Reviews

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront isn’t Elia Kazan’s best film. I’ll get crucified for admitting that opinion, I know, but compare this effort to Kazan’s next feature, James Dean’s East of Eden, and the uneven performances of Waterfront start to become a little more distracting.

 

But only a little. On the balance sheet, On the Waterfront is a powerful and at times shocking work that, while a product of its time—as any good work of art is—remains vibrant and accessible today. Only Leonard Bernstein’s score, which is often heralded as a masterwork but in truth runs a bit too maudlin and sappy in some of the film’s most poignant scenes, really anchors the film in the past. But that was true when it was released in 1954. Simply put, the score is too often a throwback to the melodramatic orchestrations of the late 1930s, and while I love it as a work in and of itself, sometimes it just conflicts too much with the imagery to which it’s attached. (Incidentally, this is another thing that makes East of Eden work better overall. In the year between, Kazan seemed to have learned when to leave music on the cutting-room floor.)

 

If all of the above sounds overly critical, it isn’t intended to be. I absolutely adore this Marlon Brando vehicle, warts and all. In fact, I may love it all the more for its flaws, since the film is ultimately about flawed humans. It’s also a film about honesty and fairness, themes that also ring through in its presentation, especially in Brando’s intense portrayal of former boxer Terry Malloy, who testifies against a mobbed-up union boss at great personal cost.

It’s a film that I return to frequently, but what drew me in for my most recent viewing is Kaleidescape’s Ultra HD presentation. Unsurprisingly, On the Waterfront only seems to be making the jump from high-def to 4K purely in the digital domain (maybe because the Criterion Collection hasn’t kept up with modern AV standards), which means Kaleidescape is the film’s only opportunity, for now, to shine in all its high-

On the Waterfront

bandwidth 4K glory. Frankly, it’s such a grainy and gritty film that I’m skeptical as to whether or not streaming could do it justice without becoming too noisy—even with high-quality streaming formats like Vudu, which often excel with the hyper-slick, digitally assembled output of today’s Hollywood but struggle with the organic nature of old celluloid stock.

 

At any rate, it takes but a few moments of comparison between the Kaleidescape 4K download and the excellent Criterion Blu-ray release from 2013 to see what a difference UHD makes. In the famous “I coulda been a contender!” scene in particular, the 4K really brings out the subtlest, but most important of details, like the sheen of sweat on Rod Steiger’s face, as well as Brando’s, as the scene ramps up in intensity. It’s true, the 4K resolution also brings with it an enhancement of the film’s prominent grain (which was overly sanitized in the streaming version presented on the now-defunct Filmstruck streaming service), but that’s part of Waterfront’s visual charm, and it’s nice to see it maintained here.

 

Speaking of the visuals, the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release was noteworthy for its inclusion of three versions of the film, all identical in terms of content, but differing in their aspect ratio. On the Waterfront was shot at a time when movie theaters were transitioning from 1.33:1 (the shape of your old standard-definition CRT TV) to wider aspect ratios like 1.85:1 (similar to 

the shape of your new UHD TV). As such, director of photography Boris Kaufman shot the film so it would work on screens of either shape. But he chose to compose the action for the less-common 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-ray release included all three compositions: 1.66:1 on one disc, and 1.85:1 and 1.33:1 on another.

 

The Kaleidescape download is solely 1.66:1, and if a choice had to be made to include only one version of the film, this was the right call. The

tighter framing enhances the intimacy—and indeed the intensity—of the film, without cutting out key visual details, and the black bars along the left and right of the image are so slight you’ll forget they’re there within minutes.

 

Unfortunately, you’ll still need to download the film twice if you want to see the included bonus features—a short documentary, an interview with Elia Kazan, and a photo gallery—since these are available only with the DVD-quality download. Honestly, though, you’re probably better off skipping these and saving space on your hard drive. Most of the compelling bonus features for the film remain with the Criterion Collection, including the excellent audio commentary by authors Richard Schickel and Jeff Young, as well as a number of wonderful interviews.

 

The goods news is, you don’t even really need those, either. On the Waterfront stands on its own two legs, and forced to choose between the superior presentation on Kaleidescape and the superior historical perspective afforded by the Criterion release, I would opt for the former any day.

Dennis Burger

On the Waterfront

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

A Star is Born

A Star is Born (2018)

In one sense, the 2018 version of A Star Is Born is nothing new. This is the fourth version of the film, after all—and countless other movies have borrowed heavily from the basic premise: An aging, addiction-stricken star takes a young, talented woman under his wings, falls in love, and watches her star soar while his comes crashing brutally to the ground.

 

Generation Xers like myself probably have a strong tie to the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It’s one of those “soundtrack to my childhood” kind of movies that I just remember being on my TV all the time. Then there’s the classic 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason. The original version dates all the way back to 1937. When I first heard that Bradley Cooper was going to direct and star in a new version, my reaction was, “Eh, just another unnecessary remake.”

 

But I have to give credit where credit is due. There’s an in-the-moment newness to Cooper’s version, due in large part to a script and a director that seem like they left a lot of room for improvisation. Everything about the film—from its pacing to its performances to its cinematography—makes you feel like you’ve been dropped in the middle of these people’s lives, right now. And that’s not always a comfortable place to be. In a film era defined by witty repartee and slick editing, you might find yourself growing frustrated as you watch people sometimes struggle to find or at least speak the right words. It’s awkward, but it works.

