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Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

LED light panels and a PTZ camera concealed behind side panels and a NUC mini-computer
hidden 
beneath the screen allow the Minema home theater to be transformed into a state-of-the-art
video- and teleconferencing space

As a supplement to the “Inside the Minema” podcast episode, I thought it might be helpful to share some details of the conferencing system configuration in my home cinema (dubbed the “Minema” for Mini+Cinema), together with some lessons I learned along the way. Hopefully this will be a useful reference for Cineluxe readers who may have similar objectives for making the most of their entertainment spaces, particularly given the increased demand for conferencing capabilities in the home as a result of the pandemic. There are no doubt other ways of achieving the same objectives, but I hope this overview can help inform discussions clients will have with their integrators about their own installations.

 

DESIGN APPROACH

One of the things I like about the overall design for the Minema is that none of the conference-room functionality is visible when you walk into the room. The conferencing equipment (e.g., the camera, mini-PC, and microphone) is either stored inside purpose-built cabinetry on the screen wall or mounted on the ceiling behind acoustically transparent fabric. LED lighting for videoconferencing is also hidden behind hinged doors on both sides of the screen. Other conference-room features, such as connectivity for laptops (projector display, ethernet, power), are built into small discreet cabinets tucked behind the seating armrests.

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

click on the image to enlarge

VIDEO- AND TELECONFERENCING SYSTEM

The schematic above depicts the core elements of my videoconferencing and teleconferencing system. Here are some of the key design decisions reflected in the final layout:

 

Camera Location

In order to avoid problematic camera angles from above or below the screen, the camera is positioned in cabinetry to the right of the screen to get it more in line with the face height of anyone sitting in the theater seats. It is installed on a small custom-built shelf with an articulating arm so it can be stowed away when not in use. I use my Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor to shrink the projected video image onto the bottom right corner of the screen to make it easier for meeting

Home Theater Meets Home Conferencing

participants to look in the camera’s direction while watching the conferencing image on the screen. The Logitech Rally PTZ (pan/tilt/ zoom) camera is easy to control and the resolution is excellent even when zooming in on the faces of meeting participants in the center seats.

 

Use of Ceiling Microphone

The Shure MXA910 ceiling-array microphone (shown at left) came highly recommended by several conference-room integrators. I’ve found that it picks up everyone’s voices well regardless of where

they’re sitting, but by definition any ceiling microphone will struggle to compete with the quality of a headset microphone or other microphones that can be placed closer to someone when they’re speaking. The ceiling microphone is great for its wide coverage and its invisibility, so this was a compromise I was willing to make. 

 

One unintended benefit from an early design decision to use Wisdom line-source speakers for all seven horizontal channels in the Minema is that I have very little acoustic treatment in the ceiling. This left plenty of room in the area above the seats for the microphone (which is surprisingly large) and a WiFi access point. 

 

Location of Mini-PC (for videoconferencing codecs)

Although my conference-room integrator initially proposed putting an Intel NUC in the equipment rack, we ended up moving it to the screen wall to make for a much shorter cable run to the 4K camera, which requires a USB 3.1 connection. 

I primarily use the NUC with Zoom Rooms Conference Room software to host my meetings, which has the advantage that I can use the companion Zoom Rooms controller iOS app on the iPad Mini I use as the main Crestron controller for the theater. If I need to join a meeting hosted on another conferencing platform, it’s simple to exit the Zoom Rooms software on the NUC to do so.

 

The NUC is getting a lot of use beyond just conferencing since my personal computers are MacBooks and I need a Windows device to connect to some critical AV equipment (Lumagen Radiance Pro video processor, Biamp TesiraForté conferencing DSP, etc.). I’ve also found it very

handy to have a computer permanently connected to my theater AV system because so much movie and performing-arts content has migrated to the internet since the beginning of the pandemic. 

 

Adding Teleconferencing

The Biamp TesiraForté DSP comes standard with VoIP and analog telephony ports, which made it possible to add a telephone line to my conferencing system. I now often use the Minema effectively as a giant speakerphone. 

 

LESSONS LEARNED

 

1) It may not be easy to find integrators with conference-room expertise who are willing to work on a residential project

In 2019, when I was in the design phase for my installation, I found it extremely difficult to hire an integrator with conferencing expertise for a residential project. Hopefully the situation is different today since there are so many more people working from home, but the only way I was able to get a commercial integrator to agree to help me was by tapping some former work contacts. Once the commercial integrator came on board, they collaborated closely with my AV integrator to add the conferencing piece into the overall theater AV system.

 

These are the key capabilities the commercial integrator brought to the table:

 

Specifying the conferencing equipment (audio DSP, camera, microphone, mini-PC)

Providing guidelines for conference-room acoustic performance (easy to surpass with the original theater design specs) and lighting levels

Developing a signal-flow diagram for the conferencing system

Programming the audio DSP

“Tuning” the beamforming ceiling microphone

 

2) Typical commercial conference-room equipment specs may not work in a home theater setting

It didn’t take long after installing the conferencing system for me to realize I would need to swap out the NUC that was originally specified. Since the NUC is always on, I could hear its fan noise in the background when I was watching a movie or listening to music. Replacing it with a fanless model that is completely 

silent solved that problem. I also needed to tweak the NUC BIOS settings to turn off the front LED, which was visible through the fabric covers on the screen-wall cabinetry.

 

When I opened the box containing the Shure ceiling microphone, I realized I had another problem because it was bright white, not optimal for mounting behind black acoustically transparent ceiling fabric. Fortunately, Shure makes the same microphone in black, so that was an easy fix. 

 

One minor change that made a big difference was swapping out the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse that were originally provided for a Logitech K830 illuminated living-room keyboard with a built-in trackpad. Using a mouse is simple when you’re sitting at a conference-room table but not so easy from theater seating. 

 

3) A commercial conferencing DSP may not be certified by some popular VoIP service providers

Although I am currently using the Biamp DSP with a Zoom Phone license, this has been challenging to set up since the Biamp isn’t a Zoom Phone-certified device. Biamp has certifications from Cisco, Avaya, ShoreTel, Mitel, and Skype for Business. I can use my Zoom Phone license seamlessly with the Zoom Rooms software, but since this would restrict me to using the VoIP line only when the NUC is selected as my video source, this isn’t an optimal solution either. Using the Biamp with an analog phone line may in some cases therefore be the simplest option for adding teleconferencing. 

 

CONCLUSION

I was very fortunate that my project was completed in February 2020, immediately before the lockdown. When I was in the planning stages, I couldn’t have anticipated how much we would use the conferencing functionality in the Minema. Now I can’t imagine living without it.

William Erb

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.

Review: Get Shorty (1995)

Get Shorty (1995)

UHD has put anybody who reviews home releases in a really odd position. Most catalog titles are still in HD, with many having Blu-ray-quality transfers. But it’s become impossible to watch any of these films without speculating on how they’d look in 4K HDR—which is something of a gamble because some older titles haven’t survived the process well, looking decidedly uneven. But then there are unquestionably stunning gems, like Vertigo, The Shining, and the other titles gathered in “4K HDR Essentials,” that have you salivating for more.

Barry Sonnenfeld’s note-perfect Hollywood satire Get Shorty is one of those films that has me shamelessly drooling. You can definitely appreciate its deft, droll visual style in its current HD incarnation, but you can also sense how much more delicious it would be with a 4K HDR buff and shine.

 

As I’ve said before, Sonnenfeld is the master of the puckish fairy tale, and here he gets to graft his bone-dry style of humor onto Elmore Leonard’s Damon Runyon-meets-Goodfellas mobster yarn, resulting in a film that plays as well 25 years on as it did on the day of its release.

 

Shorty is worth watching for its flawless casting alone. I’m not a Travolta fan, but he doesn’t miss a beat here, giving his small-time hood a boyish innocence and enthusiasm 

SHORTY AT A GLANCE

Flawless casting and some very deft & droll direction help ensure this ultimate Hollywood satire still lands 25 years on.

 

PICTURE     

The spot-on evocation of LA & the movie business is well presented in Blu-ray-quality HD—but cries out for 4K.

