Reviews

The Expanse

Amazon Prime "The Expanse"

Back in May 2018, there was a disturbance in sci-fi TV culture. In the midst of broadcasting the third season of The Expanse, SyFy decided not to renew the show even though it was garnering its best reviews so far. This wasn’t the first time the channel had canceled a series at the height of its popularity. SyFy (then called the Sci Fi Channel) nixed Farscape in the middle of its fourth season after renewing it less than a year earlier for a fourth and fifth season.

 

The Expanse was reportedly cancelled because of broadcast rights. Unlike in the early aughts, options today go beyond network and cable distribution. International streaming rights for the series belonged to Netflix, while Amazon owned the domestic streaming rights. SyFy was only getting first-run rights, and that wasn’t enough for them so they killed the show. But after a #SaveTheExpanse fan campaign, Amazon worked out a deal and picked up the show. A happy ending for all!

 

The series is based on rich source material—a series of books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who go by the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. It’s an epic space opera about citizens of Earth, Mars, and The Belt, and how they deal with each other after the introduction of an unknown infectious molecule. The story centers on the remaining crew of a ship destroyed in a mysterious attack. As they try to figure out what caused the attack, they’re pulled into a system-wide struggle between the political juggernauts of Earth and Mars.

 

To say the source material is dense is an understatement, but it’s translated to the screen extremely well. The exceptional ensemble cast includes veteran actors like Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Chad L. Coleman, François Chau, and David Strathairn. There are also relative newcomers, including Cara Gee, who has a breakthrough performance opposite Mr. Strathairn during Season Three.

 

You can stream the first two seasons for free on Amazon Prime in 4K with 5.1 soundtracks. For now at least, Season Three is only available for purchase in 1080p with 5.1. But, with Season Four expected in 2019 (and possibly in 4K HDR), a 4K version of the third season is imminent.

 

SyFy originally aired the first three seasons with HD broadcast masters, but the show was shot in 4K, and that’s what the UHD presentation is here (although visual fx were done at 2K and upconverted to match). The images look fantastic, and you’d be hard-pressed to see any degradation from the vfx being upped to 4K. Colors are vibrant when they need to be, and beautifully muted for some space shots—especially on the asteroid Eros towards the end of Season One. You can feel the oppression of being in a space station built into an asteroid.

 

The sound design is excellent throughout the series, although it really hits another level starting in Season Two. The Expanse begins by being true to the source material’s insistence on hard sci-fi—that is, a strong accuracy to the physics of being in space. Starting with Season Two, the series is a bit more lenient with its science, which leads to more engaging moments. The surround channels are used judiciously to enhance the atmosphere of the locations.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced as much enjoyment from a sci-fi series as I have from The Expanse, both in book form and on screen. There are thousands of fans, myself included, who are incredibly grateful Amazon decided to pick up the show for another season. But best of all, watching the UHD presentations on Prime is a great way to get ready for what’s to come next year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start another re-watch from S1E1.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

To show that home theater and media rooms are for much more than just movie and TV watching, this week I’m reviewing Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague, available on Blu-ray Disc or for HD download from the Kaleidescape Movie Store (the version I watched).

 

If you’re a film fan, you’re likely familiar with Zimmer’s work, since it’s spanned the past 30 years. He has scored more than 150 films, including many for Ridley Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer, and, most recently, Christopher Nolan. Zimmer has received numerous Grammys, two Golden Globes, and an Academy Award in 1995 for Best Original Score for The Lion King.

 

Filmed in Prague, this concert captures an evening during Zimmer’s 2016 European concert tour where he plays 35 songs spanning decades of his work and includes music from Sherlock Holmes, Crimson Tide, Gladiator, The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and Inception. (Sadly, this concert pre-dates Zimmer’s fascinating and intense score for Nolan’s recent Dunkirk.)

 

An interesting (in a good way) twist is the concert’s Dolby Atmos mix, meaning it’s recorded to really shine in a luxury home surround setup. Now, you might or might not love the decisions made in this very aggressive mix, but no one will watch this and leave wondering whether all of their speakers were active or not. 

 

Years ago, I had the privilege of seeing Star Wars in Concert in person, an event that brought together the 86-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus along with a giant high-def LED screen, measuring some 60-feet wide by 30-feet tall. This two-hour performance featured music spanning all six Star Wars films, blending music, film, lasers, pyrotechnics, and spectacle into a fantastically memorable evening.

That experience set my expectations for this concert, so I assumed there would be video and effects accompanying the score, but I was wrong. In fact, the concert opens with no dialogue or introduction whatsoever. It merely begins with Zimmer alone on stage at a piano playing the opening notes from “Driving” (Driving Miss Daisy). He is soon joined by another musician on flute, and then another on accordion, and soon there is a full stage of musicians, along with a full orchestra, and backing vocals provided by the

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

Czech national choir, making 72 musicians in all—including Johnny Marr of The Smiths fame on guitar.

 

After playing the opening three songs, and at various points throughout the concert’s 138-minute run time, Zimmer steps to the mic to say a few words, introducing members of the band, and sharing some memories or anecdotes about the compositions.

 

Shot digitally on Arri Alexa, the 16:9 image looks beautiful. Colors are bright and punchy, black levels are deep and solid with no banding or noise, showing off clear differences between the different shades of black in the performers’ outfits, and there is plenty of detail.

 

While there are no laser effects and very little accompanying video (some pulsing lights and symbols that enhance the beat, rhythm, and mood of the score, not displaying any movie footage), the show features plenty of dramatic lighting to illuminate the performers and punctuate the intensity of various tracks.

 

One great benefit of owning the Kaleidescape version is that all of the songs are bookmarked, allowing you to easily jump to your favorite moments, or just press the “Info” button to bring up the title listing to identify what you’re listening to.

 

Like Zimmer’s scoring style, the audio from this concert is big and bombastic. It also differs from the original works in that it has more of a rock concert, electronic vibe to it, which arguably works better, and is more entertaining, for a live show. “Why So Serious?” from The Dark Knight is one of my favorite Zimmer works, and here it plays a bit like a Blue Man Group performance, with heavy percussion and an intense light show that well capture the Joker’s manic personality.

 

Played at reference volumes, this concert is quite loud, and has a surprising amount of deep low-frequency information, especially the opening notes of “Half Remembered Dream” from Inception. In fact, while watching this I had to remove the filter on my SVS sub that boosts bass at 32 Hz to give a bit of punch to films because it created just too much low-end bloat.

 

As mentioned before, the Atmos mix is highly immersive and aggressive, but also . . . interesting. Often concert or performance mixes are done from either an on-stage or in-crowd perspective, but for most of this show, you’re positioned primarily in the middle of the mix, with instrumentation and vocals frequently wrapping all around the room. The primary instruments and backing vocals are mixed heavily into the front channels, but also spread overhead and into the sides. If you find yourself too overwhelmed by the Atmos soundtrack, the Blu-ray also features a two-channel PCM mix. 

 

For fans of Zimmer’s works, this is an absolute must-get. For those who love watching live performances, or are looking for an entertaining evening at home that doesn’t involve explosions, jump scares, or the latest rom-com, this belongs on the shortlist.

John Sciacca

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

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.

Superman: The Movie

Superman: The Movie

Let’s talk about courage for a moment. Not the courage it took for Ilya and Alexander Salkind to make a sentimental and sincere big-budget superhero film when there was no precedent for that sort of thing at the time. Nor the courage it took for director Richard Donner and casting director Lynn Stalmaster to take a risk on unknown Christopher Reeve for the lead role, when so many other famous names were contending for the red cape and spit curl. You’ve no doubt heard those stories before.

 

Let’s talk instead about the courage it took for Warner Bros. to release a 4K HDR version of the film in 2018 that preserves all of the celluloid flaws (and charms) of the original cinematic release, in an era where so many studios are glossing up, de-noising, sharpening, and generally attempting to modernize the standouts in their classic film catalogs.

 

Superman: The Movie is one of those films I buy on any new home video format the day it’s released. Which isn’t to say that every home video release has been a major improvement over the ones before it. This is an intentionally soft and heavily filtered film, after all. It lacks rock-solid blacks. There’s a prominent graininess to the image, especially in special effects shots.

 

If Kaleidescape’s new 4K HDR release of the film weren’t true to all of that, it would be a bit of a betrayal. So why release it in 4K HDR at all? What stands out most in this release as compared with previous efforts (including the Blu-ray-quality 1080p version of the film, also 

included with the Kaleidescape download of this one) is the richness and saturation of its colors, especially in those early sequences in Smallville.

 

Before that, the scenes on Krypton also get a nice boost from the enhanced brightness afforded by 

Superman: The Movie

HDR. I finally think I get what Donner was going for with those silly reflective suits that Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Lara (Susannah York) wear as they ponder the fate of their infant child before rocketing him off to earth. They have a pop and sizzle here that they’ve simply never had on home video before.

 

Other than that, it’s as if a layer of haze has been wiped off of the film. Granted, what was buried under the haze was a late-70s work of photochemical film. It’s fuzzy. It’s muted. Its effects shots look kinda laughable. But that’s long been part of the charm of this film, so kudos to Warner for having the cajones to release it as such, and kudos to Kaleidescape for delivering it with all of its textures and nuances intact. This isn’t the movie you’re going to whip out if you simply want to show off all of your projector’s or TV’s pixel-pumping, high-contrast capabilities. Still, it’s hard to deny that this is the best that Superman: The Movie has ever looked or will likely ever look. I daresay the original 70mm print didn’t shine this brilliantly the first time it was spindled through the projector on opening night in 1978.

 

One thing worth noting is that the Kaleidescape version of the film doesn’t include the new Atmos remix included with the UHD Blu-ray disc. I’m not sure how you feel about that, dear reader, but I don’t miss it. The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix included with the Kaleidescape download is a big step up from previous efforts, especially in terms of its rich, bombastic delivery of John Williams’ iconic score. The fidelity here is simply flawless, yet it isn’t an outright betrayal of the film’s original aesthetic.

 

Am I alone in this, though? Would you rather see a classic like Superman: The Movie presented as a product of its time, in the best possible light of today’s home video technology? Or would you prefer that the studio iron out the grain, sharpen up the edges, slap on a fresh coat of paint, and try to make the film look (and sound!) more like the current crop of superhero flicks that owe so much to this cherished classic?

Dennis Burger

Superman: The Movie

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.

Homecoming

Amazon Prime Homecoming

The brave members of the Armed Forces face numerous atrocities daily while on deployment, and the friendly staff of Homecoming is there to help ease their transition back into normal life. Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) is the therapist on site who leads the facility while also answering to her boss-from-afar, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale). Colin is voraciously interested in the outcome of the experimental treatment Heidi was hired to facilitate.

 

We see the beginnings of this experiment with war veteran Walter, played beautifully by Stephen James, although we aren’t privy to the specifics and depths of the treatment until later. Then something happens, and a complaint is filed. But we have no idea what it is, and thus begins the psychological thriller/mystery at the heart of this series.

Homecoming began its life as a scripted podcast, and the Amazon Prime series honors that source material. (Although there are some major alterations later on, the first TV episode is almost exactly the same as the podcast.) We follow two timelines—one before the incident with Heidi and Walter at the facility, which is shown in a widescreen aspect ratio, and one after, shown in a constricting 4:3 ratio with muted colors, as Department of Defense investigator 

Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigman) tries to determine if the complaint is valid and worth elevating to his superiors.

 

The acting throughout is excellent. The chemistry between Roberts and James pulls us in to the intimacy of their private counseling sessions and carries us along on their journey. There are some wonderful moments from supporting members Sissy Spacek and Dermot Mulroney. And Sam Esmail (creator of Mr. Robot) is masterful in his direction of all episodes. The visuals and quirky music choices do a fantastic job of alternately keeping you on edge and settling you into the experience.

 

Homecoming is available in 4K HDR with a 5.1 soundtrack. An initial search for it through the Amazon app will probably come up with the non-4K version since Amazon doesn’t seem to push their 4K offerings as hard as they should. So be sure you’re getting the proper high-resolution experience. The image quality is stunning and serves the cinematography exceptionally well. The surround speakers are utilized well, and the 5.1 mix never sounds gimmicky but is only there to increase the ambiance or, at times, the tension. There are no explosions or intense car chases to test the limits of your system—it’s not that kind of show—but the subtle use of sound effects throughout leads to some startling moments for the characters.

 

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Papillon (2017)

One of my favorite, truly epic “inspired by actual events” films is Papillon. Released in 1973, it stars Steve McQueen as Henri “Papillon” Charrière, a safecracker framed for murder and condemned to a life of hard labor at the notorious French Guiana penal colony on Devil’s Island. The film is balanced by a terrific performance from Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, a counterfeiter who agrees to finance Papillon’s escape in exchange for protection.

 

I can clearly remember the first time I saw this movie, watching a late-night cable presentation at my grandmother’s house on a 20-inch tube TV, where the marathon tale of survival and escape from the brutalizing French penal system seemed like it ran for four hours.

Papillon (1973)

Papillon (1973)

Whether you saw and remember the original Papillon, I’m betting you weren’t aware it was recently remade. The new version came to theaters in a very limited release this past August with little to no fanfare, and moved on to home video shortly thereafter. When I saw that both versions were available for purchase on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in HD quality, I downloaded them to see how they compared.

 

Both films are based on Charrière’s international best-selling autobiographies, Papillon and Banco. (It’s interesting to note that the 1973 film features a screenwriting credit by Dalton Trumbo, whose own incredible life was the basis for the film Trumbo.) Whereas most “prison break” films spend the majority of time following the plotting of the escape, Papillon instead focuses on the characters and their daily nightmarish existence on Devil’s Island, where treachery lurks around every corner and 40% of prisoners died within the first years, with only two prisoners successfully escaping.

Papillon (2017)

Papillon (2017)

The remake is based on the 1973 screenplay, and thus borrows heavily from the original film’s storyline. Here, the titular character of Papillon (which means “butterfly” in French, for a prominent tattoo) is played by Charlie Hunnam, with Rami Malek (of recent Bohemian Rhapsody fame) taking over Hoffman’s role of Louis Dega. 