A Star is Born (2018)

The chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga is undeniable, and the decision to cast a musician and not an actress in the role of Ally just reinforces that sense of authenticity.

 

All that being said, the glue that really holds this film together is the music. Everything else takes a backseat to the fantastic musical performances, which means there’s some great demo material available in the Dolby Atmos soundtrack to show off your surround sound system. The concert sequences are mixed to sound like you’re listening to a concert, with lots of space and ambience in the surrounds.

A Star is Born (2018)

The 4K HDR image in the iTunes version I watched (it’s available in Dolby Vision if your system supports the format) looked excellent, with rich color and a high level of detail. This isn’t a super-stylistic movie, so the HDR is employed subtly to just flesh out that you-are-there sense of contrast. I didn’t see a lot of noise or compression artifacts in the iTunes version.

 

If you’ve decided that you don’t need to see A Star Is Born because you’ve already seen it, trust me, you haven’t. You haven’t heard it like this, and you haven’t felt it like this. You may know where the story ends up, but this is definitely one of those movies that’s more about the journey than the destination.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams

Nothing shows you how much time has passed more than when you wake up one morning and see that one of your favorite movies is celebrating its 30-year anniversary! Yep, Field of Dreams turns 30 this year, and as a gift to fans, Universal Pictures has given the movie the full 4K HDR restoration makeover. While disc purchasers will have to wait until May 14 to grab a copy, Kaleidescape owners are able to download and enjoy the film more than a month ahead of time.

 

Field is one of my favorite films, and I’ve seen it multiple times over the years, though I actually missed it during its theatrical release. Perhaps the trailer didn’t catch my 19-year-old attention, or maybe it had a limited initial run,. But I can remember watching for the first time on a rented VHS tape at a friend’s house and absolutely loving it. I bought the DVD when it was released, but that transfer was never terrific looking, featuring a lot of noise and soft images.

 

It’s tough to think any movie lover wouldn’t be familiar with the plot at this point, but I’ll keep it spoiler-free just in case. Baseball-loving Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner, starring in his second consecutive baseball film following Bull Durham) marries college sweetheart, Annie (Amy Madigan), and they move to Iowa where they buy a farm. One day while in the cornfields, Ray hears a mysterious voice. “If you build it, he will come…” Build what? And who will come? After the voice won’t go away, Ray has an epiphany one evening: The voice wants him to plow under most of his cornfield and turn into a baseball diamond where players from the notorious Chicago Black Sox (who threw the 1919 Series) will return to play ball. (My wife was quick to point out how surprisingly supportive Annie was of this seemingly insane idea.) The voice continues delivering cryptic 

Field of Dreams

messages, sending Ray off on a quest to right some past wrongs and meet a group of interesting characters including Shoeless Joe Jackson (an incredibly young-looking Ray Liotta), Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), and Dr. Graham (Burt Lancaster).

 

Field is considered one of the best sports films ever made, and was nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture, Best Writing (adapted screenplay), and Best Original Score. In a time when most movies rely on special effects, 

explosions, elaborate schemes, and confusing plot twists, Field of Dreams is an entirely story and character-driven film with virtually no effects or gimmicks. The movie works because it keeps you genuinely interested, has you caring for the characters, and has so much heart that the ending leaves me teary-eyed every time.

 

As bad as my DVD version looked, I hadn’t been in a real hurry to revisit the movie, so this was not only an opportunity to see one of my favorites, but also the perfect opportunity to share it with my 12-year-old daughter for the first time. Not a sports fan at all, I was hoping she’d be caught up in the story, and she was. (She also now understands why it means a lot to me when I ask her to go and have a catch.)

 

While the new 4K HDR transfer isn’t perfect, I dare say this is the best that Field will ever look. The film has many outdoor scenes, which often exhibit wonderful detail and sharpness. Fortunately, they didn’t take too heavy a hand on the cleanup, leaving enough grain to let you know this is inherently from 35 mm stock. The detail is some scenes is fantastic, such as being able to see the wooly texture in Shoeless Joe’s cap, or the blades of grass and dirt on the baseball diamond, or the clear detail in the rows of corn. As a comparison, I checked a couple of scenes from the DVD, and they were all soft, grain-filled mush. While the HDR pass was pretty light, there are some nighttime scenes in Boston that benefit, as do some of the night ball games. Equally important, black levels are deep and clean throughout. I also noticed that the reds in some scenes were very saturated, likely pushing the color boundaries from previous releases.

 

As I said, the transfer isn’t perfect, and there is still some excessive noise and grain in some of the dusky, twilight sky scenes, when the sky hits a faded, powder blue/grey color that reveals a lot of noise, likely from the original film stock. Also, there were a couple of scenes where faces looked a bit too red.

 

Not much has changed on the audio front from the Blu-ray release 10 years ago, as we still get a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix. (The 4K disc will include a new DTS:X immersive audio mix, that hopefully will find its way to Kaleidescape at some point, NBCUniversal willing.) Even so, I found the dialogue to be very well recorded, important for a film that is entirely story-driven, and James Horner’s score shines through nicely. I did notice that my Dolby Atmos upmixer did a nice job lifting the Voice up into the ceiling speakers, creating a nice, other-worldly effect that worked well.

