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Review: The Courier (2020)

The Courier (2020)

If you are a regular reader of reviews here at Cineluxe, you’ll know that I have been on a somewhat topsy-turvy cinematic journey lately. In the past ten days, we’ve watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Gattaca, The Ten Commandments, and Nomadland. After all this, my long-suffering wife hit me with, “When can we watch something I want to see?” As a big Benedict Cumberbatch fan, The Courier was the perfect solution. 

 

After originally premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 under the title Ironbark—the code name given to the Russian agent—the film was slated for a August 2020 US release under its new name. Due to the pandemic, it was delayed

until March 19, 2021, and then received a PVOD release on April 16, where it is currently available as a rental via Kaleidescape and other digital retailers.

 

I’m always a sucker for films “based on a true story,” and that’s what we have here—a Cold War spying tale based on events leading up to and around the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

 

High-ranking Russian military intelligence officer Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) decides to start delivering classified information to the West about Soviet capabilities. Since he is under constant surveillance by the KGB, any contact with traditional espionage assets would blow his cover, so the CIA and MI6 agents working the case decide to recruit a regular salesman, Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), to make contact.

THE COURIER AT A GLANCE

This slow-burn “based on actual events” spy thriller is light on action but big on acting, atmosphere, and tension.

 

PICTURE
The image quality is mostly terrific, with just some brief moments with soft focus and elevated blacks. 

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix is devoted mainly to delivering dialogue but there are some subtle atmospherics throughout.

Wynne begins by starting business operations in Moscow, where he meets Penkovsky organically through his dealings. After an evening at the ballet, Penkovsky makes arrangements to start delivering materiel to Wynne, who begins shuttling sensitive information out of Moscow and back to his handlers. As the Cold War starts heating up around US/Soviet relations involving Cuba, Penkovsky is eager to get out more information that will help, but the ever-present KGB is always closing in, and it becomes a cat-and-mouse game for Penkovsky and Wynne over how much they can get out before deciding to pull the plug and extract Penkovksky and his family to safety.

 

The acting, writing, and sets all make for an engaging story, but if you like your spy films laced with action and intrigue of the James Bond or Jason Bourne variety, you’ll likely be disappointed. This is a slow-burn of a spy film more akin to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which also starred Cumberbatch). In fact, there is but a single gunshot in the film, and it is delivered as a message of what happens to those that decide to become traitors against the State. 

 

Of course, some of the tension is removed from the story as we know how the Cuban missile crisis was resolved, but getting another glimpse into the closed-door intrigue that surrounded this event that likely took mankind to its closest point of all-out nuclear war is always fascinating. Also, having no idea of the events surrounding this story, there was tension in how it plays out with the will they/won’t they rescue attempt. 

 

And the truth of it is, this is probably far more how actual spying is handled. Days and weeks of normalcy as you blend in and carry out your regular routine, interspersed with a few potentially terrifying moments when a bit of information is stolen (photographed in this case) and then exchanged and taken out of the country, while hoping that if something goes wrong, the people on your side will be able to do something to help you.

 

Cumberbatch seems to have carved a niche for himself in playing the brilliant everyman non-action hero in roles like Alan Turing, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Strange, and Julian Assange, and he inhabits the role of Wynne believably as an affable businessman used to pleasing and impressing clients to get the sale. He even committed himself physically to the role, losing a dramatic amount of weight for the film’s conclusion, helping to portray a very convincing time of suffering. The only other notable actor here is Rachel Brosnahan from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, who plays Wynne’s CIA contact, agent Emily Donovan. Even with lesser-known actors inhabiting most of the roles—sometimes a good thing when recreating actual events—the acting and performances are all convincing and top-notch. 

 

Shot at 4K resolution, there is no mention of the resolution of the digital intermediate, but image quality is almost consistently terrific throughout. I found a few scenes where focus was a bit off and black levels seemed a bit elevated, not quite achieving true black. And there is one scene when they are having a night out on the town in the West End of London that appears to use some older footage that is pretty glaring in its feel compared to the rest of the film.

For the most part, The Courier has clean, sharp images, especially in closeups. We can really see the thick wools, fabrics, and patterns in the suits worn by the British and Russian characters and can clearly see all of the lines and pores in actors’ faces and single strands of hair, or individual beads of sweat that break out across Wynne’s forehead.

 

I thought some of the best-looking images were during the exterior scenes filmed  in England and Prague (which doubled for the USSR). With lots of natural light, you could see the fine detail in the architecture and brick work, or the stones in the streets. A shot at a golf course shows individual blades of grass on the putting green and all of the fine dimples on the era-appropriate Dunlop 65 golf ball.

 

There are quite a few scenes where actors are filmed sitting in front of a bright window or light, and HDR helps to deliver lots of pop here while still retaining some nice shadow detail. We also get some added pop to the bright white colors on starched English collars.

 

Sonically, this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack mainly concerns itself with delivering clear, intelligible dialogue, and it does that well. Some scenes

The Courier (2020)

benefit from subtle atmospheric sounds, such as the buzz of lighting in a subway station, birds chirping all around in an outdoor camping scene, kids playing and moving about at a playground, or the roar of a U2’s engines as it flies overhead. It also gives the soundtrack some nice space across the front channels. There aren’t a lot of dynamic audio moments—save that single gunshot—so this certainly won’t be a soundtrack you’ll use to demo your sound system.

 

For me, The Courier represents the perfect use of a high-quality Kaleidescape rental option. It was a film both my wife and I really wanted to see but not one we’re likely to want to return to over and over, so being given the option to download and enjoy it in the highest quality without requiring a purchase was a great solution. For those looking for a spy film that is more about tension than thrills, The Courier offers a fascinating look into the lives of people who helped change history for the better. 

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: Nomadland

Nomadland (2020)

As part of the site’s effort to review all of the major film’s nominated for Academy Awards, I ended up watching Nomadlandnominated for Best Motion Picture, Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, and Cinematography, after already nabbing the Golden Globe for Motion Picture and Director—last night. This viewing came immediately on the heels of watching the recently released fully restored version of The Ten Commandments, and since these two films couldn’t be more disparate, this made for an interesting juxtaposition. 

 

Whereas Commandments was an epic, nearly four-hour saga on sweeping scale involving the lives of an entire nation of people with literally thousands on screen at certain moments, Nomadland is a quiet, introspective film that focuses almost 

entirely on the life of a single person, Fern (Frances McDormand), with just brief glimpses into the lives of others around her she happens to cross paths with. But between the two movies, Nomadland is the one I find my mind returning to.

 

The film opens with all the exposition you need to know via a title card that reads:

 

On January 31, 2011, due to a reduced demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada, after 88 years. By July, the Empire zip code, 89405, was discontinued.

 

Following the loss of her job, and basically the end of her town—which used to be large enough to have a golf course and airport, we learn—Fern decides to get rid of most of her belongings, move into a van, and travel the country alone looking for work. As she travels, she meets a variety of people who offer bits of help, advice, and wisdom as she

NOMADLAND AT A GLANCE

This Oscar-nominated tale of a solitary wanderer starts out feeling predictable and depressing but turns out to be an affirmative and compelling experience.

 

PICTURE
The cinematography beautifully captures the wide, sweeping vistas, with deep shadows and contrast as you look out into colorful sunrises and sunsets.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix is surprisingly immersive, with nearly constant small atmospheric sounds that put you into each moment.

moves from one seasonal job to the next, slowly working her way around the center of the country and then west.

 

As Bob Wellsreal-life nomadic van dweller and founder of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous—says, the tyranny of the dollar has turned us all into workhorses, and now that these workhorses are being sent out to pasture, they are banding together to take care of and help each other. 

 

As best I can tell, there is only one other “actor” in the film, David Strathairn, who plays David, a man Fern encounters at one of her Nomad RV destinations, and then crosses paths with again down the road. The rest of the characters are all just “regular” people, many of them actual nomads playing themselves. Spend a moment letting the end credits roll and you’ll see that every character (save Fern) uses their actual name. 

 

I think this is part of what lends the film its authenticity, and helps McDormand to tap into delivering such a real performance. She is playing off the real thoughts and feelings of others, and finding an authentic character. I’m not often taken with the subtleties of the actor’s craft, but there were moments here where I was struck by how powerful and rich McDormand’s performance was. There are a couple of pivotal moments where the anguish and expression on her face help you tap into the anguish of the moment, letting you really feel and empathize with her plight. In another scene, you can see the subtle change in her expression that conveys a realization that dawns on her. 