 

At 133 minutes, the new film certainly isn’t short, but is 18 minutes shorter than the original. This helps it feel faster paced, with less time spent on the solitary-confinement scenes, and quicker transitions to the film’s many dramatic moments. It also excises scenes from the original (notably the visit to the leper colony), but offers a bit of backstory at the beginning showing Papillon’s life outside of prison, in a very Gatsby-esque Paris.

 

In many ways, the new version reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s (in)famous Psycho remake. While Papillon isn’t a shot-for-shot remake like Van Sant’s Psycho, it leans so heavily on the original storyline, and even dialogue, that it ends up feeling like the same film. Hunnam does an admirable job portraying Pappy, but never seems to hit the same level of rock-bottom despair and suffering McQueen portrayed. Malek, however, does a fantastic job filling Hoffman’s shoes as the out-of-play and overwhelmed Dega just trying to survive to the next day.

 

One thing that can’t be faulted with the new film is the picture and sound quality. While not available in 4K HDR, it has nice detail and solid black levels. The color palette is mostly restrained by design, with drab prison and guard uniforms and hardscrabble landscape. But the images are natural looking, and outdoor scenes are bright, showing off the vibrant blues of the inviting waters surrounding the island. The 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio track is also quite active and does a great job keeping dialogue intelligible. It also upmixes wonderfully to a Dolby Atmos speaker layout, with nice overhead fill from the score and well-placed ambient effects, such as aboard the prison transport ship or during exterior scenes.

 

Critics and audiences alike greatly preferred the original film, with the 1973 version scoring 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 90% audience rating, while the new film only mustered 52% on RT with a 69% audience score. While I’d agree that the original is the superior film—and certainly the one to watch if Papillon is new to you—the remake is far from unenjoyable, and provides a great way to revisit an old favorite in a spruced-up manner. 

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.

Incredibles 2

Incredibles 2 review

Incredibles 2 shouldn’t work. At least not as well as it does. It’s been 14 years since the original film, after all, and the world—our world, the real one without superheroes—has changed. A lot. Socially. Politically. Cinematically. So, to pick up this sequel right after the end of the original film seems a myopic decision. One can’t help but wonder—as the film opens on the familiar closing scenes of its forebear—if Incredibles 2 will ever rise above the level of nostalgic romp.

 

Thankfully those apprehensions are unfounded. Perhaps it’s due to the retro-futuristic tone, style, and aesthetic of the Incredibles universe, but somehow the film manages to catch up with a decade-and-a-half worth of sociopolitical progress and regression while also managing to feel like a fluid and organic extension of the original. And it does so while somehow managing to be less preachy and more nuanced.

 

Another reason Incredibles 2 feels like something of a risky move is the fact that it has the courage to be a lot of films at once. It’s an unabashed superhero flick, sure. It’s also a girl-power anthem and a slapstick masterpiece rolled up into one, with a side-helping of commentary on all forms of media (new, social, and mainstream). There’s teenage romance. There’s thrilling action. There are poop jokes and technological warnings that are about as subtle as a 1958 Pontiac Parisienne. There’s also an epic (and epically hilarious) battle between a trash panda and an infant, for goodness’ sake. But somehow this mélange of themes and tones and styles coalesces into something that works wonderfully and cohesively.

 

If there’s one criticism to be leveled at the film, it’s that from 30,000 feet its main plot is sort of just a gender-inversion of the original film’s main storyline. In many ways that works to its advantage, though. It gives the longtime fan something to latch onto—a sense of comforting familiarity that in many ways makes this film’s narrative and thematic departures hit home with a little more oomph.

 

More than anything, though, the themes of Incredibles 2 build on those of the original in a seemingly seamless way. Whereas the first film dealt largely with issues of individuality, the sequel in many ways wraps its arms around the internal struggle between defining ourselves as individuals and accepting that who we are as people is often a function of who we are to the other people in our lives, especially when viewed through the lens of the family.

 

That isn’t really any sort of insightful observation on my part, mind you. It mainly comes from the film’s exceptional collection of bonus features. If you saw Incredibles 2 in cinemas and thought you were done with it, you owe it to yourself to explore the shockingly revelatory and honest supplemental material included with the film. If you’re on Kaleidescape, that means downloading the Blu-ray-quality version of the film as well as the 4K HDR, since the extras are limited to the former.

 

It’s well worth downloading both, though. The Kaleidescape HDR version of the film sets itself apart from the other home video releases thanks to unique color grading that focuses less on the absolute blacks and eye-reactive highlights and more on subtlety and richness of shadows that simply look more cinematic to my eyes. Kaleidescape’s TrueHD Atmos soundtrack (otherwise found only on the film’s UHD Blu-ray release) also has a leg up on the Dolby Digital+ soundtrack found on streaming versions of the film. Not necessarily in the booming bass of big action sequences (of which there are many, with oodles of sonic impact, something Disney hasn’t always gotten right as of late), but more in the subtle details that deliver ambience and atmospherics. And above all else, Incredibles 2 is nothing if not atmospheric.

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.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Ant-Man and the Wasp review

The Disney/Marvel team really has the formula dialed in when it comes to creating successful and enjoyable superhero movies. Through a deft mix of writing, casting, humor, big action pieces, and a 10-year storyline that both lives on its own and weaves between all films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Marvel films are entertaining and re-watchable, making them fantastic for viewing at home. And while many carry a PG-13 rating, as does Ant-Man and the Wasp, they are very family friendly in nature.

 

While technically a sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man, don’t worry that you’ll be lost if you are diving in here. The opening scene lays the groundwork for the primary plot of this film: Years ago, the original Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer) went sub-atomic to disable a missile, and she was thought to be lost forever to the Quantum Realm. Now her husband, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) think there is a way to bring her back. Of course, doing so requires dealing with some shady characters to obtain illegal, black-market tech, causing mayhem to ensue.

 

The film’s big hook is that Dr. Pym’s tech can shrink—and grow—a variety of objects, adding another layer to fight and chase scenes. These Honey, I Shrunk the Kids moments work very well, both visually and for moving the story forward, as well as providing some comedic moments.

 

Paul Rudd—the titular Ant-Man/Scott Lang—carries most of the film, balancing his roles as superhero and father while under house arrest for events that happened in Captain America: Civil War. (This is all explained early on by FBI agent Jimmy Woo, played with great comedic effect by Randall Park.) Rudd is just incredibly likable and easy to watch, similar—but far less foul-mouthed—to Ryan Reynold’s Deadpool, with an ability to organically inject humor into scenes without making it feel forced. Lilly is also fantastic as the Wasp, demonstrating she’s picked up some fierce fighting skills since leaving the island. (That’s a Lost reference, for those who missed it.)

 

The movie was filmed on a variety of Red and Arri cameras at resolutions ranging from 3.4K to 8K, while the home release comes from a 2K Digital Intermediate. This means that it doesn’t mine every bit of resolution possible, but still looks pretty terrific. A great example is the early scene where Jimmy Woo explains why Lang is under house arrest. He’s wearing a shirt with incredibly fine pinstripes that are almost a 1:1 4K resolution test. Other scenes reveal the pebbled texture and detail in Ant-Man and Wasp’s uniforms. The film’s color palette is mostly muted and natural, with a more restrained HDR pass. But the image still pops when it needs to—for example when heading into the Quantum Realm, or the computer screens in Dr. Pym’s lab. Black levels are also deep and noise free, with lots of shadow detail.

 

There has been quite a bit of angst over recent Disney/Marvel home releases with their sub-standard, heavily compressed audio mixes. In fact, a petition was started to get Disney to change the audio quality in future releases, currently with over 1,000 supporters. I’m happy to say that the Dolby Atmos audio quality on Ant-Man and the Wasp is far improved over recent D/M fare. Dialogue is clear and understandable throughout, but more importantly to luxury home cinema owners, the sound mix is far more dynamic, with the overhead speakers used wisely and frequently throughout. This height layer is used for creating ambience and space in the scene, as well as creating directional cues—for example, The Wasp and other insects zipping around the room. If I had one complaint about the audio mix, it would be that they were a little light-handed in the deep bass department, with moments—such as during a big chase and fight scene near the end—that would have benefitted from some extra dBs in the LFE channel.

 

Two scenes that really show off the strength of the audio mix are “Lost in the Quantum Realm” at just over 11 minutes in, as well as Lang’s first visit to Dr. Pym’s lab at the 16 minute mark. “Lost” has audio that swirls and shifts all around the room, simulating Lang’s travel through the realm, with voices mixed in all channels to simulate a dream state. The lab scene wonderfully uses subtle cues like buzzing fluorescent lights, flying and crawling insects, and cavernous echoes to place you smack in the middle of the screen environment.

 

Oh, and without spoiling anything, definitely watch through the credits, as the team does a fantastic job of tying this film into the Infinity War timeline.

 

The film also includes a host of extra features including a director’s commentary, a variety of making-of featurettes, outtakes, and deleted scenes

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.

ER

Like millions of Americans in the ‘90s, Thursday nights meant one thing to me: It was time for NBC’s “Must See TV” lineup. NBC had dominated Thursday prime-time programming from the moment Bill Cosby donned his first sweater in 1984, and classic shows like Cheers, L.A. Law, and Seinfeld only tightened the network’s hold on Thursday viewership over the next decade.

 

But even the execs at NBC had to be surprised by the immediate breakout success of two shows added to that already powerful Thursday night lineup in September of 1994: Friends and ER.

 

My mother fell in love with ER (and George Clooney, of course) from the very start, so we quickly settled into a family ritual. Every Thursday night after work, I’d drive the 20 miles to Mom’s house. We’d settle in, flip on NBC, order some pizza, switch to something else when Madman of the People came on, and then switch back in time for our weekly appointment with the doctors and nurses at Chicago’s County General hospital.

We clearly were not the only ones captivated by this new drama—ER became a mainstay in the Nielsen Top 10 for the next decade, and at the height of its popularity averaged more than 35 million viewers.

 

ER finally signed off in 2009 after 15 seasons, a remarkable 331 episodes, and 124 Emmy nominations (a record for a drama). The final episode gave the series its largest rating in years, but the show seemed to disappear from the public consciousness very quickly after it left the air.

 

We live in an era of countless cable TV channels and multiple streaming platforms, yet for 10 years the only way to watch ER was on DVD. That finally changed last year, when the POP network started airing three episodes every afternoon. I soon found myself entrenched in a full show re-watch—a task that took up a Dr. Benton’s ego-sized chunk of my spare time (and about 75% of my DVR) over a six-month period.

 

Thankfully, anyone who now wants to revisit ER can do so in much simpler fashion. Earlier this year, Hulu announced it had added all 15 seasons to its streaming service. You no longer have to force yourself to watch three episodes a day just to keep pace, like I did. But that does bring up a big question: Is an ER binge really worth 331 hours of your precious screen time?

 

At the very least, I’d recommend watching the first seven or eight seasons—especially if you’re a first-time viewer. Medical dramas have always been a staple on TV, but ER was the first to expose viewers to the real blood and guts of a big-city hospital. The fast-paced, in-your-face cinematography was always a standout aspect of the show, and these early episodes look even better now that they can now be seen in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. (Note: ER episodes began airing in widescreen during Season Seven, but they were filmed in widescreen format from Day One.)

 

As impressive as ER was from a technical standpoint, it was always the characters that were the heart of the show. George Clooney may have become the breakout superstar, but every member of that stellar original cast created a character to remember. Even the smaller roles of the nurses and desk clerks seemed like people you wanted to have a beer with, and that only added to ER’s mass appeal.

 

Of course, with great success came great cast turnover. One by one, George Clooney and Juliana Margulies and Eric La Salle eventually left the show. Maura Tierney and Goran Ivanisevic came on board and helped to keep the quality (and ratings) at a high level, but the glory days of ER officially came to an end with the departure of Noah Wyle’s John Carter in 2005.

 

With no ties left to the original cast, ER lost much of what made it appealing in the first place. The storylines became more and more over-the-top (so many explosions!), but there were always just enough quality moments to keep me watching for all 15 seasons.

 

And as my re-watch reminded me, ER was never lacking in star power. Almost every episode seemed to feature someone who would go on to do bigger and better things—Lucy Liu, Kirsten Dunst, Christina Hendricks. Zac Efron, Chris Pine, and Jessica Chastain are just a small sampling of the many then-unknowns who made visits to County General over the years.

 

While I truly enjoyed my recent re-watch, it wasn’t always easy viewing. ER will forever remind me of my mother, even though we stopped watching together on a regular basis after she moved away in the late ‘90s. Mom is older now and going through some tough medical issues, and more than a few episodes hit just a little too close to home—but that was always the power of ER at its very best.

 

I’m sure that over the course of 331 episodes, you’ll shed some tears as well. And if you do manage to make it through to the very end, you’ll be rewarded with a final season that features return engagements from almost all of the show’s original stars. Even Anthony Edwards makes an appearance, despite the fact that Dr. Greene passed away way back in Season Eight.

 

ER may have been on life support over its last few seasons, but the final episodes provide a fitting end to one of TV’s longest-running—and best—dramas.

Gary Maxwell

 

All 15 seasons of ER are available on Hulu. It is also available for streaming from Amazon,
Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.

Gary Maxwell lives in Dallas with his wife, three cats, 6,000 LPs, and a vintage Atari 2600.
He once attended 218 consecutive Texas Longhorn football games over a span of 17 years,
yet he seems unable to commit to a particular brand of shampoo. His all-time favorite TV
show is Star Trek, except when it’s dark on Tuesday. When someone asks Gary if he prefers
the Beatles or the Stones, his answer is “The Who.”

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction

After saying goodbye to late-night TV in 2015, David Letterman returns to the interview chair in the new Netflix original series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction . . . with David Letterman. Gone are the Top Ten lists, stupid pet tricks, and cast of cohorts. The new show is just Dave and a guest, sitting on a stage in front of a live audience.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “series” in that introduction because, for Netflix regulars, it might set up the expectation that there’s an entire season’s worth of episodes to binge on right now. After all, that is Netflix’ modus operandi with most of its original shows. Here, though, a new episode drops roughly once a month. The first one arrived on January 12 and featured a fellow by the name of Barak Obama. Since then, they’ve added interviews with George Clooney in February and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in March. Up next on April 13: Jay-Z.

 

Each episode is pre-recorded and runs about an hour. The format is an interesting hybrid. On the one hand, you’ve got the Charlie Rose/Tom Snyder approach of sitting with just one guest and getting a nice, meaty interview. Yet the decision to add a live audience gives it a warmer, livelier vibe that’s obviously better suited to Dave’s interview style.

 

Spliced in between the interview segments are video vignettes—called “curiosity-fueled excursions” in the show description—in which Dave visits various locations to explore something related to the interview. In the first episode, he takes a walk with Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and they discuss the Bloody Sunday march in 1965. You may recall the powerful images of President Obama and Lewis crossing that bridge together during the 50-year anniversary march in 2015.

 

In Episode Two, we meet Clooney’s parents and are introduced to an Iraqi refugee named Hazim Avdal, whom the family sponsors. He tells the story of his flight from persecution by ISIS.

My Next Guest

In Episode Three, Dave takes a tour of Oxford with Yousafzai and several of her fellow female students—who don’t necessarily “get” Dave and his sense of humor. (“They hate me,” he quips to the camera at one point, and he may be right.) If you don’t know Yousafzai’s story (and I did not), she is from Pakistan and has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, especially the right for girls to be educated. At the age of 15, she was shot in the head by the Taliban yet survived. Now, at the ripe old age of 20, she continues her activism while living and going to school in England.

 

I think you can tell from the above descriptions that, regardless of the guest, the show aims to dig deeper into important subjects of the day. I’ve found all the interviews to be really compelling, but one unexpected highlight is how much better we’re getting to know David Letterman as a human being with each passing episode.

 

Letterman has always been extremely private, and both Obama and Clooney try to turn the tables on him during their interviews, with limited success. But, just through the choice of guests, the extended conversations, and the vignettes, you start to see a fuller picture of this man who lived to entertain others for over 30 years and now, in his “retirement,” is free to explore some the issues that matter to his heart.

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 WirecutterAdrienne lives in Colorado,
where  she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

Review: ‘The Last Jedi’ UHD Blu-ray

I’m often accused of spending too much time thinking about Star Wars. It’s a valid observation, but I think the thing that would surprise most of my friends is that the only times in which Star Wars isn’t fully consuming some part of my waking consciousness is when I’m actually watching one of the films.

 

That may seem like a contradictory statement, but when I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m likely taking it at face value. I’m not deconstructing it as a work of cinema, or pop-philosophy, or fable. There are 22 other hours in the day for that sort of thing. When I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m in it. Wholly consumed. I’m that five-year-old kid again, taking yet another step into a larger world that will forever guide my destiny.

 

Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is, for now at least, the exception to that rule. For a self-styled Star Wars scholar, the latest film in the saga simply doesn’t allow for that sort of detached viewing experience. At least not yet. For now, after 10 viewings, I still find it nearly impossible to watch this film without deconstructing it.

 

If I had to boil it down to just one reason why, I’d say that The Last Jedi represents a daring attempt by a single visionary to dig down to the heart of what makes Star Wars tick—mythologically, narratively, and cinematically. It’s a film that has the courage to take all six of George Lucas’s original Star Wars films as gospel, to explore every implication of every line committed to the silver screen between 1977 and 2005 completely and honestly—including the most obscure elements and seemingly throwaway lines—while also managing to work beautifully as a film on its own terms. If anything, The Last Jedi is almost as much a work of theological apologetics as it is a work of cinematic art.

 

Despite all of that, though, the film does work as art. In fact, I’d say that more so than any Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, this one is more art than product. And that largely has to do with the way writer/director Rian Johnson distills the cinematic and thematic inspiration for the original Star Wars, then finds his own unique way to recombine those ingredients in a personal way.

 

It’s no secret that the original 1977 film was a pastiche of Kurosawa and John Ford, with a heaping helping of The Dam Busters and old Flash Gordon serials thrown in for good measure. Rather than go back to those original influences—or, as was the case with 2015’s The Force Awakens, mine the original Star Wars trilogy nearly exclusively for inspiration—Johnson goes to his own well here, trading The Hidden Fortress for Rashomon, and The Dam Busters for Twelve O’Clock High, while also sprinkling in a dash of Three Outlaw Samurai and To Catch A Thief and Brazil for a little extra spice.

 

The result is that, as with Empire, we end up with a film that’s true to the spirit of Star Wars, and that expands the horizons of Star Wars, but still manages to be the unique artistic vision of a single auteur who isn’t George Lucas, despite the fact that the Maker’s fingerprints are all over it.