 

I can’t recommend this movie enough, whether you’ve seen it or not. Field of Dreams is a timeless classic that is suitable to share with family member of all ages, but it especially translates well to watching with your dad or your kids. And at $15.99 from Kaleidescape, it should be a part of everyone’s collection.

John Sciacca

Field of Dreams

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.

Our Planet

It’s been barely more than a year since beloved natural historian Sir David Attenborough took viewers on another romp around the natural world in Blue Planet II, so for some it may seem a little soon for another such epic journey. After all, Attenborough’s tentpole nature documentary series tend to follow big technological leaps, either in terms of presentation (HD, 4K, HDR, etc.) or exploration (e.g. the Nadir and Deep Rover submersibles employed in Blue Planet II).

 

Needless to say, we haven’t made such quantum leaps in the past calendar year. For the most part, what sets the new Netflix original Our Planet apart from its predecessors isn’t technological (although its heavy reliance on 4K drones does mean that we get to witness the wonders of a natural world from a new perspective at times). No, for the most part, what sets this series apart is its intent, and the prominence of its message.

 

Since the 1980s, Attenborough’s documentaries—at least the big “event” series—have been largely subtle in their environmental and conservational messaging. A summary sentence here or there. Maybe a wrap-up episode that connected the dots and spelled out how human activity has threatened and continues to threaten the fragile ecosystems around our pale blue dot.

 

With Our Planet (and its accompanying hour-long making-of special), that message takes center stage. Which isn’t to say that Attenborough dwells on it constantly. Large swaths of the eight-episode series are devoted to the drama, heartbreak, and 

hilarity of the natural world. Show a ten-minute clip from the middle of any given episode to your dad, and he might be hard-pressed to tell it from an old episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, if not for the stunningly modern cinematography and deliciously dynamic Dolby Atmos sound mix.

 

But Attenborough does a great job of priming the 

pump here, setting the stage in such a way that you can’t help but meditate on how much of nature relies on delicate, precarious balances, and how those balances are undeniably being thrown out of whack.

 

One example: It’s one thing to be told that arctic sea ice is on the wane. It’s another altogether to see with your own eyes how that’s affecting the wildlife in the region. At the other end of the globe, we also see how diminishing sea ice around Antarctica is disrupting eating, mating, and migration patterns of everything from seals to penguins to humpback whales.

Even if that message doesn’t resonate with you, it’s impossible to deny that Our Planet is an absolute feast for the eyes. Presented here in 4K with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 (depending on which HDR format your system supports), the series is one of the most striking video demos I’ve ever laid eyes on—in any format. The high dynamic 

range is used here to enhance everything from the iridescent shimmer of orchid bees to the fluorescent glow of algae growing underneath sea ice, and while we’ll likely never know how much better (if at all) it could look if released on full-bandwidth UHD Blu-ray or via Kaleidescape, one thing is for certain: This streaming series manages to surpass the already mind-blowing video presentation of Blue Planet II on any format, streaming or not, and that’s mostly due to its stunning HDR mastering and grading.

 

There are times when the contrasts and highlights are so rich and nuanced, and the imagery so detailed, that your brain just can’t help but interpret the picture as glasses-free 3D. Individual snowflakes fall through the back of the frame, reflecting stray sparkles of sunlight, without a hint of lost definition or clarity. If not for the liberal application of slow-motion, you’d swear you were looking out a window. Indeed, only the appearance of some very occasional, subtle, fleeting, almost imperceptible banding in the underwater sequences of the second episode give the slightest clue that this isn’t uncompressed video.

The audio is mostly fantastic, as well. For a nature documentary, the surround effects can be quite startlingly aggressive at times, but they’re never egregious, and such effects are always used for the purposes of immersion, not merely spectacle. If I have a slight beef here, it’s that the Dolby Digital+ encoding doesn’t quite fully capture the nuanced timbres of Sir Attenborough’s inimitable voice in the way I suspect Dolby TrueHD would. But again, that’s a minor nit to pick.

 

As mentioned above, the series is also amongst the rare Netflix offerings to be accompanied by bonus features—in this case, a behind-the-scenes documentary that sheds light on how so many of the stunning images within were captured. The series was four years in the making and involved 3,365 filming days at 200 locations, with a total of 6,000 drone flights and 991 days at sea. With only an hour to play with, the behind-the-scenes doc can’t dig into all of the high-tech trials and tribulations of the filming, but it’s enough to scratch your curious itch and answer most of the biggest “How did they film that?!” questions you may have.

 

In the end, it’s difficult for me, a nearly fanatical David Attenborough devotee, to come to terms with the fact that Our Planet could conceivably be the last of his major earth-spanning natural history mini-series. He is, after all, approaching the age of 93. As such, and when taking into consideration the urgency with which he delivers his message here, it’s hard not to view this series as a potential swan song of sorts. If that be the case, I couldn’t imagine a finer farewell, nor a more fitting final lesson from the man who has done so much to entertain, inform, and enlighten us about the wonders of the natural world for the better part of half a century.

 

To call this one “essential viewing” may be the biggest understatement I’ve ever typed.