 

When I’m working on film reviews, I keep a notebook in my lap where I’ll jot down notes. Typically, they are things about audio or video quality I want to remember to mention, but with Nomadland I found myself writing down how the movie was making me feel and think—that’s a pretty powerful difference, and I think what makes this film so interesting.

 

Some of my observations include: “You can have almost nothing but still have pride and take care of the things you do have,” “Choosing how to live and die on your own terms,” “Journey of self-discovery and exploring and enjoying the simple pleasures of what is around you,”“Making the most of every situation,” “Developing friendships where you can find them and learning to rely on the kindness of strangers,” and “Just because you are down, doesn’t mean you are out.”

 

I also had a real change of heart towards Fern as I witnessed her journey. Early on, I wrote that she was “living a depressing, solitary existence staying in her van; living, sleeping, eating and spending days working thankless job at Amazon.” But by the film’s end, I changed that view, writing “Fern is a strong, capable, brave, and durable survivor of a woman.” 

 

Director Chloé Zhao—who also wrote the screenplay based on Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century—chooses to keep the camera in close and tight when characters are on screen, making you focus on them and to really see the emotion in their faces and expressions. 

 

Having made the cross-country drive four times myself, you truly see just how wide and vast this nation is, and what seems so small in our digitally, always-connected world is really huge when you have to travel each and every mile of it, and we experience some of this in Fern’s journey. The cinematography does a beautiful job of capturing the wide, sweeping vistas of open plains and ranges, with deep shadows and contrast as we look out into colorful sunrises and sunsets. 

At first, I just thought Fern had wanderlust, and maybe that is a part of it, but at the end of the film—a time period that is a little more than a year—she goes back to one of the small towns to return to her seasonal position at an Amazon fulfillment center. I feel it is more just a need to stay on the move and not be trapped in one place and to be able to come and go on your terms.

 

Shot in 3.2K resolution, the digital intermediate is taken from a 2K source, but I never felt at a loss for clarity or resolution. Images are beautifully clean and sharp throughout with tight focus. Closeups reveal tons of detail, whether the lines and creases in characters’ faces, or individual whiskers and strands of hair, or texture in rocks.

 

Image contrast, depth, and realism is also enhanced by HDR. Several scenes are filmed around campfires, and these have a rich, glowing golden-red light along with deep, rich shadows. This also helps lend more realism to the frequent vistas as Fern looks off to the horizon.

 

I wasn’t expecting a lot in the way of surround sound with Nomadland but I was surprised how immersive the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix was. There 

Nomadland (2020)

are near-constant small atmospheric sounds that put you into each moment. Whether it is the creak and groan of springs and metal inside the cramped environs of Fern’s van, or the sound of traffic, people milling about, or dogs barking off in the distance, or the rush of wind outside, the audio mix does a really nice job of drawing you into each moment. While it is mostly pretty subtle, this background audio gets pretty dynamic as Fern steps onto the floor of the Amazon distribution center, giving you a feel for the noise and bustle of that job. The audio also does a nice job of conveying Ludovico Einaudi’s mournful-sounding piano soundtrack.

 

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy or be as affected by Nomadland as much as I was. I can see this a film that you return to on occasion when you’re searching for something in your life, or maybe just wanting a glimpse into the freedom of other possibilities. Whether or not this will take home the Oscar for Best Picture, I can’t say, but in a year of questionable box-office releases, Nomadland is definitely a high point and worthy of your attention. 

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: The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (1956)

When you talk about classic films that have served as the basis for modern movies being able to stand on the shoulders of giants, you’d have to include Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. With a budget of $13 million, it was the most expensive film of its day, and its success likely went on to lead studios to greenlight other epic films like Ben Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Lawrence of Arabia, which certainly paved the way for bigger and bigger films down to our day. 

 

As I’ve mentioned in prior reviews, as much as I’m a film lover, I have some gaping holes in the list of classic films I’ve seen. After checking off Spartacus and My Fair Lady I was happy to add Commandments to my list, especially when the new 4K 

HDR version released for the film’s 65th anniversary arrived at Kaleidescape.

 

With a run time of 3 hours and 51 minutes, Commandments is a whopping 127.1 Gigabyte download, meaning there is a significant amount of information here that couldn’t fit onto a single 100 GB 4K Blu-ray disc. For those looking to see this movie in its finest quality, the Kaleidescape version is the way to go.

 

According to Paramount Home Entertainment’s press release:

 

As part of the restoration done in 2010, the film was scanned in 6K and those files were the basis for this brand-new Dolby Vision version, which shows off the full beauty of the original VistaVision negative. The VistaVision format used special cameras to feed 35mm film into the camera horizontally in order to capture a wider image spread over two 35mm film

COMMANDMENTS AT A GLANCE

This 4K HDR presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic gives a great sense of what it must have been like to see an “event” film in the age of the movie palaces.

 

PICTURE
Colors are rich and vibrant throughout, and there’s a surprising amount of detail in the images, although the seams sometimes show in the Academy Award-winning effects work.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio mix is mainly spread across the front three channels, resulting in clear presentation of the dialogue.

frames, giving VistaVision twice the resolution of regular 35mm film. In addition, Paramount spent well over 150 hours doing new color work and cleanup on the scan. The move to Dolby Vision created the opportunity to further improve the look of the film: blacks are enhanced and improvements were made to smooth out special effects mattes to create the most vibrant and pristine image possible. The 4K film presentation contains an introduction by DeMille, an intermission, an overture/exit music card, and an entr’acte card, along with a DTS-HD 5.1 lossless soundtrack.

 

Viewing these epics certainly gives you a glimpse into the spectacle that was not only filmmaking but film-going in that earlier era of cinema. At nearly four hours, this would have been an evening event that played at a classic movie palace like Radio City Music Hall, possibly with a live orchestra performing before the movie, and it’s easy to imagine crowds of well-dressed filmgoers out for a night on the town working their way down aisles and into the auditorium to find their seats while the overture that precedes the film plays. As the music stops, the screen fills with images of curtains opening to reveal director DeMille introducing the movie and explaining the lengths they went to to ensure its accuracy and how they relied on historians to fill in the missing 30 years of Moses’ life not chronicled in the Bible. In fact, it’s not until 8:30 into the run time that all of the credits and opening pomp have concluded and the film actually starts.

 

Of course, with a film of this length, audiences would get restless, so there is an intermission—more accurately an entr’acte—where they could file out to the lobby, use the restroom, grab some concessions, and discuss the film’s exciting first half. 

Following the conclusion, the house lights would raise and the audience would slowly shuffle out as the film’s score played and an “Exit Music” card filled the screen.

 

I’ve been to many opening nights of major films, but they no longer carry this kind of gravitas and event feel, a bit how I imagine air or train travel would have been like in the early days.

 

This first half of the film (up to the entr’acte at 2 hours 16 minutes) concerns itself with the biblical account of Moses found in Exodus Chapters 2-3, where Moses (Charlton 

Heston) is found as a baby floating in a basket on the Nile River and raised by Bithiah (Nina Foch), a daughter of Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke). Sethi’s son, Rameses (Yul Brynner) is jealous of Moses’ success and attention and rivalry for the throne, and after Moses kills an Egyptian, master builder Baka (Vincent Price), Rameses banishes Moses from the land, where he is forced to wander in the wilderness. There he discovers Jethro (Eduard Franz) and marries his daughter Zipporah (changed to Sephora in the film, Yvonne De Carlo), and ultimately receives his assignment from God (in the form of a burning bush) to release his people from Egypt’s bondage. The second part of the film focuses on Exodus 5-14, with the ten plagues delivered against Egypt, and Pharaoh Rameses ultimately freeing the slaves from bondage and letting them leave Egypt, only to change his mind and then confront Moses at the Red Sea; and then accounts from Exodus 20 and 32 where God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses while the people craft a Golden Calf to worship after Moses has spent so long on top of Mount Sinai.

 

Despite DeMille’s opening comments, there is some liberal interpretation of the events actually recorded in the Bible, with characters added, storylines extrapolated, and timelines moved around. A more accurate telling of Moses’ story can actually be found in DreamWork’s excellent 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt. I was also surprised the film chose to gloss over and just mention seven of the ten plagues, arguably some of the most exciting parts of the Exodus account. We also get the classic “Old Hollywood” oddness of casting young people to play older characters, with the woman playing Moses’ adoptive Mother, Foch, actually being a year younger than Heston. 

