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Why I Can Wait for “Lord of the Rings” in 4K

The “Last March of the Ents” scene from The Two Towers is one example of the subpar compositing
that could become even more obvious in a 4K version of The Lord of the Rings

Pretty early on in our most recent journey to Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, it struck me how silly my wife and I were to hold off on watching The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King Extended Editions in anticipation of a 4K/HDR remaster (a professional upsampling of the 2K digital intermediate) or restoration (involving a new scan of the 35mm film elements), whichever we end up getting later this year or next year or whenever it comes. Truth be told, these films have always been a bit dodgy-looking in places even when they were first released, especially from a special-effects perspective.

 

True, the sprawling landscapes of New Zealand, cast in the role of Middle-earth, are a wonder to behold. And the costumes and prosthetics are among the best ever committed to film. But the handful of digital effects (aside from Gollum, one of the 

trilogy’s main characters) were never that great to begin with, and the compositing was pretty subpar across the board even for the day

 

Not that it really matters, since these films exist mostly in the viewer’s imagination, but their visual shortcomings can probably be blamed at least in part on the reported $250 million budget for the entire 12-hour trilogy—which, to put things in perspective, is less than twice what Sam Raimi was given to make the first Spider-man film, released around the same time (with roughly one-sixth the runtime and far fewer special effects); and it’s less than a quarter of of what Amazon is spending on its upcoming Middle-earth 

TV series (sadly now on indefinite hold). Jackson did what he could with his relatively meager budget, but if the seams showed in the early 2000s (and they did), you could forgive them for not having gotten any better in the nearly two decades since.

 

What has held up amazingly well is the film’s sound design and mixing. I’ve yet to discover any subsequent home video release that uses surround sound as effectively as the Blu-ray release (or Kaleidescape downloads) of the Extended Edition trilogy does, not only in creating such a compelling sense of space, but also in dropping the viewer right into the middle of a war.

 

The sound goes through such radical shifts of amplitude—from the quietest whispers in the dankest caverns to the thunder of 45-foot-tall pachyderms stomping across the battlefield and clashing with hordes of horsemen—that it serves as a torture test for even the highest-performance home audio systems. In fact, to this day, the Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition is the first Blu-ray I grab to gauge the dialogue intelligibility of any new speaker system or surround processor that passes my threshold for review purposes.

It’s also the reason I called my friend Anthony Grimani, world-renowned acoustician and designer, many years ago for advice on how to dampen the sound of my HVAC system, because even the subtle whoosh of air rushing through intake vents is enough to disrupt the delicate balance of this immaculately crafted audio experience. So too are any egregious reflections or standing waves in the room itself. In truth, the mix is as much a torture test for room acoustics as it is for gear.

 

More than anything else, though, the thought of this meticulous mix being tinkered with and remixed in the era of Dolby Atmos frankly fills me with dread. Pull one thread the wrong way and the entire thing will simply unravel. Fortunately, the 6.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix (on Blu-ray and Kaleidescape) up-mixes beautifully into Atmos via a good AV preamp or receiver, so those of you who demand some overhead sound effects have that solace.

 

(I’ve never tested the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital+ remix available on Vudu and Amazon and other such services, but those digital releases lack the Appendices found on the disc and Kaleidescape Extended Edition releases, so you should avoid them anyway.)

 

All of this is simply to say that this most recent viewing of the films in their HD form left me convinced they may not look substantially better in 4K/HDR, and there’s a good chance that if they do by some miracle end up looking better, they could end up sounding worse. But we’ll cross that Bridge of Khazad-dûm when we get to it, I suppose.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

Could Superman beat the Incredible Hulk? Is Batman a match for Iron-Man? These sorts of questions have filled the dreams of kids and comic book geeks alike for decades now, but they’re rarely seen as any more than conversation starters or flights of fancy. And yet, for some reason, asking who is the greatest baseball player or quarterback or goalie of all time is viewed

as legitimate discourse amongst grown-ass men and scholars alike.

 

Those of us who follow motorsports (serious ones, at least) know what a ridiculous question this is when applied to our own passion. Auto racing is as much about the team as it is the pilot. It’s as much about the car as the team. It’s as much about the chaos of meteorological conditions as it is the car. And, yes, we all have our favorite drivers (shout-out to Jan Magnussen), but that often has as much to do with personality or manufacturer affiliation as it does talent.

 

But such subjectivity didn’t satisfy Dr. Andrew Bell of the Sheffield Methods Institute, who set out in 2016 to use quantitative statistical analysis to remove (or at least account for) the differences made by cars, teams, weather, and even year-to-year variance in order to determine who was the best Formula One pilot of all time.

LIFE OF SPEED AT A GLANCE

This ambitious Netflix documentary about the greatest Formula One driver of all time will intrigue and satisfy racing fans and non fans alike.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K HDR presentation does well with the copious archival materials but really shines with the present-day interview segments and historical reenactments.

 

SOUND

The soundtrack is marred by a New Age-y score whose power-nap vibe seriously goes against the film’s auto-racing grain.

I mention this research only because the resulting paper forms the backbone of the new Netflix documentary A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story. And this fact alone—the use of scientific parsing to answer the question of who could beat whom if they never competed head-to-head—makes for one of the most fascinating sports documentaries I’ve seen in ages. Perhaps ever.

 

As with any documentary focusing on the accomplishments of a single individual, A Life of Speed leans heavy on biography, and provides a solid understanding of who Fangio was and what made him tick, even if you’ve never heard his name before. It also provides a pretty satisfying history of Formula One, a sport that emerged just as Fangio was making a name for himself in long-distance dirt-road racing. On top of that, it sprinkles in a bit of the history of automotive engineering.

 

Truth be told, if the film weren’t so well made, it would probably crumble under its own weight. It attempts to be three or four documentaries at once—which is at least two too many—and if not for the talents of director Francisco Macri and editor Luciano Origlio, it would be a mess.

 

Somehow, though, it isn’t a mess. Quite the opposite, in fact; by juggling so many balls so effectively, A Life of Speed manages to be interesting in several simultaneous ways.

Of course, given its historical nature, the bulk of the film is comprised of archival photographs, old film stock, kinescope recordings, and even a few well-played VHS tapes, it seems. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for Netflix’s 4K HDR presentation to latch onto, though. The present-day interviews and newly filmed historical reenactments are beautifully framed, wonderfully composed, and have a distinctive low-contrast look that still makes great use of the enhanced dynamic range and color gamut of our modern home video standards.