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.

Love, Death + Robots

Love, Death + Robots

The first night I sat down to watch the new Netflix anthology series Love, Death + Robots, I went into it in full binge mode. At 220 minutes total, it hardly seemed a daunting marathon. Four episodes in, though, I was burned out. Overloaded. Overstimulated. Desensitized to the carnage and ribaldry pouring out of my screen.

 

That’s not a knock against the series, which is the realization of David Fincher and Tim Miller’s failed attempts to bring Heavy Metal to the big screen again. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the fact that I think I’ve discovered the first streaming series that expressly discourages binge watching. That could in part be due to the fact that most of the 18 shorts in the anthology are radically different in tone, style, and genre. The collection runs the gamut from dungeon-diving horror to comedy to fantasy to science-fiction, with sprinkles of high-tech action/adventure and steampunk wǔxiá thrown in. The animation is also

quite varied, including a nice mix of hand-drawn 2D animation and CGI that ranges from stylized and painterly to hyper-realistic. There’s even a delightful live-action short that harkens back to Steven Spielberg’s old Amazing Stories series from the 1980s.

 

In short, there’s really nothing tying these episodes together, aside

from loose adherence to the titular theme to one degree or another. Honestly, a better title might have been “Love, Death, and/or Robots.”

 

But none of that should be interpreted as a knock against the series, either. Merely an observation about why I think Love, Death + Robots works better as a collection of disconnected morsels, intended to be taken in one at a time here and there, not consumed in one or two sittings.

 

You almost certainly won’t enjoy all of the shorts, even if this is your sort of thing. (And to gauge whether this is your sort of thing, it probably boils down to your fondness for the aforementioned Heavy Metal, the magazine on which it was based, or maybe even the old MTV/BBC Two anthology series Liquid Television.) Half of the shorts in this first season collection

are downright brilliant, and the other half are a weird mix of puerile, pointless, and outright repugnant.

 

The problem is, although I think most people would agree with that assessment overall, I doubt you could find two people who could come to consensus on which shorts belong in which category.

There are a few objective standouts, though. “Zima Blue,” one of the few 2D shorts, is as profound as it is simple in its storytelling. “Good Hunting,” an adaptation of one of the short stories from Ken Liu’s award-winning The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is another fantastic vignette that manages to create a wondrously gorgeous and compelling world populated by fascinating characters in its all-too-brief 17 minutes. It’s one of the longest shorts in the series, although it feels like one of the shortest.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, goofy and disturbing romps like “The Witness” seem to have taken the series’ lack of censorship as a mandate rather than a license, and the result is a gratuitous and exploitative nightmare that I can’t imagine anyone actually enjoying.

 

Don’t let missteps like the latter scare you off, though, as long as you’re not turned off by animated violence and sex across the board. Love, Death + Robots is a radical experiment in filmmaking that deserves to be celebrated in spite of its misses. And its audiovisual presentation is utterly stunning. From beginning to end, Love, Death + Robots is a UHD/HDR video torture test that demands to be watched on the best screen in the house. Only a weird sound mix for one of the shorts, “Sonnie’s Edge”—which buries the dialogue and leans way too heavily on the surround channels—keeps this series from being an A+ AV demo from beginning to end.

 

In the end, Love, Death + Robots is, like most good genre fiction, a product of its time. Without the risk-taking attitude of new media outlets like Netflix, it probably wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day. Had it somehow beaten the odds and been made before now, there’s no way it would have snuck under the wire with an R rating without some massive edits. And without the benefit of modern AV formats, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.

 

But in a weird way, the series also comes across as an interesting rejection of our current media climate and its emphasis on gluttonous consumption. To appreciate the series fully, you really need to treat it as a bag of snacks, not a sustaining meal.

 

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.

Glass

Glass

There was a time when writer/director M. Night Shyamalan was considered the virtual heir to Hitchcock’s throne. He had a way of crafting intricate stories with unpredictable and shocking endings that left moviegoers talking for days afterwards. (He also adopted the Hitchcockian move of including himself in all of his films.) And from 1999-2002 when he delivered The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, Shyamalan was a guaranteed box office draw and one of the hottest tickets in Hollywood.

 

But then . . .

 

Well, in golf we had a saying for what happened to M. Night: “The wheels came off.” His next string of films—The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth—were all critical and box office bombs.

 

He had lost not only his magic touch but also seemingly his way, and now his name was more of a punchline for bad endings you see coming a mile away.

 

But then something truly unexpected happened in 2016—he gave us Split, which featured a fantastic performance by James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder, with 23 distinct personalities known 

collectively as “The Horde” that abducts teenage girls. Beyond McAvoy’s change-on-a-dime performance and an engaging story, Split finished with a total WTF?! moment—an end credits scene that delivered a fantastic callback to Unbreakable, arguably one of Shyamalan’s best films.

 

With that single scene, M. Night delivered Hollywood’s first stealth sequel and placed Split firmly in the  

Unbreakable world, where superhuman vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and his archenemy—criminal mastermind with extremely brittle bones Elija “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson)—still live and breathe.

 

This set the stage for the highly anticipated Glass, the third film in the Unbreakable series.

