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Mulan (2020)

Mulan (2020)

If any movie has had a more complex and rambling release timeline than Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, it would be Disney’s latest live-action remake, Mulan. After its initial Hollywood premiere on March 9, the film was slated for a wide theatrical release on March 27. But those plans were scrubbed after commercial cinemas around the world were forced to close because of the coronavirus. For months, Disney stood firm that Mulan would debut theatrically, and the release date continued to move back a week at a time in lockstep with Tenet, with many looking to these two tentpole films as the official relaunch of commercial cinema.

 

After months of “will it/won’t it?” release-date shuffling, Warner decided to seek an international release of Tenet before opening here in the States. Disney, however, made the radical decision to forego a commercial release of Mulan in the U.S.

entirely, instead trying a new strategy with its Disney+ streaming service, offering Mulan to all subscribers for a one-time $29.99 fee for “Premier Access.”

 

Shortly before Mulan’s September 4 release to Disney+, Disney clarified that the Premier Access offer would only be available until November 2, 2020. “Once you have Premier Access to Mulan, you can watch as many times as you want on any platform where Disney+ is available. Your access to Mulan will continue as long as you are an active Disney+ subscriber. Mulan will be available to all Disney+ subscribers on December 4, 2020 for no additional cost.”

 

So, with a major title costing an estimated $200 million to produce, and initially expected to bring in close to a billion worldwide, Disney is not only gambling heavily on Premium Access, but also seemingly stacking the deck against itself by telling subscribers that if they jut hold off a few months, they can get it for free.

MULAN AT A GLANCE

Another in Disney’s series of live-action remakes of animated titles, this straight-to-Disney+ effort sheds the musical numbers and most of the humor to tell the tale of Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to become a soldier.

 

PICTURE     

Streamed in 4K, the film looks gorgeous—especially when seen on a flagship video display—taking full advantage of HDR’s wider color gamut.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix is disappointing, but its restraint might be due in part to being streamed over AppleTV.

My family was planning on seeing Mulan in the theater, so I gladly ponied up the $29.99. (Still cheaper than buying three tickets, and with the added benefit of watching in my own home theater as many times as I want!) Disney sent subscribers an email with instructions for unlocking Premier Access, and a link took me to a page where I could enter payment details. Once submitted, a gold Premier Access banner appears by Mulan along with, “You have Premier Access to this movie.”

 

Unlike previous Disney live-action remakesBeauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin—Mulan doesn’t strictly adhere to the original animated material, and where the 1998 animated film was G-rated with a lot of musical numbers, this remake is a decidedly more adult PG-13 film. Also, there’s no singing or any musical numbers. There are some definite nods to the big 

musical numbers “Honor to Us All” and “Reflection,” with those instrumental themes clearly playing, and some of the lines from “A Girl Worth Fighting For” are used as lines of dialogue.

 

Also gone are the bickering ancestors and Mushu, the protector ancestral dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, which is replaced by a CGI Phoenix, the family’s ancestral guardian, that appears when Mulan needs strength or guidance. Also, for historical accuracy, the Huns have been replaced by the Rouran army.

 

The film opens with Mulan as a young girl performing fighting moves with a staff in an open field, and we are told “Chi is the boundless energy of life itself speaking through her every motion.” But only a son can wield chi, and a daughter that doesn’t hide her chi risks shame, dishonor, and exile. We’re also informed “chi is for warriors, not daughters.”

 

Chi plays a prominent role in the film, and feels a lot like another mystical power from the Disney-owned universe, The Force. In fact, we’re told, “Chi obeys the universe and all living things; we are all born with it but only the most true will connect deeply with his chi and become a great warrior.” I was actually waiting to hear that chi surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds us together. In another strong echo of the Star Wars universe, another powerful chi-wielder tells Mulan to join them and they will take their place together. Sound familiar? Of course, instead of a lightsaber, Mulan wields her father’s sword.

Otherwise, the film hits all the major beats and plot points from the original, removing much of the humor and telling a serious tale of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join the Emperor’s army to take her old and injured father’s place after an edict that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army.

 

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider; McFarland, USA) apparently auditioned over 1,000 actresses before selecting Yifei Lui to play Mulan, and Lui does a great job as both delicate Hua Mulan and soldier Hua Jun, handling most of her own stunts. Also on hand are two Chinese film legends, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung and Jet Li as the Emperor, as well as Jason Scott Lee playing Rouran leader, Bori Khan.

 

There is plenty of fighting throughout, and even though Mulan has a PG-13 rating, the killing is completely bloodless and gore-free. There were only a few scenes that were too intense for my 4 year old. Soldiers hit by arrows slump over, and we see empty helmets to represent the hundreds of slaughtered, or just see bodies lying still. While much of the fighting is grounded in real-world physics, there is the occasional use of the “Wuxia” flying/leaping/gravity-defying fighting style popularized in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially after Mulan fully embraces—and unleashes—the true potential of her chi.

 

Besides the musical nods, there is a nice cameo by Ming-Na Wen, who voiced Mulan in the animated title, and Christina Aguilera—who sang “Reflection” as her debut single over the animated end-credits—returns with a new end-credits song, “Loyal Brave True.”

 

Mulan runs just shy of two hours and is presented in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which benefits the wide vistas and grand scale of many shots, especially the wide-open countryside.

 

Shot in ArriRaw at 4.5 and 5.1K resolution, Mulan is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the film looks gorgeous, especially when viewed on a high-end Dolby Vision-capable display. The resolution makes it easy to appreciate the detail of the costuming, seeing the work of the armor, the stitching, threads, and fabric of the uniforms, or the detail of the sets and backgrounds. Closeups reveal pore-level detail and razor-sharp focus of the actors’ faces, and in one scene you can clearly see single beads of water dripping down a few strands of Mulan’s hair. Long shots also have tons of detail, letting you appreciate the vast scenic spaces, buildings, and gathered armies, with nice, sharp edges.

 

Mulan also benefits from HDR’s wider color gamut, with the colors of the outfits warn by occupants in Mulan’s village being vibrant and saturated. Reds are especially deep, as are the gleaming golds of the Emperor’s throne room. You also get beautifully lit faces in some interiors where characters talk by lantern light, their faces bathed in a rich warm glow with deep natural shadows, or the bright gleaming sunlit skies in exteriors, or the burning of fires and torches.

 

In total, Mulan looks fantastic, and should definitely be appreciated on a flagship video display.

 

Sonically, however, I found the Dolby Atmos mix to be really reserved and frankly a bit disappointing. Of course, this could be less an issue with the mix itself and more to do with AppleTV’s audio output, something I found disappointing when watching Taylor Swift’s Reunion concert on Netflix, or perhaps the difference between the lossy Dolby Digital+ used by streaming services and the TrueHD audio found on physical 4K discs and offered by Kaleidescape.

 

There were many cases when the height channels could have been used more aggressively to good effect, such as arrows raining overhead, swords slashing, birds flying overhead, people leaping, rain falling, etc. There were a couple of scenes where the height speakers are put to good use, such as Mulan hearing the voices of her ancestors or people are speaking off-camera from overhead.

 

While the surround channels are used for the sounds of swishing arrows, fighting, and atmospheric sounds like wind and echoes and to expand the musical score, I found the mix to be mainly focused across the front three speakers. In a way, it almost feels like Disney knew this was going to be primarily viewed at home, and so the mix choices were optimized for TV speakers and basic soundbar setups.

 

While not possessing a bass-heavy mix, your subwoofer definitely comes into play in key moments, such as the galloping horse army, a cascading avalanche, and the crashing of massive boulders launched by the Rouran army’s trebuchet.

 

Ultimately, how much you enjoy this retelling of Mulan might depend on how much you loved the original animated title. While it is the same story, it is told in a completely different manner, and if you are expecting another live-action rehash, you may be disappointed. Taken on its own merit, however, Mulan is a well-told, updated, and compelling story that features a solid cast, with massive scale, along with some terrific cinematography that all make for a great night at the movies.