 

If there’s one criticism I can level at A Life of Speed from a creative perspective, it’s that the score is just awful. If you’ve ever used one of those power-nap apps that are all the rage these days, you’ll recognize the New Age-y ambience in a heartbeat.

 

There’s also the fact the film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which wouldn’t be a problem except Netflix positions its subtitles halfway into the black bar at the bottom of the screen, with no way of moving them. So, if you’re using a constant-height projection setup, you’ll likely miss half the film’s dialogue and narration (unless you speak Spanish, Italian, German, and English).

 

Don’t let those quibbles turn you off of this one, though. Even if you’re not a fan of Formula One—indeed, even if you’ve never heard the name Fangio in your life—A Life of Speed is one of those rare documentaries whose quality isn’t contingent upon your interest in the subject matter.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Bloodshot

Bloodshot

A scant two weeks after hitting theaters, Vin Diesel’s latest action thriller, Bloodshot, finds its way to wide digital release, available for purchase now at the Kaleidescape Store in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

 

Considering theater chains around the world started closing within days of Bloodshot’s release, its opening weekend gross of nearly $30 million indicates it was on track to be another big success for Diesel, potentially even launching a new franchise à la Fast & Furious or xXx. And with an audience score of 78%, Diesel proves once again that he understands what his fans 

are looking for. (With critics, not so much, as Bloodshot managed a rotten 29% rating.)

 

As the opening credits hit the screen, I sarcastically joked to my wife, “You can always count on Vin Diesel to deliver an ultra-realistic movie!” as I thought about some of the many physics- and reality-defying stunts he’s been a part of during the Fast franchise.

 

However, I have to say, the premise of Bloodshot works quite well for Diesel, the gravel-voiced actor who seems to convey any lines of dialogue with the exact same emotion and intonation. (There’s probably a reason why he was cast as the voice of both The Iron Giant and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy.) Diesel’s character here, Ray Garrison, is a man of few words, much how John Wick lets Keanu Reeves use his fists and guns (and pencils, and motorcycles, and knives . . .) to do the talking for him.

 

So, I’m gonna say it. I really enjoyed Bloodshot.

BLOODSHOT AT A GLANCE

This Vin Diesel Total Recall-meets-Matrix-meets-Terminator-meets-RoboCop-meets-Live Die Repeat mashup is a feast for action fans, featuring a steady stream of demo-quality HDR/Atmos action scenes.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer gets plenty of chances to show off its HDR capabilities, with lots of dark scenes filled with bright lights, gunfire, explosions, and even particles of flour.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos mix successfully ranges from outrageous to subtle, doing as well with the sound of big machines as it does with creaking floors.

Yep. This is a movie that knows exactly what it is and what its fans want. It’s unabashed action, with big set pieces that move the story forward in an easy-to-follow manner that allows the characters to move from one exotic locale to the next destroying stuff.

 

Bloodshot/Garrison is actually not an original character, but rather based on a Valiant Comics character that can trace his origins back to 1992. But the story was totally new to me, so I can’t comment on how true it was to its comic roots, or anything else about the Valiant universe.

 

The film begins with US Marine Garrison single-handedly raiding a house in Mombasa and rescuing a hostage. Shortly after, Garrison and his wife Gina (Talulah Riley) are kidnapped by Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell) while on holiday in Italy, and when Garrison can’t answer Axe’s question about who leaked the location of the hostage, Axe kills Gina. And then Garrison.

 

He awakens, and finds himself in the headquarters of Rising Spirit Tech (RST), where the company’s CEO, Dr. Harting (Guy Pearce), reveals that Garrison has been resurrected by the company’s experimental nanite technology. Besides, you know, being brought back to life, this army of nanites now coursing through Garrison’s body gives him superhuman strength and healing, as well as the ability to tap into the Internet to access any data or knowledge he desires, basically making him the ultimate soldier.

 

A side effect of the resurrection is that Garrison has no memories of his previous life. During a conversation with another RST-enhanced former solder, US Navy diver KT (Eliza Gonzalez), Garrison hears a song that triggers memories of his wife’s killer, and from there Garrison is off to exact his revenge.

 

Or is he?

 

Bloodshot has a lot of elements of other films. It is definitely part RoboCop, with the resurrected, part-machine Garrison recovering memories and trying to reconnect with his previous life. It’s part Matrix as Garrison taps into the network to acquire skills on demand, like flying a Gulfstream jet. It’s part Terminator in the way he heals and reforms following grievous damage. It’s also part Live Die Repeat, as Garrison is forced to repeat missions. It’s also part Total Recall, where he’s not sure which memories are his and what he can trust.

 

But, if you’re gonna crib some movies for ideas, you could do a lot worse.

 

I’ve long held that some of the best looking and sounding movies released to the home market are coming from Sony, and Bloodshot is no exception. Shot on Panavision DXL cameras at 8K resolution, the home release is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it looks it. Closeups are packed with detail and are razor-sharp, sometimes looking a bit too clear like when you are staring into every pore, eyebrow hair, or bit of whisker stubble on Diesel’s face.

 

Early shots of the Amalfi Coast or the Aviana airbase in Italy have a warm, gold cast to them, with candlelit and sunshine tones, while many later scenes are tinted with cool blues and silvers, giving images a glossy, high-tech sleek and modern palette.

 

The film’s real visual treat is its extensive use of HDR. There are many scenes throughout shot in dark interiors where there are lights—fluorescent bulbs, spotlights, screens, overheads, wall spots, case lighting, etc.—that brightly illuminate the scene without noise, banding, or washing out the dark details.

 

There is a lengthy tunnel fight sequence that makes especially good use of HDR, resulting in a visual feast that will make fantastic demo fodder. Garrison intentionally jackknifes a flour truck in a tunnel to trap a caravan. Once inside the tunnel, all the lights are off, plunging the entire space into blackness. As the bad guys start exiting their vehicles, the tunnel is illuminated by a variety of light sources: Vehicle headlights, red flares, weapon laser pointers, and gunfire. We can see the individual flour particles floating in the air, as well as the bright beams of light, sharp reds of the flares and lasers, and stabbing flames from the weapons.

 

Another scene has KT doing some kind of underwater ballet or tai chi. The camera looks at her head-on underwater, but behind her is a bright spotlight, illuminating her and the water in myriad shades of blues, which is just an absolute, worst-case banding nightmare. But here the gradations are smooth and seamless with no noise or banding, something I don’t think any bandwidth-limited streaming service could manage to pull off as beautifully.

 

Sonically, Bloodshot offers a ton for home theater fans to enjoy, with a soundtrack that is dynamic, engaging, and immersive throughout, with frequent use of the height speakers in creative and convincing ways. Whether it’s the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” blasting through the overheads and surrounds during an interrogation, or voices echoing around the room during

Garrison’s flashbacks, or the sound of machines sliding overhead with gears turning and whirring, you are always in the midst of the action.

 

The big fight scenes also pour on the audio mayhem as you’d expect, with bass that is deep and authoritative as needed, energizing the room with explosions. Gunshots are also sharp and loud, with bullets punching holes in the sides and rear of the room, followed by sounds of debris and rubble.

 

There are also some nice subtle audio moments, like the creak of wood flooring to indicate a person walking overhead, or glass shattering and elevator cabling creaking and whooshing past your head, or the sound of drones whirring overhead. Bloodshot offers a terrific amount of demo material to show off your theater, especially though with Atmos-capable systems.

 

This movie’s conclusion all but screams “BLOODSHOT WILL RETURN IN A SEQUEL!” as the main characters literally drive off into the sunset. But that sequel will likely have to wait and see how the box office—and home video sales—ultimately stack up.

 

Bloodshot isn’t a movie where you’ll be in for any big Keyser Söze reveals or plot

Bloodshot

twists as the bad guys are pretty clearly telegraphed. This movie is far more about the fun of the journey than the excitement of the destination. Most importantly, Bloodshot looks and sounds fantastic in a premium home theater, with perhaps one of the most active and dynamic Dolby Atmos soundtracks I’ve heard in a while, and it will likely find its way into your demo-scene sizzle reel.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics

photo by John Frattasi

It’s easy to think of a media room as a low-performance or “good enough” entertainment space with a cheap TV and a Best Buy soundbar—a sort of glorified version of the old family den or man cave. To put it another way, there’s this pervasive notion that to enjoy movies at home to the fullest, you need to either install a dedicated home theater or you can settle for 

second best.

 

That doesn’t have to be the case, though. As I’ve argued plenty of times in the pages of Cineluxe, you can actually build a high-quality media room space that legitimately qualifies as a home cinema experience. If you have a home office, master bedroom, kids room, or communal living space that you want to upgrade into a fantastic moving-watching space, you can totally do that.

 

 

In our ongoing Cineluxe Basics series, I’ve covered all of the things you need to keep in mind when doing so, but those articles deconstruct the modern media room a piece at a time, i.e., what you should think about when picking a TV and what you need to know about surround sound preamps. They don’t really give you a holistic overview of what a complete media room system looks like. So, if you’re looking to convert your home office or kids’ room into a top-notch movie-watching space for the entire family without ripping out all of the walls and starting from scratch, you may be left wondering how far you need to go.

That’s where this new series comes in. Over the next few posts, I’ll be painting a picture of what a complete media room system looks like in terms of electronics, starting with the simplest of all high-performance luxury media room systems. In other words, a system that will have minimal impact on your décor, but maximal impact on your movie-watching enjoyment. And despite the pithy intro, I think a great TV and a really high-end soundbar is a great basis for such an essential system.

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics
WHAT KIND OF TV, EXACTLY?

That depends, really. We at Cineluxe consider home cinema to be a shared experience, so we think any good media room display should be big enough to give at least two people a viewing angle of 40 to 45 degrees. So, if you’ll just be watching your movies with your significant other, and assuming you’ll be sitting no further than six or seven feet from the screen, a 75-inch TV should be sufficient. If you have more viewers on a regular basis or you sit further away, it’s probably better to upgrade to an 85- or even 98-inch class display.

 

Splitting the difference, we think something like Sony’s Z9G Master Series 8K LED TV is a good recommendation. In terms of technology, it’s ahead of the curve. In terms of design, it’s the leader of the pack, and with its built-in Android TV operating 

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics

the Kaleidescape Strato S movie player

system, the only source device you’ll really need for a complete luxury entertainment system is a Kaleidescape movie player.

 

Of course, your local integrator may not be a Sony dealer, but if not, chances are good they sell 

LG instead, whose Signature Z9 88-inch OLED is a step up in terms of design and technology, but also a big step up in price.

 

 

IS A SOUNDBAR REALLY ENOUGH?

There’s this pervasive myth that soundbars are nothing more than a compromise for people on a budget looking for a down-and-dirty surround sound solution. And that’s still largely true in the $200-and-below range. But these days, there are any number of truly high-performance soundbars that can deliver shockingly good sound.

 

If you’re simply looking for big, room-filling, impactful Dolby Atmos/DTS:X surround sound without running wires through the walls or around the perimeter of the room, Sennheiser has been turning heads in recent months with its new Ambeo Soundbar, an all-in-one sound solution that delivers 5.1.4-channel audio for $2,499. You might consider adding a subwoofer 

to the mix if you just can’t abide anything less than the deepest, hardest-hitting bass, but it’s not necessary. And if your local integrator doesn’t carry the Ambeo, the Yamaha YSP-5600 and Sony HT-ST5000 soundbars also deliver cinematic sound in a simple package. (Although, to be fair, neither of those is quite as technologically advanced as the Sennheiser.)

 

Luxury speaker manufacturers like James

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics

the Leon Speakers Horizon soundbar

Loudspeaker and Leon Speakers also make some truly gorgeous soundbars that, in some cases, can even be custom-made to perfectly match the width of your TV. They may be a little more complicated to set up, since they do require amplification, but if utter aesthetic sophistication is important to you, they’re definitely worth a look.

 

In my next post, I’ll start digging into what a slightly more elaborate—and indeed expandable—media room system looks like. But if you’re just looking for the basics, and if you’re looking to minimize the disruption to your design aesthetic, the Sony Z9G Master Series paired with a Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar and a Kaleidescape movie player, properly installed and calibrated, will give you one heck of a movie-watching experience at home.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Media Rooms Come of Age

Media rooms have a pretty bad reputation. So bad, in fact, that anyone who really cares about quality usually hesitates to go down that path as an alternative to a dedicated home theater. And that hesitation used to be justified because media rooms were inevitably compromised—mainly by small TV screens, unattractive, elaborate speaker systems and their inevitable 

profusion of cables, lousy acoustics, too much ambient light, and primitive room control.

