Reviews

Review: Star Wars: The Bad Batch

Star Wars: The Bad Batch (2021)

Beginnings definitely aren’t Dave Filoni’s strong suit. As much as I’ve raved about his efforts on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that show took at least a season to find its footing. The followup, Rebels, also went through an awkward adolescence before developing into another incredible series—seriously some of the best Star Wars storytelling in the Disney era. 

 

As the architect of the galaxy far, far away in the animated domain, Filoni puts a lot of faith in his audience’s ability to invest in a long game, but the flipside is that we in the audience have to put a lot of faith in him, to trust that things will pay off in the 

end. And they always do, at least so far. What, then, to make of the fact that The Bad Batch, the latest Star Wars series to spin from Filoni’s mind, starts off pretty darned good?

 

Before we dig too deeply into the execution of this new Disney+ series, let’s get some horse-race stuff out of the way for those of you who are interested. The Bad Batch is a direct sequel to The Clone Wars. In fact, the first four episodes of the seventh season of TCW—which aired on Disney+ last year, five years after the show’s original premature cancelation—served as a transparent backdoor pilot for this show, which follows the trials and tribulations of a squad of rogue clones in the earliest days of the Galactic Empire.

 

The first episode overlaps with the final four episodes of The Clone Wars and the third act of Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, which is starting to become pretty well-worn territory in the new Star Wars canon. But rather than use 

BAD BATCH AT A GLANCE

This Disney+ followup to Clone Wars and Rebels hits its stride pretty early on for a Star Wars animated series. 

 

PICTURE
The animators take advantage of HDR to extensively explore light and shadow, resulting in one of the best uses of Dolby Vision in a cartoon to date.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack alternates between an intimate center-channel-heavy mix and a more bombastic, surround-channel-friendly affair that puts you right in the middle of the action.

the fall of the Republic, destruction of the Jedi, and rise of the Empire as a denouement or conclusion, the new show uses them as a jumping-off point, which quickly leads into territory that hasn’t been explored in live-action or animation.

 

Not to drop too much geekiness on your screen here but what makes Clone Force 99 (aka The Bad Batch) special is that they’re defective (or “deviant,” in their own words), and as such immune to the programming that causes the Clone Army to become proto-Stormtroopers in the new Empire. Each has a mutation that gives him a special skill but also makes him less controllable. And you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to guess that their uniqueness will eventually put them at odds with the new totalitarian regime. 

 

Neither do you have to be too observant—although perhaps you do need to be of a certain age—to recognize that this Bad Batch shares a lot of similarities with another group of small-screen anti-heroes, The A-Team, as well as big-screen misfits like The Dirty Dozen.

 

In the two episodes that have aired thus far—the 75-minute “Aftermath” and the 30-minute “Cut and Run”—we don’t really get a sense of what if any role this unruly team will serve in the impending rebellion. In fact, we don’t really get much of a sense of what the show’s formula will be, aside from the “formed family on the run from the Man” trope already explored in Rebels. 

 

But that sort of doesn’t matter—at least not yet. The Bad Batch doesn’t stand or fall on a unique premise. What makes the show work already is that it has established a consistent tone and style in just two episodes, something Clone Wars and Rebels fumbled around with for a bit too long. It also seems to already know what it’s about—mainly, the internal tug-of-war that arises from being an iconoclast searching for a purpose and a meaningful role in a society that seems to be falling apart.

 

In terms of its look, the series definitely builds on the foundation of Clone Wars, relying on similar character models and generally following the trend of taking a sort of Gerry Anderson-esque “Supermarionation” vibe and injecting a healthy dose of articulation and fluidity into the animation. 

 

Computing power has, of course, come a long way since Clone Wars first hit screens in 2008, though, and Filoni and his team don’t seem compelled to stick to the style of that series slavishly. The animation in The Bad Batch is much more detailed, and the backgrounds in particular benefit from much more richness, depth, and sophistication. 

 

Perhaps the most striking thing about the visuals, though, is the way the imagery benefits from high dynamic range. The Bad Batch was created from the ground up for exhibition on Disney+, not broadcast TV, and as such has much more freedom to use shadows and light in interesting and effective ways. It remains to be seen if it maintains this Botticellian chiaroscuro aesthetic as it moves into new and unexplored environments—and it seems it will—but it already represents among the best application of Dolby Vision in animation to date. 

