4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
“ONLY THE BRAVE”
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2017; PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, profanity and drug material; streaming via Amazon Video 4K, Apple TV (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: “Honoring the Heroes: The True Stories”
CRITICS PRAISED IT – nearly 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. So did moviegoers who actually saw it; they gave “Only the Brave” an even higher rating.
But for some odd reason adults sidestepped the true-life story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, considered the Navy SEALs of firefighters. The team risked it all to tackle the devastating 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.
The powerful and emotional film from director Joseph Kosinski (“Oblivion”) has an all-star cast with producer/actor Josh Brolin as Eric “Supe” Marsh, the Prescott team supervisor; Jennifer Connelly as his long-suffering wife Amanda Marsh, an accomplished horse trainer; Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink, local fire chief and front man for the Rusty Pistols country band, and Miles Teller as druggie Brendan McDonough, who’s still living at home and finds out he is soon to be a father. His ex-girlfriend is five months pregnant.
Sony even tried a word-of-mouth screening campaign to generate buzz. Still, the film only earned $23 million worldwide against a $38 million budget.
Home theater enthusiasts were hopeful Sony would still give the beautifully photographed film a 4K Ultra HD release, especially since it was captured and mastered in 4K.
But by mid-January, it became apparent the physical 4K disc would be sidestepped in lieu of Sony pushing the 4K format into streaming services iTunes and Vudu.
Was “Only the Brave” too much of a financial risk for Sony to manufacture and package a 4K disc since it underperformed in the theaters? Or are Hollywood studios transitioning to a 4K streaming model for buying and renting of their movies?
SINCE NEW YEARS DAY, 14 movies have exclusively been released on iTunes and Vudu in 4K: Sony Pictures’ “Only the Brave,” “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” “The Star,” and the 2005 comedy “Hitch”; Universal Studios’ “Victoria and Abdul,” “Happy Death Day,” “Bad Moms Christmas,” “Thank You for Your Service” and “The Snowman”; Twentieth Century Fox’s “Goodbye Christopher Robin” and “The Sandlot: 25th Anniversary”; Lionsgate’s “The Florida Project”; Paramount’s “Suburbicon,” and Cinedigm’s “Loving Vincent.” Eight of the fourteen include High Dynamic Range (HDR) toning.
One thing sticks out – none of these movies were Hollywood blockbusters. Could low-grossing smaller and independent films only hope for a 4K landing spot on iTunes and Vudu for home viewing?
Personally, I’ve avoided the streaming world for years (I’ve been reviewing home video since 1997). Studios always provided the very best video and audio for movies and TV series first on DVD (’97), then Blu-ray (2006) and 4K (2016). Unfortunately, the relatively decent 4K streaming experience fails in the audio department. There’s no Dolby Atmos or even multi-channel immersion.
Right now I’m test-driving Apple’s 4K TV device 32-gigabit ($179) unit to stream 4K movies via iTunes, Vudu and Amazon Prime. I’ve upgraded my Internet service to handle the higher bit-rate streaming demands of 4K. Home viewers will need at least 30-megabits-download speed to ensure a stable signal. For many homes that level of consistent streaming will be tough – especially if everyone in the house is watching and listening on separate devices.
I purchased “Only the Brave” in 4K Ultra HD on iTunes ($17.99) and then clued up the Blu-ray (1080p) provided by Sony. Going back and forth between the two sources, I could see the difference in resolution and HDR toning – especially scenes with the darker and more dramatic clouds and smoke. Every frame exhibited a major bump in clarity (six million more pixels per frame compared to the Blu-ray) from tight shots showing facial hair, moles, and freckles, to the grand panoramic wide shots (2.39:1 aspect ratio) of the New Mexico Mountains subbing for Arizona.
The HDR black levels are much deeper, with highlights radiating from the brilliant glow of reds and oranges more intense. The rest of the color palette is bolder from the yellow shirts worn by the firefighters, to the greens and browns that dominate the forests. The iTunes 4K viewing experience was a welcome sight to behold.
The Blu-ray and the iTunes HD version also exhibited a sharp picture downconverted from the 4K master, a solid match for smaller screens, and the colors were saturated within the confines of the HD color spectrum.
On the audio front it was a different story. The Apple 4K TV audio processor at this point outputs using a decade-old Dolby Digital Plus format, first introduced through the defunct HD-DVD format in 2006. The Blu-ray version of “Only the Brave” includes the uncompressed six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack, which is much more engaging from the haunting roar of the fire, to the jam-packed crowd at the local watering hole where the Rusty Pistols jam, to a more focused dialogue track. On iTunes, the actors’ voices are slightly muffled.
It’s rumored that Apple will release a firmware upgrade in the future to unleash the uncompressed Dolby Atmos soundtrack. For Apple, it’s a balancing act between the best possible 4K video and the best audio within their bit-rate window.
Sony ported over all the extras from the Blu-ray onto iTunes and Vudu. You’ll find an informative commentary track by director Joseph Kosinski and Brolin that runs the complete 134-minutes. More importantly, there are featurettes, which include interviews with sole survivor Brendan McDonough, widow of Granite Mountain Hotshot Eric Marsh, Amanda Marsh, and retired fire Chief Duane Steinbrink. Kosinski and writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, who adapted story from the original GQ article “No Exit,” decided to approach the storyline from two different points. The focus weaves between the life of Eric Marsh at top, and Brendan McDonough struggling at the bottom.
Producer Michael Menchel visited Prescott multiple times to meet the families, Brendan and Amanda to insure their intents were honorable. Menchel wasn’t met with open arms. Amanda was unsure, “I wasn’t happy. I was very scared,” she said.
Without the families onboard the production would’ve shut down. Brendan was the first to really listen, and agreed it would be an opportunity to “honor his fallen brothers,” says McDonough. Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives on June 30, 2013. It was the greatest loss of firefighters in the US since the 9/11 attacks. “You could see everybody was focused on getting this movie right,” says Steinbrink. iTunes and the Blu-ray also include a featurette on the actors’ firefighter boot camp, and a music video.
One can only imagine how much better home viewing might have been if only the picture and sound for “Only the Brave” had been released on 4K disc.
I did a fair side-by-side test between the 4K disc vs. 4K iTunes of the fictional disaster thriller “San Andreas” (2015). The disc produced a slightly sharper and more detailed picture. The disc outputs a higher per-second bit-rate, which ranges from two to three times more per second. The larger the screen the greater the difference.
The results was a mixed bag. If you love visuals iTunes for "Only the Brave" is superior to the Blu-ray view. But, for audio hogs with a smaller TV setup the disc is the way to go. The iTunes 4K is acceptable, but it can’t compare to the disc visuals and sound.
A cool tip: I was able to upload a number of digital codes onto iTunes from Blu-ray titles ("Home Alone," "Brooklyn," "Heat," "The Sandlot: 25th Anniversary," "Jackie") and iTunes upgrade those instantly to 4K. Now, that is a deal.
- Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer