is built on taking advantage of other people's misery. All of them wishes see the elephant at the zoo in Manzhouli, and they all envy how it can sit there everyday and eat and do nothing, to have no worries and to be indifferent to a cruel world in Hu Bo's An Elephant Sitting Still (2018).

Life is cruel, life is hard, specially for those at the bottom of society. The only thing that makes it more bearable is if one can find someone else who is more miserable than them, to be able to think 'Oh... I am lucky compared to that bastard.' In a grey polluted city, it seems like nothing improves, no matter how hard they try, the best they can hope is to just survive. Wang Jin stands up to the school bully because he is tired of how he takes everything from everyone, but after the bully falls down the stairs by himself by accident and dies Wang Jin is blamed and now he is the 'bad guy' and on the run.

Huang Ling's mother is the neighborhood whore and Huang Ling is forced to be more grown up than her mother and she hates her for it, but she enjoys being with the vice principal her teacher because he treats her 'well', but she is only in a 'relationship' with him because he has a bigger and better apartment than hers, but all that comes crashing down when her 'affair' is streamed in an online video courtesy of bully's phone, only then she realizes she is a hypocrite and no better than her mother. Wang Jin a grandfather is being forced into a nursing home after his dog is killed and he is abandoned by his own family. They want to move to a better apartment and better life (at his expense) but have no room for him at the new place and they expect him to 'sacrifice' himself for the rest of the family. Yu Cheng, the neighborhood gangster, his best friend just committed suicide after catching him with his wife (and Yu Cheng blames everyone but himself).

All of them are one or two degrees of separation from each other and they feel like life is shit and they want to get out of the city, but like the elephant they are trapped in a cages of their own. In the end Yu Cheng gets shot, the rest of them end up on the same bus to see an elephant in another city, hoping there is a better place than where they are now.

This was a very depressing movie and it seemed like a commentary on the modern Chinese life, how all Chinese can relate to one of the characters in some way. Chinese virtues like justice, hard work and honesty are all worthless when society is corrupt and cruel. The Chinese are taught to say nothing and bear everything, that somehow self sacrifice is more 'honorable' and the higher path, but in truth the Chinese people are being used and abused by the rest of society and the world.

A young boy who stood up for justice is now a murderer, a girl who wants a better life is taught to prostitute herself, an old man after a life time of hard work is abandoned and expected to die alone. A reluctant gangster who knows better but then just accepts that's how the world works. Extras include short film Man in the Well, a trailer and illustrated booklet with text.

John Crowley's The Goldfinch (2019) is based on Donna Tartt's long read about a young man named Theo who barely survives a terrorist bombing of a museum, where several things happen, including the painting of the title disappearing from there. What does he know about it? The film version (which apparently threw out too much of the book for its own good) spends the first 45 minutes on the 13-year-old before jumping to the present where Theo (now played by the impressive Ansel Elgort) is still haunted by the event.

Earlier on, he was taken in by another family headed by a good woman (Nicole Kidman, top rate as usual) and he will eventually reunite with them all, but he also has personal things to deal with emotionally, psychologically, with other people and in the world of antiques for which he now works and makes a living.

Not exactly action film material, but this has its moments, yet it takes forever to start and allowing the first sequence to go on with the 13-year-old Theo for so long was a big mistake for the film. Especially when dealing with such a long, beloved book (the Doctor Sleep film has also been criticized for throwing out too much of the book, but we'll see that one later), this needed a better editing approach that was more challenging and faithful to such large content.

Jeffrey Wright, Finn Wolfhard, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Sarah Paulson and Luke Wilson in a particularly thankless turn are all well cast, so it is really that the parts did not meld and add up as they needed to here. However, it is a rare occasion where I am now curious about the book, though not reading it or somehow having to read it before seeing this film is a cop out. I can see why it has not picked up for awards season, but it is at least ambitious and for adults, so it deserves respect for at least trying. We don't see that enough these days.

Extras include Digital Code, then both disc versions add The Real Goldfinch, while the Blu-ray only adds The Goldfinch Unbound and Over 16 minutes of deleted scenes with commentary from Director John Crowley.

Finally, we have Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood (2019) in its still-controversial R-rated cut. Without giving anything away, Leonardo DiCaprio is a famous TV actor Rick Dalton, trying to keep his star status going and get another career-renewing break with his stunt man (Brad Pitt) at his side and employ, but it is not easy, even in vibrant, late 1960s Hollywood. We learn about stuntmen becoming actors (very common at the time, both characters are shades of Burt Reynolds, who was supposed to be in this film, but passed away and was succeeded by the great Bruce Dern in the same role) and in following both men, we see how great the town was then.