 

Accuracy aside, this is a sweeping tale that is a visual spectacle, especially the grand outdoor scenes filmed on location in Egypt, Mount Sinai, and the Sinai Peninsula. Where Spartacus was known for hiring a cast of thousands to portray the Roman armies, I never really felt like I was seeing that immense scale of people up on screen. Here, however, in the scenes where the Israelites are working as slaves building monuments and then when leaving Egypt, the screen is literally filled with people and animals, giving it a massive scope and scale. The sheer enormity of the production and logistics of filming these scenes is incredibly impressive, especially when you understand that every person and animal on screen is real—something that would surely be created far less expensively in CGI today. The results of the restoration process are certainly impressive, with clean, sharp-edged images and tons of detail throughout. Excessive grain has certainly been cleaned away, but without giving the film an unnatural look. 

 

Closeups reveal the intricacy and ornate designs of Egyptian necklaces and jewelry and carvings, or the texture of fabric and cloth worn by Pharaoh, and the pebbling and wear in stone blocks or monuments. Even long-range shots—such as one of a mass group of slaves harvesting straw to make into bricks—have great depth and focus.

 

Colors are also rich and vibrant throughout, such as when Moses returns from Ethiopia with tribal people in bright-colored dress, or the many golden elements throughout Egypt, or the sparkles and shimmer found in drapes, Pharaoh’s headdress, and other costumes. Shadow detail is good throughout, including interior scenes lit by torches producing nice golden hues and rich shadows. 

 

Interestingly, there were two moments when the color “green” is specifically mentioned where the objects are not green. One is when an Ethiopian princess says she wants to give Moses “this green stone from our mountains” and the stone is blue 

looking, and another scene where they are told to raise a green pennant and the pennants are more a teal/light-blue color. Whether this was due to missing elements or just the difficulties of working with the Technicolor film negative I can’t say.

 

I also never noticed any of the excessive soft focus (Vaseline on the lens) that seemed to plague every scene showing Varinia (Jean Simmons) in Spartacus. Image quality throughout Ten Commandments was consistently terrific, less a couple of scenes (such as one of Moses wandering in the desert and another where he goes to the burning bush) that looked far more aged/less restored than others, perhaps due to damage to the original negative.

 

Of course, one can’t expect perfection from a 65-year-old film, and there are bits where Commandments shows its age. Process shots filmed using either matte paintings or rear projection are noticeably softer and grainier, making them stand out even more. There are significantly visible black edges around objects in the foreground of composite shots. Also, some of the scenes—for example the women bathing before Moses is discovered—look like they are shot on a set.

 

While certainly dated by today’s standards, the Academy Award-winning effects 

The Ten Commandments (1956)

in the film—Moses’ staff turning into a serpent, Death coming into the Egyptians’ homes, and especially the parting of the Red Sea—still hold up remarkably well, and I can only imagine how impressive they would have been for their time.

 

Sonically, even though the film has a new 5.1-channel DTS-HD soundtrack, it is mostly a three-channel affair across the front speakers. Dialogue remains clear and easy to understand, anchored in the center channel, with the orchestration given some room and width across the front left/right speakers, as well as some of the crowd and army noises. If anything was mixed into the surround speakers, it certainly didn’t overly call attention to itself.

 

With the advent of CGI, it’s likely we will never have a modern film of the scope and scale of The Ten Commandments. Ranked as one of the AFI’s Top 10 epic films of all time, and nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), The Ten Commandments is certainly a film worthy of your home theater. There’s also no doubt it has ever looked better than what we have here, and while its runtime is a bit daunting, the intermission provides a natural breaking point, making it easy to split over two evenings, giving you a wonderful trip back into classic Hollywood. 

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: Gattaca

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

On the surface, Gattaca might seem a bit of an odd choice for Sony to select from its catalog to give a new 4K HDR restoration and transfer. Released in 1997—meaning it missed the 20th anniversary and is a bit early for the 25th—with a reported budget of $36 million, the film only brought in $12.5 million at the box office. Even with relatively high Rotten Tomatoes critics (83%) and audience (87%) scores, and sitting at No. 22 on IMDB’s list of the top sci-fi movies of all time, the film never really gained much traction and likely wasn’t on anyone’s list of titles that needed a 4K release. However, the themes of institutional discrimination—based on genetics here rather than race—make it pretty timely for viewing, and much 

of the science in this set in the “not-too-distant future” seems pretty much within grasp of our modern technology.

 

I generally like a dose of action with my sci-fi, but that’s not the deal here. In fact, for a sci-fi film, Gattaca has almost no action or even special effects. Instead, it relies on the strength of its premise, and succeeds by just telling an interesting, compelling, and believable story performed by a superb cast. It also has a pretty compressed timeline, with the principal action taking place over a span of just a few days (with some flashbacks to fill in story points), which keeps it moving along.

 

With eugenics being the principal driver of the film’s theme and plot, the title “Gattaca” comes from the letters used to label the nucleotide bases of DNA, being adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. In this future, all humans are genetically-typed at birth, and any inherent flaws, like a propensity for bi-polar disorder, heart conditions, and even

GATTACA AT A GLANCE

This 1997 sci-fi tale of genetic discrimination still holds up and looks great in this 4K HDR restoration.

 

PICTURE
The UHD transfer delivers loads of detail without having the grain scrubbed to rob the movie of its original film look.

 

SOUND     

The new Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack focuses most of its attention on delivering clear dialogue but also uses the additional channels to expand the mix and make it more immersive.

a predicted lifespan, are cataloged. This information, which is stored in a national registry, follows you through life, determining what you are eligible to do. Those with any issues are considered “Invalid” and relegated to performing menial jobs, essentially locked out from being able to succeed.

 

To ensure children have the best options in life, genetic engineers can help with designer DNA—for a price. With these modifications, they can not only eliminate any flaws or defects to make sure children are “Valid,” they can also give them additional skills and traits to excel, and even a lengthened lifespan. But, the better the modifications, the higher the cost. DNA is the commodity in this world, and everything from dating to job interviews is based on a quick scan of one’s genetic material. 

 

Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is a natural-born child with no genetic modifications, but his genetic profile contains numerous flaws, including a 99% chance of a heart defect and an estimated lifespan of just 30.2 years. Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), on the other hand, was dealt a near-perfect genetic hand and his profile will open any door. Unfortunately, a car accident leaves him paralyzed. With help from a black-market matchmaker—and some body modifications—Vincent becomes a “borrowed ladder” and assumes Jerome’s identity. This creates a symbiotic relationship where Vincent is able to pursue his dream job due to the doors Jerome’s DNA can open—“You could go anywhere with this guy’s helix under your arm”—and Vincent uses his income to support Jerome in the lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. And with the interview consisting of just a single urine sample of Jerome’s “pure” DNA, Vincent lands the job at Gattaca Aerospace, where he is on track to serve as engineer on an upcoming rocket to the Saturn moon Titan—a launch window lasting just seven days that opens once every 70 years. 

 

Vincent and Jerome go to great lengths and are fanatical about keeping Vincent’s DNA and true identity hidden. Things are going great with Vincent excelling at his position at Gattaca, but just days before the scheduled launch, a director there is murdered inside the labs and the feds are called in to investigate—a process that involves vacuuming up all genetic materials there and DNA testing all employees. When a stray eyelash identifies that an Invalid—Vincent—was inside Gattaca, he becomes the prime suspect, and Detectives Hugo (Alan Arkin) and Anton (Loren Den) doggedly pursue him. During this, Vincent falls for co-worker Irene (Uma Thurman), who becomes a further piece he needs to juggle and keep his truth hidden from. 

 

As the countdown to launch looms, and with the Feds closing in with random and more invasive genetic testing, will Vincent be caught or will he go to space? 

 

Gattaca has a very cool and stylish look, feeling a bit noirish. Although set in the future, the vehicles, the architecture and interiors, and even technology like watch phones and DNA readers, have a retro look. The film doesn’t concern itself with trying to be too futuristic—there are no holograms, hover vehicles, or robots, which makes it easy to buy into.

 

Originally filmed on 35mm stock, this version is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Images are clean throughout, with just a bit of grain and noise in some scenes, like light-blue skies or some blown-out whites, and edges are nice and sharp as well.

 

While the movie doesn’t have the tack-sharp look of modern digitally shot movies, it delivers loads of detail without having the grain scrubbed to rob it of its original film look. Closeups show the pinpoint detail and stitching in clothing, or pores and whiskers on actor’s faces, less Uma Thurman, whose face looks smooth and flawless. Only one scene really jumped out—at 1:25:30, near the end of the movie, where Vincent and Irene are talking after his true identity is revealed—where the grain 

was so cleaned away that images were startlingly modern-looking.