 

Big props are also owed to composer Kevin Kiner, who returns to deliver a very different musical landscape from those he developed for Clone Wars and Rebels. With the former series, his music skewed heavily toward a Star Wars prequel-era style, and with the latter he had to at least evoke the music of the original trilogy. With The Bad Batch, though, he has managed to create a new and different musical language that nonetheless feels perfect for the franchise. There’s a mix of traditional and experimental, of orchestral and electronic, that feels like Star Wars without aping John Williams or Ludwig Goransson or even Kiner’s own previous work in this universe. 

 

The sound mixers seem to realize that they have something special to work with in Kiner’s score, because they give it oodles of room to breathe, both spatially and proportionally. At its most intimate, the sound mix is a center-speaker-heavy affair. At its most bombastic, it uses the entire Dolby Atmos soundscape to drop you right into the conflict. For the most part, though, it’s a three-channel, front-heavy mix, with dialogue following the characters from left to right across the screen and Kiner’s music filling the front soundstage, leaking into the surrounds to give it some ambience and an additional sense of space.

 

In short, The Bad Batch is an audiovisual treat of the best kind. And while the series itself hasn’t quite risen to the narrative or thematic heights of its predecessors, it’s off to a consistently entertaining start, which is something that couldn’t be said of Filoni’s previous animated Star Wars adventures. It also seems to be playing things a little safe at the moment, trying too hard at times to recreate the magic of its predecessors. If it can break out of that rut (and knowing Filoni’s past work, I have every reason to suspect that it will), The Bad Batch has the potential to be something truly great. 

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Nashville

Nashville (1975)

Shot in a city meant to be a not-too-flattering microcosm of the whole of American society on the cusp of the country’s Bicentennial and released during what should have been a celebratory but turned out to be a very flat and bitter, still hung over from the ‘60s, year, everything about Robert Altman’s Nashville screams that this is supposed to be an important film—which is deeply ironic since Altman was rightly known as an iconoclast who openly mocked the idea of important films. And yet he succeeded mightily in creating a movie that was, and remains, important without succumbing to any of the lazy pretentiousness of Oscar fodder.

 

Given all that, Nashville needs to be approached on its own terms; and within the context of the country at the time; and, maybe more importantly, from the vantage of the state of the country today. And that all needs to be done without turning this

review into a scholarly essay.

 

The widescreen (2.35:1) aspect ratio says this is supposed to be an epic, but any action that approaches the epic is treated ironically, and the framing is mainly deployed—similarly to The Long Goodbye but on a much more ambitious level—to capture intimacy; the chaotic intimacy of people alone in groups, but also of people just alone.

 

Altman saw the country rapidly devolving into individuals encouraged to fetishize their own importance, leading to what the French philosopher Paul Virilio called, awkwardly, totalitarian individualism—an overinflated, ultimately fascist, sense of self that at the end of the day only reinforces how unimportant each individual is. This is probably the strongest through-line in Adam Curtis’s documentaries, that Americans keep confusing narcissistic indulgence with freedom—something corporations are happy to exploit because vanity makes people easy to sell to, and that 

NASHVILLE AT A GLANCE

Robert Altman’s intimately epic look at the state of society c. 1976, filtered through the lens of the country-music scene. 

 

PICTURE
The 4K HDR transfer restores much of the subtle vibrancy missing from earlier home-video incarnations but is occasionally a tad saturated.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1 mix doesn’t do much to add separation to Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue but does give a nice sense of presence to the frequent performance scenes.

political groups ride just as hard because it creates the illusion of free expression while stifling meaningful dissent in resentment and rage.

 

All of this was just beginning to coalesce at the time Altman made Nashville, with corporations groping toward figuring out how to channel the earnest childishness of the ’60s, guiding it through things like EST, Scientology, Ayn Rand, and Tony Robbins so that when people looked around, all they saw were themselves. Altman got a lot of this right but missed one crucial thing—like a lot of others, he assumed the Carterian malaise would lead to the emergence of a viable third party. What it got us instead was Reagan.