 

But if you haven’t checked out the media-room market in the last five years or so, you might be surprised by how dramatically these systems and spaces have improved, and that it’s now possible to have a media room that can fit in well with the flow of your household with practically no compromises.

 

Note that I said “practically no.” Media rooms can’t yet achieve the level of playback quality a dedicated home theater can, and maybe never will. But for anyone who doesn’t want their primary entertainment space sealed off from the rest of the home, or only wants a modest setup but also wants a better-than-movie theater experience, or just doesn’t have the room for a standalone theater—which is practically everyone living in Manhattan, no matter how well-off—a well-designed and installed media room no longer represents a distant second-best solution.

 

It could even be argued that some of the recent media-room collaborations between architects, designers, and integrators (such as the one shown at the top of the page) represent the real cutting edge of current home entertainment.

 

So what’s changed that media rooms are now poised to finally shed their stigma?

 

♦  Reference-quality playback has become standard-issue in TVs, in smaller speaker setups, and with the movies and series you can readily access via download or streaming.

 

♦  TV screens have gotten a lot better, a lot bigger, a lot lighter, and a lot more stylish.

 

♦  Control systems are now much more sophisticated, flexible, and comprehensive.

 

♦  Lighting and shade control, in particular, have become more common and far more versatile.

 

♦  The best digital room-correction systems can now tame and optimize acoustically compromised spaces.

 

♦  Improvements in downloading and streaming, and in the picture and sound quality of TV series and video games, have created a demand for spaces that maximize the experience of all forms of entertainment and are responsive to the entertainment needs of all members of the household.

 

♦  Some interior designers have stopped holding their noses and decided to devote some of their considerable talent to making these rooms functional, attractive, and seamlessly integrated into the rest of the home.

 

♦  Some high-end integrators have moved beyond the general disdain for media rooms and now see them as the challenge and opportunity they are.

 

The Cineluxe Guide to Media Rooms: The Basics” is the first in a series of articles that will provide you with all the information you need to decide if you want a media room and how to make it best suit your needs. We’ll walk you through a variety of possibilities—from simple, no-compromise setups for a smallish secondary room to far more elaborate reference-quality systems for large, open-plan communal spaces. And we’ll do it without going deep into the tech. The goal is to provide you with enough of the essential concepts, facts, and context so you can convey to your integrator et al. exactly what you want to achieve and get a good sense of whether they’re up to the job.

 

But maybe the most important piece of advice we can pass along doesn’t have anything to do with gear, or content, or lights or shades, or any of that. While it’s good to have the strong core knowledge we’ll be providing, your biggest priority should be finding an integrator who “gets it.” For any candidates you’re considering, study their website thoroughly—especially their portfolio; if possible, visit one or more of the media rooms they’ve created. And listen to them carefully to be sure they’re not taking on the assignment grudgingly but are willing to embrace the challenge and create an exceptional multi-use entertainment space for you and your family.

 

So, should you still opt for a dedicated home theater if you have the room and aren’t willing to settle for anything less than the best? Absolutely. Should you be for one second embarrassed or ashamed if you decide to go with a media room instead? Absolutely not.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

AN INNOVATIVE MEDIA ROOM SPACE

The New York City apartment shown at left converts into a DCI-compliant theater at the press of a button; and yet there is no evidence of the system when it’s not in use. Almost every inch of wall space is either a reference-quality speaker or an acoustic treatment, all of it covered in custom-made acoustically transparent fabric.

 

Photos courtesy of Steinway Lyngdorf

REVIEWS

Casino Royale (2006)
A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story
Bloodshot
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey
Altered Carbon (Season 2)
Onward

ALSO ON CINELUXE

Acoustic Designer Steve Haas on Media Rooms
Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies
Does Watching Movies Really Matter Right Now?
The Cineluxe Hour

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

We benefit from yet another film that received a fast-tracked release to home video, one that just came out in theaters on February 7—though I’m not even entirely sure what to call it, as Warner Brothers was nearly as conflicted with the title as Harley Quinn herself. The film originally released with the nonsensical and absolute mouthful Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, but when that didn’t resonate with moviegoers, they changed it to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, a title that puts the emphasis where it belongs.

I was a fan of DC comics growing up, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of the DC universe is fairly limited to the members of the Justice League—Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, The Flash, etc.—and while Harley is a member of the extended DC Universe, I really didn’t know much about her character.

 

Those who watched 2016’s Suicide Squad were introduced to Harley (Margot Robbie) as she joined a band of misfits to perform deadly missions in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 27%, the film wasn’t well-received. However, Harley was the movie’s highpoint, and she generated enough excitement to get her own spinoff here. While Birds doesn’t feel tied to Squad in any way, there is one brief moment where the “Daddy’s Lil Monster” shirt Harley wore in Squad is held up, which places the movie in that continuity.

 

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that if you aren’t a 

PREY AT A GLANCE

Another entry in the emerging genre of man-hating action films, Birds of Prey tends be as confusing and hard to follow as its heroine, but features lots of fight scenes to keep superhero fans engaged.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer does a terrific job of handling the spectrum from the usual Gotham City gloom to shimmering golds, glittering sequins, and the bright neons of fireworks.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is active and engaging, with appropriate impact, but Quinn’s VOs are too forward and loud in the mix.

hardcore comic-book geek, or haven’t seen all the DC movies, or don’t know anything about Harley Quinn, the movie brings you up to speed on everything you need to know about Harley’s backstory in the opening minutes.

 

Essentially, Harley grows up with a bad father, goes to school and gets her PhD in psychology, and then goes to work at Gotham City’s infamous Arkham Asylum, where she is assigned to treat The Joker. Over time, she falls in love with him, and, well, he kind of drives her insane. (Those hoping for any more of Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker are out of luck. An uncredited Joker has just a snippet of screen time in a flashback and we only see the back of his head. Also, no cameos by the caped crusader.)

 

Birds begins after Mr. J has broken up with Harley, and now she is forced to figure things out and survive in a Gotham where she has made a lot of enemies and no longer has The Joker’s protection.