 

Color is also used throughout to give Gattaca its look. We have futuristic cool blues, metallics, greys, and blacks in some scenes and rich golden hues in others, especially when Vincent is looking back on his past. The HDR grade does a nice job here of delivering these colors as well as deep, clean blacks along with nice shades and rich shadow detail, and with bright highlights and punchy greens from computer monitors and screens.

 

Gattaca also received a new Dolby TrueHD Atmos sound mix, and while most of the attention is focused on delivering clear dialogue, they also used the additional channels to expand the mix and make it more immersive. During the opening scenes, we see bits of fingernails and snips of hair falling on screen in slow motion, and these land and bounce with heavy bass thunks, and we get the delicate sounds of each hair landing and being placed exactly in space in the front of the room. The listening room also fills with little atmospherics to establish a scene, like hums inside a building, wind blowing, or machinery noise.

 

The height channels are used to expand the soundtrack by playing the reverb and echo from PA announcements in the Gattaca offices, or lifting music from a jazz 

Gattaca (1997)

club or piano concerto up for a fuller presentation. The frequent rocket launches—viewed off in the distance by Vincent—also flare up into the ceiling and deliver some nice low end from your subwoofer. Another scene has Vincent crossing a very busy freeway, and the roar of traffic fills the room with the rush of cars coming from everywhere. Occasionally, this echoing and reverb of voices seems a bit overdone, such as when characters are talking inside the Gattaca offices, but it never lasts long enough to be too distracting.

 

Gattaca might be the perfect sci-fi film for people who aren’t really too into sci-fi. While it develops slowly and is light on action, the plot is intriguing, the acting is top-notch, and the visuals are compelling. And at just 106 minutes, it is long enough to develop its story and characters, but not too long to wear out its welcome. Also, the idea of wanting the opportunity to achieve your hopes and dreams regardless of the preconceptions others place on you—or your DNA—certainly makes Vincent a relatable character.  

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: Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas and the Black Messiah

As different as they are, it’s hard not to make comparisons between Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. The two films overlap in time, and they both employ Fred Hampton as a character—the former in a bit part, the latter as its protagonist—and have some tangential overlap in terms of the other players involved. 

 

But while Sorkin’s film is a whitewashed work of puerile fantasy masquerading as dramatization that takes a bunch of radicals and employs them as distorted pawns in a piece of propaganda designed to glorify the safe, center-right establishment, Black Messiah is an almost entirely honest portrait of a human being who also just so happened to be a revolutionary. It may be 

one of the most honest biopics I’ve ever seen.

 

That’s not to say it’s perfect. It does exhibit a few of the problems inherent in compressing a year in the life of a real person into a two-hour narrative. But let’s set the quibbles aside for a moment and dig into what makes Black Messiah so great, despite its flaws.

 

The first thing is its acting. Almost across the board, the performances are captivating. The dialogue in particular is delivered with such authenticity that you almost have to wonder how much of it was improvised. People often misspeak and correct themselves, or stammer and repeat themselves, but almost none of it feels scripted or rehearsed.

 

This is all the more impressive when you consider that so much of what comes out of the Fred Hampton character’s mouth exactly mirrors speech uttered by the real Hampton. Daniel Kaluuya absolutely inhabits the role, and if you have

JUDAS AT A GLANCE

The story of Black Panther Fred Hampton and the people around him features consistently strong acting while avoiding most of the biopic clichés.

 

PICTURE
A study in rich, earthy hues, this is a surprisingly gorgeous film that doesn’t try to ape the look of its era.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix gives the music, which runs the gamut from sparse and groovy to intentionally chaotic and discordant, room to breathe, although the improvisational approach to the acting make dialogue sometimes hard to make out.

any doubts about how well he’s captured Hampton’s mannerisms, speech patterns, gift for rhetoric, and undeniable charisma, you only need to watch a few minutes of the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton.

 

In any other film, a performance like this would be a standout, but Kaluuya’s naturalism and believability is the rule rather than the exception. Equally compelling is Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson. I can’t say how accurate her portrayal is since Johnson (who now goes by Akua Njeri) is an incredibly private person. Accurate or not, though, Fishback does more with a downturned look or a furrowed brow than most actors could convey in a soliloquy. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her because her essential humanity simply radiates off the screen.

 

LaKeith Stanfield is also fantastic as William O’Neal, the car-thief-turned-FBI-informant who acted as both agent provocateur within the Illinois Black Panther Party and also one of the key catalysts in Hampton’s assassination. Stanfield has perhaps

the most difficult job in the film, in that he has to portray internal conflict and nervous insincerity without Mickey Mousing it, and he does so almost flawlessly.

 

Also wonderful is Jesse Plemons as Roy Mitchell, the FBI agent who recruited O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and get close to Hampton. It would have been really easy to play Mitchell as a villain, but as with Fishback, Plemons brings a 

lot of nuance to the part, mostly through his facial expressions. I’ve frankly rarely seen so much acting done with so few words.

 

Even the tertiary players turn in such authentic performances that at times you forget you’re watching a dramatization. The only less-than-stellar performance is by Martin Sheen, who shares the role of J. Edgar Hoover with ten pounds of prosthetics. He simply isn’t a good enough actor to do the part justice, and instead comes off like Martin Sheen wearing a good Halloween costume. If anything, he makes Hoover into an almost comedic mustache-twirler, which downplays the man’s true maliciousness.

 

As much credit as the rest of the cast deserves, some praise also needs to be aimed in the direction of screenwriter Will Berson and King himself, who shares screenplay credit. Whichever of the two wrote the lion’s share of the dialogue needs to be employed on any films set in this era, because no matter how good your actors are, it must be near impossible to write characters that deliver lines like “Right on!” and “Dig!” without devolving into parody. And there’s a lot of that sort of talk in the film—rightly so. But as with the acting, the language here simply rings true, except in those cases where its intentional inauthenticity is essential to the plot. 

 

There’s a fine line to walk when compressing a year in the life of a real person into a two-hour dramatization, and Berson and King also deserve a lot of credit for mostly making the right choices. On the one hand, you have to pick between honesty and clarity. In almost every instance, the screenwriters err on the side of honesty, which means that some narrative threads can be a little tough to track at times, and do require you to keep a lot of data in RAM. When dealing with a film like this, I’ll take “a little too messy” over “a little too neat” any day of the week. The only time it ventures into too-neat territory is with its “thirty shekels of silver” scene near the end. I understand its metaphorical necessity, but the details of the scene are a bit of a white lie.

 

There’s also a choice to be made with a film like this between fact and truth. In almost every instance, the script errs on the side of truth. That means that sometimes similar events are amalgamated to avoid narrative redundancy. Some people are combined or, puzzlingly, renamed. But by and large, Black Messiah is more interested in providing a truthful portrayal of who Hampton was than getting every minor historical detail perfectly correct, since those details would only make sense in the context of a narrative that would span weeks or months, not mere hours. 

 

Judas and the Black Messiah is a surprisingly gorgeous film, though perhaps not for the usual reasons. Shot on a variety of Arri lenses in the ArriRaw format at 4.5K resolution and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, it is a study in rich, earthy hues. Its environs are dingy, its characters rarely well-dressed, and there’s a paucity of light that gives the picture a stark look at times. It’s a contrasty affair overall, and I dig the fact that cinematographer Sean Bobbitt didn’t attempt to film-look the footage. In short, Black Messiah doesn’t look like it was shot in 1969, because that would be redundant. The art design of the film establishes the setting; the processing of the imagery doesn’t need to.

 

What I like best is that there’s nearly nothing arbitrary about about the look of the film. The camera moves when it needs to move. Scenes are framed the way they need to be framed. There’s one gorgeous shot in which we stay tightly focused on O’Neal as he calls his FBI handler on a payphone. When he hangs up, the camera pulls back to take in his desolate surroundings. But it’s not a gratuitous composition. After his call, O’Neal is smaller, engulfed in a larger landscape, to spotlight the fact that he feels small, helpless, overwhelmed. It’s a subtle choice, indicative of the sort of decisions Bobbitt makes with the camera. After that scene, I stopped scrutinizing the cinematography because there’s such a wonderfully subliminal and effortless mastery to the composition of each shot that, by analyzing it, I found that I wasn’t letting it do its job. 

 

The high dynamic range is used primarily to give the imagery some expanded wiggle room at the lower end of the value scale. It’s a study in the subtle contrasts between inky blacks and nearly inky blacks. Kaluuya in particular has a very dark complexion, and in some scenes his features and facial expressions would have been lost in the shadows if not for HDR.