 

Every character in the film reinforces this theme of crippling isolation—and it’s a massive cast—but there’s no redundancy. Instead, each portrait contributes to a mosaic that, when you step back and consider the whole, is devastating. On an emotional level—in a film about the death of emotion—the two key characters are Gwen Welles’ endlessly pathetic Sueleen Gaye and Keith Carradine’s promiscuous troubadour, Tom. Sueleen, hopelessly naive—and dumb—is imperviously optimistic, while the sociopathic Tom exploits the Romantic notion of the wandering minstrel to bed down every woman he encounters. They represented the two poles of American existence at the time, positions that have only become more entrenched, grotesque, and infinitely more dangerous since.

 

Stepping to one side of all the sociopolitical stuff for a second, you have to marvel at the consistency of the performances Altman was able to draw from such a sprawling group of players. It’s almost impossible to single anybody out because everyone gets their standout moments, but it’s worth focusing in particular on Ronee Blakely, Ned Beatty, Keenan Wynn, and the always underrated but strangely compelling Henry Gibson. The weakest link is David Hayward—and it’s not really his fault because he did the best he could with what he had to work with, but Altman’s conception of the lone gunmen was stuck in ‘50s psycho-dramas so he failed to grasp how non-human these emptied-out souls tend to be—ironic since he accurately sensed the same thing in Carradine’s Tom.

 

Nothing in this film is supposed to be beautiful—not in the gauzy Geoffrey Unsworth style admired at the time or the kind of relentlessly smart-ass and ultimately trite compositions we’ve come to idolize since. Like in The Long Goodbye, Altman is going for a deceptive flatness, a grittiness, relying on telephoto lenses so he’s more spying on the characters, having them reveal themselves, than framing them. The “pretty” shots are deliberately vicious, and always tied to Geraldine Chaplin’s clueless documentary for the BBC—the masses of parked school buses turned into a kind of refugee camp and the truly gorgeous in its grunge shot of the crushed and mangled junked cars.

 

That last shot is a good way of judging the quality of the 4K HDR transfer, which for the most part seems faithful to Altman’s visual plan but occasionally wanders off the reservation—especially early in the film, where some of the shots look a little

oversaturated, so traditionally pretty that they border on cartoonish. Not that Altman ever made this easy for anybody, constantly looking for ways to approach the idea of Hollywood movies from the obliquest possible angles, so anyone not completely on his wavelength is inevitably going to make mistakes transferring his work. But the material is compelling enough that you don’t notice the visual stumbles unless you seek them out.

 

Altman was notorious for his overlapping dialogue, which could occasionally lapse into mannerism but works for the most part here. That approach has been so widely adopted since that it really shouldn’t throw anybody coming to the film at this late date. But the 5.1 mix doesn’t seem to do much to improve the separation between the voices. The music is well, but not spectacularly, presented—but that was part of Altman’s point, that feeble, desperate tunes like these are just crap meant to be born off by the wind.

 

I’m probably making Nashville sound heavy and brooding. It’s not. But it’s not exactly light and fluffy either. Altman does a great job of keeping things moving and of creating a pleasant enough surface for people who want their movies to be nothing but bright and shiny distractions. But everything just beneath that surface is troubling, and piercing, and disturbingly prescient. This isn’t the whiny kiddie

Nashville (1975)

darkness of contemporary film. Altman saw how truly dark things were about to become and recorded it all as faithfully as he could. Nashville is a document of a past lost and a future more than earned.

 

I can’t wrap this review up without talking about the ending—not that anything I, or anyone, could say could do it justice. All I can do is point toward it and say that no one has ever presented something this clear-sighted and brutal before or since. Altman managed to perfectly sum up the entire film there—not really narratively, but thematically, aesthetically, and emotionally. It’s all very wry and detached but it had to be because, without that distance, it would be impossible to bear.

 

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Speed

Speed (1994)

There are two movies I can say literally changed my life without any hyperbole. The first was Speed. (The second was Heat, but that story will have to wait for another day, and another review . . .) In 1994, my friend Travis’s dad purchased a modest home theater system from a big-box store. As I recall, it was a JBL package actually comprised of two systems—one called Music that included two speakers and a subwoofer, and one called Movies that included a center channel and rear speakers. Once the system was installed, Travis invited me and another friend—Pierre—over to see a movie. Pierre’s dad happened to own a LaserDisc player and had just purchased Speed on LaserDisc, so that seemed like the perfect actioner for three guys to watch.