 

Glass takes place 15-19 years after Unbreakable (both times are mentioned in the film), but only weeks after Split. It begins with four cheerleaders being held captive by Crumb in an old warehouse, and with the city of Philadelphia in a panic over a recent string of murders.

 

Dunn now owns a security firm he runs with his son, Joseph (with Spencer Treat Clark reprising his Unbreakable role), where he continues his covert, rain poncho-wearing role as “The Overseer,” walking the city streets looking for evildoers to beat some justice into. (This also sets the stage for a rather forced cameo by Shyamalan, who returns as his role of Jai from Unbreakable.)

 

Dunn ultimately happens upon Crumb, who transforms into “The Beast,” a dominant personality with cannibal tendencies and superhuman abilities that is an amalgam of various zoo animals. After a massive fight, both end up being captured by a special police division and sent to a woefully understaffed institution for the criminally insane. There they are studied by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, returning in her role from Split) who keeps them locked in isolation cells designed to control their powers. It’s soon revealed that this is the same institution that has been housing Mr. Glass for the past number of years, and that Dr. Staple is working on a special branch of psychology where she tries to convince people who think they’re superhuman that they’re actually normal.

 

While Jackson’s Mr. Glass is the titular character, he spends more than half of the film saying and doing nothing, heavily medicated and slumped in a wheelchair. When Glass finally encounters Crumb, he decides to waken The Beast and have him fight Dunn in a massive public battle that will finally reveal the existence of superheroes to the world.

 

The film has a 129-minute run time, but I felt it was well paced for a long film, with a story that held my interest and attention. Shyamalan also did a nice job of marrying the two stories, coming up with a film that brings the characters together in a believable manner, though the pacing and style make it feel more a sequel to Split than to Unbreakable. The ending was a bit lackluster, but it did pave the way for future spinoffs.

 

McAvoy is again fantastic in his portrayal of Crumb, deftly switching between completely different personalitie, often multiple times within a single scene. These changes are not only in his voice and mannerisms, but in his physical appearance and emotion. It was also nice to see Willis back in his Unbreakable role, albeit he doesn’t get as much screen time as fans of the original would hope.

 

You can’t fault Glass for is its picture quality, which is terrific. Shot on ARRIRAW at 3.4K resolution, this transfer is taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate, and the image is sharp and clear, with tons of detail and definition. Edges are all razor sharp, and fine detail abounds in closeups, showing nearly every hair and pore on the actor’s faces (once revealing too-much makeup on Dr. Ellie), single-stitch fabric texture in garments, and micro-scratches in metal surfaces. HDR isn’t used extensively, but there are several low-light night scenes where its benefits are visible and welcome.

 

Audio on the Kaleidescape download is 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master. M. Night films are not big on typical superhero bombast and explosions, but the soundtrack serves the film well, with some nice directional cues and other ambient sounds and effects to place you in the right sonic environment. Of equal importance, dialogue is well recorded and clear.

 

Glass is available now from Kaleidescape, a full two weeks before its 4/16 disc release.

John Sciacca

Glass

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.

Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen

On paper, Welcome to Marwen should have been a hit. Helmed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Contact, Polar Express), starring Steve Carell and Leslie Mann, with supporting performances from Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger, and Eiza Gonzalez, and featuring some fantastic visual effects, this could have been a call-back to the brilliance of Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump.

 

Unfortunately, what we got was an estimated $50-60 million loss for Universal Studios, largely due to a bevy of poor reviews spurred by clumsy and disjointed storytelling that makes it difficult to connect with, learn about, or even care for any of the characters. Also, Zemeckis seems to have gotten too caught up in relying on the effects-laden scenes rather than telling a great story.

 

Marwen is based on the tragic real-life events of artist Mark Hogancamp, played here by Carell. (The acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol also examined Hogancamp’s life and art.) Back in 2000, Mark was out drinking one night when he casually admitted that he likes to collect and wear women’s shoes to feel closer to their essence. This admission was overheard by a group of five guys (portrayed as white supremacist, neo-Nazis in the film, but actually homophobes in real life) who took him outside and brutally beat him, leaving him for dead.

 

The beating left Hogancamp in a coma for nine days and brain damaged, with absolutely no memories of his life before. Barely able to even write his name following the incident, it also robbed him of his ability to draw. Hogancamp turned to photography instead, where he created the elaborate, fictional World War II-era Belgian city Marwen where he stages dolls in elaborate sets and situations, all to perfect 1/6-scale.

 

The film begins a few years after the beating, where Mark is established in his photography career, and has an upcoming exhibition. Also looming over him is the trial of his attackers, which his lawyer wants him to attend to read a victim’s impact statement to ensure it’s entered into the record so they don’t get off lightly.

 

On the one hand, I understand what I think Zemeckis was going for in his story. Mark can’t remember anything about his life prior to the attack, so we’re given only very limited information about him from before. What we do glean is from quick snatches of images flipping through old scrap books, or snippets of conversations overheard from others. Old Mark apparently drank a lot, served in the Navy, and was an illustrator for some comics.

 

Current Mark suffers pretty severe PTSD from the beating. He is shy, awkward, afraid, closed-off, and fairly heavily medicated. We get the sense he could die in his home and no one would notice for days. He also leads a very controlled and structured life, with his only pleasure coming from photographing Marwen and wearing his massive—more than 280-pair—collection of women’s shoes. Carrell does a great job in the role, rising above the uneven storytelling, showing us Hogancamp’s pain and vulnerability, with nary a trace of Michael Scott to be found.