 

Thankfully, Kaleidescape’s UHD/HDR10 presentation preserves everything wonderful about its look, as well as its sound. You wouldn’t think this sort of film would benefit from a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, but it does. Interestingly, most of the ambient overhead effects are reserved for the score, which is a delightfully eclectic blend of jazz and funk with—at times—hints of Stravinsky and Holst peppered in for good measure. The music runs the gamut from sparse and groovy to intentionally chaotic and discordant, and the Atmos mix gives it room to breathe, to ebb and flow in interesting ways you might not even

consciously notice.

 

If there’s any criticism to be leveled at the sound mix, it’s again an issue that probably couldn’t have been avoided. Given the natural rhythms of the dialogue, the spontaneous inflections and in-the-moment verisimilitude of it all, recording ADR for Black Messiah would have robbed it of much of its authentic energy. As such, the dialogue seems to have mostly been captured on-set, and at times it can be a little hard to parse. This movie is best experienced on a system with a lot of dynamic-range capacity and a hell of a good center speaker.

 

This is definitely a film you want to watch if you want to understand Fred Hampton—not as a mythical being, as the title would suggest, but as a man, community leader, reformer, and father-to-be. Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t really interested in whether or not you like Fred Hampton or the Black Panthers. It doesn’t ask you to laud or loathe them. It’s just interested in showing you who they were, what they were about, and why they were such a threat to the institutional powers of the day. And it does so in the least heavy-handed way possible.

 

It’s hard to watch this film and not come away understanding that the most 

Judas and the Black Messiah

dangerous thing Hampton ever did was uniting the white southerners of the Young Patriots Organization and the Puerto Ricans of the Young Lords with the Black Panther Party to form the Rainbow Coalition. But King doesn’t force that realization on you. Nearly any other filmmaker would have done so, especially given how important this plot point is to the film’s overall thrust. It’s the key detail that turns Hampton’s story from one of racial struggle to one of class struggle, and most storytellers would have browbeat the viewer to drive this home. That King draws the dots but resists the urge to connect them speaks to his confidence not only in the intelligence of his audience, but also in his abilities as a filmmaker.

 

Judas and the Black Messiah may not be perfect, but it’s definitely one of the most (actually, one of the very few) important films I’ve seen in recent years. And if you missed its free-to-view run on HBO Max, you owe it to yourself to rent it as soon as possible. 

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: The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is one of the best films of the 1970s—maybe the best—and one of the most influential. That last part is ironic, in a way Altman would have appreciated, because there’s no way it can be in any legitimate sense true. Altman and Kubrick created films that came from such an intricate and hermetic personal aesthetic that it’s impossible to build upon them without having the effort result in tone-deaf travesty. That doesn’t mean legions haven’t tried, but all have failed.

 

I asked Altman once what he thought of the fact that The Long Goodbye closed almost as soon as it opened but has become possibly his best-known work. He deflected, with a purpose, saying that his Philip Marlowe fell asleep in the early ‘50s—the 

era of Chandler’s source novel—only to wake up in the early ‘70s, finding that his sense of chivalry was no longer in fashion and could only lead to disaster. Altman’s Marlowe would quickly become suicidal if he found himself transported to our sociopathic present.

 

The Long Goodbye both is and isn’t a detective movie; is an unforgiving evisceration of Chandler’s work and a very heartfelt tribute. It’s so cynical it verges on nihilism while it openly tries to figure out which values, if any, still have meaning. And because it lives both in and outside genre, it gets to feed from both worlds, very much like early Godard. There are very few films that feel this much like a movie.

 

Altman, of course, makes none of it easy, constantly toying with the audience like a sly, somewhat sadistic, cat. He and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond did everything they could to make the film gritty, flashing the footage, flattening 

GOODBYE AT A GLANCE

Robert Altman uses Philip Marlowe to take aim at post-Counterculture LA in what might be the best film of the ’70s.

 

PICTURE
The wall-to-wall grittiness of the film’s subversive beauty 
is retained in this Blu-ray-quality HD download.

 

SOUND     

The stereo mix does just fine with Altman’s layered dialogue and John Williams’ laughably good score—this movie doesn’t need surround.

the palette, pumping up the grain. The result eschews superficial prettiness, which tends to be fleeting, to tap into something much more sublime.

 

This is John Williams’ best score (no, I’m not being facetious) exactly because it’s so awful. Williams isn’t known for having a sense of humor so I have to wonder if he didn’t just write a bunch of straight cues, not fully aware of how Altman was planning to deploy them.

 

And then there’s Elliot Gould’s almost non-existent range as an actor, which Altman turns to the film’s advantage by making his Marlowe continually spout lame, often improvised, wisecracks. Altman has everything around Gould do the acting for him, which results in Marlowe coming across as a smug but ultimately lost figure.

 

To add irony to all the other irony, The Long Goodbye probably holds up as well as it does both because it’s Altman’s most genre-driven movie, and because enough of what’s best of Chandler’s work manages to survive the merciless beating it receives here to permeate the film and give it a resonance unique to Altman’s canon.

 

And if all of that is just a little too high-brow for you, watch this movie just to revel in the secondary casting. Sterling Hayden is still astonishing as the washed-up writer on a fatal binge. Just as nobody seeing him as Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle could have anticipated his performance as General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, nobody seeing those two earlier films could have ever seen his Roger Wade coming. And yet there’s something at Hayden’s core that creates a through-line that joins those characters in a way that goes well beyond their having been played by the same performer. 

And nobody seeing Henry Gibson on The Dick Van Dyke Show or Laugh-In could have anticipated his Dr. Veringer in a million years. Gibson and Altman conspired to pull off a tremendous practical joke that’s simultaneously, when seen from just the right angle, chilling. It’s that he’s the least likely villain ever that makes him so apt.

 

As for the presentation: How do you judge the image quality of a film that went out of its way to not look very good? To reference my earlier thought, there’s that beauty that comes from aping the styles of the present, which rarely ages well, and then there’s the beauty that comes from staying true to the demands of the material, even if it takes you to deeply unpleasant places. The Long Goodbye is gorgeous exactly because it’s lurid, and because it’s as lurid in the heart of the Malibu Colony as it is in a decrepit city jail. While there’s plenty of Southern California sunshine in evidence, it’s always accurately shown as monotonous or piercing, never pleasant.

 

This Blu-ray-quality HD download does a pretty good job of honoring what Altman and Zsigmond wrought, and you can’t help but recoil in horror at the thought of some culturally myopic tech team scrubbing it free of grain and trying to expand 

The Long Goodbye (1973)

its dynamic range. Still, matching the movie’s original resolution would likely yield huge improvements, and a deft touch with an appreciation for grunge could conjure up something amazing.

 

In a similar vein, should an upgrade someday come, someone should post a sign reading “Hands Off the Soundtrack” on the mixing-room door. This film would not benefit from a surround mix—stereo suits it just fine.

 

The Long Goodbye is the kind of art that appears when you just don’t care at all but can’t help but care a lot. It feeds from a wellspring of paradox and, while it wraps things up, it never really resolves a thing. There are no reliable guideposts. Nothing triumphs; nothing is vanquished. That constant troubling creates an energy that keeps Altman’s film vital and relevant, and impossible to dismiss as simply smart-ass. The result is nothing but a mess, but a strangely elegant one that somehow still rings very true. 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe 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: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

I was nine when the Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in 1979. I was never really a fan of the Star Trek TV series, but I was excited to see that movie as I was all hyped up on space and alien movies following Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the trailers looked like it would be an exciting film with good effects—really all a nine-year-old could hope for. 

 

The reality was, that film was so boring, I haven’t felt any need to ever see it again. Even 40-plus-years later I can recall going to sleep, waking up, and then going back to sleep again, just waiting for it to end. I’m sure my memory has clouded the reality of it, but I recall it being filled with agonizingly slow closeup pans of the Enterprise that felt like they lasted 30 minutes, as the

camera just moved all around the ship over and over. It was like the filmmakers were just so proud of this ship they had created, they wanted everyone to appreciate each and every inch of it.

 

Had this dud of a film been the first Star Trek movie today, it likely would have killed the franchise, with studios far less likely to throw hundreds of millions of dollars into a second chance.

 

Fortunately, three years later under a different director we got what is widely considered the best film in the original series: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Even so, Paramount strongly hedged its bet, giving Khan roughly 25% the budget of The Motion Picture.) We got a great villain, action, an easy-to-understand plot, and a massive shock of an ending that also set up the next film. This was the Star Trek critics and fans alike wanted, nabbing

KHAN AT A GLANCE

Probably the best film in the Star Trek franchise holds up surprisingly well in 4K HDR, despite some subpar effects shots and occasional softness.