 

While I’d certainly seen the Dolby Surround logo plastered on TV shows at the time touting the new-ish home technology (I remember it being prominently displayed during The Simpsons intro), I had never actually experienced a home surround 

system of any kind. And even though it was “just” four-channel Dolby Pro-Logic, I was blown away. From the opening moments of the film, hearing the elevator cables snap and spring behind me, with sounds spread across the front of the room, and explosions that seemed to have real depth, I couldn’t believe you could actually have a movie-like surround experience in your own home. I was enthralled with the movie and couldn’t believe how much the audio elevated it.

 

I left Travis’s house a total home theater convert, knowing I needed something like that of my own. That set me on a journey down the rabbit hole of researching all the different technologies then available (this was right on the cusp of Dolby Digital—or AC-3 as it was known then—being launched on the home market), that ultimately led me to determine I no longer wanted to continue my career as a golf professional but wanted to become a custom installer and install systems like this for a living.

SPEED AT A GLANCE

A breakout film for both Reeves and Bullock, this seminal ’90s actioner receives the 4K HDR treatment. 

 

PICTURE
Images are mostly clean and detailed throughout retaining a film-like look with just a bit of grain visible in some of the outdoor sky scenes or bright lights.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio track is surprisingly effective and aggressive for a 5.1 mix, with deep and dynamic bass.

Pretty powerful for a movie that doesn’t even last two hours that I watched heavily letterboxed on a 32-inch tube TV! 

 

As you can imagine, I have a pretty big soft spot in my heart for Speed, so I was thrilled when I saw that 20th Century Fox was giving it a new 4K UltraHD transfer with HDR grading. Was I mildly disappointed that they chose not to do a Dolby Atmos immersive audio mix for the movie rather than stick with the same 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio that was used on the original Blu-ray? Sure. But I was really impressed with how dynamic and aggressive this mix was, especially when run through a modern theater processor utilizing an upmixer like Dolby Surround or DTS-Neural.

 

Any time you revisit a beloved film years later, it’s always a bit of a concern that things won’t hold up. Will the effects be dated and unbelievable? Will dialogue be cheesy? Will plot points that were credible 20-plus-years-ago now have gaping holes in them? Happily, Speed still totally holds up, being just as entertaining and engaging now as ever.

 

At the time, Keanu Reeves’ career was certainly on the rise, following major roles in Bill & Ted’s, Point Break, and Dracula. But he wasn’t the action hero we know today from The Matrix and John Wick films, and his role as dauntless SWAT officer Jack Traven definitely had audiences looking at him in a new light that didn’t include any surfer-dude lingo. Even less known was Sandra Bullock, and it’s safe to say her role as sudden hero Annie in Speed turbocharged both of their careers. (Though she does seem remarkably bubbly and cute for someone thrust into the situation of driving a bus to keep people alive that could be blown up at literally any second . . .) The film is also anchored by solid performances from Dennis Hopper as baddie Howard Payne, Joe Morton as police captain McMahon, and Jeff Daniels as Keanu’s partner, Harry. This is also the directorial debut of Jan de Bont, though he had cut his chops as cinematographer on action films like Die Hard, Black Rain, The Hunt for Red October, and Lethal Weapon 3, where he developed an eye for pacing and framing. 

 

While it has been called Die Hard-on-a-bus due to its near relentless action, Traven having to overcome one formidable hurdle after another, and Payne always anticipating one step ahead (and, of course, de Bont’s association with Die Hard), the film is different in that it takes its time to get to know the characters around the action, making you more involved in the story. It also jumps straight into the story and action, with none of the lengthy buildup found in Die Hard.