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 Goonies

The Goonies

I wish I could say something—anything—meaningful about The Goonies without referencing the numerous works it has inspired over the past 35 years. Truth be told, though, this 1985 Richard Donner classic, penned by Chris Columbus from a story idea by Steven Spielberg, is more a cultural touchstone than it is a work of cinema in its own right. The ripples it has left on the surface of the pop culture pond have by this point overshadowed the pebble itself.

 

Stranger Things, for example—for all its references to the films of Ridley Scott and John Carpenter and Stephen King—could easily be seen as an episodic riff on The Goonies with a gaggle of other pop-culture references piled on for good measure. 

To this day, 35 years after its debut, you can feel the echoes of The Goonies in everything from Ready Player One to Deadpool 2. Heck, even the last Star Wars movie made a ham-fisted and nonsensical homage to this beloved ’80s romp. (Although, to be fair, of the many cinematic sins committed by Episode IX, insulting the intelligence of Goonies fans while also clumsily attempting to tug at their heartstrings is far from the most egregious.)

 

I guess the point is, The Goonies wouldn’t still hold such sway over filmmakers and viewers alike if it didn’t have something going for it. But I’m just too close to it to evaluate the film objectively. I notice its flaws—the clumsiness of the climax, the laughable special effects in places, the ridiculousness of its very premise—and I see them as charming virtues.

 

My wife, on the other hand, had never seen the film before I downloaded the UHD/HDR remaster on Kaleidescape. What can I say? She was a military brat who spent her formative years in Europe. She missed out on much of American popular culture between the release of The 

GOONIES AT A GLANCE

This might not be the best 4K HDR makeover of an ’80s film ever, but it’s worth the upgrade to have a great-looking and -sounding version of this hugely influential kid-adventure classic.

 

PICTURE     

The cinematography is a little too flat and soft to consistently take full advantage of UHD’s increased resolution and expanded color gamut, but there are some breathtaking shots in this transfer and HDR helps with things like lanterns & lightning.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a big step up from earlier releases, with enhanced atmospheric effects and a bit more bottom end to support the action.

Empire Strikes Back and Tim Burton’s Batman. And catching her up on all of the ’80s nostalgia-fuel she missed is always a hit-or-miss proposition. She thought E.T. was “OK.” She didn’t think The Thing was scary at all. I hesitate to sit her down in front of The Last Starfighter or Flight of the Navigator for fear of her inevitable reaction. Divorce attorneys are expensive, y’all.

 

But much to my relief, she ate The Goonies up flaws and all, giggling at all the funny bits, clapping at the little victories, jumping at all the cheap scares, and cooing every time Sean Astin did something adorable (which is quite frequently). And I think its sway over her had a lot to do with the aspects of the film that just don’t age as the years go by: The excellent cast, the believable performances, and ultimately the heart of its very simple narrative. The Goonies is, when you get right down to it, a straightforward adventure tale—equal parts treasure hunt, dungeon crawl, and crime thriller. And that straightforward story gives it enough momentum to overcome things like the silliness of a few of its gags or the groan-worthiness of things like obviously rubber bats being flung on strings at the actors’ faces.

 

Of course, you don’t really need me to tell you any of the above. You likely either know what you think about The Goonies or you’re beyond caring. The question you really want answered is: Should you upgrade to UHD/HDR if you already own the film?

 

The simple answer: Yes, this one is worth the upgrade.

 

The not-so simple answer: I wouldn’t put this on my Top 10 list of 4K remasters. Hell, I wouldn’t even put it on my Top 10 list of 4K remasters of ’80s flicks. The cinematography is a little too flat and a bit too soft to consistently take full advantage of the increased resolution or expanded color gamut. That said, there are shots here and there that are simply breathtaking in this new transfer, and the high dynamic range does enhance things like flashing lightning and the glare of lanterns. What’s more, the middle passage of the movie—which takes place entirely underground—does benefit from a little more range at the lower end of the value scale. I only caught one or two scenes with uneven black levels. Aside from those, the gloomy-looking second act looks better than it ever has before.

 

The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also an appreciable step up, with enhanced atmospheric effects (especially during the thunderstorm near the beginning) and a bit more bottom end to support the action. As has been the case since the film’s debut, though, dialogue clarity is the weak spot in the sound mix, and there’s likely nothing that can be done about that,

since much of the dialogue was improvised and the actors talk all over each other near-constantly. Had Donner attempted to spackle over the roughly recorded dialogue with ADR back in the day, the results would have likely been a lip-sync disaster on par with the American kung fu movie craze of the 1970s.

 

So don’t go into this expecting a film that sounds like it was recorded yesterday, but do expect a minor upgrade in sound quality over the 10-year-old Blu-ray release.

 

That Blu-ray, by the way, is the source of all the bonus features included with this new 4K release, which is to say there’s not much here, and you can probably skip most of it. The seven-minutes’ worth of deleted scenes are cute and shed some light on the reference to an excised octopus attack mentioned in the final moments of the film. But practically everything here was best left on the cutting-room floor.

 

The only bonus goody that’s absolutely must-see is “Hidden Treasures: Video Commentaries from the Cast.” As the name implies, this is a commentary with the Goonies (along with Donner), recorded (if memory serves) for the DVD release of the film in 2001. What sets this one apart from most commentary tracks is that the

The Goonies

participants were filmed sitting together at a table watching the film projected in front of them, and we get to see much of their interaction by way of picture-in-picture popups.

 

Do I think The Goonies deserved a new retrospective documentary for its 35th anniversary? I absolutely do. As I said from the giddy-up, the movie still has far more influence on modern popular culture than most of its contemporaries, and a fresh look at its lasting relevance would have been nice. Maybe we can hold out hope for some new bonus features on its 40th or 50th anniversary.

 

But if you’re just here for the movie itself, I seriously doubt any future releases will look (or sound) better than The Goonies does here.

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.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill & Ted Face the Music

In another combination theatrical and home day-and-date release, the third film in the Bill & Ted franchise, Bill & Ted Face the Music, dropped this past Friday (August 28)—29 years after the second film, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and 31 years after the original Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, making it one of the longest gaps between film sequels ever. Available for rental or purchase through a variety of streaming outlets, you can purchase Face the Music for download from Kaleidescape for $39.99, where it is available at Ultra HD resolution (not HDR) with a DTS-HD 5.1-channel audio mix.

 

I was 19 when Excellent Adventure came out and saw both it and the Bogus Journey sequel in the theater. It had been years since I’d watched either movie, so I prepped for Face the Music by watching Excellent Adventure again. Unquestionably a

cheesy, schlocky B movie, what really drives the film is the fun of watching these two likable idiots bumbling through time in an attempt to fulfill their musical destiny by first acing a high-school history presentation so they can graduate. While often described as a “stoner comedy,” there is never any evidence of the duo getting high; rather, they are just a wildly optimistic pair that look for the best in situations and get by on dumb luck and the help of a telephone-booth time machine.

 

My memories of the second film are far less fond, with the ridiculousness of evil doppelgängers sent from the future, trips to the afterworld to beat Death in a variety of games, and Bill and Ted building robot versions of themselves to win a “battle of the bands” competition playing along with Death and some aliens called Station. It just didn’t have the fun of the original, and the proclamations of, “Dude!” “Excellent!” and “Righteous!” wore thin.