 

SOUND     

People say witty things and the occasional gun goes off, all to the beat of Booker T. & the M.G.’s., in a clear and suitably restrained 5.1 mix.

that never feels forced. Hackman is miles from Lex Luthor, turning in a nuanced comic performance that gets big laughs by way of a fully realized character instead of a cartoon. This has to be DeVito’s best work. And a both menacing and charming Delroy Lindo and a flat-out funny Dennis Farina play the mobsters who just can’t get a break.

 

The performances stand out all the way down the cast line. Nobody is here just to be the butt of a joke. Even the bit parts are fleshed out and compelling. Special kudos go to David Paymer for his story-within-the-story turn as the dry cleaner who fakes his death in a plane crash and flees to L.A. with 300 grand in mob money, sweating all the way.

 

Sonnenfeld doesn’t get enough credit as an actor’s director, but the scene where Travolta shows DeVito how to play a shylock is so well done it deserves to be ranked with the best. It’s almost impossible to convincingly portray an actor acting,

let alone actor/director interaction, but all involved are so perfectly in sync that you’re laughing not just at the jokes and the situation but at the sheer virtuosity of the execution.

 

What Shorty gets right, above everything else, though, is LA and the many ways the movie business overlaps with LA life. It unerringly and evocatively captures the

feel of Beverly Hills, the Sunset Strip, the Hollywood Hills, and all the trendy little West Hollywood restaurants that sit practically in the middle of traffic. Maybe the film’s second-best scene—although this might just come from having suffered through this too many times myself—is DeVito going way off-menu to order an elaborate omelet for the table then taking off before it arrives, leaving the other guests to figure out what to do with it.

Shorty works as a satire because it doesn’t spring from the often hypocritical vitriol that drives almost every other similar effort, instead using the quiet accumulation of spot-on touches to make its point, making it far more akin to Raymond Chandler’sThe Little Sister than to more overwrought works like The Day of the Locust and SOB. (And don’t even mention Tarantino, who’s way too much of a raging Neanderthal to even begin to grasp anything as subtle as irony.)

 

This approach is seamlessly translated into the movie’s visual plan, where the camera moves are restrained (for a Sonnenfeld film) and the lighting is for the most part true to the locales—which I suspect was in part a deliberate strategy to heighten the impact of the film’s stylized, proscenium-warping finale. And it’s exactly because Shorty dances right up to the edge of caricature and gross exaggeration without crossing over that I think it would benefit immensely from a tasteful application of 4K HDR. Some judicious enhancement would make it that much more engaging without turning it into gratuitous eye candy. (The operative word here, of course, is “judicious.”)

 

No problems with the sound. This is a dialogue-driven film only occasionally 

Get Shorty (1995)

punctuated by bursts of action, and the lines (“E.g., i.e., f— you,” “You think we go to see your movies, Harry? I’ve seen better film on teeth.” “My favorite color—putty”) are all crisp and clear, as are the gunshots. It’s usually a little too obvious when temp tracks make their way into the final film but Sonnenfeld does such a great job of deploying Booker T. & the M.G.’s that it’s hard to make much of a stink. The cues are nicely placed in the foreground without ever being in your face.

 

It’s one thing to call Get Shorty the best film in the thinly populated mobsters-come-to-Hollywood genre, it’s another to say nobody’s ever done a better job of skewering the movie business—a windmill many have tried to tilt only to wind up on their asses. Shorty never gets ahead of itself, never tries to be bigger than it needs to be, relying on craft and wit instead of angst and sour grapes to score its points—which is why it continues to be a compact and unassuming but undeniable and undiminished gem of a film.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Blade

Blade (1998)

In my somewhat controversial review of Wonder Woman 1984 (controversial in that I actually enjoyed that silly and overly fantastical romp, a fact that seems to infuriate some people), I mused about whether you could really enjoy the movie if you weren’t raised on and invested in not only the tropes of the 1980s but also the storytelling style of comic books and superhero movies of that era. With the subject of today’s review—1998’s Blade—there’s nothing to speculate about. If you don’t outright love everything about the late ’90s, this standalone, pre-MCU Marvel comic adaptation probably isn’t for you.

 

In fact, if we were to retroactively create a time capsule for the late ’90s in hopes of explaining that era to future generations, I think I would pass over The Big Lebowski, Being John Malkovich, Pi, Gods and Monsters, Go, and any number of other vastly superior contemporary films in favor of Blade. To varying degrees, those films have all stood the test of time. Blade, on the other hand, is little more than an artfully arranged pile of action-movie clichés of its day: Every gun is a pistol-grip machine 

gun, every line of dialogue is an oh-so-gritty catchphrase, every character wears black leather or rave-culture clubwear, every artist on the soundtrack either has or is a DJ, and for inexplicable reasons every no-name goon is proficient in some form of Asian martial art.

 

But what can I say? It all just works. Yes, if it’s been a while since you saw the movie, it comes off more like a satirical Key & Peele sketch sans punchline than it does the sort of serious-action-movie-meets-Fatboy-Slim-music-video director Stephen Norrington thought he was making. But in a weird way, that’s part of the Blade‘s lasting appeal. It’s pure B-movie schlock on an A- budget.

 

I’m relieved that I’m not the sort of reviewer who regularly summarizes plots, as it would be difficult to do so in this case without sounding like a stroke victim. The long and short of it is this, though: The titular hero is a sword-toting half-vampire vigilante who hates him some bloodsuckers 

BLADE AT A GLANCE

The digital enhancement in this pre-MCU slice & dice vampire romp is a little too heavy-handed but it’s still a big step up from HD.

 

PICTURE     

Edge enhancement and grain scrubbing unnecessarily obscure the movie’s film-stock origins, but HDR brings a richer and more nuanced palette to the effort.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix is appropriately relentless, delivering a full-throated surround sound assault.

because they killed his momma right before he was born. Along with his mentor/quartermaster “Whistler” (played to hammy perfection by Kris Kristofferson, who chews up the scenery like a Hungry Hungry Hippo), Blade uncovers a plot to awaken the blood god “La Magra” and trigger the Vampire Apocalypse, which of course can only be stopped by an over-the-top mix of capoeira, jujutsu, kung fu, and ninjutsu. And then he goes to Russia—because of reasons.

 

If that’s not your bag, the new UHD/HDR release isn’t going to do anything to change your mind. If you are a fan of the movie, though, you’ll be happy to hear that this new transfer is a pretty significant step up from previous releases in several respects. It isn’t perfect, however.

 

Unexpectedly for a movie shot on 35mm relatively recently, the 4K resolution brings out a lot of the sharpness and detail missing from the numerous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Unfortunately, whoever mastered the movie this time around didn’t trust the viewer to appreciate the fact that film equals grain, and as such, a lot of the movie’s texture has been scrubbed clean by digital noise reduction that sometimes goes too far. To compensate, the transfer has been artificially sharpened by a process known as edge enhancement, which leads to ringing edges on high-contrast areas of the image. You can really see this any time there are baked-in subtitles (like in the meeting of the council of vampire elders). And I’m not sure if it’s the edge enhancement or simply the increased resolution, but for whatever reason the film’s mid-budget, low-pixel-count CGI effects also look goofier than ever before.

 

On the other hand, HDR is used to especially good effect, although if you’re looking for a demo-movie to push your video system to extremes of brightness, this one doesn’t fit the bill. Instead, it’s the wider color gamut of HDR10 that really adds something to this presentation as compared with previous releases. There’s simply a richer and more nuanced palette to work with, and there’s a purity of tone that’s missing from past transfers. In A/Bing between this new release and the most recent 

1080 transfer (again, there have been a few), I also noticed that while there are some enhancements at the lower end of the value scale, the biggest benefit for the new HDR grade is a whole lot less clipping in highlights and brighter scenes. In other words, there are simply more shades of “almost white” to work with, which makes previously washed-out shots look a lot more dimensional and resolved, even if they’re not particularly intense.

 

So, long story short: If you’re looking for a substantial upgrade over previous home video releases of Blade, this one is unquestionably it. But if you’re looking for a perfect remaster of the movie, the egregious artificial smoothing and sharpening keeps this transfer from being everything it could be.