 

While Harley frenetically bumbles through life, she ends up at a nightclub owned by main baddie Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). When Sionis’ driver is incapacitated, he ends up making club singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) his new driver, forcing her deeper into his seedy world.

 

After a diamond embedded with account numbers is pickpocketed from one of Sionis’ enforcers by young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Harley volunteers to find the diamond in exchange for Sionis not killing her, setting her off on her quest.

 

While this is going on, a separate story develops about a crossbow-wielding vigilante calling herself The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is going around the city and killing crime-family members, while being pursued by Gotham City detective, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

 

These stories all weave separately, with characters occasionally bumping into each other until they finally intertwine, forcing the females to band together to fight off an army of masked criminals Sionis has assembled to kill them all and retrieve the diamond.

 

Phew.

 

If that all sounds a bit confusing and a tad hard to follow, well, it kind of is. Nothing that Harley does seems planned or thought out, with everything just a spontaneous impulse based on sudden emotion or reaction. Right away, we see that she is totally lost without The Joker, telling us that “a harlequin’s role is to serve,” and they are nothing without their master.

 

The film also teaches that men, even trusted friends, will screw you over and that “if you want boys to respect you, you have to show you’re serious; blow something up, shoot someone.” The emancipated Harley doesn’t take anything from any man, paying back any sleight or offense with maximum pain.

 

The story is a bit schizophrenic at times, often jumping backwards in time as Harley’s mind puts things together, or adding new pieces of information helping to make sense of things and fill in the holes.

 

Prey looks terrific. Shot on Arriraw at 3.4K resolution, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it shows. Images are gloriously sharp, with razor clarity and depth. Shots framed in tight focus leap off the screen, such as one closeup of an egg sandwich being cooked that reveals every texture and sharp edge and looked like a cinematic Food Network cooking demo. You can see every pore and line in actors’ faces, and the makeup and tattoos covering Harley. Wide exterior shots have a full field of focus that is almost three-dimensional.

 

The movie also has a bright and often hyper-vibrant color palette that looks fantastic in HDR. An early scene has neon-colored fireworks going off amidst brilliant-red fireball explosions. Costumes and backgrounds burst with color, with lots of shimmering golds and glittering silver sequins that shine and sparkle.

 

Because it’s Gotham, there are a lot of night and dark scenes, and blacks are deep and clean. Headlights, street lights, and the flashing blue and red police lights all pop off the screen. A final scene is on a misty and foggy pier, with lots of greys that are lit by dim and bright lights, which can be a total compression and banding nightmare, but these images remain solid, stable, and noise-free.

 

Sonically, Prey includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that is pretty active and engaging, and that makes frequent use of the height speakers.

 

City scenes have appropriate ambient street noises, and the nightclub takes on an entirely different sonic character, especially when Black Canary is singing and her voice has the reverb and ambience of being in a small jazz club. The Fun

House at the end also does a nice job getting playful with the audio mix, with lots of sounds coming from overhead.

 

There are a lot of fight scenes throughout the movie, and these have a lot sonic excitement. Gunshots have an appropriate snap and dynamics, and explosions energize the room with bass energy. During one scene, Harley attacks a police station with her “Fun Gun,” a weapon that shoots different non-lethal ammunition, and these projectiles launch with a solid thunk. When she fires off some gas rounds, you hear the smoke hissing into the room and overhead, and other rounds burst a confetti spray over the room.

 

Another fight happens in a prison hallway flooded with water. First is the sound of the water pouring overhead from the sprinkler system, and later you hear all of the splashes and individual water droplets spraying around the room.

 

I was a little concerned because Harley routinely narrates her thoughts, other characters’ backstories, or what is happening in a voiceover that booms across the front three channels. At first, I thought that overall dialogue levels were going to be way too loud and uncomfortably forward-sounding, and I ended up cutting the volume back a good bit from my usual reference. But it is just

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

Harley’s VOs that are recorded at a louder, forward, and in-your-face level. I think this would have played better—and been a far more playful use of the mix—had these VOs been mixed up into the height speakers, but I didn’t get to weigh-in. Fortunately, most of the dialogue is “correctly” mixed and easy to understand.

 

While this is a “comic book” movie, it is most definitely not family-friendly fare. There is a lot of swearing throughout, as well as some fairly graphic violence including physical abuse to women as well as one character that likes to, umm, cut peoples’ faces off. So, yeah, not for kids. But for the adults looking for a night in with a total break from reality, Birds of Prey is a sonic and visual feast that will make a home theater shine.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters (2019)

As the title suggests, Todd Haynes’ film Dark Waters is no light piece of fluffy escapism, and its tone and weight feel even darker and heavier given the current state of the world. It is a film that forces you to confront sickness, death, and corruption head-on, like Robert Bilott, the protagonist of the story, convincingly underplayed by Mark Ruffalo. Based on a true story, you will be both disturbed and riveted.

The film opens on a warm night in Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1975 when a trio of teenagers sneak onto private property, shuck off their clothes, and take a dip in the lake. A few seconds later, they are swiftly kicked out by the authorities, two men in a small power boat bearing the name “West Virginia Containment Services.” The men are in the midst of spraying a mysterious chemical onto the water’s surface as one of them shouts to the other, “Turn off the beam, fool!”, referring to the boat’s spotlight. Whatever they’re doing, it’s meant to be a secret.

 

Cut to 1998 in Cincinnati, where Robert Bilott (Ruffalo), a recent partner at the corporate law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, is paid an unexpected visit by a farmer from Parkersburg seeking his help. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) 

DARK WATERS AT A GLANCE

This frightening, powerful true story of DuPont Chemical’s poisoning of a small West Virginia town features a strong performance from Mark Ruffalo as the lawyer who uncovers the truth.

 

PICTURE

The film is well made, but relies on a blue filter effect that’s distracting and ultimately unnecessary.

 

SOUND

Composer Marcelo Zavros’ score is particularly effective. 

claims that DuPont is poisoning his farm’s creek and thereby killing the animals—and he has proof. He needs a lawyer, though, and he wants Bilott, whose grandma lives in Parkersburg. Only problem is that Bilott defends chemical companies, he doesn’t sue them.