 

After officer Traven and his partner Harry foil a bomber’s attempt at ransoming hostages trapped in an elevator, Payne detonates a bomb on a city bus to get Traven’s attention. He then informs Traven that he has planted another bomb on a different bus that will explode if the bus slows below 50 MPH—or if anyone attempts to leave the bus. Traven must find a way to keep the bus’s speed above 50 MPH in LA traffic until Payne can work out his ransom demands of $3.7 million from the city, all while Harry attempts to uncover and track down the bomber.

 

Originally filmed in 35mm, this transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. While there is a bit of grain visible in some of the outdoor sky scenes or bright lights, it was never objectionable. Images are mostly clean and detailed throughout, retaining a film-like look without having detail scrubbed away or looking soft. I did notice that some shots—such as early scenes inside the elevator car—have some focus or softness issues, but this is likely due to the original production. 

 

While you can’t expect the tack-sharp look of a modern digital production, what you do notice is the clarity and sharpness throughout, especially during closeups. There are scenes where it cuts between Payne watching TV broadcasts and closeups of him, and the difference in resolution and detail is startling. Later scenes where they are on the bus at the airport look especially terrific. Beyond revealing all of the lines, wrinkles, and whiskers in actors’ faces, you see detail like the winding in the strands of the elevator cabling, the sheen and texture of metal, and the fabric detail. One early scene of Harry is so 

sharp, you can clearly make out the different texture in the fake sweat used on his face. Longer shots—such as aerial shots when the camera pulls way back to reveal the bus amidst freeway traffic—also don’t have the overall sharp focus of modern cameras, but still look far better than any of the prior releases.

 

The wider color gamut helps things like explosions to really pop with bright red-orange fireballs. We also get some vivid color from red traffic safety cones, orange-white road signs, and yellow painting in the subway. Black levels are sufficiently deep and clean, with a couple of scenes showing police uniforms that actually appeared a bit too dark, not revealing any detail. Bright lighting like fluorescents in the elevator shaft and in the subway have a lot of pop. Overall, color and images look very natural.

 

As mentioned, while Speed didn’t receive a new sound mix, it is surprisingly effective and aggressive, especially when played through a modern AV processor. The opening scene that captured my attention on first viewing all those years ago is still audibly dynamic, now with the twang and tension of elevator cables happening overhead as well as behind, giving much greater sense of height to the space. The sound designers really leaned into every opportunity to create an exciting mix, with the sounds of the bus smashing into objects off to the side, 

Speed (1994)

water from smashed barrels splashing up overhead, traffic and siren sounds all around, or falling debris from explosions. Helicopters pass around the room and up overhead, and the subway finale has lots of sounds streaking up the sides of the room as well as atmospherics up on the ceiling.

 

Bass can be deep and dynamic when called on, such as the elevator smashing into the lobby, or a variety of explosions. Dialogue is anchored to the center channel, and remains clear and intelligible throughout.

 

With most of the film’s visual effects being practical, they definitely still hold up. And, yes, that includes the bus jump and the fact that they did actually blow up that plane. (The subway scene at the finale shows its age a bit, and with the enhanced resolution the model work is more noticeable.) Speed remains a ton of fun to watch, and if you haven’t seen it—or just haven’t watched in a while—this new 4K HDR transfer looks and sounds terrific and makes for a great night at the movies!

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: The Flash

The Flash

I like my comic book heroes in red. Since I was a kid (a gentleman never tells, but it was during the Silver Age of Comics), my favorite comics character has been The Flash. I was drawn to him (the Barry Allen Flash—there have been several Flashes in comics lore) because of then-writer John Broome’s explanations of the science behind The Flash’s speed, and his gadgets (like the Flash suit that would pop out of Barry Allen’s ring and expand upon contact with the air), and the weapons the villains used. Even the outlandish stuff had its roots in plausibility, and as a kid, I was fascinated.

 

For those unfamiliar, Barry Allen is a police investigator imbued with the ability to move at incredible speed after a laboratory accident. Taking on the role of superhero The Flash, he devotes himself to fighting crime and other injustices.

 

Historically, the movies and TV haven’t been all that kind to The Fastest Man Alive. (I’ll leave out his various appearances via animation.) The original 1990 TV series starring John Wesley Shipp was more than a little too campy (though Shipp made a 

perfect Barry Allen), and the forced humor made the series feel as if it was embarrassed by itself. While he certainly gave a convincing performance, I found Ezra Miller’s wise-guy turn as The Scarlet Speedster in Justice League to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the original character—and make no mistake, icons like The Flash are ingrained into the pop-culture cosmos, and how they’re portrayed matters.