 

As for the Dolby TrueHD Atmos mix included with the Kaleidescape download of Blade? I really only have one word to describe it: Relentless. Of course, that’s always been true of the movie’s soundtrack. In fact, the original DVD release of Blade, way back in 1998, was one of my favorite demo discs at a time when I was still assembling my first halfway decent home theater system. I learned quite quickly, though, that the little Sony satellite speakers that had served me well as surround channels in the LaserDisc era were no match for this movie’s full-throated surround-sound assault. They died an uglier death than any of Blade’s 

Blade (1998)

onscreen adversaries. And I brought that DVD along with me when auditioning replacement speakers at my local Circuit City, just to make sure they would survive the onslaught.

 

The Atmos remix doesn’t substantially tinker with that experience, other than to extend it upward. This is still a hard-hitting, techno-heavy, effects-driven sound mix that only shows its age by virtue of its ostentatiousness.

 

So, yeah, in the end, the UHD/HDR release of Blade has its virtues as well as its flaws. Hopefully by the time Warner Bros. gets around to releasing the superior sequel in 4K, they’ll have learned from the mistakes of this one and give us a straight scan of the 35mm negative, free of the unnecessary digital manipulation. But, again, if you’re a Blade fan, don’t let the occasional visual distraction turn you off of this release. It’s still an appreciable step up from the HD transfer.

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.

Review: Annie Hall

Annie Hall (1977)

It’s impossible to talk about a Woody Allen movie without having to first weigh in on the ongoing efforts to vilify Allen and obliterate all traces of his career. He’s been spattered with so much bile by Hollywood types like Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page who’ve blindly bought into the Me Too herd mentality that there are fewer and fewer people even willing to approach his films let alone consider them objectively.

I’m hoping to do an appreciation of his career where I can go into all this a little more. What I would ask for the moment is that you try to ignore that grating cacophony of squeaky wheels and appreciate the works of one of the most accomplished filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s for what they are.

 

Annie Hall is known as a romantic comedy—a perception that had a lot to do with it snagging a Best Picture Oscar. The problem is, it’s not really a romantic comedy—at least not for me.

 

That I’ve never found Diane Keaton to be very attractive, or a very good actress, has helped me develop a different—and I think more accurate—take on the film. Annie Hall is actually a very ambitious, incisive, and candid attempt to capture the essence of a particular culture at a particular

ANNIE AT A GLANCE

Pigeonholed as a romantic comedy, Annie Hall is actually an ambitious attempt to find hope in the darkness of mid-’70s New York.

 

PICTURE     

Some of master cinematographer Gordon Willis’s most subtle work, it looks flat—but not unwatchable—in HD.

 

SOUND     

This is a Woody Allen movie. There’s not a lot of music, there aren’t any surround effects. People just talk, with intelligence and wit. And you can hear them just fine.

moment in time via its embodiment in a particular personality—and that personality is not Keaton.

 

There had to be a reason why Allen suddenly shifted away from all of those gag-driven early movies that served as his film school and allowed him to build the fan base he was able to ride for the next four decades. And there has to be a reason why he suddenly went from being a good-enough comedy director to a fully fledged and inspired filmmaker.

 

And I think the answer lies in this exchange from the film:

 

“The failure of the country to get behind New York City is anti-Semitism.”

 

“But, Max, the city is terribly run.”

 

“But we’re not discussing politics or economics. This is foreskin. . . . Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks at New York like we’re Left-Wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here.”

 

New York City had pretty much imploded in the wake of the social upheaval of the ‘60s and was in a wretched state by the mid ‘70s. Very much like the way it’s portrayed in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, it had become a kind of repository for all of the

country’s sins. This was probably the city’s darkest period, years before the unfettered avarice of the ’80s turned Manhattan into a playground for billionaires and Brooklyn into a day-care center for their kids.

 

Allen’s identification with the city was so strong that this all had to have sent him reeling. Knowing that it was the prime source of his inspiration—and of his creativity in general—he needed to work out what it meant to be a popular entertainer trying to create within a metropolis that the rest of the country was treating like it had the plague.

 

That’s what Annie Hall is really about—Diane Keaton was just his Trojan Horse, a way to open some doors and to make sure the studio got its money back.

 

The movie comes very close to being a drama. Just slightly shift the emphasis of almost every one of the scenes and it becomes a sobering look at people desperately trying to define themselves at a time when there were very few reliable guideposts to lean on. Had Allen approached the film that way—although he wasn’t yet that good of a filmmaker—Annie Hall would have been wrenching instead of hilarious.

 

Consider how Allen treats his own character—which is the same as saying, how he treats himself. This is not a very flattering portrayal—miles away from the narcissism he’s too often accused of. Alvy Singer displays a lot of bluster, and uses his jokes as his armor, but you can tell the guy is hopelessly lost—which Allen expresses through the movie’s loose, improvisational structure, trying on different styles and techniques and attitudes to see what will stick.

 

But that shouldn’t be mistaken as Allen himself flailing from behind the camera. Just consider the famous scene of him and Keaton on line at The New Yorker, where Allen humiliates the pontificator by dragging a seemingly 

embalmed Marshal McLuhan into the shot. It’s a nuanced and logistically complex near-3-minute single-take piece of bravura comedy filmmaking that only a self-assured and truly inspired director could have pulled off. And that’s just one example among many.

 

True, this isn’t the film Allen set out to make, and a lot of Annie Hall did come together in the editing room. But the list of genius directors who’ve confided that the real filmmaking happens in the editing is long. And they’re not wrong.

Annie Hall (1977)

Allen started out with a film that was true to his intentions but was all cake and no icing, and he sweetened it just enough to make it palatable for his audience, which was expecting another Sleeper. In the end, he found himself named King of the Romantic Comedy with a couple of Oscars left at his door—an experience he likely wasn’t expecting and that probably scared the bejeezus out of him.

 

Annie Hall was Allen’s Rhapsody in Blue—a loosely structured, jazz-inflected work that announced that he had ambitions that went beyond being a successful pop performer. And, as with Gershwin, he was never able to do anything quite that fluid and 

intuitive again, instead trying on different genres defined by others with decidedly mixed results.

 

But Hall holds up. A surprising number of the jokes and gags still land, his approach to the material and the scenes remains fertile unexplored territory for other filmmakers, and the way he took the careening wreck of New York City and turned it into the most vital and romantic place on Earth still clicks. The City owes him a statue—but then some group of Yahoos would come along and demand that it be taken down.

 

Talking about seeing the film in HD is difficult. Gordon Willis’s cinematography is known for being dark and bold, but it’s very subtle, almost documentary-like here. In HD, it feels flatter than it should—not unwatchable, just flat. And then there’s the weird dilemma of having to separate the shots where he deliberately and beautifully exploited grain—like the famous shot of Annie and Alvy standing on a pier at twilight with the East River bridges arrayed behind them—from the ones that are overrun with grain because the elements for the transfer probably weren’t the best.

 

As for the sound—come on, this is a Woody Allen movie. One of Allen’s greatest

Annie Hall (1977)

strengths as a filmmaker is the ability to make his material compelling without relying on CGI, aggressive editing, explosions, or other gratuitous effects. This is moviemaking stripped down to its essence, and it can be cleansing to get caught up in a piece of cinema that doesn’t depend on its ability to mercilessly abuse you.

 

Forget that this is supposed to be a romantic comedy. Forget about the Oscars. Forget about the well-heeled mob of Hollywood conformists bleating for Allen’s blood. Approach Annie Hall as an adventurous and innovative and unusually honest piece of filmmaking and you’ll get the chance to experience—or re-experience—one of the best American films of the final quarter of the last century, the movie that helped start the wave that brought New York back from the dead, for better or worse.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Love and Monsters

Love and Monsters (2020)

With the horror show that was 2020 finally behind us, a lighthearted post-apocalypse film with a different take on the genre might just be the perfect thing for your next movie night. Originally slated for a theatrical release, Love and Monsters instead debuted on VOD via digital retailers on October 16, as well as seeing a small (just 387 theaters) theatrical release for the October 16-18 weekend. Like many VOD titles, this one didn’t get a lot of press, so unless you’ve been cruising the digital-release updates on your favorite provider—iTunes, Fandango, Vudu, Kaleidescape—you probably missed it.