 

Bilott refuses at first, but a nagging curiosity brings him to Tennant’s farm in West Virginia, and what he sees there cannot be unseen—190 dead cows, people getting sick, and a mysterious landfill belonging to DuPont. Bilott eventually takes the case, as he is the only lawyer willing to face the juggernaut chemical company. Dark suspicions and alarming evidence begin piling up, as does the paperwork Bilott must sift through to uncover the horrible truth. It will take him many years to find it, and at what cost? His career? His family? His life?

 

Mark Ruffalo gives one of his best performances as “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, which is the title of the New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich from which the screenplay (by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) is adapted. The supporting cast is equally strong and includes Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp (heart-breaking as Wilbur Tennant), and Anne Hathaway, particularly compelling as Bilott’s wife, Sarah.

 

The music score by Marcelo Zarvos is effective and in one scene, the use of the John Denver hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was particularly eerie juxtaposed with the film’s grim circumstances.

 

The look of the film, however, is its one weak spot. Nearly every scene is layered with a blue filter, used in an effort to manipulate the tone of the film, to make it feel somber and serious. The effect is overbearing and relentless. When we first see Tennant’s farm, for example, it is a dreary, blue day, and then when we revisit the farm more than a decade later, it looks exactly the same. The weather has not changed one iota. Did Haynes film it all on the same day using the same blue filter? His film does not need to rely on gimmicks. Dark Waters is an excellent movie; well-shot, well-scored, well-edited and well-acted, and these elements alone give us the tone. No filters necessary.

 

Despite this one qualm, Dark Waters is both frightening and powerful, and stands alongside the best of its genre like Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich. It’s so scary, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after seeing it, you find yourself going through your kitchen cabinets and throwing out some of your non-stick pots and pans. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of
On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album 
cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
thriller, 
Dig a Little Deeper.

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

For those of you unfamiliar with this Netflix series, Altered Carbon is set around 360 years into the future, with Season 2 taking place 30 years after Season 1. Based on the brilliant book by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is centered on the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs, formerly an Envoy—a highly-trained and feared soldier—and now a private investigator.

 

In this future world, a person’s consciousness can live indefinitely, downloaded into a “stack,” a device made possible by the discovery of not-entirely-understood alien technology that can be implanted into a “sleeve,” or newly-grown body—which 

doesn’t necessarily have to be the one they had before. The only way a person can be truly killed is if the stack is destroyed or if they can’t afford a new body. The alien material from which the stacks are made is found only on Kovacs’ home planet Harlan’s World. As such, it’s extremely valuable, the stuff of wars.

 

(Non-spoiler alert: Unlike many lazily done reviews that consist of a give-it-all-away plot summary and the reviewer concluding, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” I’m not going to reveal any of the key points for anyone here.)

 

Takeshi Kovacs has been re-sleeved—but in a new body, played by new lead Anthony Mackie, who gives Season 2 an entirely different feel. Mackie’s Kovacs is more charismatic and has more empathy and a wider emotional range than the previous two Kovacs, played by

CARBON AT A GLANCE

More pedestrian, less mind-blowing, than Season 1, but better than most of the other comic book-style sci-fi out there.

 

PICTURE     

Dazzling visuals in the Blade Runner neo-noir tradition.

 

SOUND

More restrained than the visuals but just as impressive—except for some occasional musical miscues.

the reserved Will Yun Lee and the stereotypical Tough Big Guy Joel Kinnaman. Mackie (known for playing Falcon in the  Marvel movies), dominates the screen with a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him presence and physicality, yet gives room for his co-actors to breathe. He brings nuance and, yes, even a little humor to the role in the midst of a grim future world.

 

Ostensibly brought back to Harlan’s World to solve a murder, Kovacs soon finds himself immersed in political intrigue, double-crossing, and other conflicts. He’s also reunited with love-of-his-life Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who created the stacks, who Kovacs has been pursuing across planets and timespans, and who is a key element in all that’s happening. Goldsberry is utterly convincing as the once heroic, now traumatized Falconer.

 

As in the first season, real and virtual reality and human and AI characters mix. The characters and actors are a mixed bag. Simone Messick (Misty Knight in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) plays bounty hunter Trepp with an oddly effective combination of tough-girl steel and compassion for those she cares for. My favorite of the bunch, Chris Conner, plays Poe,

Kovacs’ right-hand “man,” as a funny, flawed, insecure, and lovable AI character. You read “lovable” right—in Altered Carbon Season 2, Poe (modeled after Edgar Allan Poe), along with fellow AI and friend Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), are the most “human” characters and the actors displaying the greatest range of emotions. Poe suffers from a programming glitch and Dig 301 seeks a sense of purpose. In fact, the most touching scenes in the series are between the two of them.

 

Less believable are Lela Loren as Harlan’s World leader Danica Harlan, who never quite projects the steely ruthlessness the character requires, and Torben Liebrecht 

as a flat, one-dimensional Colonel Ivan Carrera. Perhaps this is how the directors wanted these characters played, but the result is that they aren’t as convincing as they should be. Oliver Rice is perfect though as Stone, Harlan’s assistant, the kind of obsequious toady occupying boardrooms and capitals everywhere.

 

As in Season 1, the visuals are dazzling. The claustrophobic feel owes a debt to Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, like so many other science-fiction shows, yet the look of the series is striking, from the honeycomb/alien motifs in Harlan’s palace to the neon-gritty street scenes and 3D computers-of-tomorrow graphics. When characters enter virtual reality, colors and perspectives are shifted in ways that seem surreal and hyper-real at the same time. Season 2 is an entirely believable portrayal of how the world could look around 350 years from now. (Be aware: As in the first season, the show doesn’t shy away from violence.)

 

The soundscapes complement the visuals (save for an occasional bout of overdramatic musical cheesiness) with almost subliminal insinuation into the viewer’s consciousness at times, interwoven with and part and parcel of the fabric of the presentation. That’s a compliment.

 

So. Altered Carbon Season 2 has all the ingredients of sensational sci-fi—but it doesn’t scale the mind-blowing heights of Season 1. The plotlines are more straightforward, less twisted and surprising, more pedestrian. The first season deeply explored themes like: What does it mean to be immortal? What does it feel like to be able to switch bodies and sexes? What are the social implications of the rich being able to enjoy these things, while the poor cannot? How far will someone go to gain power over others to ensure they have access to immortality?

 

However, Season 2 glosses over these ideas, becoming more of an us-versus-them narrative. Ironically, while the latest Takeshi Kovacs is more nuanced and multifaceted than the previous ones, most of the rest of the supporting characters are not.