 

PICTURE
When the shots are sharp, the images are clean with lots of detail. Solid blacks and punchy highlights throughout.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel mix is heavily focused on the front channels and pretty undynamic by modern standards.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ and Audience scores of 87 and 90% that have only been bested by one other film in the franchise, J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot starring Chris Pine at Captain James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto filling the role of Spock.

 

Having recently rewatched the latest trilogy of films (all available in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos audio on both 4K Blu-ray and from Kaleidescape), and with Kaleidescape running a special pricing promotion on all Trek films, I thought it was time to revisit Khan and see how it held up after almost 40 years. And besides being a great film, Khan is also the only movie from both the William Shatner and Patrick Stewart eras that has been given a 4K HDR makeover, making it ready-for-primetime in a modern home theater.

 

The version available from Kaleidescape is a Director’s Cut that includes some three-plus minutes of additional footage. It’s been so long since I watched the film, I can’t tell you what was added back in, or if it has any real impact on the story. 

 

The movie begins with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) administering the famous Kobayashi Maru simulation to Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley) who—as expected—fails badly. Admiral Kirk (Shatner) is now out of active command, depressed and sitting behind a desk at Starfleet. After some Romulan ale and a chat with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Kirk decides to join the Enterprise crew on a routine training mission that, well, turns into not being so routine after another starship—the Reliant—is taken over by the genetically engineered Khan (Ricardo Montalban), who was abandoned by Kirk on a planet to fend for himself 15 years ago. Khan has been plotting his revenge on Kirk for years, and now with the Reliant under his command—as well as possession of a powerful planetary terraforming device called Genesis—he is ready to deliver some revenge . . . a dish best served cold! 

 

For a “fresh” perspective on the movie, I watched with my 14-year-old daughter and her similar-aged friend, neither of whom had ever seen any of the Star Trek movies or TV shows. For them, the movie was a bit slow, taking too long to get to the action. They also found the effects and some of the acting a bit, shall we say, “dated” to put a kind word on it. 

 

While having nowhere near the level of lustful gazing found in The Motion Picture, we are still treated to a few lengthy slow shots as the camera gives us plenty of time to appreciate the Enterprise in all her glory, and Montalban’s enthusiastic performance of Khan is still great, with his impossible-to-ignore physique on display throughout. (Remember, he was 62 when this was released and looks like he just stepped out of the gym following a serious Chest-Day workout.) 

 

Compared to Star Wars—a film that had a similar budget and that debuted five years before—the effects in Khan are noticeably sub-par. (And, admittedly, haven’t benefitted from decades of the ILM effects’ team reworking . . .) Laser blasts and photon torpedoes look like they’ve just been drawn in, some of the ship flying sequences and explosions are clearly models, and one scene is very obviously on a stage with matte paintings. We also don’t get near the stage dressing and attention to detail—just take a look at a lot of the switches and knobs aboard instrument clusters on the Enterprise and it appears they don’t do anything. Of course, some of these are just byproducts of the era—and the difference of what we’ve come to expect from high-quality CGI—that are more noticeable now with 4K’s enhanced resolution and detail. 

 

Filmed in 35mm, the original negative “was in terrible shape” and received a 1080p remastering back in 2009 for the Blu-ray release. There’s no word (I could find) about the sourcing of this 4K HDR version, but my guess is that it is taken from a 2K digital intermediate.

 

The big thing you’ll notice here is how clean the images look. Right from the get-go, the title sequence and blackness of space just look clean and sharp. The shots in space all look especially good, with deep blacks and bright white star points. There is a fair bit of grain in the opening scenes aboard the Enterprise, but that seems to be less noticeable as the film goes on, or maybe I just got used to it. 

 

Another thing that really stood out is a pretty noticeable change in focus and sharpness in some scenes, sometimes even when cutting back and forth to two characters talking. At first, I thought it was maybe vanity defocusing to not show Shatner’s

age (51), but it wasn’t—he’s sharp and clear in some shots, and soft and diffuse in others. This is all the more noticeable because of the generally sharp edges and images throughout most of the film, with some images looking as clean and sharp as a modern production. When focus is sharp, closeups have tons of detail, revealing every line and wrinkle in Kirk’s face, pores in Khan’s chin, or the heavy facial makeup on Spock. You can also really appreciate the rich, thick burgundy felt texture of the uniform jackets worn by the Enterprise crew.

 

There are some bright highlights in the form of some strobing lightning flashes, stars, explosions, and video screens, but where HDR really benefits is in shadow detail and just overall realistic, natural-looking images. Color gamut didn’t look especially expanded, but we get some nicely saturated reds and greens.

 

The 4K HDR download features a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, which differs from the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD audio found on the Blu-ray disc (and Kaleidescape Blu-ray download). This mix is heavily focused on the front three channels, and definitely seems pretty undynamic by modern standards.

 

Audio effects like wind sounds, sirens, alarms, and explosions get a bit of width, as does James Horner’s score. My processor’s Dolby upmixer did its best to 

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

expand the soundstage, with some steam and engine sounds placed overhead; and the Enterprise jumping to warp speed had it streak high up across the ceiling. Fortunately, dialogue is pretty clear throughout.

 

Time has been mostly kind to Wrath of Khan, and it certainly has never looked as it does here. For Trek fans, this is a no-brainer—it’s great to revisit the original crew of the Enterprise on one of their finest voyages. But for those new to the series—and younger viewers—they might be better served jumping into the new films, which are certainly heavier on the action, effects, and sonic bombast. 

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: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

If you’re clicking on a review of an Oscar-nominated documentary like My Octopus Teacher at this point, it’s safe to say you’re here looking for an answer to a pretty simply question: Is it worth watching? I only wish there were a simple answer. My heart says, “Yes.” My brain says, “Still yes, but don the armor of skepticism before you dive in.”

 

This Netflix production tells the story of Craig Foster, a South African director/cinematographer who, in the midst of a midlife crisis of sorts, commits to free-diving in the kelp forests near Cape Town every day to get his head together or whatever. During his dives, he quickly befriends a common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) and becomes obsessed with her life and daily habits.

Your enjoyment of the film will likely largely come down to whether or not you like Foster as a human being, because he not only narrates the film from beginning to end in the form of one continuous monologue but the footage often cuts to him sitting at a table, staring about three inches to the left of the camera, telling his tale Spalding Gray-style.

 

He may be a perfectly fine man. I don’t know him. But he exhibits so many infuriating quirks that I found myself struggling to connect with him. He has an annoying habit shared by all emotionally distant people, in that he often refers to himself in the second person, present tense. So, “I realized” becomes “You realize,” and “I rushed to the surface as fast as I could” becomes “You rush to the surface as fast as you can.”

OCTOPUS AT A GLANCE

Fascinating footage of an octopus in the wild marred by a forced narrative and a lot of self-indulgent, sometimes redundant, narration.

 

PICTURE
Raw, dingy amateur shots interspersed with more professionally done footage—what you would expect in a documentary. 

 

SOUND     

A Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack dominated by narration and the kind of New-Agey score typical for this kind of documentary.

Far too often, when there’s the perfect opportunity to focus on the amazing underwater imagery of the octopus, we instead cut to Foster for absolutely no reason. He also almost never shuts up—except for a few shots where he stares into the camera and gulps pensively to let us know that it’s time to have an emotion. Shots that absolutely speak for themselves are narrated like a bad audio commentary from the early days of Laserdisc and DVD, when directors hadn’t figured out yet that they can occasionally stop talking if they don’t have anything interesting to say.

 

But—this needs to be said—those are pet peeves of mine and don’t speak to the quality of My Octopus Teacher as a film. Here, too, I have some concerns, though. The bulk of the footage for this ostensibly nonfiction film was shot over the course of many months, and much of it was captured via handheld underwater cameras. In the process of stitching together a reasonably linear narrative, it’s obvious that a lot of editorializing was done, which is totally fine. The problem comes from the fact that sometimes this editorializing feels far too forced.

 

At one point in the story, for example, Foster’s octopus friend loses an arm in a shark attack. That, in itself, provides an opportunity to watch the fascinating process of her regrowing the arm over time. But since the narrative thread the filmmakers

settled on centers on all the lessons Foster learned from the octopus, he of course has to concoct some hackneyed fable about how if this cephalopod could heal such a catastrophic wound, he could find a way to crawl out of his funk and hang out with his son. To call this a stretch would be to test the limits of elasticity.

 

At any rate, it may have been my aggravation with Foster’s aloof speaking style or my frustration with the construction of the story, but about a quarter of the way into My Octopus Teacher, I really started to become distracted by the artifice of it all. And I say that as someone who is infatuated with

David Attenborough’s world-spanning documentaries, many of which rely on footage that’s practically staged.