 

So, the real question here is: After 29 years, did the world 

FACE THE MUSIC AT A GLANCE

Arriving a scant 31 years after Excellent Adventure, with Keanu Reeves displaying questionable judgment returning as Ted, this sequel will likely appeal mainly to GenXers but isn’t such a bad way to spend your time with so few other new releases out there.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is clean and sharp, with plenty of detail, but the absence of HDR results in the images looking flat, without pop or depth.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD 5.1 mix is room-filling when appropriate, with surprisingly potent bass.

really need or even want another episode in this franchise? And, perhaps even more curious, why would Keanu Reeves want to return to playing valley guy Ted while in the midst of a career high point with the insane success of polar-opposite character John Wick? And will another 90-minutes of his “Whoa! Dude!” surfer-Ted persona somehow diminish the Wick franchise?

 

I was skeptical going into viewing Face the Music, and likely would not have watched it if not for Cineluxe. And I wonder if the film will actually find more financial success because of the current theatrical shutdown, giving content-starved viewers something new to watch at home that they otherwise would have taken a pass on.

 

With Reeve’s current popularity, I was thinking Face the Music’s real hook would be some incredible cameos sprinkled throughout to add another element of fun to the adventure, but that was not the case. (Though we do get one scene with a rather famous musician who pops in to play himself.) Also, I hoped director Dean Parisot would bring some of the same fun and understanding of the genre that he did with Galaxy Quest. While the film has a surprisingly high Rotten Tomatoes critics rating of 81% and an 82% audience score (both franchise highs), I think it will mostly appeal to Gen-Xers who will give a lot of its shortcomings a pass by playing the nostalgia card and appreciating the fan service. (When I asked my 13-year-old daughter, who had never seen either of the other films, how many more times she’d watch Face the Music, she said, “Negative one. I wish I’d never seen it the first time.” Ouch!)

 

The movie begins with Bill S. Preston, Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan, the sole remaining members of their once super-band Wyld Stallyns, who have gone from playing concerts viewed all over the world to playing empty bars on Taco Tuesday, still struggling to write the one super-hit song destined to unite mankind around the world.

 

Besides the leads, Face the Music manages to get other members of the band back together, including Hal Landon Jr. returning as Ted’s dad, Chief Logan, Amy Stoch  as Missy-mom (now marrying Ted’s younger brother after divorcing both Bill and Ted’s dads), and William Sadler as bass-shredding Death. The wife-princesses, Joanna and Elizabeth, are still here but have been once again recast. (These two characters have now been played by six different actresses.)

 

New to the cast are Thea Preston (Samara Weaving) and Billie Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine), Bill and Ted’s music-loving daughters, who play a major role in the plot and do their best to maintain the mouth-agape bewildered expression and mannerisms of their respective parents, as well as the always-delightful Kristen Schaal as Kelly, daughter of Rufus (George Carlin) from the first two films, and the time-traveling Terminator-esque self-aware robot, Dennis Caleb McCoy (Anthony Carrigan).

 

Without the benefit of a universe-uniting song, things are unraveling throughout time, with people and landmarks transporting to different times and places, and Bill and Ted are up against a deadline with which to create and perform the song or risk the irreversible collapse of reality.

 

With the clock ticking—and with a time-traveling phone booth once again at their disposal—the boys decide to visit themselves at different points in the future after they’ve already written the song so they can just steal it and bring it back. Billie and Thea decide to help out by gathering some of the greatest musicians throughout history—Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Mozart—to help perform the song.

 

Watching the various incarnations of Bill and Ted—whose lives get progressively worse the further they go into the future—brought some of the film’s funnier moments, and the girls’ quest to get famous musicians was certainly reminiscent of Excellent Adventure (as well as the musical number from the talent show of Revenge of the Nerds). But my family and I all thought one of the film’s highlights was the song and video over the beginning of the closing credits, which feels like the 

cameo-filled moments (we spotted “Weird” Al Yankovic and Guillermo Rodriguez, but it seems like there were many others we just didn’t recognize) I hoped the film would have. Also, stick around for a final post-credits scene, which will likely be the last we see of Bill and Ted.

 

As mentioned, this is a non-HDR 4K transfer (at least for now) and the opening Orion logo offers a throwback to ‘80s-era VHS-level picture quality, but rest assured things quickly improve. Shot in ArriRaw at 2.8 and 3.4K resolutions, images are clean and sharp, with enough detail to reveal how much our leads have aged as well as the fabric detail in clothes and outfits throughout time. But the picture quality doesn’t have that razor-sharp look of many modern transfers, and backgrounds are often a bit soft.

 

Most noticeable—especially after watching so many modern films—is the lack of HDR grading. Without it, images just look a bit flat, and lack pop and depth, especially in scenes with bright images in the background such as in the therapist’s office or when talking to Death in his office. Also, you can see where images would benefit from the wider color gamut, such as the bright flashes of color as Bill and Ted are traveling through time.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Even without an immersive audio mix, the sound is entertaining, and room-filling when appropriate, such as the time-unraveling scenes and the big musical performance. Bass is also surprisingly potent, with the time-traveling phone booth slamming into the ground with room-shaking authority. Scenes also have a nice bit of spaciousness, such as the background wails in Hell or the reverb of Jimi’s guitar. Dialogue is also clearly presented and easily understood throughout.

 

If this is the last we see of Bill and Ted, this was certainly a better sendoff than their Bogus Journey. And their message to “Be excellent to each other!” and “Party on, dudes!” isn’t such a bad thing for these crazy times.

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 Strange Journey of Tom Waits

The Strange Journey of Tom Waits

Last Sunday evening, I had a chance to do something I hardly ever get to do—devote all of my attention to listening to some music. I uncorked a Portuguese red I’ve never tried before, flicked on a single, small incandescent lamp, then unsheathed and cued up Side One of Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner.

 

The whole exercise felt a bit like a ritual, and I guess you could consider it the musical equivalent of comfort viewing—going to one of the very few things that have always made me feel grounded to reaffirm their ability to ring true no matter how much 

the world has changed around them.

 

A 1975 Bones Howe-produced two-LP set recorded live at LA’s Record Plant, Nighthawks is Waits in full hipster mode, from the period when he was using his faux Kerouac routine to disarm audiences while going up hard against the pop-music mainstream. You were far more likely to know him at the time for Rusty Warren-type retreads like “The Piano Has Been Drinking” and “Pasties and a G String” as the epic “Tom Traubert’s Blues.”

 

The first cut, “Emotional Weather Report,” is an extended monologue-quasi-song with Waits resorting to every corny Vegas-comic gag to ingratiate himself, winking so hard the whole time that you can’t help but grin. “I’ve been playing nightclubs and staying out all night long, coming home late—gone for three months, come back and everything in the refrigerator turns into a science project.” “I’m so goddamned horny the crack of dawn better be careful around me.”

 

But parts of the song that had just struck me as laugh lines before—“with tornado watches issued Sunday for the areas including the western region of my mental health, 

and the northern portion of my ability to deal rationally with my disconcerted emotional situation—it’s cold out there”—felt strangely bittersweet, even wrenching, this time around.

 

Then, as Nighthawks slipped into “On a Foggy Night,” I had a kind of epiphany. It’s common knowledge that Waits went through one of the most radical transformations in pop-music history, but it didn’t hit me until then that the change was far more a maturation than any kind of rebranding. Once you go beneath the jokey surfaces, there’s actually an amazingly consistent through-line to his work. Songs like Nighthawks’ “Better Off Without a Wife” and 2002’s “All the World is Green” might seem to exist in completely different worlds, but just shift the emphasis a little here and there and the actual distance between them is so slight it’s barely there at all.

A lot of the stuff on Waits’ initial albums might seem gaggy and trite, but view it through the lens of everything he’s done since Swordfishtrombones and you realize how fundamentally poignant those early efforts are. They don’t have the rigor, incisive, often bitter, irony, or unflinching moral probity of his later work, but they aren’t just the throwaway ditties of some one-trick booze-addled clown.