 

That’s not to say Season 2 is bad—far from it. I dislike ratings, but for perspective, if the first season was an A, the new one is a B-minus, and the show is a heck of a lot better than some of the comic-book dreck shi-fi out there. Is it worth watching? Yes. (And it stands on its own. You don’t have to watch Season 1 first to enjoy it.) There are enough plot twists and surprises to keep things interesting, and the visuals are gripping. But I missed that rocketing adrenaline sense of wonder of its predecessor.

 

There’s talk of a Season 3, and there’s also the animated Altered Carbon: Resleeved, which I haven’t seen yet. It’ll be interesting to see how they stack up.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

I have been a fan of the musical and movie versions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch for a very long time and take a certain amount of pride knowing that I was in on the phenomenon quite early. I got into the original cast recording when the show was still in its infancy. We even flew from California to New York in 1999 primarily to see the show when it was still way Off 

Broadway down on Jane Street in Greenwich Village. Michael Cerveris was starring in the production then; I think he was the second Hedwig, right after creator John Cameron Mitchell.

 

Hedwig was everything I expected and more. I came home abuzz, trying to tell as many people as I could about this amazing music and production. I even convinced a one-off cover band I was in for a special benefit concert to do “Wicked Little Town”—which confused many in the audience, who had no clue what we were playing, yet it excited the handful who were hip to it. (I have a recording of that somewhere.) I’ve seen other productions of the show since, including most recently Mitchell’s fabulous Origin of Love concert tour, which was extremely rewarding—I finally got to see the original Hedwig!

HEDWIG AT A GLANCE

Criterion does its typically superb job of presenting this glam/punk/pop musical classic on Blu-ray.

 

PICTURE

Wonderful 4K transfer, but maybe a little too faithful to the original film, retaining more grain than contemporary audiences are used to.

 

SOUND

The 5.1 mix is warm and inviting, but way too conservative for a rock ‘n’ roll film that could use a little rear-channel action. 

The music of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is spectacular, springboarding off of an early-’70s glam-punk-pop template shaped by David Bowie, Marc Bolin (T-Rex), Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. Mitchell and songwriter/lyricist Stephen Trask crafted a grand rock musical so compelling that Hedwig has enjoyed performances around the globe, including a successful Broadway run in 2014 starring Neil Patrick Harris.

 

When I recently learned about a Blu-ray release of the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which had sneaked out last year, I scurried over to Amoeba Music and found their last copy. Thus, our review here today . . .

 

Generally, I’m quite pleased with this new edition from Criterion. Packaging-wise, it has a very different look from the original DVD version, more in keeping with the show’s artful, Germanic, drag-punk aesthetic. With its wild hand-drawn angular lettering and such, the design feels like some alternate-universe German silent film akin to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The original movie art looked nothing like that.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Those are details not lost on me given the story’s genesis (which I assume you know . . . but if you don’t, please click here for a link to the Wiki that can help bring you up to speed).

 

The picture quality on the Criterion Blu-ray of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is quite wonderful, restored at 4K. The colors are beautiful, with a very distinct sense of film grain. The latter detail is both appealing and distracting, and I admit I’m a bit on the fence about how I feel about this. I know it’s the most authentic vision, representative of how the film should look, but perhaps we see almost too much grain. I wouldn’t change it, of course. But I do need to acknowledge this, for what it’s worth. 

 

The detailing is nonetheless quite lovely, especially in the closeups. The ruby slipper-like sparkle on Hedwig’s lips is pretty incredible!

 

The detailed booklet in this Criterion issue features all 

manner of behind-the-scenes images and insights, including artwork tracing the character’s evolution. The bonus materials are essential, including a charming memory piece where John Cameron Mitchell explores his archives, telling stories of how Hedwig came together, illustrated with rare memorabilia and video footage. (Some of this section mirrors tales he told on his recent Origin of Love concert tour.) The interviews with cast and crew are revealing and enlightening. I’m still going through these materials, but so far I am very pleased.

 

My only disappointment with this edition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch involves the sound. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio surround sound mix was a letdown—it is effectively a stereo mix with generic room ambience in the rear channels. It would have been nice to hear even a little bit of discrete activity in those channels! Maybe we will get that in a Super Deluxe Edition version somewhere down the pike.

 

That said, the mix does ultimately treat the music very nicely, sounding warm and inviting, almost analog at times. Accordingly, Hedwig and the Angry Inch sounds its best when you play it loud—after all, rock ‘n’ roll should be played at full volume! So if you love this movie musical and decide to get this new Criterion edition, don’t hesitate to turn up your amplifier to 11 for maximum rock ’n’ roll velocity.

 

You won’t regret it.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Onward

Onward

By all normal logic, you should not be reading this review right now. Disney/Pixar’s latest film, Onward, was just released theatrically on March 6, and with an opening gross of $103 million—and status as the #1 movie in the United States—it was already well on its way to becoming the studio’s next mega-hit.

 

But then the world went topsy-turvy and all the commercial cinemas closed, forcing studios to make a difficult and unprecedented decision: Wait until theaters reopen and hope interest for these movies is still there, or release them in non-

traditional ways. (You can read my post “Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date to see more on this fascinating development.)

 

Like others, Disney chose to greatly accelerate the home release date for Onward, making it available for purchase on digital download just two weeks after its theatrical debut. And, like Frozen II, Onward will also see a far earlier release date for streaming on Disney+, arriving there on April 3.

 

These plans came about so abruptly that digital retailers like Kaleidescape and Vudu didn’t even receive the 4K HDR files. However, in another unusual move from Disney, the company is using “harmonized pricing” for users purchasing Onward, meaning that one price—$26.99 in the case of Kaleidescape—gets you access to the film in HD resolution now with rights to download the UHD and 4K HDR versions when they are available.

ONWARD AT A GLANCE

Pixar had another mega-hit on its hands before it was forced to take this heartfelt but fun D&D-derived tale of loss & redemption out of theaters and straight to the home market.

 

PICTURE     

Picks up where the groundbreaking Toy Story 4 left off, with photorealistic graphics and dazzling effects.

 

SOUND

The adventurous mix—7.1 in the current version, but with an Atmos upgrade due soon—features plenty of pans, ambience, and bass.

So, with that preamble out of the way, we can proceed with the review . . .