 

The difference is that Attenborough’s series don’t present themselves as personal journeys. My Octopus Teacher does. Foster tells the tale of his treks into the kelp forest as if no one else in the world existed, not even his family. The fact that he’s alone, that this is a solitary endeavor, is half the point of the narrative. And indeed, a lot of the best footage comes directly from his hand. 

 

But then we’ll cut to a shot of him, underwater, holding his camera, which rightly raises the question: Wait, who’s filming that footage? There are also long top-down drone shots of Foster entering the ocean, which further undermine the integrity of the yarn he’s spinning about being oh-so-alone during this stretch of time. 

 

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering why I still recommend watching My Octopus Teacher, despite all its problems. That simply comes down to the fact that Foster managed to capture some of the most compelling and fascinating footage I’ve ever seen of the daily life of an octopus. We get to see her hunting, hiding, and healing. We get to watch her study Foster as curiously as he studies her. But my favorite shot by far is a sequence in which Foster catches her playing, entertaining herself, staving off boredom. I wish he hadn’t intruded on this footage with his obvious observations about what she’s doing, because it’s clear to anyone with eyes. But there’s nearly literally nothing Foster could have done to diminish the value of this imagery. 

 

And there are so many other shots throughout the film that have the same impact. Far too many documentaries about cephalopods focus on animals in captivity. Here we have the opportunity to see this magnificent alien creature in her natural habitat, and I only wish I could think of a word more poignant than “revelatory” to describe my reaction to it all. Strip away the exasperating gobble-gobble-gobble of Foster’s voiceover and the gimmick of pretending he’s on some reclusive vision quest when he’s obviously surrounded by a team of filmmakers, and what you’re left with is octopus footage that’s worth its weight in unobtanium. 

 

Granted, not all of that footage is what you would describe as “home cinema reference quality.” The most compelling of it is more than a bit raw, kinda dingy, questionably lit, and obscured by silt. This is interspersed with much more professionally shot footage and the indoor interview shots of Foster. But given that so much of the video is so unpolished, it’s not surprising that Netflix’ presentation wasn’t mastered in Dolby Vision. We just get a UHD transfer with no HDR.

 

Still, even just a few short years ago, such a presentation would have been riddled with banding, so it’s heartening to see that Netflix has stepped up its game in terms of delivering non-HDR video. There’s one shot near the end of a setting sun that’s a bit clipped, but other than that, I didn’t spot any noteworthy video artifacts. 

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack, meanwhile, is dominated by Foster’s narration and the sort of New-Agey score we’ve come to expect from nature documentaries in this vein. There’s nothing really special about it, but it serves its purpose. 

 

When you get right down to it, though, the soundtrack could have consisted of Gilbert Gottfried reading 50 Shades of Grey and I still would have suffered through My Octopus Teacher enthusiastically and with roughly the same level of frustration. You stick the word “octopus” in the title of a documentary and I’m going to watch it, just on the off chance of seeing these enigmatic beings behaving in mysterious ways I’ve never witnessed before. This one delivers on that in spades, and I imagine I’ll be watching it again sometime very soon. The next time I do, though, I think I might mute the soundtrack and cue up Pink Floyd’s Meddle on a loop in the background instead. 

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.

Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies

Atmos Music

click the image to enlarge

I recently came across an interview with Elliot Scheiner, a 5.1 surround mixing pioneer. He had some things to say about music in Dolby Atmos that caught my eye. For example:

There’s no way that anybody would consider 11 speakers so that leaves the listener with a Sennheiser or Sonos soundbar or Echo smart speaker. . . .

 

Dolby Atmos is great in a theater. You get a perfect picture of what Atmos is. They can’t convince me, just yet, that it’s great for music.

 

[Interviewer:] Yeah, it’s not accessible to most people yet in a way they can actually enjoy.


You’re right.

Reading this was yet another reminder of the general lack of awareness about the many home theater and media room installations that already have everything in place for playing music in Atmos. If you have 11 speakers (or 15, or maybe even more) plus subwoofers in an Atmos layout, why wouldn’t you want to listen to music that is specifically mixed for your setup?

 

The good news is that not all recording engineers feel as lukewarm about music in Atmos as Elliot Scheiner. Take for example Stefan Bock and his team at MSM Studio Group, who began mixing in 5.1 in 1994 and in Auro 3D in 2012. Stefan embraced Atmos in 2015 and has never looked back. He is also the developer of the Pure Audio Blu-ray format, which was introduced in 2009 and remains pretty much the only game in town for lossless playback of musical recordings in immersive formats such as Atmos, Auro 3D, and DTS:X. Out of a total of roughly 250 to 300 Pure Audio Blu-ray titles, there are currently around 75 that include an Atmos mix, usually alongside high-resolution 5.1 and stereo mixes, and that number continues to grow.

 

When I contacted Stefan for this article, one of the first things he said to me was: “In my opinion, immersive 3D audio formats can be bigger for music than they have been for movies.” Now that I have had a chance to listen closely to some music that was recorded and mixed specifically for a 3D playback environment (as opposed to albums remixed in Atmos from existing recordings), I think Stefan may be on to something. 

 

For starters, the added height channels in Atmos can definitely help to recreate spatial effects of reverberant and reflective spaces such as concert halls and churches with more fidelity than either stereo or 5.1 mixes. Atmos’ object-based audio, which frees artists and mixing engineers from being tied to specific surround channels, is also stimulating new approaches to music and therefore new listening experiences for consumers. Finally, there is the indefinable subjective response triggered when listening to a high-quality immersive music recording. Can Atmos do for music what Technicolor did for movies? The potential is there, but many hurdles must still be overcome before that potential can become reality. 

 

DIVING IN

For anyone who wants to experience how good 3D music can sound in their home, there are plenty of Pure Audio Blu-ray titles available in a variety of musical genres. To hear how a great Atmos recording can create a truly immersive soundstage where you can locate every instrument around you with jaw-dropping immediacy, listen to Alessandro Quarta plays Astor Piazzolla (the track “Jeanne Y Paul” was a particular highlight for me) or The Gordian Knot by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. To place yourself in the midst of an incredibly lush-sounding string ensemble, try Reflections by the Trondheim Soloists (shown in the photos and video below)For a crystal-clear and intimate performance by a jazz trio playing in a church, listen 

Stage layout and microphone array for recording a performance by the Trondheim Soloists on
2L’s immersive album Reflections.
(Session photos and diagram by Morten Lindberg, recording
producer and balance, mix, and mastering engineer.)

to the Hoff Ensemble’s Polarity. To experience the spaciousness of a cathedral, try either The Choir of King’s College Cambridge on 1615 Gabrieli in Venice or Konstantin Reymaier’s The New Organ. To appreciate how object-based mixing can add to electronic music, check out Yello’s Point. If you are looking for video to go along with your music, try either John Williams Live in Vienna for a rousing concert recorded with superb attention to detail or Max Cooper’s Emergence for a combination of electronic music and science-inspired animation that seems made for a home theater.

 

Although it was easy to play Pure Audio Blu-ray discs through my theater system, I did need to raise the levels of my surround and height channels to match the front LCR channel levels at my listening position to get a more balanced immersive effect. This kind of adjustment may be particularly relevant for those who are starting from a calibration set up for playing music in stereo or if the surrounds and heights have been de-emphasized since they are typically used only for effects in movies. If you want to go one step further and you have a Trinnov Altitude audio processor with the latest software installed, you can

open the Atmos Object Viewer while you’re listening to get real-time feedback on the approach taken to object-based mixing for any given recording.

 

While Atmos has been available as a music format for several years, the pace of new releases has so far been sluggish. This may be about to change, however, as more music 

labels, including Universal and Warner, have jumped on the Atmos bandwagon, bringing welcome reinforcements to the original trailblazers, such as Grammy-winning Norwegian immersive music pioneer 2L. As a result, the number of Atmos music studios is increasing, with Universal’s Capitol and Abbey Road studios joining independent immersive mastering specialists such as MSM Studio Group and the newly rebuilt Coast Mastering. Although it is still in the early days and the quality of the end product varies, with more recording-studio infrastructure coming online it is becoming easier for artists and labels to start building Atmos mixes into their release plans.

 

DISCS ARE THE BEST OPTION—FOR NOW

What if you want playback options other than physical media for listening to music in Atmos? Unfortunately, the pickings here are still very slim, and those options that do exist are likely to disappoint anyone who has invested in a high-end audio system.