 

To compensate for his sad reality, Mark creates the alter-ego hero, Cap’n Hogie, who is a dame-lovin’, Nazi-killin’, lady-shoe-wearin’, alpha male of Marwen, a town populated entirely by women representing important people in Mark’s life. Unfortunately, all is not perfect in Marwen, as it comes under repeated attack from Nazi SS soldiers, and any women that Hogie gets close to are zapped light years into the future by the Belgian Witch, Deja Thoris (voiced by Kruger), who actually represents Mark’s growing addiction to pain medication.

 

Further complicating our ability to connect with Mark is the fact that the scenes in Marwen-town are so unlike his real-life that they end up feeling disjointed from the rest of the film. These random scenes are filled with action, humor, and life, along with Nazi ambushes and brutal gun fights where Hogie frequently finds himself captured and nearly killed by a band of Nazis that continually comes back to life. The Nazis clearly represent his real-life attackers regularly returning to Marwen to inflict damage and re-enact the trauma of Mark’s beating, where ultimately he is always saved by his women of Marwen. 

 

Whereas the real-life scenes are a bit soft by design, the doll scenes are all fascinating visually and razor detailed. You can see every pebble-grain of texture in Hogie’s bomber jacket, along with the intricate outfits of the women. These scenes are often filmed up close—like Mark’s photographs—so we see every articulated joint and intricate movement from the dolls along with the fine detail Mark puts into his set decoration. It all looks great.

 

Audio here is presented via 5.1 DTS-HD Master, with the all-important dialogue well recorded and intelligible. The battle scenes in Marwen provide some sonic excitement, as does the film’s opening plane crash, with my processor’s Dolby Atmos upmixing doing a nice job of placing flak explosions overhead.

 

Ultimately, Marwen is an interesting but forgettable film, but it’s not a total waste. Its effects scenes look fantastic on the home screen, with a truly unique visual style somewhere between animation and stop motion. And the story was interesting enough to keep me curious and watching to see how it concluded, and to turn to the Internet to find out more about the actual events behind it. Also, due to its dismal box office performance, it currently appears that Marwen’s 4K disc release has been scrubbed, meaning the only way to enjoy it in better-than-cinema quality is to get the 4K HDR download from Kaleidescape, available now for a very reasonable $19.99.

John Sciacca

Welcome to Marwen

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.

Bumblebee

Bumblebee

For many viewers, myself included, the Transformers franchise jumped the shark with its fifth film, Transformers: The Last Knight, where it tried to combine robots, dinosaurs, and Arthurian lore into a mess of a film that included Sir Anthony Hopkins delivering lines that were frequently cringeworthy at best. That film was panned by critics and received the lowest audience rating of any film in the series—a meager 16% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Due to this, my expectations for Bumblebee were basically non-existent.

But the Bumblebee team decided to do some transforming of its own. This film broke the tradition of having Michael Bay at the directorial helm (though he does retain a producer credit), instead going with relative newcomer Travis Knight, whose previous directorial credit included the critically acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings. They also went with an up-and-coming writers, Christina Hodson, for the script and story.

Those two changes made all the difference, with Bumblebee scoring big at the box office, bringing in a 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating—the highest of any film in the franchise—and resulting in a movie that has far more heart and story, and far less near-constant frenetic smash-em-up-blow-em-up action scenes. And guess what? When every scene isn’t filled with action, there is more room for story and character development, and more opportunity for the action pieces to stand out.

Also, by primarily focusing on a single robot character instead of virtually every Autobot and Decepticon still in existence, you have a chance to care more about them. Kudos to the design team that did a great job with Bumblebee’s eyes, giving him the ability to express emotion and feeling, further humanizing him.

Bumblebee

The film begins on the planet Cybertron, with the Autobots on the verge of being completely overthrown. As a last-ditch effort, Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, sends his lead fighter and scout, B-127, to the planet Earth in an escape pod to prepare a new base of operations for the Autobots to regroup. B-127 smashes into Earth right next to an Army Special Forces training exercise, and in a skirmish while attempting to escape and battling a Decepticon that followed him, B-127 is damaged, losing his ability to speak, as well as his memory of who he is and his mission. Low

on power and heavily injured, B-127 scans a nearby yellow ’67 Beetle and transforms, where he somehow ends up at a salvage yard before being discovered by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Charlie christens B-127 “Bumblebee” because of the sound his electronic mumblings make.

There are many similarities between the storylines of Bumblebee and the original 2007 Transformers film. In both movies, the human star is an outcast, nerdy high school student. That role was played by Shia LaBeouf in 2007, but this time it’s a female played by Steinfeld. Both kids encounter the discarded and barely functional Autobot, Bumblebee, while searching for their first car, taking him home and then discovering he’s “more than meets the eye.” They both rely on friends of the opposite sex to help them survive and keep Bumblebee’s secret; the bombshell Megan Fox in the original, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. in Bumblebee. We’ve also got a strong military presence trying to track down and stop the alien invasion in the form of Agent Burns (John Cena), who is given one of the best lines with, “They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?!”