 

Onward is set in the fantasy world of New Mushroomton, a world long ago that was filled with adventure and wonder and magic. But magic wasn’t easy to master, and over time, it faded away, and now it is a forgotten skill replaced by technology. I mean, why struggle learning to cast a light spell or rely on a wizard when now everyone can just walk over and flip a switch?

 

This setting is one of the first unique things for Pixar, in that the film is set in an entirely fantastical world. Every other Pixar film has been set to some degree in the “real world.” Whether it is the distant future of Wall-E, the underground insect world of A Bug’s Life, inside Riley’s head in Inside Out, or the alternate reality of The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s world-building has thus

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Toy Story 4

far been built around our reality. (Even Monstropolis from Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University is tied to our world, as the monsters cross over into our side of the closet door on multiple occasions.)

 

Onward also features some deep ties to fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, with tons of references overt and subtle that fans of these games will pick up and love, specifically one gelatinous monster that even passing D&D fans will be familiar with. The movie’s substitute for these is Quests of Yore, “A historically based role-playing scenario.”

In a way, it reminded me of a “Weird” Al Yankovic song like “All About the Pentiums.” You can enjoy the song on the surface for what it is, but the deeper you are into geek culture, the more you’ll appreciate its brilliance on different layers. Pixar is known for littering Easter eggs throughout its films. Onward features more references and hidden jokes than perhaps any other, and the home release allows you to pause and analyze scenes to loot-hunt these treasures at your leisure.

 

Whether it’s The Lion King, Bambi, Frozen, Finding Nemo, or numerous other films, a common theme among Disney heroes is having lost a parent, often in some tragic manner. But no film tackles this subject head-on quite like Onward, where the entire plot revolves around the opportunity to bring back a lost parent, to spend one last day with him. Also, for the first time we hear Disney characters not only talking about the pain and loss of losing a parent, but of the emotions of having to deal with a parent that is sick and dying. Heavy stuff for a “kid’s” movie.

 

The film focuses on elven brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) some 16 years after their father has died. On Ian’s 16th birthday, their mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) unveils a present their father left behind for when both boys were over 16. Inside the present are a wizard’s staff, a rare Phoenix Gem, and instructions for casting a “visitation spell” that will allow the dad to return for a single day to see how the boys have grown. Of course, things go awry when casting the spell, and Dad only returns from the waist down before the Phoenix Gem—an assist element required for casting powerful magic—is destroyed.

 

This sets up the campaign quest, as the brothers—and the lower-half of dad—head off in Barley’s sweet-van, Guinevere (fueled by an appropriately epic mixtape, of course), to follow clues left behind from the magic of old to discover another 

Phoenix Gem and finish casting the spell before the sun sets, and Dad is again lost forever.

 

Pixar inhabits this fantasy world with all manner of creatures, including gnomes, pixies, mermaids, unicorns, centaurs, cyclops, and goblins, which keeps scenes visually entertaining. In keeping with the RPG “rules,” different character classes have different abilities; and it is the shy and awkward Ian (whose name might be

Onward

a subtle nod to Sir Ian McKellen, who played a certain wizard named Gandalf the Grey in a few Tolkien films) who develops the ability to use the wizard’s staff to cast spells rather than his RPG-obsessed, living the “longest gap year ever” non-starter brother, Barley, perpetually wearing a jean vest emblazoned with patches and buttons of Metal-like band names and a 20-sided die, like so many of the kids I went to high-school with in the ‘80s.

 

And like any epic quest, the story begins at an all-too common starting point: The Tavern. From Chaucer’s Tale to Hobbiton’s Green Dragon Inn to numerous D&D campaigns, the Tavern is often the place where parties gather to palaver prior to beginning their journey. In this case, the Tavern is run by a Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a mythical creature with “a vaguely humanoid head, the body of a lion, and the wings of a dragon [whose] long tail ends in a cluster of deadly spikes,” according to D&D rules. With magic gone, our Manticore has lost its bite, and the tavern is now more a family-friendly TGI Friday’s affair. But it serves as the launching point for the brothers’ adventure—as well as a way for the Manticore to do some self-discovery—and provides the first clue to tracking down the Gem.

 

As mentioned at the outset, this review is of the HD version, which looks fantastic in its own right, but it definitely left me eager to see this visual glory all over again but in higher resolution, and with the added color and punch of HDR, when the 4K HDR release becomes available.

 

As literally every pixel shown on screen is rendered in computer, we get an amazing level of detail, especially in closeups. Here, literally every strand of hair or fur is visible in perfect detail, as are things like the grain in desks or the stones in walls. Other things have a photo-realistic quality, such as slices of bread, vehicles, or wet roads. Pixar continues upping the ante in computer visuals, and Onward picks up where the gorgeous Toy Story 4 left off.

Lighting effects are dazzling, whether it is fire, sparkling magic, or light streaming in through windows. Dark spaces like caves or night scenes make for especially vibrant eye candy. 

 

As is the case with every Disney release I am aware of, the digital HD version—and Blu-ray disc on release—doesn’t contain the object-based Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which is reserved for the premium 4K content. Instead, Onward’s HD version has a 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack.

 

While I can’t wait to audition the Atmos track when the 4K version drops, this mix offers plenty to enjoy. There are strong panning and surround effects tracking the onscreen action, especially during the driving scenes on the expressway and the final challenge quest in the tunnels, where multiple objects whiz past your head. Even with the 7.1-channel mix, my processor’s upmixer smartly put sounds up into the ceiling, such as a dragon’s tail swiping overhead or fire breathing across the room. Outdoor scenes feature tons of ambient sounds to place you in the action, and bass is deep and authoritative when called for. I find dialogue to be slightly forward with DTS mixes, but I had no difficulty understanding all the lines.

Onward

Of course, the brilliance of Pixar is in making movies that appeal to a broad range of viewers, and not just for that small subset of hardcore fans of a specific genre or RPG subculture. Unlike any other studio, Pixar has a knack for writing stories and jokes that play across multiple levels. Kids appreciate the top-level humor, with other jokes and references for adults, and deeper meanings and storytelling themes that parents recognize.

 

Ultimately, Onward is Pixar doing what it does best, which is creating movies about deep relationships and going right for the feels at the end. Whether you’re a beginning Level 1 Crafty Rogue or a veteran Level 20 Wizard, there is plenty in Onward to engage and entertain family members of all ages.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.