Post-apocalypse films typically follow one of two themes: Hordes of zombies relentlessly attacking the survivors or survivors forced to fight against each other for the few remaining resources. Love takes a different approach to this, giving us a new but entirely relatable “enemy,” making for a far more light-hearted journey, as well as a fresher take on this “love” story.

 

In the opening moments we’re told the governments on Earth decided to launch a massive rocket barrage in order to ward off a planet-killing asteroid. While they destroyed the asteroid, no one counted on all of the chemical fallout causing massive mutations among earth’s insect and reptile populations, with these creatures growing hundreds of times their normal size, with increased appetites to boot.

 

In the seven years following the fallout, 95% of Earth’s population has been wiped out, with the remainder joining up in colonies and living underground in shelters to survive. 

MONSTERS AT A GLANCE

Populated with mutant insects instead of zombies, this lighthearted post-apocalyptic tale is 109 minutes of popcorn-chewing fun.

 

PICTURE     

While not the last word in sharpness or detail, the images are clean and clear with some shots looking almost 3D and with HDR giving them punch and realism.

 

SOUND     

The videogame-like 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack is immersive and exciting, with the surrounds used throughout to help establish environments.

It’s in one of these colonies where we meet our unlikely hero, Joel (Dylan O’Brien, best known from his starring role as Thomas from The Maze Runner trilogy). While well liked in his colony for his skill at repairing the radio and making a mean minestrone, he is worthless when it comes to fighting against the creepy-crawlies, completely freezing up on any encounter.

 

After discovering that his old high-school girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), is living in a colony just 85 miles—or 7 days walk—away, he decides he’s tired of hiding underground and that he’s going to risk the journey for love.

 

Along the way, Joel befriends a dog, meets up with two seasoned survivors, Clyde (the excellent Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), who give him some much-needed training, gets attacked by a variety of mutated critters, and learns what it takes to survive and actually live again.

 

While zombie films essentially have waves of the same kinds of undead hordes, Joel is confronted with a constant variety of insects, with different looks and attack patterns that keep it visually interesting and exciting, with Joel never knowing where the next attack is coming from. (Though, spoiler, it’s almost always from below . . .) Also, the violence and gore here is decidedly “family-friendly;” Instead of humanoid creatures getting brains blown out in a shower of gore or chewing on human flesh, we get insects dying in mostly bloodless manners. Other than several uses of sh–, the film is pretty unobjectionable, and definitely something you could enjoy with a teenaged crowd.

 

The filmmakers also did a nice job of worldbuilding, littering the landscape with old, wrecked military weaponry and remnants of giant insect corpses as well as abandoned vehicles and shelters, and the insects have enough detail to make them both gross and creepy.

 

Information on the technical specifications of Love and Monsters’ transfer wasn’t available, but images are clean, clear, and sharp throughout. Though it didn’t have the constant tack-sharpness and hyper-detail of some modern transfers—making me think it is maybe a 2K digital intermediate—there is still tons of detail in closeups, revealing the micro-stubble and texture in Joel’s face. What I really noticed was the image focus and depth of field, with some shots having a near three-dimensional quality. Even with groups of people together—such as inside Joel’s bunker—all of the characters are distinct, captured in sharp, clear focus.

 

With images alternating between the stark, fluorescent- and flashlight-lit darkness of bunkers and the bright, sun-filled outdoors, HDR really helps to give images punch and realism. Lighting and shadows in the dark interiors also look 

appropriately dark, with clean dark blacks, punctuated by the bright fluorescent lighting. Outdoor scenes are filled with vibrant and realistic looking earth tones, with beaming sunlight that will make you squint against the light coming off your screen.

 

While “just” a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master soundtrack, I was impressed with how immersive and exciting the mix was played with Dolby Surround upmixing through my Marantz processor. In fact, far more of my viewing notes were about the audio than the picture quality, with sound used throughout to establish environments like inside Joel’s bunker with lots of metallic groans and echoes or sounds of dripping water, or deep metallic thunks and clanks as heavy doors are opening/closing, or the wind rustling through grasses and trees in outdoor areas.

 

The surrounds are used extensively to help locate an imminent insect attack, with the creatures slithering and skittering in from the side or back of the room, or the sounds of weapons whisking past, reminding me a bit of the way a good videogame mix helps you to localize the threat. While not an immersive mix with true discreet height effects, the height speakers are fed sounds of flares popping and jets streaking overhead, sounds of rain and thunder during a storm, as well as creature sounds during some of the insect battles.

Love and Monsters (2020)

Your subwoofer adds weight to the explosions, metallic collisions, and insect burrowing, and dialogue remains clear and intelligible.

 

While Love and Monsters doesn’t break any new ground—handsome boy risks death to go and get pretty girl—it’s just fun to watch, due in large part to O’Brien’s charming turn as Joel and the variety of critters he runs across, as well as some dry humor injected from Clyde, whose survival lessons reminded me a bit of Zombieland‘s “Rules.” If you’re looking for a slightly edgy film you can watch with the family—my 14-year-old daughter, Lauryn, really enjoyed it, with just enough tension and sudden scares to keep her engaged and entertained—that isn’t animated or doesn’t involve superheroes, Love and Monsters is 109 minutes of popcorn-chewing fun.

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.

“Dr. Strangelove” and the Power of Blackness

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

I wasn’t going to review the latest release of Dr. Strangelove. After having basked in the 4K HDR editions of 2001 and The Shining, it didn’t feel right to underline that this newest upgrade isn’t all it could or should be. Reviews of older films should focus on the ones worth watching, not the ones to avoid. But, on a whim, I watched Strangelove again a few nights ago and experienced it in ways I never have before, and ultimately decided that, transfer quality be damned, it’s well worth encouraging others to go check it out.

 

Keep in mind, before we dive into this, that I’ve seen this movie countless times. I’ve studied various drafts of the screenplay and pored over every relevant comment from the cast and crew. I’ve even watched on archive print on a Moviola at the Library of Congress. But this last time around, the film, for whatever reason, revealed things that had always been hidden to me before.

 

The biggest revelation—and what will be the crux of my comments here—is that Strangelove is only superficially a comedy. At its heart, it’s a film noir—and, at the end of the day, might even represent the pinnacle of that genre.

 

For that conclusion to make sense, you have to be willing to roll with my definition of noir in “Who Killed Film Noir?”—that the crime element is just a pretext and that these movies are instead always about chumps—more specifically, male chumps—

guys who think they know the score only to find they really don’t have a clue, only to then have everyone and everything conspire against them, usually with fatal results. If you accept that definition, then noir fits Strangelove as snugly as the mad doctor’s Rotwang glove.

 

Yes, the film is heavy on noir atmospherics—dark recesses, menacing shadows, closeups that make it look like the subject is being interrogated under hot lights, etc.—but dwelling on that kind of misses the point, because Strangelove pulls just as many stylistic elements from crime dramas, war films, horror films, psychological thrillers, documentaries, and newsreels. The one genre it doesn’t look anything like is comedy, and that is central to what I’m positing here.

 

Strangelove is really comedy by other means. Its laughs—which are many and legitimate—spring almost solely from the extreme gruesomeness of the situation, from a kind of squeamishness and disbelief that ultimately reinforces the dominance of the Death Drive over the Pleasure Principle, and that people will blindly follow through on the inherent logic of their institutions and devices—all the while believing they’re exercising intelligence and will—even if it will result in their own annihilation.

 

This movie is satire first and comedy second. And it’s stunning, on reflection, what a serious film it is, that it trumps all of the more sophomoric movies that consider 

themselves satires by diving down deep into the same disturbing roots and unblinking take on humanity that motivated Swift. This is satire with some real meat, with more than a little gristle, on its bones—definitely not for the SNL crowd.

 

It’s also stunning to realize what a leap it is beyond the mess of Lolita. You can sense Kubrick trying to recover his creative integrity after the rout of his previous film, where the material, the censors, and, most importantly, the narrative tradition all got the better of him. Knowing most filmmakers far overrate the importance of story, which causes them to lean on it as a crutch, he had tried to subvert the conventions by notoriously moving Humbert’s murder of Quilty to the beginning of the film—a huge

miscalculation that only served to deflate the whole enterprise. He was way bolder with Strangelove, exposing the sheer contrivance of narrative by taking a clockwork-type suspense plot and twisting it around to serve ends no one would have thought it could ever possibly serve, and along the way exposing storytelling for what it mainly is: A manipulative mechanical device for efficiently getting you from Point A to Point Z, which in this case is the end of the world.