 

Then, around the time of “Warm Beer and Cold Women,” I was graced with another seeming insight—that not just his later efforts but the whole of Waits’ work stands at the pinnacle of the American songwriting tradition. Sensing how much Nighthawks honors and feeds from everything that preceded it, in a way then-popular stadium rock never could, I realized how early on he blew past his contemporaries.

 

Most pop performers write songs, but they’re not songwriters. Never having fully immersed themselves in the tradition, instead donning and shedding styles the way they’d try on designer Ts, they not only don’t have a good grasp of the basic mechanics but lack the reverence and awe that would inspire them to match or exceed the best efforts to date. But it’s clear

in retrospect that Waits is, and always was, a master, able to pluck the most vital, fertile, and redolent elements out of the musical stream until he was eventually creating songs where every turn of phrase was a perfect evocation of a different aspect of everything that came before, pivoting seamlessly from, say, Hoagy Carmichael to the Delta blues to Kurt Weill to Big Mama Thornton to Stephen Foster to early Satchmo to Tin Pan Alley to a Salvation Army band without ever using any of it as a crutch, and making it all feel whole.

 

I’m not saying Waits stands alone above his peers and their successors. Randy Newman occupies much the same ground. Both used novelty 

The Strange Journey of Tom Waits

songs early on to win over audiences, lacing them with just enough irony to let the intelligentsia know they were fashionably cynical, but both have gone far deeper than their contemporaries, showing a decidedly unfashionable vulnerability and sentimentality that actually lifts their work to a whole other level.

 

Newman, of course, is pared down, almost diffident compared to Waits’ flamboyance and radical experimentation. But each is a fully formed songsmith and not the usual mercenary faddist. And, far too honest in their work, neither would stand a chance if they were starting their careers in the far more intolerant and censorious present.

 

None of the above is meant to suggest that I drifted from listening to Nighthawks into some kind of brooding meditation. Whatever thoughts I had came unbidden, and flickered just long enough for me to jot them down here. Maybe they were just a product of my mood or a reaction to listening to early Waits against the backdrop of these strangely trivial and parlous times. Or maybe it was just the wine.

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.

The Cineluxe “Comfort Viewing” Guide to “The Lord of the Rings”

Comfort Guide to LOTR

Maybe you saw Peter Jackson’s epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy in cinemas back in 2001, 2002, and 2003 and haven’t dug back in since. Or perhaps you’ve caught the films individually here and there on cable over the years. Or maybe you’ve never seen The Lord of the Rings at all. (That might seem improbable, but I see new YouTube clips on my timeline every couple of days proclaiming “I’ve never seen Fellowship of the Ring” or “FIRST TIME WATCHING Lord of the Rings: The

Fellowship of the Ring” or something to that effect.)

 

No matter what your relationship with the films may be, settling in to watch them from beginning to end can be an uplifting experience, which is something all of us need right now. What the series’ fans know—and what new viewers are learning with ever-increasing frequency—is that The Lord of the Rings is emotional nourishment. Spiritual sustenance. In other words: It’s comfort viewing. Despite the focus on hobbits and elves and dwarves and magical artifacts, The Lord of the Rings is, at its heart, about times like those we’re currently living through. It’s about defiant endurance in the face of uncertainty. It’s about clinging to hope when there seems to be none.

 

But committing to an 11-plus-hour movie marathon can be daunting, no matter how inspirational the films themselves may be. In addition to the time investment, there’s the fact that the films have been released to home video so many times that choice overload starts to kick in.

 

That’s where this guide comes in. The goal here is to help you enjoy The Lord of the Rings in the best quality

possible, whether for the first time or the twentieth, and to help you navigate the wealth of bonus materials based on your personal interests and preferences. Before we get to all of that, though, the first thing you need to decide is which version of the films you should watch.

 

Director Peter Jackson has famously said the theatrical versions are his preferred cuts, and that the extended editions are simply “a novelty for the fans.” That is absolute rubbish. The theatrical edits are a roller coaster of unevenness, with the first and third films—The Fellowship of the Ring and The 

Return of the King—being perfectly enjoyable for what they are, but only as self-contained films with no connection to the rest of the trilogy.

 

On the other hand, the second film, The Two Towers, is a confusing mess of a thing in its original edit. At 178 

STEP 1

Watch the Extended Editions.
Forget the theatrical cuts even exist.

minutes, it’s a laborious slog, filled with one non sequitur after another, packed with characters whose motivations make little sense. The 228-minute Extended Edition, by contrast, positively whizzes by. It also gives you a deeper understanding of the histories and motives of its characters and the mythical lands they populate.

 

From a purely narrative perspective, the Extended Editions of Fellowship and Return aren’t quite that essential, but they still add some much-appreciated depth and context. They also insert some connective tissue that ties the three films together

STEP 2

Buy the films on Blu-ray or on Kaleidescape. Streaming simply doesn’t do them justice.
Comfort Guide to LOTR

into one unified work.

 

Skip the Extended Edition of the first film, for example, and you may be left wondering where certain items and artifacts central to the plot of the second film came from. Watch the shorter theatrical cut of Return of the King, and one of the second film’s major characters just disappears from the narrative with no explanation and no resolution.

 

So if you’re committing to watch all three films—and why wouldn’t you?—the Extended Editions are certainly the preferable option. But before you go traipsing off to Vudu or Amazon or some other digital retailer to buy the trilogy, allow me to make the case for why streaming doesn’t do these films justice.

 

That’s an odd pronouncement coming from me, especially given that I’m probably the biggest cheerleader for streaming here at Cineluxe. But streaming falls short of 

delivering The Lord of the Rings in all its glory for a couple of reasons. First, the films aren’t available yet in 4K/HDR, and probably won’t be for another year, at least. And while 4K streaming looks pretty amazing these days, the same can’t be said 

for HD. Second, the streaming versions of the Extended Editions lack the amazing Appendices, which we’ll dig into in just a bit.

 

That leaves Blu-ray Discs and the Kaleidescape downloads as your best options if you want to enjoy The Lord of the Rings to the fullest. If you opt for Blu-ray, each film is split across two discs to keep the compression from getting too out of hand. 

 

This actually works to the advantage of The Fellowship 

STEP 3

The first and third films can be viewed in halves, while The Two Towers should be approached as one long film with a quick potty break between scenes.

of the Ring and Return of the King, though, since you can treat the first and second half of each as a film in its own right. Take a break at the halfway point to grab a meal or take a nap or even sleep for the evening and you won’t disrupt the flow of the experience too much. The Two Towers, the middle film in the trilogy, doesn’t break quite so cleanly, so you’re better off treating it as one long film with a quick potty-break intermission between scenes.

 

If you’re watching on Kaleidescape (or if you ignored my counsel and bought the films on iTunes or whatever), you don’t get such neat breaks, since the films run straight through from opening to closing credits. But you can always hit the

STEP 4

If you want to explore the extras but you’re not sure you’re up for all 21 hours’ worth, you can go straight to the groups of Appendices that suit your specific interests.

intermission button on your remote right after “The Council of Elrond” in Fellowship of the Ring (you’ll know it when you get to it, I promise) and just after “The Siege of Gondor” in Return of the King. (That one’s not quite as obvious, but just remember to take your break right after the orcs start pushing a big flaming battering ram shaped like a wolf’s head toward the gates of the city of Minas Tirith and chanting “Grond! Grond! Grond!” That’s the name of said flaming wolf-headed battering ram.)

 

And that’s it. Congratulations! Make it through one more 

disc (or a few more hours of film) after that point and you’ve finished the epic journey through the lands of Middle-earth in the best way possible. 

But hang on a minute. If you’re like most people, once you’ve experienced all three films, you’ll be itching to know more about the books that inspired the trilogy and the process of adapting them for the big screen. That’s where the Appendices come in.

 

On both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape, the Appendices are broken into six parts (two per film, with each Appendix getting its own disc if you opted for physical media). The neat thing is, they follow a reasonably  predictable structure, so if you know for sure you don’t want to watch all 21 hours’ worth of documentaries (not a typo), you can hone in on the sort of background information that interests you most.