The Last Jedi also serves as an unintended farewell to Carrie Fisher, not only as the actor who brought our beloved Leia to life, but also as an uncredited writer and script editor. Her work in the film is some of her best—both onscreen and on the page—but it’s a little difficult to watch the film and not get angry at the universe and Carrie’s own personal demons for taking her from us far too soon.

 

At any rate, the result of all of the above is that The Last Jedi is, for now, a film to be grappled with—a challenging composition that isn’t as easily consumed or processed as most tentpole pictures tend to be. It is, in ways, a cinematic analogue of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, still fresh from its Théâtre des Champs-Élysées debut, with a good bit of extra whimsy and a few adorable critters thrown in.

 

In other ways, though, The Last Jedi is an unapologetic throwback to a less cynical time, and that does make it a bit of an oddball in our current media landscape. For all the talk of this film as a subversive and at times shocking work in the context of the Star Wars canon, it’s hard not to notice how sincere it is. Even characters whose messages run completely counter to the film’s central themes are treated with a level of earnestness that’s both welcome and a little jarring. In fact, one of my few complaints with the film is the rare instance in which this isn’t the case—in which one of the film’s secondary villains is somewhat mocked in a winking way that’s contrary to the film’s overarching but subtle sentimentality.

The Last Jedi

But one aspect of The Last Jedi really hits home for me in such a deeply personal way that it manages to tear down those walls and draw me into its tragic magic completely: The journey of Luke Skywalker. Much has been made of Luke’s portrayal in this film, and I won’t dig into the thoughts of others here. Partly because I don’t care, but mostly because my own connection with Luke overshadows all other discussions for me.

 

The Luke Skywalker we meet in The Last Jedi is a broken man—a once-optimistic do-gooder who has convinced himself that the world is better off without him and the dogma he represents. He’s seen some shit, in the parlance of our times. And without delving too deeply into my own story, it’s a Luke I relate to in a visceral way, because I’ve been there. I’ve struggled with deep, personal losses for which I blamed myself, no matter how far out of my own control they may have been. I’ve been driven to the same level of despair and isolation we see on Luke’s face throughout much of this film.

 

It’s disturbing to watch at times, true. But it also makes Luke’s triumphant return at the end—in which he does the single most Jedi-like thing ever committed to celluloid or CCD—all the more triumphant. Luke Skywalker was my childhood hero. In The Last Jedi, he’s my adult inspiration, in a way I never would have dreamt possible. He’s a reminder that legends are only human, yes. But just as importantly, he’s a reminder that they’re legends for a reason.

 

In my 2018 Wishlist published on the Rayva Roundtable, I rather naïvely hoped this beautiful, moving, deeply thoughtful, and paradoxically fun film would receive the home video release it deserved, right out of the gate. Much to my shock and amazement, it has. The Ultra HD disc is a new high bar in terms of audiovisual presentation. This is the disc you’ll want to pull out when some naysayer opines that Blu-ray or streaming is perfectly sufficient. The High Dynamic Range imagery reveals depths of detail in the shadows I struggled to see even in IMAX.

The Last Jedi

In terms of supplemental material, it seems as if nothing was held back for a more ultimate release down the road. Deleted scenes abound, and in stark contrast with the Blu-ray release of The Force Awakens, the behind-the-scenes features aren’t all back-patting, neck-hugging, Kumbaya marketing fluff. Hell, even the marketing fluff that has leaked out to accompany The Last Jedi’s home video release has been a step up from most everything on the Episode VII disc.

 

The real star of this collection, though, is the feature-length documentary The Director and the Jedi, in which we get some serious insight into just how much Rian Johnson loves, appreciates, and more importantly understands Star Wars. We also see, through the course of the documentary, Mark Hamill angrily struggle to come to terms with the Luke Skywalker he’s tasked with playing in this film, then slowly come around to fully embrace Johnson’s vision. It’s raw, It’s emotional, it’s genuine in a way we don’t normally see in making-of docs. Simply put, The Director and the Jedi is a film that all cinema fans—even those who aren’t Star Wars obsessives—need to watch.

 

Johnson’s audio commentary for the film is also a delight, and it’s fortunate it was recorded before the film’s release, since we end up with the filmmaker’s genuine thoughts and reflections, rather than his reactions to the discussion of his work post-release.

 

But if there’s one bonus feature I’m more excited about than any other, it’s the isolated score track, a feature I’ve been begging for since the DVD days. It’s worth noting that the isolated score (in which you watch the film without dialogue, without sound effects, only John Williams’ brilliant symphonic narrative accompaniment) isn’t actually found anywhere on the discs. To access it, you have to redeem the Movies Anywhere code found in the UHD Blu-ray case and watch the film via your web browser or media streamer.

 

As with the film itself, though, it’s absolutely worth the effort. 

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.