Enriched by its pop culture success, strong on all fronts (feature films, TV, music, radio, memorabilia) and being a key center of the counterculture, it is its own special kind of paradise. However, unknown to Dalton, he is living next door to the home once owned by the great Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, now owned by Roman Polanski and the love of his life, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and historians know what would soon happen there.

Tarantino handles the first appearance of Charles Manson in very interesting ways and not with the cliche of ominous music or serial killer genre corniness, but of things being matter-of-fact and that is the point, as no one knew what was to come. However, this is a fictional portrayal of aa very real Hollywood that is extremely accurate on the styles, culture, materials, successes and way the town was at the time. Without ruining anything, Tarantino takes a key liberty with the last half-hour of the film, but it is to make a very important point that is ultimately a tribute to how great Sharon Tate was and the star she likely was on her way to being.

Some have criticized the film for this, but it perfectly matches Tarantino's idea of the power of pop culture and that culture as art and beyond. This was never meant to be a documentary or docudrama and for what he sets out to do, it works, though my complaint is that it may take too much time up with the idea of Westerns on TV and maybe the big screen, but he obviously loves them too and may see what happened in real life as ending that genre on TV.

The film also has some other good star turns, but we'll save those for you to see. Otherwise, this is one of the year's best films and is best taken as intended. I will not comment on anything else being said here, leaving you to figure it out for yourself.

Extras include Digital Code, then both disc versions include Over Twenty Minutes of Additional Scenes, while the Blu-ray adds five exclusive behind the scenes pieces including:

    • Quentin Tarantino's Love Letter to Hollywood

    • Bob Richardson - For the Love of Film

    • Shop Talk - The Cars of 1969

    • Restoring Hollywood - The Production Design of Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

    • and The Fashion of 1969

Now for playback quality. Astra and Hollywood are both shot entirely on film and look greatest as a result, with both issued in 4K, but we only get to cover Astra that way for now. The 2160p HEVC/H.265, 2.35 X 1, HDR (10; Ultra HD Premium)-enhanced Ultra High Definition image on Astra is the best performer here and has some amazing shots, color, depth, detail and a solid look that makes it constantly engaging and has a richness that works all the way. The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image on the regular Blu-ray is also not bad, but falls short (especially when comparing the two) in all categories.

The 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image transfer on Elephant is the only non-scope presentation, so it is going to appear good looking throughout, though the HD shoot is simple and at least realistic.

The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image transfer on Downton does not really look that much different or better than the series, all HD productions, but is fine for what it is, though we've seen this kind of film look better. The anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 image on the DVD is just too soft to really deal with, but it is there for convenience.

The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image transfer on Goldfinch also is set in the past, plus the present, so it achieves its older period look very well and I found this a little more visually convincing. Shots stayed with me a bit more, but 4K might improve this a bit.

The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image transfer on Hollywood is made of several film formats, but primarily 35mm and they meld together exceptionally well. The frame is never wasted or made pedestrian, boring or ordinary and the time period is captured extraordinarily well to the point the recreated past is the best on this list. The anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 image on the also-included DVD is not bad, but a far cry from what is achieved cinematically and visually. Again, it is also issued on 4K disc and those who have 4K capacity should just get that version.

As for sound, Astra is the clear sonic winner with its well designed and mixed Dolby Atmos 11.1 (Dolby TrueHD 7.1 for older systems) lossless mix that includes a fine music score, great sound effects and other immersions that even the still-fine DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 7.1 lossless mix on the Blu-ray version misses. Very well thought out and executed.

The DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix on Elephant has a ton of dialogue and budget limits, so it is not as impressive as similar mixes on Downton (DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 7.1 lossless) or Goldfinch (DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless that is warmer than expected) with so much dialogue as well, but is passable. The lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 on the Downton DVD is also passable, but thinner than anything else here.

That leaves us with Hollywood and its great soundmaster (a 12-track mix) featured on the Blu-ray in a DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix with all of its great music, dialogue and constant pop culture soundbytes at the very end of the end credits. Also very cleaver as all Tarantino films are sonically, this is a mixdown, but it works just fine for the format. The DVD included only has a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 which is (again) passable, but lacks the warmth and edge of the DTS-MA, et al, of the film as it is meant to be heard.

- Nicholas Sheffo and Ricky Chiang (Elephant)


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