 

The odd numbered Appendices (the first disc or batch of bonus content) tend to dig into the history, themes, and meaning of the books themselves, along with the writing and planning that went into adapting this supposedly un-filmable book into three of the best films ever made. As such, Appendices 1, 3, and 5 explore the life of author J.R.R. Tolkien; the publication of the book; the characters, the peoples, and the locations of Middle-earth; and preparatory work like writing the screenplay, adapting the scripts from two films to a trilogy once Miramax passed on the adaptation and New Line stepped in, and creating the costumes, sets, props, etc.

 

The even-numbered Appendices are probably more your speed if you’re primarily interested in The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of films and not so much as an adapted work. Appendices 2, 4, and 6 explore the long process of shooting the films, as well as post-production work like editing, special effects, sound effects, and score music.

 

“But wait!” he says in his best Billy Mays voice, “There’s more!” Each film is also accompanied by four full-length audio commentaries. Again, there’s some consistency here,

Appendices 1, 3 & 5 focus on the book, its author, and the translation from page to screen.
Comfort Guide to LOTR
Appendices 2, 4 & 6 are more like typical behind-the-scenes documentaries
Comfort Guide to LOTR

with one track for each film focusing on the writing, one on the design, one on production, and one with the cast. 

STEP 5

Still hungry for more info? Each film has 4 commentaries that range in appeal from “must listen” to “for hardcore nerds only.”

The cast commentaries are the best by a long shot, since Sean Astin is a walking/talking film encyclopedia and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd are straight-up laugh-out-loud hilarious throughout. Andy Serkis also performs part of the commentary for Return of the King in character as Sméagol/Gollum, which is something you don’t want to miss.

 

The commentaries featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh,

and Philippa Boyens are also absolute gems if you want to take a deeper dive into the process of adapting the book than the documentaries in the Appendices provide. 

 

The other two commentaries for each film, I must admit, are for hardcore fans only, so unless you’re absolutely obsessed by this point, you can probably safely skip them. To wit, I’ve only listened to the design and production commentaries two or three times over the past two decades. (By contrast, I watch all 21 hours’ worth of Appendices every other year, and dig into the cast and writers’ commentaries at least once every three years.)

Dennis Burger

CLICK THE THUMBNAILS BELOW TO ORDER THE LORD OF THE RINGS ON KALEIDESCAPE

"The Lord of the Rings" in Disquieting Times
"The Lord of the Rings" in Disquieting Times
Comfort Guide to LOTR

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.

Zenimation

Zenimation

We are big fans of sound design here at Cineluxe, as a good audio mix reproduced on a well-designed home theater draws you into the fictional world and helps you appreciate films on a deeper level. But the work that goes into crafting the many layers of a rich, detailed, and organic sound mix—especially the often intricate and minute sounds created by the Foley artists (a term that is likely known by most readers, but definitely well worth exploring here if you aren’t familiar)—are often buried beneath the score, dialogue, or other effects in a scene.

 

We often focus on feature-length movies or series here, as well as programming that is almost exclusively in 4K HDR with a lossless Dolby Atmos surround mix, but the new short series Zenimation is such a master class in audio appreciation that it 

was worth highlighting.

 

Currently available only on Disney+, the show description says, “Unplug, relax, and refresh your senses for a moment of mindfulness with Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Zenimation—an animated soundscape experience. . . . These iconic scenes become an aural experience like no other with the sounds of ocean waves, an icy forest, and soaring flight. Zenimation pays tribute to both the visual and sound artists who have created Walt Disney Animation Studios’ legacy of films.”

 

And before you start in that you don’t have the time to watch another new series, relax! Zenimation requires an incredibly minimal time commitment, with the entire series taking less than an hour to watch.

 

Mindfulness is one of those terms that has become increasingly popular in the stress-filled times we currently

ZENIMATION AT A GLANCE

Sequences from Disney cartoons stripped of all audio save their sound effects and grouped by moods give you an opportunity to relax and appreciate the art of Foley at the same time.

 

PICTURE     

HD video presented at 2.35:1, but given that most of the content isn’t widescreen, it might have been better framed at 16:9.

 

SOUND     

These videos are really all about the sound, and they upmix nicely, but won’t exactly test the limits of your system.

live in. Wikipedia defines it as “the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment, which one develops through the practice of meditation and through other training.”

 

Zenimation is presented in HD with a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital audio mix and is broken into 10 parts: Water, Cityscapes, Discovery, Flight, Explore, Night, Nature, Serenity, Water Realms, and Levity. The shortest episodes last just four minutes, and the longest only seven.

 

All episodes feature beloved Disney characters such as Moana, Ariel, Elsa, Aladdin, and Judy Hopps, focusing on scenes and moments germane to that episode’s subject. My only real complaint is that they chose to show everything with letterbox bars, retaining a 2.35:1 aspect ratio throughout. That would be fine if all the content were native 2.35:1, but a fair bit of it is 16:9 (or less) which means pillar-boxing (black bars on all four sides) the image. Perhaps keeping the constant vertical height is a better way of staying in the mindfulness zone, but I would have preferred the 16:9 content filled the screen. 

 

Also, since much of this content already exists on Disney+ in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos audio (even older titles like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid), it would have been nice if they would have just pulled scenes from these titles for a better overall presentation. Instead, we are limited to the audio and video resolutions of The Rescuers Down Under, Tarzan, Lilo and Stitch, and some of the other older titles.

 

Those nits aside, these scenes stripped of music, other effects, and dialogue with the Foley effects amplified allow you to focus on the specific sound elements that help bring each scene alive, and the scenes flow nicely from one to the next. Remember, unlike a live-action movie, in animation, no sound is captured “on set,” and every bit of audio is created to bring the scene and the animated world to life.

 

Clearly hear the rippling sounds paddles make as they pull through in the water, the drips of splashing wave droplets, or bubbles drifting up past characters underwater. Some of my favorite audio moments are from Moana, such as the scene on her boat. Note the sounds of her stitching and pulling the thread through the sail, pulling ropes on the boat, and the wind billowing and creaking all around. 

 

Outdoor scenes let you appreciate sounds of birds chirping off in the distance well outside your main left/right speakers, the rustle of leaves as you pass through a forest, the sounds of birds flapping overhead, along with the sounds of rain and crashing thunder.

 

Not all of the sonic moments are about bombast, but many allow you to appreciate the subtleties and nuance of the mix. Notice the echoing of Anna’s footsteps inside Elsa’s immense ice castle, the delicate rustle of grass beneath Rapunzel’s feet, the tonal change of the fire crackling on Moana’s torch as she walks from a cramped cave into a large cavern, or the spark of fire and smoke trailing from an incense stick Mulan lights. Or discern the distinctly different sounds used for shooting stars, all of which convey the same sense of motion but with a different feeling.

 

While Zenimation doesn’t employ an immersive object-audio mix, the upmixer in a modern surround processor does a capable job of positioning appropriate sounds overhead. You’ll hear the screams of eagles, fireworks exploding, wind whistling and rushing past, birds chirping, the ringing of bells from Quasimodo’s tower, as well as rain droplets and water splashes. There is also a nice amount of deep bass courtesy of things like the deep cascade of waterfalls, the stampede of animals, or the crackling of stones and boulders.

 

Zenimation gives movie lovers a fun and creative way to understand the audio elements and sound-design work that goes into crafting a film’s sonic world, helping you appreciate the art of filmmaking. And with the whole series taking less than an hour to watch, there’s no excuse not to check it out. 

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.

Review: Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Johnson is the most legendary bluesman in the genre, with a story to match, and the Netflix documentary Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads (one of eight episodes in the ReMastered series) examines his life and myth.