 

The current The Flash CW TV series, now in its seventh season, is much better than any previous small- and big-screen incarnations and in fact is really good, save the occasional moments of dumbness and some clunker episodes. (This season’s “The One With The Nineties” is particularly cringeworthy.) Grant Gustin stars as Barry Allen/The Flash, and brings a winning combination of charm, nerdiness, self-doubt, and enthusiasm to the role. His thin, muscular build is perfect for The Flash, evoking the coiled-spring energy of a whippet. (And man

THE FLASH AT A GLANCE

Now in its seventh season, this series is, if not true to the letter then entertainingly true to the spirit of the original comic.

 

PICTURE
Beautifully shot, with vivid colors and a wide-open feel—a refreshing change from the dark look of so many other comics movies and shows.

 

SOUND     

The sound effects complement the eye-popping visuals, with whooshes, rumbles, weapons fire, lightning strikes, and sonic mayhem galore.

is that suit tight—no room for pandemic binge-eating!) Candice Patton is absolutely wonderful as Iris West-Allen, far more than just The Hero’s Love Interest, showing a strength, independence, and intelligence, while also being totally enamored with Barry.

 

The cast has changed over the years, with Tom Cavanagh (particularly delightful in various incarnations of scientist/adventurer Harrison Wells), Carlos Valdes (Cisco Ramon/Vibe, Flash’s friend and conscience and all-around irresistible techno-geek), Danielle Panabaker (Caitlin Snow/Killer Frost), Jesse L. Martin (Joe West, father of Iris and Wally West/Kid Flash) and Danielle Nicolet (Cecile West, Joe’s wife) as the other recurring main characters. Other current Team Flash cast members include Kayla Compton (Allegra Garcia, cub reporter and wielder of electromagnetic energy), Efrat Dor (Eva McCulloch/Mirror Monarch, ruler of an alternate universe), and Brandon McKnight (Chester P. Runk, a goofy young scientist rescued from a failed experiment and rehabilitated by the team).

 

Naturally, Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone. While the series remains largely faithful to the premise and spirit of the comics, purists may bristle at some of the changes. Instead of being struck by lightning and bathed in chemicals in a lab accident, Barry gains his speed via a particle accelerator accident at S.T.A.R. Labs, which also creates other “metahumans”—both heroes like Vibe and King Shark (c’mon, the coolest superhero name ever), and the Rogues Gallery of new and classic Flash villains like the Reverse Flash, Abra Kadabra, The Trickster (played by Mark Hamill!), and Gorilla Grodd. Iris West is black, not the sleek blonde sophisticate of the comics. Joe West is Barry’s foster father, nonexistent in the original comics but which, admittedly, creates a complex dynamic between Barry, Iris, and Joe that the series explores with surprising depth. The Top and Mirror Monarch are women, not men.

 

But many important details are the same—the fictional Central City is still the main locale, and (well, this is important to me) the Flash’s costume is largely faithful to the original, sleek and skin-tight, not like that gawd-awful suit of armor the movie-Flash is burdened with. Then there’s the Speed Force, a crucial element in both the comic and the TV series. (I won’t give any more about that away here.)

 

The actors are all convincing in their roles, and likable, although keep in mind this is a CW series, so the mandatory twentysomething angst is ladled on all-too-thickly at times in all of its trademark CW soap-opera excess. There is much drama with a capital D and contemplation of The Meaning of Life and What It Means to Be a Hero. The recurring theme of The Flash bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders (in one story arc, almost literally) can get tedious at times.

 

With all that said, what really makes The Flash stand out is its heart. It’s far from being a one-dimensional, well, comic book series. It’s got humor and charm without being goofy, and it’s easy to really care about the characters. Over the course of seven seasons (with the seventh still in progress and an eighth on tap), there have been several richly-detailed story arcs with powerful characterizations and plot motivations, along with some genuinely moving moments. (The ending of Season One is devastating.) The love between Barry and Iris, and the affection of the members of Team Flash for each other, is touching, with real emotional depth.

