Updated: Feb 14, 2021
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
(1) The March sisters - Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh). (2) Saoirse Ronan received her fourth Oscar-nomination as an inspiring writer.
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; PG for thematic elements and brief smoking; streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: A New Generation of Little Women featurette
IN THE NEW digital age, streaming is becoming the mainstay for Hollywood and international films.
Nearly every movie released in theaters in March has already transitioned to digital platforms as multiplexes across the U.S. are closed because of the CONVID-19 infectious disease pandemic.
Over the last year, studios had begun pushing digital streaming more aggressively – increasing the gap between an early digital release to traditional physical discs. Originally two weeks was the norm, now three and four weeks sets digital apart. Most of the new movies are available in 4K with HDR. Regardless, the cost of digital production is much less for studios compared to the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of a physical product, allowing them to rake in the big bucks.
(1&2) Jo starts to sell short stories as a way to make money during the Civil War. (3) Amy with her Aunt March (Meryl Streep) during a carriage ride in Paris.
One of the greatest digital shockers so far this year is how Sony Pictures decided to give writer/director Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” which received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and won for Best Costume Design, an exclusive digital 4K Ultra HD release. What’s so disheartening is that Gerwig created a beautiful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel of the March sisters on traditional 35mm film – which nearly equals 6K in resolution – and Sony mastered the film in TRUE 4K.
No question a 4K disc version of “Little Women” would’ve outperformed digital streaming; it’s a matter of simple math. The average video bit rate per second on a 4K disc runs double and sometimes triples from streaming during peak action moments. That means the finest details are smoothed over on digital, while the 4K disc extracts an extra level of clarity. No, it’s not night and day, and honestly, some folks won’t notice the difference – especially if they’re sitting eight feet or more away from that 65-inch 4K setup. The brain and eyes can’t capture the additional detail and resolution that far back. Just try pulling your chair closer and truly experience 4K content.
Plus, the studios have gone gun shy in releasing dramas on 4K discs unless it cracks the $100 million mark at the box office, to guarantee enough 4K sales. But, “Little Women” topped that number easily with a global total over $200 million, which makes this 4K snub even harder to swallow. Another factor is past sales of dramas from the Top 20 4K discs sold since the 2016 launch thru September 2019 – all twenty are either a comic book (Marvel & DC Comic), sci-fi (Star Wars & Jurassic Park) adventure or action film (John Wick series), except for No. 20 the flashy musical “The Greatest Showman.” If you examine the Top 50 list not a single drama made the cut and only two Disney animations.
(1) The March sisters notice a boy at the home of Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper). The girls and their mother are off to provide a Christmas meal to a family in a drafty house, as the five children sleep in one bed to stay warm. (3&4) The March sisters perform a play to the local children, with a warm glow from the fireplace and candles.
In February, Sony did release the family drama “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” starring Tom Hanks on a 4K disc, but the film was captured in a resolution below 1080p to be a closer match to the older video look of Mr. Rogers PBS educational TV series. And it only made $67 million globally.
This month, Sony released the 4K no brainer “Jumanji: The Next Level” which looks excellent on its 4K disc even though it’s from a 2K master. The original “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” landed at No. 23 in the Top 50 list. But here’s the crazy thing – Sony released the disastrous “Charlie’s Angel” reboot on 4K disc that bombed in theaters and only made $17 million in the U.S.
A major salute is still in order for Sony leading the pack with the finest list of catalog titles on 4K disc. The 1980s adventure “The Mask of Zorro” is coming in May, mastered from the original 35mm camera negative. Sony has a handful more in the pipeline slated for this summer and going into the fall.
If 4K digital of “Little Women” is all we’re going to get, it’s still hands down a better option than watching an HD version – only if you select the right digital platform to watch the heartwarming film.
Apple TV/Amazon Prime Video
Film grain removed with DNR filtering, which affects sharpness.
Film grain intact and sharpness integrity is not compromised.
4K/HDR frame shots were cropped super tight to show the differences.
Movies Anywhere full-frame: Jo and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) watch the dance.
During this review we discovered a dramatic difference in sharpness and clarity with the 4K version on Apple, Amazon, Movies Anywhere and Vudu. In one sample, as Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) and Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet) watch a dance, film grain is nearly washed away on the Apple App and Amazon Prime. Plus the color has been toned to a slightly cooler hue than the warm candlelight found on Movies Anywhere and Vudu.