 

Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and died in 1938 at the age of 27. He was not a good guitar player until, as the story goes, he went down to a crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in order to become one of the greatest Delta blues players of all time. The details of his recorded output are inextricably woven into the Robert Johnson legend—he only released 29 songs (along with some alternate takes) for the American Record Company—and there are only three authenticated photographs of the man.

 

Yet Johnson, who scuffled as an itinerant musician and didn’t become famous outside his local area until long after his death, became a 

towering influence on people like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton (who famously covered Johnson’s “Crossroads” on the Cream Wheels of Fire album),  and uncountable other blues and rock artists. Many of his songs are classics, like the “Cross Road Blues” (as it was originally titled), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and ”Love in Vain Blues” to name a few. As Bonnie Raitt says, “If you love the blues, you just gotta go back to the root of Robert Johnson.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads examines Johnson’s life in detail in its approximately 45-minute run time. It features many excerpts from his recordings, as well as artists like Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, and Bonnie Raitt playing his songs. Much of the documentary consists of interviews with his grandson Michael Johnson as well as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, artist and Columbia 

Records producer John Hammond, and others, along with archival footage of the era and of musicians he influenced like Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Robert Plant.

 

The documentary brings a lot of information to light, debunks some received wisdom, and leaves unanswered questions. This isn’t the documentary’s fault—not all that much is known about Johnson and much that’s been passed down over the years is contradictory.

 

The cornerstone of the Robert Johnson myth is that he sold his soul to the devil in order to become an extraordinary guitarist. In fact, at one point in his life Johnson left his Delta home for about a year and came into contact with guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, the best guitar player in the region. The story goes that Zimmerman took Johnson to a grave and showed him how to play. When Johnson returned 

DEVIL AT A GLANCE

Part of the Netflix Remastered series, this 45-minute documentary on legendary bluesman Robert Johnson suffers from some ill-considered animation and could use some extended performances of Johnson’s work, but otherwise does a good job of telling the story of his obscure life and his tremendous influence on contemporary music.

 

SOUND     

Clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so.

home, he had become so good that people thought he must have made a deal with the devil. As Michael Johnson notes, “Playing music in the graveyard perpetuated the myth.”

 

We learn that not much was known about Johnson until his death certificate was discovered in 1967, after which more information came out and “a new key would open up yet another door.” Johnson grew up in an environment of sharecroppers and wanted to make a living with the blues, but it was dangerous for a black musician to travel during those times. Yet as Taj Mahal points out, “You played that music and you could be outside of yourself and you could take everybody else [in the audience] out.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads doesn’t go into depth regarding Johnson’s playing technique, although Terry “Harmonica” Bean notes that Johnson had exceptionally long fingers, which allowed him to do things other guitarists couldn’t. Keith Richards points out that Johnson could sound like a one-man band, covering the bass, chords, and melodies simultaneously on the lower and upper strings. “One part of what he’s playing is talking to the other part and he’s [singing] in the middle.”

 

The documentary goes into far more detail about his personal life, his first wife dying in childbirth, his conflicts with family members, and his never knowing his biological father. All of this and other difficulties fueled his need for playing music, traveling, drinking, and womanizing. “Robert’s life was just one tragedy after another. It never seemed to end for him,” says Michael Johnson. It did in fact end after Johnson drank from a poisoned whisky bottle at the Three Forks Juke, given to him by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had taken up with. He died on August 16, 1938.

 

Johnson’s music began to be rediscovered in a major way by, of all things, what the documentary calls “78 geeks”—college students in the 1950s and early 1960s who would buy boxes of 78 RPM records. In 1961, John Hammond was instrumental in the release of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, which introduced a new generation to Johnson’s music.

 

Devil at the Crossroads does have flaws, the most egregious of which is the use of cheesy animation to illustrate some of the narration. It distracts from and cheapens the seriousness of the subject matter. And while there are plenty of song excerpts by both Johnson and the performers, I wish they would have included a full performance or two. Another thing that will irk blues aficionados to no end: The documentary shows the “crossroads” where Johnson supposedly sold his soul—and shows it over and over again. However, it is not known which intersection is actually the crossroads.

 

That said, Devil at the Crossroads is visually well done, artfully mixing archival footage, location shots (including the shack where Johnson was supposedly born!), and interviews. The sound is clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been very obviously cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so. And the songs and performances make you realize how much the haunting sound of acoustic slide guitar is crucial to acoustic blues music.

 

Most of all, Devil at the Crossroads conveys the tragedy and the emotion of Robert Johnson’s music and life. As grandson Michael Johnson points out, “I really believe he was searching for the freedom within, the soul within.”

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.

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

Time for another little thought experiment. Two weeks ago, the Justice Department had the 70-year-old law struck down that said movie studios can’t own theater chains. With the chains currently way back on their heels and their future looking dimmer than one of their overused projector bulbs, the timing of the decision couldn’t be worse—if you own a theater franchise—or better—if you’re one of the unfortunates who has to patronize one of their theaters.

 

I think we can all agree that, while you can be eager to go to a theater to see a film, nobody ever really looks forward to going to the theater itself. We put up with them, but we don’t enjoy—let alone savor—them.

 

While chain owners, sensing their license to extort slipping away, have tried to improve the experience in recent years, all they’ve really done is attempt to adopt the virtues of a good home theater—ultimately just reinforcing the idea that you’re 

better off watching movies at home. In other words, by trying to make movie theaters more homelike, they’ve only made them seem more cold and corporate (and inconvenient and expensive) by comparison.

 

But what if, now free to pounce thanks to the recent decision, Disney decided to swoop in and snatch up one or more chains and turn the theaters into someplace you might actually want to go to, regardless of what’s playing? The company has demonstrated a kind of genius for processing great masses of people while making them feel like they’re being pampered. There’s no reason why that knowledge and experience and ruthless efficiency couldn’t be applied to bringing franchise theaters back from the dead.

 

I’m singling out Disney because, well, no other studio is really in much of a position at the moment to pull something like this off. To name just a few mitigating factors:

 

—Unable to get existing titles released or new ones into production, most major studios don’t have the cash on hand to execute something this big. Disney does.

 

—No other studio can deliver as many event movies, has enough diversity in its stable of franchises, or has a strong enough track record to single-handedly sustain box office for a large theater chain. Able to draw on its Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars titles—and whatever other franchises it gobbles up in the coming months—Disney does.

 

—Because the other studios don’t have as many event titles to offer, a theatrical run can’t deliver the same kind of promotional kick it would for Disney, which could use its theaters as a consistent springboard for building anticipation for, and actually selling, its films for home release.

 

—Sure, some of the other studios have theme parks and theme park-like attractions, but they’ve never taken them to the level Disney has. And, again, they

just don’t have the diversity of franchises and characters to drawn on. (All those decades of Imagineering have to be good for something, right?)

 

So I think we’ve firmly established that Disney is the studio best positioned to take advantage of this opportunity. But what exactly could they do to elevate theaters from depressing to desirable?

 

This is the easier part of our experiment, and an opportunity for everyone to play along at home. Imagine everything you like best about the theme parks replacing everything you hate most about going to a franchise theater.

 

—Instead of just having some bored employee standing around in a Buzz Lightyear costume because he doesn’t want to go scrub out the urinals, trained cast members could stage vignettes for the patrons waiting on line, themed to whatever’s currently playing.

 

—The food, beverages, and sweets could be unique offerings, similarly themed to the current film, instead of just some stale nachos tossed into a paper container with Darth Vader on it.

 

—A gift shop stocked with high-quality goods, again, tied into the film du jour with most of the inventory in constant rotation and staffed with people who actually know something about what they’re selling.

 

—A handful of high-end theaters are incorporating video walls into their lobbies, but what if every wall of the lobby was an 8K screen setting the mood for the evening by taking you deep into the jungle or to the bottom of the ocean or on a journey down Tom Hanks’ alimentary canal?