Set in the late ‘80s, Bumblebee has a great soundtrack featuring many classics from bands like The Smiths, Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, and A-HA, along with several band shirts worn by Steinfeld that would have been perfectly at home on any student at my high school. Also, without the ability to speak, Bumblebee plays snippets of audio from the radio to communicate, a device that works well.

Bumblebee

Shot on ARRIRAW at 3.4K, Bumblebee is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, not uncommon for heavily effects-driven films. But the image has no shortage of detail, especially in closeups where you can see tons of detail like texture, imperfections, and scratches in Bumblebee’s paint, or individual strands of hair in Steinfeld’s eyelashes. HDR is used to good effect during the night scenes, particularly with explosions and erupting fireballs, or the vibrant green of the Decepticon transmitter near the finale.

My favorite aspect of the video was that the camera style is far more steady and stable, moving away from the near seizure-inducing, rapid blur and jerk favored by the previous Transformer films. The action scenes here are stable and in focus, letting you appreciate all of the robot’s movements and motions.

By far the standout here is Bumblebee’s reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This movie sounds fantastic in a well-calibrated home theater, featuring an active mix that fully engages all Atmos speakers, immersing you in the action. Dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout, no matter how many things are exploding onscreen. Home theater owners will especially love the massive amount of low-frequency impact. When heavy objects or bots crash, smash, collide, or explode, the bass is appropriately weighty, producing frequencies that will rattle your floor and slam into your chest. But far more than just one repetitive bass note, bass here is richly textured and layered, with different amounts of impact and detail according to  the scene. Excellent demo material for sure!

Bumblebee is available for download now at the Kaleidescape store, two weeks before the disc release on April 2.

John Sciacca

Bumblebee

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.

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

By now, you’ve no doubt heard what a technological marvel Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old truly is. On the off-chance that you haven’t, what sets this important film apart from previous such efforts is that Jackson and his team took hundreds of hours of raw footage from the Imperial War Museums’ film archives, cleaned it up, colorized it, and used video processing technology to transform the choppy, hand-cranked stock into smooth 24-frame-per-second film. That fact alone is what originally drew me to this documentary, although I never had the opportunity to see it in its brief run in American cinemas.

 

Despite that—despite having watched all of the behind-the-scenes material I could get my hands on, despite having seen many an A/B comparison between the stock footage and the restored film—I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional impact 

trailer

behind-the-scenes documentary

transition to color

of this technological wizardry. There’s a scene, about 25 minutes into the film, in which the grainy, torn, jerky black-and-white transitions into artfully colorized, naturally fluid high-definition video. In that instant, a switch flips in your brain. The historical characters on the screen suddenly become living, breathing men. Or boys, to be more precise. They magically transform from flat artifacts to three-dimensional human beings. And the psychological impact of that phase transition is equal parts wonder, empathy, and horror.

 

That’s really your first clue that these restoration efforts have nothing to do with spectacle or presentation. The goal here isn’t to make your display come alive with pretty pictures. It’s to bring the men who fought the “the war to end all wars” to life in a way that’s never been possible before.

 

That fact is borne out in every other aspect of the film, most pointedly in the fact that there is no overarching narration here, no real historical perspective. The footage focuses solely on the efforts of the British infantry on the western front, but that’s never explained. Aside from reenacted dialogue created to match the footage, the only voices we hear here are taken from interviews of the survivors of these battles.

 

And the story they tell is a complex one. Yes, we get insight into the horrors they faced. But we also get some shockingly honest recollections 

of pleasant memories. One interviewee describes the early days of the war as something akin to a camping trip. And the dark humor that these men and boys relied on to take the edge off of their squalid conditions permeates the film as well.

 

But more than anything else, what’s shocking about the narration is how blunt the survivors of WWI are in coming to terms with their own experiences in the war. There’s a strange dichotomy that arises from the fact that, for the first time, we as viewers feel that we can relate to these brave warriors, only to have them explain in their own words why any attempt at empathy on our part is ultimately futile, because the only people who truly understood them were their own brothers-in-arms.

 

At any rate, for all of the fuss that I and others have made about the technical aspects of the film, it may come as a surprise that it’s only being released to the home in 1080p, not 4K with HDR. After seeing the film, I can understand why. Despite the impressive cleanup job done to the footage, we’re still talking about 100-year-old film here. There almost certainly weren’t any additional pixels to be extracted from the source material. And the colorization, while truly stunning, always errs toward the side of subtlety. A wider color palette would simply be wasted here, driving up the price for no good reason.

 

What’s more, even in HD, you can see some occasional imperfections introduced by the restoration process: Skin sometimes looks waxy, eyes and mustaches occasionally morph and jump in a really wonky way as the computers try to recreate frames that never existed or were damaged beyond repair, and occasionally the textures are a little off. That’s not a criticism, mind you, especially given that Jackson and his team made a 140-minute film on a budget allocated for thirty minutes tops. (They also restored a total of 100 hours of footage for the Imperial War Museums, pro bono.) It’s simply to reiterate that you shouldn’t view They Shall Not Grow Old as an AV demo.

 

But you should enjoy it on the best home cinema system possible, nonetheless—especially to appreciate the work that Jackson et al. did in recreating the sonic landscape of the war. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack accompanying Kaleidescape’s release of the film does a wonderful job of complementing the video in its efforts to bring this old (silent) footage to life.