 

With Strangelove, Kubrick hit on the formula that would serve him well for the rest of his career of mimicking just enough genre conventions to entice and enthrall the groundlings and ensure the studio’s ROI, while having the movies actually function at levels that ultimately made hash of their seeming reasons to be. So Strangelove has just enough silly comedy and thriller elements to keep the masses in their seats but continuously moves up a creative chain, subsuming the more rudimentary elements along the way, until it ultimately arrives at noir—but noir in a way no one had ever seen it before.

 

To put it another way: Having been too conservative with Lolita, Kubrick 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHERE IN HELL IS MAJOR KONG?

Another thing that jumped out at me watching Strangelove this time around was the missile attack on the B-52, which is primarily an extremely believable documentary-style moment (especially for 1964) with nothing remotely funny about it. Of course, I’ve noticed this scene before—it’s kind of hard to ignore—but I realized this time how unique it is, since the list of comedies that can afford to go full-bore dramatic for a good chunk of the film without losing their momentum or completely throwing the audience is so short it probably doesn’t exist. One of Kubrick’s most brilliant set pieces, it convincingly places you inside the plane with the crew as they fight for their lives, so you identify with their efforts and then root for them to complete their mission—which has to create extremely conflicted emotions in all but the most cold-hearted since the crew’s ability to overcome is the thing that seals the fate of the world. The scene is also worth savoring for the way its chaotic handheld camerawork goes from documentary to abstract, turning it into a mini art film. Most movie scenes are too stage-bound or veer too close to radio—even today. This one is pure cinema.

M.G.

decided to completely trust his gut with Strangelove, and his gut told him to make a suspense thriller that was, incongruously, a comedy, but was actually, ultimately, a film noir. But that’s not the genius part. The genius part is that he made all three dovetail so seamlessly that the transitions from the cheap seats on up don’t feel so much perverse as inevitable.

 

Watch Strangelove through the lens of noir—noir stripped of most of its genre cliches in order to expose its white-hot core—and it becomes a different, much more nuanced and brilliant film. Noir wasn’t new to Kubrick. Killer’s Kiss and The Killing are both overt takes on the genre, the latter unapologetically feeding from John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. (Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre was another Kubrick favorite.)

 

But there’s another dimension to this that also deepens the experience of the film and that hadn’t been obvious to me until this most recent viewing, when I realized how heavily Kubrick tapped into his photo-journalistic beginnings. Fresh out of high school, he had been the youngest staff photographer ever at Look magazine, and it was his experiences there that supplied 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

WHY THIS ISN’T A REVIEW

I ultimately decided to not review this release of Strangelove because 4K HDR takes away as much as it brings to the experience, so while there’s no great harm in watching it that way, there’s no real benefit either.

 

One of the biggest problems is one common to many 4K upgrades of older films. Nobody has figured out how to accurately translate backdrops and matte paintings that looked convincing when run through a projector and shown on a big screen. Here, the opening painting of Burpleson Air Force Base and the later one of the Pentagon are so obvious that they pull you out of the film. Similarly, the model shots of the B-52, which were only borderline successful on film, look too clean and sterile and model-y now.

 

While someone could argue that the HDR increases the impact of the nuclear bomb blasts, I would have to counter that this isn’t an action or war film and that, since Kubrick relied on archival footage rather than effects shots, that’s not what he was after. Pumping the shots up that way is akin to adding cannon blasts to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—which I’m sure has been done, but not by anybody who deserved to live afterward. A more accurate example might be someone deciding to improve the impact of the Scherzo in the Ninth by doubling all the orchestral lines with synthesizers. I suspect that would make the work more compelling for those listeners with duller nerve endings but it would be an egregious violation of Beethoven’s original intent and a travesty of his work. Sure, anyone’s free to reinterpret Beethoven—or Bach or Stravinsky or Mahler—but don’t pretend you’re presenting the original piece. Leaning too heavily on HDR is like deciding this already virile composition needed an injection of testosterone.

 

And then there’s the kerfuffle over the aspect ratios. The best I can determine, Kubrick shot the film 1.33:1 and then matted it for 1.66:1. The original theatrical release was 1.85:1. But for the Criterion edition, he asked from some scenes to be shown full frame and some to be matted to 1.66, apparently in an effort to create a better viewing experience on pre-HD TVs. Yes, the ratios for home displays have since changed, and his similar tack with the release of The Shining was a disaster, but the point is that with Strangelove it worked, and I don’t get why this current release goes with a consistent 1.66.

 

But, again, this isn’t a review. It’s just an explanation of why I didn’t want to do one.

M.G.

the subject matter for his early documentary shorts and for Killer’s Kiss, which look like photo essays come to life.

 

He returns to those formative experiences and that style in Strangelove, with much of the film resembling his magazine work, most obviously in the faux documentary attack on Burpleson Air Force Base, but far more subtly and strikingly in the War Room. He went there mainly to underline that no matter how surreal, irrational, and immature a lot of the behavior and actions are in the film, they have very real consequences.

 

(But there are more layers to it than that, because Kubrick hired the controversial tabloid photographer Weegee—whose body of work essentially transformed sordid reality into noir—as his on-set photographer. That led to Peter Sellers, fascinated by Weegee’s edgy hardboiled patois, using his voice as the inspiration for Strangelove.

 

(And to complete my digression, It should be mentioned that Kubrick got to know fashion-turned-art photographer Diane Arbus well during his Look years, and later referenced her work explicitly in The Shining—which raises the point that his films are far more autobiographical and personal than the cliché take on him as cold, detached, clinical would allow.)

 

Rather than give a complete recitation of all the ways noir permeates and defines the film, I’ll just highlight a couple of key moments and you can work backward from there. Right before Sterling Hayden’s General Ripper sleepwalks off to the bathroom to commit suicide, Kubrick just holds on an uncomfortably close shot of his face, rimmed so tightly with shadows that it already resembles a death mask. As Seller’s Group Captain Mandrake sits next to Ripper, prattling on about the recall code, Kubrick just stays on the general. And although there are no obvious changes in Ripper’s expression, you 

can tell he’s realizing the full enormity of what he’s done right before disappearing completely into madness. But this is done with amazing restraint, with Kubrick resisting the temptation to go to the kind of crazy stare he would later cultivate with Jack in The Shining and Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. You just sense the descent happening—almost imperceptibly, but undeniably. It might be the ultimate film noir moment.

 

That shot could have been Hayden as Johnny Clay in The Killing or as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle—it wouldn’t have looked out of place cut into either of those films. And Kubrick uses that commonality to create a through-line that traverses all 

of noir, pointing inevitably to Strangelove as its culmination.

 

Comedies usually rely on master shots instead of closeups, but Kubrick comes in similarly close on Strangelove to emphasize how much he’s caught up in, and boxed in by, his own calculations and obsessions, his own form of culturally sanctioned insanity. You’re placed just inches from a madman, and it’s as frightening as it is funny.

 

The most outrageous noir before Strangelove was Robert Aldrich’s beyond cheeky Kiss Me Deadly, which took the hugely popular Mike 

"Dr. Strangelove" and the Power of Blackness

Dix Handley

Hammer character and exposed him for the clueless goon he was. This isn’t the place to go into it, but Strangelove seems to riff on Deadly, seems to devour and digest and regurgitate it, taking the cocksure bumbling of an L.A. detective and projecting it onto the whole world, making chumps of us all.

 

Watching Strangelove today is hardly just an exercise in either nostalgia or film appreciation, something only tangentially relevant to our present. The basics of human nature haven’t changed since 1964—if anything, the blind, primal aspects have only become emboldened as the machines have taken over and we’ve become free to play. It’s not like the methods of the West have changed all that much either—except that they’ve been so successfully exported that a YouTube video from Adelaide looks identical to a YouTube video from Bhopal looks identical to one from Des Moines. And it’s not like the world doesn’t continue to bristle with nuclear arms. And it’s not like it’s become impossible for a madman to ascend to the highest levels of power.