 

—And then there are the thousand other touches, from the signage—digital or otherwise—to the lighting to the colors to the seating to the fabrics to the attractiveness, professionalism, and basic decency of the staff—that the chains have traditionally bungled, opting for Vegas c. 1975 over anything that suggests taste, quality, or any kind of empathy for their patrons.

 

So, at a time when most people—including me—assumed the day was nigh when the theaters would be turning off the lights, padlocking the doors, and trying to sell off their digital projectors for scrap, there’s actually a possibility, however remote, that going to the movies could once again become an event as big as or bigger than whatever’s being shown and that we could be looking at a return of the local movie palace, executed with a boldness, ingenuity, and flair that would put their Golden Age forbears to shame.

 

Heresy, I know. But I can’t imagine a better time to dream.

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.

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

If you’re the type of person who enjoys mecha-versus-giant-monster action flicks, chances are pretty good that you saw Pacific Rim when it hit cinemas in 2013. Unfortunately, chances are equally good that you saw its awful followup, 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising.

 

Look, I know bad sequels are the rule, rather than the exception. But Uprising wasn’t just a bad sequel. It was a sequel so bad that it actually made the original worse by virtue of existing. Its convoluted plot and nonsensical character relationships, if accepted as true within this cinematic universe, somehow manage to retroactively undermine the straightforward plot of Guillermo del Toro’s ridiculously fun original movie. And as such, I’ve had trouble returning to Pacific Rim for the better part of

two years now, unable to wipe the stain of Uprising from my robot-and-monster-loving brain.

 

If you find yourself in the same camp, it’s time to give the first Pacific Rim another look-see. And if you’ve never seen either of them, I beg you to ignore the second movie and give the first one a fair shot, assuming the premise doesn’t offend your sensibilities.

 

Because, yes, Pacific Rim involves gigantic walking tanks that look vaguely humanoid, piloted by hotshot jockeys whose sole purpose is to clobber gargantuan other-dimensional creatures that stomp up from the ocean depths to lay waste to human civilization. But that’s not really what the movie is about.

 

As with all of del Toro’s movies, it’s a story about humanity. 

RIM AT A GLANCE

With interesting new releases in short supply, now is the perfect time to rediscover Guillermo del Toro’s inspired 2013 robots vs. monsters slugfest. 

 

PICTURE     

One of the most stunningly detailed and visually awe-inspiring transfers of the 4K era.

 

SOUND     

One of the few Atmos mixes that manages to be immersive and enveloping without distracting from the onscreen action.

But specifically, it’s about the endurance of the human spirit in the face of impossible odds. The director draws a lot of inspiration from obvious sources like Gojira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Tetsujin 28-go, and Ultraman. But it’s also impossible not to see the influence the works of H.P. Lovecraft had on his vision for this mash-up universe. And it’s in inverting and subverting the themes of Lovecraft that Pacific Rim really finds its heart.

 

If you’ve not familiar with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology, it was the foundation of what’s known as cosmic horror, a genre about coming to terms with notions of the ultimate insignificance of humanity in the face of problems too large for us to comprehend. Pacific Rim effectively takes these horrors and says, “Hell, no. One way or another, we’re not going to let this be our end.”

 

As such, you can see it as an allegory for all sorts of things, from the threats created by natural disasters to the impending doom of climate change. No matter what existential threat you plug into the equation, though, del Toro is saying that cooperation—indeed, vulnerable acceptance of our reliance on one another—is the solution to problems too large for any of us to deal with.

 

Of course, I’m not digging too deep to get to these themes. Pacific Rim isn’t even remotely opaque. It wears its meaning on its armor-plated sleeves like any good rock-‘em-sock-‘em end-of-the-world battle royale movie should. But ultimately, the fact 

that Pacific Rim is about something—that it means something—is what sets it apart from so many other recent big-monster movies.

 

Unlike the 2014 remake of Godzilla and its 2019 King of the Monsters sequel, Pacific Rim stays grounded in the (admittedly overwrought) human drama of it all. Guillermo del Toro understands that if you don’t care what happens to the humans at the center of the story, you won’t really care when kaiju start ripping through 

cityscapes and knocking down buildings. As such, it leans on a rather unusual structure. Although, interestingly, it’s a structure that would be blatantly ripped off by Avengers: Endgame a few years later: Cram what the audience expects to be the entire movie into the first 15 or 20 minutes, then flash-forward five years and spend a protracted second act focusing on the character relationships before rocketing toward an epic battle late in Act 3.

 

The result is such a wonderfully paced movie that its 132-minute runtime feels like a brisk 90 minutes at most. (By contrast, Uprising’s 110 minutes felt like a brutal, relentless, never-ending gauntlet of incomprehensible masochism.)

 

Pacific Rim’s excellent UHD/HDR10 transfer is further evidence for why we need to quit worrying about resolution. Sourced from a 2K digital intermediate (despite the fact that the movie was shot in 5K resolution), this remains one of the most stunningly detailed and visually awe-inspiring transfers of the 4K era. It’s true that the high dynamic range and wide color gamut aren’t used to mimic the look of film the way so many other successful 4K/HDR transfers do. Instead, the 10-bit color and cranked contrasts are used to give this neon-colored cartoon of a live-action movie the sort of depth and weight it lacked in high-definition.

 

I’m not knocking the 1080p release. It was one of the finest transfers of its day. But unburdened by the limitations of 8-bit video, the HDR transfer of Pacific Rim positively brims with a richness and intensity of color that was never possible at home

until recently. The streets of Hong Kong come to life with a neon vibrancy that makes this unbelievable world just a little more believable.

 

Bottom line, I would rank it in the Top 5 HDR home video transfers to date, and Kaleidescape’s release captures it all perfectly, from the rain-soaked inkiness of the predominately nighttime setting to the crackling potency of the radiation spewing from the mouths of the otherworldly beasts. Kaleidescape also offers the film with your choice of Dolby Atmos or Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, and although I would normally opt for the latter, this is one of the few Atmos mixes I truly love. It manages to be immersive and enveloping without distracting from the onscreen action, and the robust bass adds much-needed weight to the massive mechanical and alien combatants.

 

Interestingly, the Kaleidescape download of the 4K/HDR version includes something the UHD Blu-ray release doesn’t: All of the extras included with the original HD release. The 4K disc only features 13 short documentaries, known as “Focus Points,” which spotlight different aspects of the making of the film. The Kaleidescape download also includes deleted scenes and a hilarious blooper reel.

 

The best of the extras, though, is the audio commentary by Guillermo del Toro,

Pacific Rim

which you’ll have to download the 1080p version of the film to listen to. It’s worth the effort, since he dives deep into the color coding he used throughout the film to give viewers insight into the characters in a way that exposition simply couldn’t. The commentary also reveals the primary reason why this movie works when so many similar efforts are simply awful—because it was a labor of love. Del Toro genuinely adores big robots and gigantic monsters, and sees no reason why a movie about them can’t be made with the same care and attention to detail you would expect from a serious film.

 

Make no mistake about it: Pacific Rim is not a serious film. It’s a feel-good action flick with a ridiculous premise that only works if you buy into it. But it’s an incredibly well-made feel-good action flick with a ridiculous premise that only works if you buy into it. So, unless you’re simply allergic to that premise, give it a shot. If nothing else, I think you’ll find that it’s one of the best home theater demo movies ever made.

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.

Braveheart

Braveheart

With a scarcity of new releases on the horizon, it’s a great time to mine your collection for some classic content you might not have watched for some time—especially when that title has received a 4K HDR makeover with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Braveheart certainly qualifies as one of those films, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and available for download from Kaleidescape in a whopping 102.4 GB file.