 

Also accompanying the Kaleidescape release is an important bonus feature that seems to be missing from the Vudu release: A 28-minute interview with Peter Jackson conducted at the BFI London Film Festival. The personal and historical perspective that this interview brings to the table is welcome, but it isn’t necessary. The film really speaks for itself.

Dennis Burger

They Shall Not Grow Old

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.

Aquaman

Aquaman

I grew up a fan of DC Comics—which is the other universe outside of Marvel—that includes the Justice League comprised of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. And while I’m assuming Aquaman was given his fair share of ink over the years, I can’t really remember anything about his backstory, or him doing anything stand-out. Thus, his storyline never really resonated with me, and I remember him as just being kind of an “extra” figure who only really came into the action when things moved to the water.

 

Starting with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC looked to “Marvel-ize” its extended universe of heroes by introducing other characters. In that film, Wonder Woman was introduced and given a fairly significant role, but we were also given glimpses of other heroes, namely The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman. Those heroes would ultimately be brought together to make up the recent Justice League film. While B v S was generally panned, we can thank it for at least one thing: It gave us Wonder Woman, a fantastic film that showed our favorite Amazon warrior princess’ origin story perfectly portrayed by Gal Gadot.

 

Looking to capitalize on Wonder Woman’s momentum, DC delivers the second spinoff of its Extended Universe with Aquaman. As is the recent trend, Aquaman was available for digital download in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack as of March 5, a full three weeks before it is released on physical media.

 

Aquaman was one of those films on my “definitely want to see” radar, but not high enough that I wanted to go through the hassle of seeing it in a movie theater. I thought Jason Mamoa’s portrayal of Atlantis’ rightful heir-to-the-throne, Arthur Curry, in Justice League, was pretty great. He was about as reluctant a hero as possible, wanting nothing to do with the limelight, and spending his days saving wayward fishermen and drinking at the local pub.

 

This movie begins by introducing us to Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), queen of Atlantis who is rescued by a lighthouse keeper. They fall in love, and young Arthur is born. However, Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis, and she entrusts Arthur’s training to her advisor, Vulko (Willem Defoe). When Arthur learns his mother was executed for having a half-breed son with a human, he swears off Atlantis, and returns to his unassuming life of protecting sailors. Arthur is ultimately drawn into a battle between his half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants the sea kingdoms to unite and declare war on the surface world. To claim his rightful place on Atlantis’ throne and prevent this all-out war, Arthur begins a quest to find the Trident of Atlan. He is aided along the way by Mera (Amber Heard), who ultimately becomes his queen.

 

At 2 hours 23 minutes, Aquaman is not a short film, but there’s no shortage of action and beautiful onscreen visuals and sonic mayhem to keep you engaged along the way. In fact, it almost feels like James Wan’s (Furious 7, Saw) directorial direction was, “That looks great, but is there any way we could work a fight scene or some other bit of action in here?” The result for me was a movie that was entertaining to watch, but a tad short on substance, so that I’m not left remembering a lot of specifics or story in between all the mayhem and destruction.

 

You’ve got to hand it to Mamoa in that the dude sure looks like he can fight. The fight scenes with him really look like he is utterly smashing people with crushing blows, and when he picks up some massive object (say, a Russian nuclear submarine), you have the impression that he could actually do it. Also, who knew Aquaman was bulletproof? Mamoa does a good job injecting some sarcastic humor into the role, and, like Gadot as Wonder Woman, it is difficult to imagine another actor that could have pulled off Aquaman.

 

While taken from a 2K Digital Intermediate, I never felt the image lacked detail. In fact, far from it. Water is one of those things that can really benefit from HDR’s wider color gamut, and the underwater scenes all look gorgeous, with lots of bright and delineated blues and greens. There is a lot of phosphorescence in the undersea kingdoms, with colors that pop off the screen. You also get excellent shadow detail and no banding issues. The various characters’ hair all flows and gently waves around their heads while they are underwater, further adding to the illusion. Closeups have a ton of detail, like the detailing in the characters’ costumes or individual water droplets. There is nary a bit of grain, and black levels are deep and solid. One of the many fight scenes takes place outside in Sicily, and has several long shots where the camera pulls back to see the housetops. It looks fantastic—edge detail is sharp and the HDR highlights really come through.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is quite aggressive and plays wonderfully in a luxury home theater. There is a lot of deep, seismic bass info to keep your subs happy, and the surround channels are used frequently and effectively to put you in the action. The sound design team also uses the height speakers to frequent and good effect, placing appropriate sounds above you like rain and footsteps. Also, I’ve noticed many recent films are over-mixing action into the center channel, which can make dialogue difficult to understand, but I (happily) didn’t have any issues with dialogue intelligibility here.

 

While some of the talk about sea kingdoms and rulers reminded me of the Senate redistricting mess of Star Wars: Episode I, and some of the underwater alien battle scenes were reminiscent of Starship Troopers, and visually I was often reminded of Pandora from Avatar, overall Aquaman makes for a fun night in the home theater. And after raking in over $1.14 billion at the box office, a sequel is already in the works.

John Sciacca

Aquaman

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.