 

Noir is who we are when we have the guts to face ourselves squarely in the mirror. And it says a lot that it’s been more than five decades since the last time any one’s bothered to take a good look.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Even with theaters still closed across much of the country, this has been a big past few days for movie releases, with three big-budget titles hitting streaming services. Christmas Day saw the release of Soul on Disney+ and Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max as well as in theaters, along with the latest Tom Hanks vehicle, News of the World, showing theatrically here in the States but available for streaming on Netflix in some international territories. And on December 23rd, Netflix released the George Clooney directed and starring sci-fi film The Midnight Sky.

 

Unlike films that were destined for the big screen and then re-routed to streamers as a theatrical release proved unsafe (or unprofitable), it appears Sky was destined for Netflix from the get-go—though it did see a very limited theatrical release in a total of 232 theaters in the Netherlands and South Korea. With an estimated budget of nearly $100 million, Sky is one of the 

streamer’s biggest-budget titles to date.

 

Most recently known for playing himself in ads pitching Nespresso coffee machines and the billion-dollar sale of his co-founded tequila brand, Casamigos, Clooney’s legacy of bankability and choosing good roles—his turn in the dismal Batman & Robin notwithstanding—still gives him quite a bit of star power, and his involvement was my primary reason for being interested in Sky.

 

Based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, Sky opens in February 2049, three weeks after some unspecified cataclysmic event has poisoned the planet with radiation, wiping out most of life on Earth and rendering it uninhabitable. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is the sole person at the remote Barbeau Observatory scientific base in the Arctic Circle, suffering from a terminal illness and spending his remaining days drinking, monitoring deteriorating world conditions, and performing transfusion treatments to prolong his life.

SKY AT A GLANCE

This George Clooney directed & starring straight-to-Netflix space epic will intrigue sci-fi and Clooney fans but will probably be pretty slow going for everyone else.

 

PICTURE     

Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail. There are lots of bright highlights that benefit from the HDR grading.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments with their own unique sounds.

Lofthouse discovers there is still a single active space mission, the Aether, which is returning from having explored the habitability of one of Jupiter’s moons, K-23—a moon that had been discovered years before by Lofthouse. Knowing that the ship returning means a death sentence for its crew, Lofthouse attempts to contact the Aether to warn them off, but the antenna at his station isn’t powerful enough to reach the ship. One evening, he encounters a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) inside the station, who refuses (or is unable) to speak but identifies herself as Iris through a drawing. Lofthouse decides to take Iris and head to another base with a larger antenna to warn off and save Aether’s crew.

 

The film bounces back and forth between Lofthouse and Iris on earth and the small five-man crew aboard the Aether, headed by Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). Interspersed with these events, we have flashbacks where a younger Lofthouse (Ethan Peck) remembers an old girlfriend Jean (Sophie Rundle), who left him to pursue his science after a pregnancy scare.

 

Just shy of a two-hour runtime, The Midnight Sky feels a bit slow and plodding and almost like two different movies, with Lofthouse struggling on Earth and the astronauts off doing their thing in space. While Clooney—who lost 30 pounds to play the role and sports a David Letterman-esque shaggy beard—does his best, I just never felt connected to the characters enough to care about them. We find out he’s terminal in the film’s opening moments, so it isn’t like his character’s arc is a real mystery. And we barely get to know anything about the astronauts, and not caring or being invested in the six characters makes for a slow journey.

 

Clooney is essentially by himself the entire time, and the scenes between him and Iris before going on their trek to the other station are all one-sided bits of dialogue in the confines of the Observatory that wear on and don’t create the mystery I think Clooney was going for.

 

The film tries to create additional drama along the way, both on Earth and in space. Lofthouse and Iris are caught in blizzards, circled by wolves, and experience the almost requisite fall-through-ice, which, let’s be honest, would have left them dead of hypothermia within minutes in the extreme frigid conditions. In space, the ship experiences a trajectory deviation that puts them into uncharted space where they are bombarded with meteorite ice crystals that destroy critical parts that require a spacewalk to repair. And, well, if Clooney’s previous space film, Gravity, taught us anything about spacewalks, it’s that they can be . . . hazardous.

 

With the big budget, the special effects look first-rate, specifically life aboard the Aether and the exterior shots of the ship, which you get to see in great detail during the spacewalk. Had these scenes not been believable, the movie would be a real #Fail. Also, the freezing exteriors were shot on location at the top of an Icelandic glacier with sub-40-degree temps and 50 MPH winds, so Clooney’s misery and frozen beard are all real.

 

One interesting choice was having a younger actor play young Lofthouse, but with his voice mixed in with Clooney’s. Having just watched the Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian, where one character is digitally de-aged to questionable effect, my wife and I debated which more pulled you out of the story: The obvious CGI de-aging or the distraction of having the wrong voice come out of a real face. Ultimately, I think they were equally distracting in their own ways.

 

Framed in an unusual 2.11:1 aspect ratio, Sky was shot digitally in a combination of 4.5 and 5.1K, and the Netflix transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate. Images look clean and sharp throughout, with some closeups that reveal a terrific amount of detail, such as tight shots on Clooney’s face where you can (for better or worse) see every strand of hair in his beard, or see the fine pattern in his plaid flannel shirt.

 

There are lots of bright highlights throughout that benefit from the HDR grading, such as the constant glowing white lights and consoles aboard the Aether along with its pulsing blue engines (thrusters?), and the bright monitors and screens in the Observatory. One scene inside a crashed airplane is a darkened interior lit by the bright probing beam of a flashlight with really nice shadows and detail. K-23 also has a bright, rust-orange color that gets a boost from the wider color gamut.

 

The Dolby Atmos sound mix does a nice job serving the story, clearly delivering all of the dialogue and supplying the different environments—inside the Observatory, inside the Aether, outside on the Arctic—with their own unique sounds. Besides the overhead speakers being used to expand the music’s soundstage, there are some nice, hard-panned height effects, such as helicopters flying overhead, swirling and howling winds, or the echoing report of gunshots. There aren’t many gunshots (three, I believe), but they are loud and dynamic, the first making my wife jump, and the meteorite strikes have some decent bass impact.

 

With a current Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Score of 53%, and Audience Score of just 25%, The Midnight Sky isn’t for everyone. If you’re a fan of sci-fi or Clooney, there are certainly worse ways you could pass two hours. If you need your sci-fi to be filled with action and adventure—with a definitive resolution and conclusion—you’ll want to give this one a pass. Fortunately, if you do give it a go, the cost is $0 (on top of your Netflix subscription) and the movie at least looks and sounds good.

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: Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

I honestly can’t tell you for sure whether I would have seen Wonder Woman 1984 in a movie theater had it been released in 2019 as originally planned, or if its June 2020 followup release date hadn’t been canceled by COVID-19. All I can say with certainty is that I’m glad my first viewing was at home rather than the local multiplex. Because I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it nearly so much surrounded by a crowd of my fellow comic-book geeks. 

 

And I say that for two reasons. The first is one scene in particular that occurs about halfway through the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. I won’t spoil the particulars for you, other than to say it’s a moment that was obviously intended to pluck the strings of nostalgia for old-school Wonder Woman (and indeed Super Friends) fans. But it isn’t a wink and a nod, as little 

nuggets of fan service like this normally are. Instead, it’s a moment of personal triumph for Princess Diana of Themyscira—one that drew a great big (but quiet) grin out of me, not only for the nostalgic sugar kick but also the integral story beat it represents within the movie.

 

And quite frankly, the barrage of cheers I’m almost certain are rippling through cinemas here in the States when that scene plays out (diminished though they may be by half-sized crowds and the like) would have ruined that moment for me. Or, if not ruined, at least colored my own personal reaction to it. Watching it play out on HBO Max, though, with only my wife by my side and my 85-pound pit bull sprawled out in my lap, I got to form my own emotional attachment to that moment, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

 

The other reason I’m glad I saw the movie at home rather than at the local IMAX boils down to quality of presentation. Say what you will about flicks of this nature being designed for the crowd experience, I’d say a far more 

1984 AT A GLANCE

The much anticipated super-girl sequel arrives in both theaters and on HBO Max with enough sugar kicks to more than satisfy the comic-book crowd.