 

Released in 1995, Braveheart was the darling of the 1996 Academy Awards, grabbing a total of 10 nominations, and winning five statues, including Picture, Director, Cinematography, Sound Effects, and Makeup. (It was also nominated for Screenplay,

Costume Design, Sound, Editing, and Music.)

 

While Mel Gibson has gone on to direct several films since, it is hard to believe Braveheart was only his second time in the director’s chair, following up on 1993’s The Man Without a Face. When you see the massive scale of the film, it’s beyond impressive that Gibson was able to pull this off as such a relative neophyte director, not to mention while simultaneously handling producing chores and portraying William Wallace, the film’s leading role.

 

I’m not a history buff, but Braveheart apparently plays a bit fast-and-loose with historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment. So if you’re a student of 13th-century English and Scottish lore (the film opens in 1280 AD) and looking for a movie that ticks off all the factual boxes, it will likely raise your ire. Instead, maybe consider Braveheart as “historical fiction,” depicting people who actually existed—William Wallace, Princess Isabella (Sophie Marceau), Robert the 

BRAVEHEART AT A GLANCE

A love story and some history provide the springboard for a series of increasingly bigger and more brutal battle scenes in this Mel Gibson Oscars fest. 

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer brings out the intricate detail in the Oscar-winning cinematography while HDR helps deliver a better range of black & shadow detail.

 

SOUND     

The new Atmos mix isn’t particularly active, but it is atmospheric and does a great job of presenting the James Horner score.

Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), Prince Edward (Peter Hanly)—doing the kinds of things they more-or-less did.

 

Rated R for “brutal medieval warfare,” Common Sense Media says, “Expect torture, hackings, stabbings, throat-slitting, and arrows and spears dealing horrible death and injuries,” and it doesn’t lie. The battle scenes are brutal, with body counts that would likely be in the hundreds. However, in my mind, I recall it being much more graphic—especially the ending—so maybe 25 years of movie watching things like John Wick and shows like Game of Thrones has just desensitized me a bit. Also, whereas many films today prefer to linger on the blood, viscera, and gore of combat, Gibson instead chooses to quick-cut away from much of it. (Possibly to reverse the MPAA’s initial NC-17 rating.)

 

With its epic, just minutes shy of three hours running time, nothing about Braveheart feels rushed—except possibly the reunion and relationship of Wallace and Murron MacClannough (Catherine McCormack)—giving you plenty of time to know and care about the characters. The film opens with a bit of narration telling you all the backstory required, with “The king of Scotland had died without a son, and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward the Longshanks, claimed the throne of Scotland for himself. Scotland’s nobles fought him, and fought each other, over the crown. So, Longshanks invited them to talks of truce—no weapons, one page only.”

 

Young William sees the hanged bodies of those Longshanks betrayed, and, shortly, after his father and brother are also killed by Longshanks’ soldiers. William is then raised by his uncle, who educates him and teaches him to use his wits before he uses a sword, and takes him on a tour of Europe. Years later, William returns to his village, wanting to have a simple life as a farmer, where he hopes to marry lifelong love Murron, and raise many sons.

 

In order to keep the Scottish population in check, Longshanks institutes an old tradition known as Primae noctis—First Night—giving nobles the right to take a maiden on her wedding night to have sex with her with the goal of getting her pregnant with English blood.

 

As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over well, and Wallace and Murron marry in secret, telling no one so the local lord won’t discover. Of course, a blossoming love can’t be kept hidden, and after Murron hits a soldier who attempts to rape her, she is killed, inciting Wallace to start a rebellion to just kill as many English as possible, but leading him to ultimately take up the cause of freeing Scotland.

 

Along the way, more and more clans hear of Wallace’s exploits and successes in battle, causing his legend to grow to mythic proportions and having many join his cause until he is leading an actual army, fighting larger and larger battles, including the battle of Stirling, Falkird, and attacking the English city of York, where they start inflicting actual damage against Longshanks.

 

At its heart, Braveheart can be boiled down to love—what starts wars, and what is ultimately worth fighting and dying for. Beyond the initial love—and later outrage—Wallace feels for Murron, you see the love he has for his men, and ultimately his love of the idea of a free Scotland. This is contrasted with the ruthlessness and heartlessness of Longshanks, who only cares about positioning things for future rule, along with the lack of love between Princess Isabella—daughter of the King of France, forced to marry for an alliance—and Prince Edward—who is played as overly effeminate and having no interest in women.

 

As I didn’t remember much of the film, I was curious how it would hold up after so long. Not only are the acting and dialogue solid throughout and the scenery and cinematography beautiful (shot entirely abroad in Scotland and Ireland)–what you really appreciate is the massive scope of the large battles, which were filmed with practical effects. There are no CGI armies or digital doubles, or computer-enhanced backdrops—these are literally hundreds, nay thousands, of actual people pitched in battle in real environs. In many ways, you can see how the large battle scenes here could have served as a blueprint for The Game of Thrones “Battle of the Bastards.”

 

Originally filmed in 35mm, this 4K transfer retains an incredible amount of sharpness and detail, but keeps its film-like look rather than having the tack-sharp razor detail of modern productions. There is a bit of grain in some of the grey-colored sky shots, but I never found it distracting or objectionable.

 

The best images are scenes shot in close and mid focus, with longer-range shots not having as much detail and being a bit soft. Closeups bristle with detail, showing every line, pore, and beard growth, as well as the dirt and grime that seems to cover every non-noble. Edges are sharp, detailed, and well-defined, letting you clearly see every rock that went into building a structure or wall. You can also appreciate the craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into the costuming, seeing threads and weaves and wear in the battle uniforms, as well as the set design. There were some shots—usually conversations between two people—that were slightly out of focus, which appears to be more a product of the original production.

 

This isn’t a film that pushes the bounds of UHD’s wider color gamut, with much of it having a muted, earthy, dirt and ground-colored palette. Even the tartans of the Scots are mainly muted mossy greens and browns. This contrasts with the vibrant 

reds and golds worn by Longshanks, or the colors of his soldiers. We are given many opportunities to appreciate the lush countryside, and you can definitely appreciate the rich greens and beauty of Scotland.

 

HDR is used less here to deliver eye-searing highlights—though there are a few fires that burn brightly—and more to deliver a better range of black and shadow detail throughout. Much of Braveheart’s action takes place outdoors in wide-open fields or in low-lit night or indoor scenes, and the enhanced contrast lets you better appreciate dark-level detail, resulting in a more lifelike image.

 

As mentioned, Braveheart also received a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, and what benefits most is James Horner’s Oscar-nominated score, which is given plenty space to open up across the front channels as well as being mixed up into the front height speakers for a truly large presentation.

 

I wouldn’t describe this as an overly active Atmos mix, and they definitely don’t look for every opportunity to push sounds up overhead unnecessarily. Instead, we get a much better sense of being in a large, open outdoor space, with swirling winds, birds chirping, leaves rustling, and other ambient sounds putting you outdoors. Other interior scenes have ropes swaying and rafters creaking 

Braveheart

overhead, with battles filling the room with the sounds of shouts, arrows whistling, swords clanging, fires raging, and smoke billowing up overhead.

 

Your subwoofer will have long moments of rest, but it is called into play when needed, either during big emotional moments of the score or from the pounding of horse hooves charging into battle that are powerful enough to rattle your seats.

 

Braveheart ranks high on many movie fans’ Best Movies’ list, though it sits at #78 on IMDB’s Top Rated Movies, and doesn’t manage to crack AFI’s Top 100. (It does place #62 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Cheer: America’s Most Inspiring Movies list.) Prior to this viewing, I actually only saw the film once before, and that was on LaserDisc more than 20 years ago! (With a running time just minutes shy of three hours, I can only imagine how many side flips and disc changes it would have required back then!) The film definitely looks and sounds its best here, making it a perfect movie-night selection if you haven’t screened it recently.

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.