 

For example, Tidal Atmos relies on the lossy Dolby Digital Plus codec with a bitrate of 768 kbps. In contrast, Pure Audio Blu-ray employs the lossless Dolby TrueHD codec for Atmos, which I measured routinely delivering bitrates more than 10x higher when playing music from discs. The difference in sound quality between streaming and physical media is therefore much more pronounced for music in Atmos than for stereo recordings, which both Tidal and Qobuz can stream in high-res formats. Listening to Tidal Atmos tracks in my theater through an Apple TV felt like a tease. Once I raised the volume level 

(substantially higher than what is normally required for playing stereo tracks on Tidal), I could definitely hear the immersive mix, but I missed the vivid envelopment and the way I can pick out the crisp sound of each instrument when listening to a Pure Audio Blu-ray recording.

 

If there are currently no options for lossless streaming of Atmos music,

are there any straightforward solutions for downloading and playing lossless Atmos music files? For 2D surround music in 5.1, for example, it is relatively simple to download a FLAC file, add it to a Roon music library, and then use a Roon Ready processor such as the Trinnov Altitude to play it through a theater audio system. You can also use the processor decoders to upmix from 5.1 to Atmos or Auro 3D, but this doesn’t sound the same as playing a native 3D mix.

 

Downloading and playing Atmos music is a different story. First of all, Atmos content cannot be stored in a FLAC file because FLAC can’t carry the metadata with the location coordinates for the sound objects that are a core feature of Atmos mixes. There are a few Atmos albums downloadable in the MP4 file format, but these also use the same low-bitrate codec as Tidal Atmos so can’t match the sound quality of Pure Audio Blu-ray. Until a service like Roon supplies an elegant solution for lossless playback of Atmos music files through home AV systems, downloads are likely going to have only limited appeal.  

 

Sadly, Atmos support isn’t a priority for Roon, as evidenced by a reference in a Roon Knowledge Base article on multichannel support to “video/movie specific schemes that aren’t very relevant in an audio-only environment like Roon.” When I queried Roon about their plans, they confirmed that they’re likely to be more of a follower than a leader when it comes to enabling Atmos playback through Roon Ready devices. It’s therefore going to be up to another content-delivery platform to come up with a user-friendly solution for downloading and playing Atmos music. 

 

Since, for the time being, there are no viable options for either streaming or downloading lossless Atmos music, Pure Audio Blu-ray is in a privileged position for anyone who wants to experience how good an immersive 3D music mix can sound in a home theater or media room. Until Pure Audio brings a US distributor on board, the most reliable way to get your hands on these recordings is to go through the European Pure Audio Recordings online store. Some Pure Audio Blu-ray titles are also available on Amazon, but they may be mislabeled as Audio CDs.

 

Hopefully other Cineluxe readers will enjoy this novel listening experience as much as I have. After all, the more uptake there is for these types of recordings, the easier it will be to convince skeptics like Elliot Scheiner to take Dolby Atmos more seriously as a music format for the high-end home AV market.

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: Chaos Walking

Chaos Walking (2021)

On paper, Chaos Walking had all the makings for the start of a major franchise. Based on the successful award-winning trilogy of novels from Patrick Ness, the film is an adaptation of the first book in the series, The Knife of Never Letting Go. It’s also led by two major young stars: Tom Holland of recent Spider-Man MCU fame and Daisy Ridley from the final trilogy of Star Wars films. And it’s directed by Doug Liman, who also helmed The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live Die Repeat), with a significant budget of $100 million.

But history has shown us that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood, and even though you have all the right ingredients and budget for a gourmet meal, you can still end up making a nothingburger. Which isn’t to say that Chaos Walking is a bad movie. In fact, it plays really well in a modern home theater with a very clever and active Dolby Atmos soundtrack and clean, sharp visuals. It’s just that watching it, you could see that it had the potential to be so much more.

 

I’m a fan of dystopian Young Adult fiction. I’ve read the trilogies in Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games, James Dashner’s Maze Runner, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and Moira Young’s Dust Lands series, but I’d never heard of the Chaos Walking series, so I can’t offer any commentary on 

CHAOS AT A GLANCE

This adaption of the ‘Tween trilogy of the same name doesn’t live up to its potential, but does provide some diverting eye and ear candy.

 

PICTURE
The film looks great, with the images always clean and sharp.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix is pretty aggressive, with the height channels frequently employed for ambient effects and dialogue.

how true the movie remains to the book. Sometimes, that’s the best way to go into a series, without bringing any of the preconceived ideas and expectations from a 500-page book that a film can almost never live up to. (I’d submit The Dark Tower as a prime example on how to run totally roughshod over a beloved series of books in a single 90-minute film.)

 

Chaos Walking had a torturous path to the big screen. After announcing Liman as director in 2016, principal photography began in 2017, with an original release date set for March 2019. However, after poor initial screenings, and scheduling conflicts of the leads delaying reshoots, and then a global pandemic, the film didn’t see its theatrical debut in the States until March 5. Following poor reviews (22% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and even poorer box office (grossing just $17 million worldwide), the film arrived on PVOD on April 2. It is now available as a premium rental option from Kaleidescape for $19.99, where it includes a 4K HDR download with Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

 

The film opens with a title card reading:

 

“The Noise is a man’s thoughts unfiltered, and without a filter a man is just chaos walking.”

—Unknown New World Settler

 

It’s the year 2257, and the settlement of Prentisstown on the planet New World is inhabited only by men. Every citizen’s thoughts are on display for all to see and hear, something they call The Noise. The town is run by Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) along with Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo), who we learn early on doesn’t get on well with the Holland character. 

 

We’re told that the native aliens on the planet, the Spackle, came and killed off all the women. One day while out walking in the forest, Todd Hewitt (Holland) comes across the wreckage of a crashed spacecraft. The sole survivor is Viola (Ridley), a woman who has no Noise, who goes on the run after hearing and seeing Todd’s Noise. The men of Prentisstown capture Viola, and she is questioned by the Mayor where she discloses that she was in a scout ship from a larger vessel filled with 4,000 people due to land any day. Viola escapes, and when it is clear that the men mean to do her harm, she and Todd go on the run looking for help in a neighboring settlement.

 

I found the premise interesting and compelling, and the plot device of seeing/hearing all of the men’s thoughts was a nice way of delivering exposition, along with some humor courtesy Holland, whose Noise is especially chatty, with his quips reminding me a bit of his Peter Parker. I also felt that Holland and Ridley did the most with what they were given, and Mikkelsen seems to dig into his role as the Mayor. It’s just that it never really got going, or offered enough information, character development or motivation, or drama to gain any real momentum—especially when the film’s big “surprise” reveal takes place about halfway through and then just leaves us with a typical chase as Prentiss and his men try to track down Viola and Todd.

 

Fortunately, the film at least looks great. Filmed on Arri at 6.5K, this is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and images are always clean and sharp. You can appreciate the different textures, patterns, and wear in the fabric worn by characters, and see great detail in the closeups of actors’ faces. The focus is also razor sharp in scenes, with objects having clear and

defined edges, letting you see individual twigs, sticks, and branches in the forest.

 

New World is very organic, with lots of forests and the settlement a bit like an Old West mining town, with an earthy color palette. There are a few shots of Viola in space prior to landing, and these have a far more modern feel—brighter, with lots of contrast from space and planets and the mechanical elements of her ship. Black levels are deep and clean throughout, and the HDR grade helps with lots of shadow detail in the forest, as well as bright highlights from sunlight streaming in through windows and cracks in wooden slats.

 

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix is pretty aggressive, and there are tons of ambient sounds from the forest scenes as characters move about New World or when a gadget blasts laser bolts all around the room. One scene has characters hiding under floorboards and overhearing a conversation, and you hear the creak of wood and the conversation happening up overhead.

 

The Noise plays a big part in the film, and the mixers use this as a nice audio element, placing characters’ thoughts up into the height channels or filling the room with literal noise in large crowd scenes. Because the Noise is mixed up into the height speakers, sometimes that dialogue can be a bit tricky to understand, 

Chaos Walking (2021)

especially when many other layers of sounds are happening, but you can clearly hear all the important parts. And you’ll hear “I’m Todd Hewitt—control your noise” being thought over and over (and over . . .) as he tries to block his thoughts from others.

 

There aren’t a ton of moments requiring big low-end effects, but your subs are called into play —occasionally significantly—when appropriate, such as when Viola’s ship is entering the atmosphere or during a galloping horse chase.

 

With an audience rating of 71%, Chaos Walking definitely has some appeal. And with it being released in theaters just a month ago, it is some of the freshest content you can view at home. While its leads probably have more appeal to a ‘Tween crowd, Chaos’ premise is compelling enough to hold your attention, and the eye and ear candy certainly make for a fun evening at home. 

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.