 

PICTURE     

The film leans heavily on high dynamic range and wide color gamut, and HBO Max presents it all in 4K without any obvious flaws in the delivery.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix provides some beefy home cinema demo material, with a very Hans Zimmery score taking your speakers for a near-constant thrill ride.

crucial ingredient of this one’s success is the overall audiovisual impact. And a lot of that comes from liberal application of high dynamic range and wide color gamut, something only a handful of cinema screens can deliver. (Last I looked, I think there were something like 200 Dolby Cinemas worldwide and roughly the same number of IMAX Laser screens around the globe, none of which are within driving distance of me.)

 

From nearly beginning to end, WW84 leans heavily into the ’80s aesthetic, with Day-Glo colors dominating its palette almost to the point of hilarity at times. What’s more, one of its few action set-pieces takes place at night, and although I didn’t find HBO Max’s Dolby Vision presentation of that showdown distracting in the slightest, I was almost distracted by my musings about whether or not I would have been able to follow any of it on the low-contrast, dimly lit screens down at my local AMC.

 

I guess I’m somewhat burying the important takeaway here. We’ve all been curious about whether or not HBO Max would do 4K HDR right in this, its first outing with the modern video format. And the answer to that is a resounding “Yes!” I couldn’t find a single visual flaw in the delivery, and any nits there were to pick were subjective quibbles with the cinematography and special effects (many of which seem to be intentionally laughably bad). There’s also the fact that WW84 seems to have been shot with a deliberately soft look, so you shouldn’t expect razor-sharp edges or super-fine details. But you can see from the fine grain that all of this is inherent to the 35mm negative and not a problem with the transfer.

 

The Dolby Atmos track also shines, especially if you’re looking for some beefy home cinema demo material. Granted, a full 70 percent of the mix seemingly consists of Hans Zimmer’s score Hans-Zimmering the hell out of every speaker with unbridled intensity. As much as that would normally annoy me, it works for this movie, if only because WW84 is so delightfully and unapologetically cheesy from start to finish that subtlety in any aspect of the presentation would have seemed out of place.

 

And I don’t mean that as a sort of back-handed compliment, mind you. Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t just use the ’80s as its setting; it uses the style of storytelling common to action movies and comic books of that era to guide its tone, its pace, and indeed its narrative. And I’m totally here for it.

 

My only real gripe about the story is that it’s a little too densely packed for its own good. Director Patty Jenkins seems to have had a million ideas for how to follow up her 2017 breakout hit with a story that covered almost none of the same ground in almost none of the same ways yet still felt connected to the original. I just wish she had left a few of those ideas in the first draft of the screenplay. Trim 30 pages from the script and it would have been nearly perfect. As it stands, we have to settle for merely very, very good.

 

I say that, though, assuming you’re at least of an age to appreciate so much of the material that inspired Jenkins and co-writer Geoff Johns. Tonally and narratively, WW84 owes a lot to both Superman: The Movie (1978) and Batman Returns (1992)—and yes, I know it’s hard to imagine common ground between such disparate cinematic efforts, but this movie manages to find it.

 

But if you didn’t grow up on movies of that era, or at least experience them in your formative years, I can’t help but wonder if Wonder Woman 1984 might feel just a little too over-the-top, a little too cheeky, a little too fantastical. 

 

I honestly can’t know. But the good news is, as long as you’re willing to face the needlessly convoluted gauntlet of signing up for an HBO Max account and signing into the app, you can watch the movie to your heart’s content for the next 31 days before it disappears for a while in preparation for its actual home video release.

 

Will I plunk down my hard-earned dollars to buy the movie when that times comes? You bet I will. Again, it’s not perfect, but I liked this sequel even more than the first Wonder Woman movie, and it’s exactly the sort of goofy and good-natured escapism I need in my life right now.

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.

Review: Soul

Soul (2020)

Disney’s gift to families arrived on Disney+ yesterday in the form of Pixar’s 23rd feature-length film, Soul, which is arguably the largest title to debut on the streaming service without requiring the purchased premium access of the recent live-action Mulan remake. (Onward had a brief theatrical release before being moved to the streaming site.)

 

Soul definitely tackles Pixar’s biggest, most complex, and heady adult ideas and themes to date. While other Pixar films have dealt with the death of a main character (notably the loss of a parent in Onward), here we get a version of both the afterlife and pre-existence—and I’d say despite the pleasing visuals (especially in the vibrant and colorful Great Before) and big-eyed 

cuteness of the ever-smiling new souls, it isn’t really a children’s movie at all. But the genius of Pixar films has always been that they are able to entertain and appeal to viewers across large age groups, and the jokes and themes here are certainly geared towards an older audience, such as what some of those sign-spinners are really up to, what happens to hedge-fund managers, and why the Knicks keep losing.

 

Jazz—or “black improvisation music” as Joe Gardner’s (Jamie Foxx) father calls it—also plays a prominent role throughout the film, a musical genre that isn’t typically kid-friendly, and it also features “real,” poignant adult conversations between characters, such as the chat Joe has with his longtime barber Dez (Donnell Rawlings).

 

You could consider Soul to be the final (?) film in director Pete Docter’s reverse life-cycle trilogy, which began with 2009’s Up that focused on a person nearing the end of his life, followed by 2015’s Inside Out, which put us in the

SOUL AT A GLANCE

Pixar’s 23rd feature—debuting on Disney+ without a theatrical release—is a very adult take on life and the before- and afterlife.

 

PICTURE     

Image quality is reference-quality throughout (especially when viewed in Dolby Vision), with fine micro-details visible in literally anything you choose to focus on.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos audio does a great job of presenting the film’s jazz score, with music swirling overhead and around the room, and with plenty of nice subtle sonic moments throughout.

mind of a pre-teenager figuring out her emotions. With Soul, we actually roll back to pre-existence, discovering how people get their unique personality traits and find that “spark” that motivates, excites, and inspires them.

 

The movie begins with Joe, a part-time middle-school band instructor, getting hired on full-time at the school. While his mother, Libba (Phylicia Rashad), is thrilled at the prospect of Joe having a steady paycheck, insurance, and security instead of his gigging lifestyle, Joe feels he’s turning his back on his dream of being a jazz musician. When one of his former students, Curley (Questlove), calls him to see if he’s available to audition to play piano with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) Quartet that evening, Joe nails the try-out and leaves on Cloud Nine, oblivious to everything going on around him. This leads to him walking into an open manhole, and, well, coming around as a soul ascending towards the great white light of the Great Beyond. But Joe isn’t willing to accept that he has died on the night of his big break, so he fights to get back to his body on earth.

 

And that is just the first 11 minutes of the movie.

 

From here, we transition to the Great Before—rebranded as the You Seminar—where mentors work with new souls who are given unique and individual personalities to prepare them for life on Earth. (One soul proclaims, “I’m a manipulative 

megalomaniac who’s intensely opportunistic.”)  Another group of souls is sent to become self-absorbed, causing one of the counselors to say, “We really should stop sending so many people through that pavilion.”

 

The final step in a soul receiving its full personality—and getting its Earth pass—is for it to find its “spark,” or that thing that 

drives you. Joe is assigned to Mentor 22 (Tina Fey), who has been stuck as a new soul for years with no desire to go to Earth, having broken previous mentors such as Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Mohammed Ali.

 

With the help of Moonwind (Graham Norton), an astral traveler who sails about The Zone, a place between the spiritual and physical, in a tie-dye-sailed ship listening to Bob Dylan and helping lost souls find their way, 22 and Joe make it back to Earth, but not exactly in the way the Joe is hoping. I thought the film was going to take a Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin All of Me turn, but it doesn’t. Without spoiling, I’ll say Joe comes back in a way where he can still communicate with 22 but with no one else.

 

The movie has three distinct animation styles and looks defining the Great Beyond, the Great Before, and life on Earth. The Beyond is rendered in very contrasty black and white with just the color of the souls headed towards the ultra-bright light (a scene that reminded me of Carousel from Logan’s Run, whether intentional or not), whereas the Great Before is vibrant, filled with glowing blue, pink, and purple pastels and almost neon-tube drawings with things glowing bright around outlined edges and having a very ethereal look. Earth is hyper-realistic with a more muted, natural color scheme.