Honestly, I had been watching 95 percent of my digital 4K watching on Apple, but that’s going to STOP! Apple and Amazon are applying some form of digital noise reduction (DNR) to 4K films with film grain. This old trick was applied to many early Blu-rays. And, it popped its ugly head in a handful of early 4K discs such as “T2,” “Oblivion,” “3:10 to Yuma” and “The Bourne Identity.”
I first noticed the DNR while watching “Dark Waters” on Apple two weeks ago. While making frame shots for our review, I decided to compare Apple with Movies Anywhere (owned by Disney) and the central hub for all of the digital platforms to interconnect with each other. Movies Anywhere was much sharper and the grain was more pronounced.
Back to the numbers game between the 4K and Blu-ray version of “Little Women,” the HD version has millions of fewer pixels per frame, plus the 4K has the expansive HDR10 and Dolby Vision toning for dynamic contrast levels and bolder colors. All of those added visual bonuses make “Little Women” an excellent 4K digital buy running $10 less than what a 4K disc would’ve cost.
Gerwig and French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux captured the visuals with a slightly widescreen aspect, 1.85:1 in the Super 35 format, breaking the mode of most films today shot in super widescreen 2.39:1 ratio. That means your 4K TV will basically be filled from top to bottom, making use of every pixel for the maximum onscreen resolution for the brilliant costumes and sets. Wide shots and the daylight beach scene display the bonus clarity to the max. And finally, Gerwig added what looks like miniature dust marks via a post-production filter to give it a more old-school projected look. Never seen that before.
(1) After Jo moves into a New York City boarding house she meets Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who encourages her to become a serious writer. (2) Meg attends the debutante ball. (3) Jo and Beth at a New England beach, as they face the possibility of Beth’s own death battling scarlet fever. (4) Jo comforts her mother after losing her third daughter.
From the opening moments, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack featured on Apple and Vudu is quite active to height speakers, showcased by music cues from the Oscar-nominated score from Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). Overall, the dialogue-driven story is nicely balanced. There’s no need to keep the remote handy to turn down those explosions found in action films.
Movies Anywhere does not have an Atmos track, delivering audio on a six-channel PCM soundtrack that can be reprocessed by many A/V receivers into a DTS:X matrix that will send some audio to height speakers.
There are six featurettes with cast and crew interviews. As Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan says, “This is the type of story that’s been passed on to each generation.” Over the years Hollywood has told the March sisters tale on film all the way back to the silent era in 1917 and again in 1918. The first talkie came in 1933, with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, and in the late 1940s, June Allyson as the aspiring writer, with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy.
For many, the 1994 adaptation by Australian director Gillian Armstrong is the definitive version. The four March sisters were played by Winona Ryder as Jo, Claire Danes as Beth, Kirsten Dunst as younger Amy, and Trini Alvarado as Meg. Susan Sarandon plays Marmee, left on her own to raise her daughters during the Civil War.
“There are women all over the world who this book has meant a lot to, which is daunting but really exciting,” says writer/director Greta Gerwig. The $40 million production was completely filmed in and around the author’s hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.
(1) Warm colors bathe the marriage ceremony of Meg and John Brooke (James Norton). (2) Jo receives a marriage proposal from Laurie. (3&4) Amy turned down a proposal from Frank Vaughn, which opens the door for Laurie as they meet at a French Estate.
Producer Amy Pascal, was a young executive at Sony when she made the 1994 version says Gerwig used a more modern take for the 2019 film “about women’s choices in life.” The director also highlights the influences Alcott encountered growing up in Concord, where she knew Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and all transcendentalists. Alcott’s mother, a “radical, a revolutionary, an abolitionist and feminist,” had an amazing impact says Laura Dern, who plays the rule-breaking mother.
Emma Watson, as oldest sister Meg dreaming of marriage and children, was drawn to her character for just one line, where she says to Jo, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” For Watson it meant, “There is no one way to be a strong woman.”
Gerwig and her cast which included Oscar-nominated Florence Pugh as Amy and Eliza Scanlen as Beth, had a two-week rehearsal period getting to know each, building a sisterly bond before the camera started rolling. The on-screen connection between the actors is undeniable making “Little Women” a treasure for all generations.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1) Joe dives into her novel, working day and night. (2) Friedrich Bhaer finds Jo at her family home in Concord, Massachusetts. (3&4) Jo and Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) work the contract conditions for her novel.
Greta Gerwig writer/director