 

Image quality is fantastic and reference-quality throughout, with Soul being beautiful and just pleasing to look at. While the Great Before has colors that leap off the screen (especially when viewed in Dolby Vision), it is the scenes on Earth that really show off Pixar’s animation prowess, with fine micro-details visible in literally anything you choose to focus on. The texture, layering, and fading colors in street graffiti, the floor of the barbershop and look of Dez’s shoes, the distressing in iron railings, the sweat that appears on musicians’ faces after a long gig, the variety of people walking around the streets of New York, the micro-bits of fabric at the edges of Joe’s sweater, or the reflection off a glossy piano lid revealing the workings inside. Remembering that every . . . single . . . pixel of detail, every micro imperfection, every scratch and nick, every reflection, every subtle lighting effect, has been painstakingly created by deliberate artistic choice takes appreciation to the next level.

 

You can also really notice the choices the Pixar artists make in how they animate different things. While they’ve settled on the look of people, other items like buildings, backgrounds, and furniture get near-photo realistic detail. Other things like photos of jazz greats in a stairwell, or the stage at the club, land somewhere in between.

 

As mentioned, jazz music is a prominent, recurring theme throughout the film, and the Dolby Atmos audio does a great job presenting this, especially when Joe is really grooving and in-the-zone, where music swirls overhead and around the room. Voices in the Great Before are echoey, while the street sounds and cacophony of New York sound appropriately overwhelming. There are also plenty of nice subtle sonic moments throughout, such as the flatter, low-ceilinged sound of music in the Half Note, the clack of tracks aboard the subway, or the buzz overhead as Joe stands under a neon light. Most important, dialogue is always clear and perfectly intelligible.

 

Soul is a deep story that actually takes a bit of unpacking, and it looks so good you’ll likely want to revisit it more than once, where you’ll likely discover plenty of new things to appreciate—and possibly pause to try and pick out the Easter eggs scattered throughout. Finding out what things make a life, and learning to enjoy the simple pleasures and experiences life has to offer is the real heart of Soul, and this is another win for Pixar.

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: Total Recall (1990)

Total Recall (1990)

With the dearth of new content available to release to the home market, studios have been mining their catalogs of older titles, giving them fresh, new 4K HDR video remasters and (frequently) Dolby Atmos immersive audio tracks to entice viewers to purchase—or repurchase—a classic. The latest film to get a (gasp!—has it actually been that long?!) 30th-Anniversary remaster release is Total Recall.

 

I actually saw Recall in the theater in 1990. That was right in the middle of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign as king of the big-screen blockbuster, following his roles in two Conan films, The Terminator, Commando, Predator, The Running Man, and the comedy Twins (followed shortly thereafter by Terminator 2, Last Action Hero, True Lies, and Eraser). Arnie in a film all but 

guaranteed audiences that they were in for a big-budget, wild action ride.

 

Besides his imposing physicality and quasi-believability of being able to wipe out hordes of bad guys, Arnold also managed to bring some humor to the big action role, proving to have surprising comic timing and dryly delivering one-liners that brought another facet to the action genre.

 

Based on the story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick (who also penned “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the basis for Blade Runner), Recall is directed by Paul Verhoeven, and it definitely has his stylistic thumbprint all over it, especially in the over-the-top gun violence and massive bullet wounds and in-film adverts, which are heavily reminiscent of his other films RoboCop and Starship Troopers.

 

The sci-fi plot actually has a bit of depth and complexity to 

RECALL AT A GLANCE

This sci-fi actioner from the height of Schwarzenegger’s fame receives the 30th-anniversary 4K HDR treatment.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is true to the movie’s 35mm origins, retaining a respectable amount of grain, while HDR makes the saturated, neon Martian reds pop.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is mainly restrained and front-forward, with the surround channels used extensively to expand the music score.

it, thanks to Dick’s source material. Taking place in 2084, Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is continually plagued by dreams of being on Mars with a mysterious woman. Thinking that a virtual trip to Mars might satisfy him, Quaid heads over to Rekall, where they implant memories in your brain. These implanted memories are indistinguishable from actual memories, and Rekall promises to make you feel like you’ve had a luxury vacation experience without ever leaving Earth and for a fraction of the price.

 

Complications arise during the implant process, and Quaid is quickly sedated and dumped in a cab. His life turns upside down when people—including his wife, Lori (Sharon Stone)—start attacking him. Lori tells him that his life and memories are all fake and just implants from The Agency, and she has been assigned to watch over him. This leads to Arnold delivering one of the film’s iconic lines, “If I’m not me, who the Hell am I?” Narrowly avoiding a raid, Quaid is given a briefcase with money, papers, gadgets, and a video message from himself, but as someone named Carl Hauser who tells him that he, as Hauser, underwent a memory wipe to escape The Agency after discovering an alien artifact on Mars. After Hauser walks Quaid through the process of removing a tracking device, Quaid heads to Mars.

 

Is Quaid still on the table at Rekall, stuck in his dreams, living implanted memories? Is he actually Hauser? What memories are real and can be trusted? And if you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?

 

With a huge (for the day) budget of $65 million, the movie features elaborate sets, makeup, costume design, and world building. Mars feels like a fleshed-out, alien world that has been colonized by humans, including various mutations from intense radiation, and the interiors—especially the location of the alien artifact—seem appropriately huge. Further, practical special effects abound throughout—as well as some relatively new for the time CGI. Recall actually won an Academy Award for Visual Effects. (It was also nominated for Sound and for Sound Effects Editing.)

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, this new transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Some film grain remains visible throughout, but it is never distracting. The film certainly didn’t receive the massive grain reduction smoothening Terminator 2 did. In general, most scenes—especially those filmed in the bright outdoors—are clear and sharp. Don’t expect the ultra clarity, sharpness, and detail of modern digital images, but you’ll definitely appreciate all the detail the source material has to offer.

 

I remember being especially impressed with the scene of Quaid pulling the tracker roughly the size of a golf ball out of his nose, wondering how they pulled that off. While this would have certainly been a CGI effect today, it was accomplished with the use of an elaborate, incredibly realistic-looking puppet, and the effect still holds up, even under 4K’s enhanced resolution, where you can really appreciate the detail that went into it. The same goes for the mutant Kuato.

 

Some scenes—such as on board the subway—look a bit soft. Even within scenes, there can be a bit of inconsistency. When Quaid is in the Rekall offices, the fine check print in McClane’s (Ray Baker) jacket can alternate between being crisp and defined to looking soft and unstable. The added resolution also reveals the limitations of the video screens used at the time. 

(Anyone remember the Proton and Curtis Mathis brand names?)

 

What really pops from this new HDR color grading are the vibrant, deeply saturated reds of Mars. From the opening credits, you get these searing, neon reds, giving a glimpse into what is to come. HDR also gives pop to the bright lights on the subway, and the neon lights and signs in Venusville, Mars’ red-light district. Blacks are also deep and clean, providing a solid background for the rest of the images to pop.

 

Sonically, the new Dolby Atmos mix is fairly reserved, certainly by modern standards, with most of the mix taking place in the front of the room. Even with a mainly LCR mix, you get a lot of width across the front, with action spread far left and right. The mix also does a great job with the dialogue, which is clear and understandable throughout.

 

The height and surround channels are used pretty extensively to expand the musical score, using the additional speakers for a far more room-filling experience, especially inside the Last Resort Club on Mars where loud music booms from all around.

 

The sound mixers did take some opportunities to extend sound effects into the 

Total Recall (1990)

room to heighten certain moments. Aboard the robot-driven “Johnny Cab,” we get some nice creaks and groans happening overhead, during gunfights there are some ricochets into the surround speakers, subway announcements emanate from the height speakers, reverb sounds in the mine shafts, and wind swirls and blows overhead when there is a atmosphere breach.

 

While Total Recall shows its age in parts—some of the scenes between Schwarzenegger and Stone are a bit groany—it remains a fun action ride, driven forward with near constant action and a good bit of depth to the story. If your only experience with Total Recall is the disappointing 2012 Colin Farrell remake or from watching the original film on DVD, this new 4K HDR remaster is a must-see. 

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.