 

But hey, a comic book series is all about escapism. And there’s plenty of it in The Flash. The special effects are literally dazzling. When the Flash runs, he looks terrific, with blurred motion, lightning streaking, and the world dizzyingly whizzing by. The special effects are mostly fantastic, some instances of cheesy CGI notwithstanding. (Was this season’s rendering of Fuerza a pandemic-induced rush job?)

 

The villains are by turn outrageous, disturbing, over the top, fun, self-parodying, or a little of all of that—grab the popcorn and enjoy the ride. The series is beautifully shot, with vivid colors and a wide-open feel—you won’t see many claustrophobic, grainy interiors here. It’s a refreshing change from the dark look of so many other comics movies and shows. And this being CW, the actors and actresses are . . . not hard to look at. The recurring gag of Cisco getting to name The Flash’s villains is a repeatedly funny schtick. The sound effects really complement the eye-popping visuals and the Sultan of Speed’s fleet-footed flights, with whooshes, rumbles, weapons fire, lightning strikes, and sonic mayhem galore. Fun stuff!

 

About that humor and pseudo-science: Clearly, the writers aren’t taking themselves too seriously. Some of the explanations for the metahumans’ powers, and how to defeat them, are so preposterous they must be nod-and-a-wink intentional. Whether this makes you chuckle or snort, YMMV. In one scene, Team Flash takes great pains to break into a lab to recover some dark matter, required to power some critically-needed device. After a brief search, they find what they’re looking for in a small suitcase labeled, “Dark Matter—Handle With Care.” Well, duh! But the square, straitlaced Golden Age Barry Allen would never play in today’s world.

 

Here I am, an old guy watching a comic-book character. Unapologetically. And enjoying the heck out of it. Would I think The Flash was a dumb show if I was a child, or teenager, or Gen whatever-er? Who knows? Who cares?

 

If you’re looking to get a break from pandemic world or migraine-inducing cable news or a bad day at the home office, delving into The Flash may be a respite you’ll enjoy. Let the Speed Force be with you.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Review: Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat (2021)

The pathway from video game to film has been oh-so-tempting for Hollywood over the years. You have a successful, beloved intellectual property with a built-in audience just lying there for the taking. All you have to do is pick it up and run to the bank. (And plan for the inevitable sequels, of course.) But, in reality, this has been a long road lined with sad and often terrible examples of attempts to adapt one form of entertainment for another. 

 

The problem is, a video game generally doesn’t need a lot of premise and backstory—just give it enough to make it an interesting concept and then throw the player into the action and let them know what the end goal is. If the gameplay is good and fun, it will be a success. A movie, however, needs to have an interesting story with well-written dialogue delivered by 

interesting and believable characters. No matter how dazzling the effects or action sequences, if there isn’t enough substance to hold it together and move it along between these big set pieces, it will be a failure.

 

When you talk of video games having—and missing—their game-to-film translation, Mortal Kombat is on the shortlist.

 

I can remember when the first Mortal Kombat game hit arcades in 1992. It was a sensation that looked and played unlike any other game that had been released to that point, with realistic-looking (for the time) human characters that stood toe-to-toe fighting to the death, beating the hell out of each other including visible blood spray. And then, when the fight was over, the winner was allowed to perform a gruesome finishing move on the other player (if they knew 

KOMBAT AT A GLANCE

Finally, an R-rated Kombat film that’s brutally faithful to the game franchise.

 

PICTURE
The experience will depend partly on your streaming device, but images are mostly clean, sharp, and detailed, with some scenes looking soft.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix is pretty active and engaging, with lots of video-game-like surround effects.

the right secret button/joystick combination) known as a “Fatality.” People would line up to play and watch, hoping to learn some new special move, or see a new Fatality performed.

 

With each version of the game, it just got bigger—more characters, more weapons, more fighting locations, more hidden Easter Eggs increased, and more violence, especially the fatalities, which ratcheted up in gruesomeness exponentially.

 

After becoming one of the most successful fighting games in history—with rich and deeply developed often interwoven backstories for its multiple characters by creators Ed Boon and John Tobias—it was bound to attract Hollywood’s attention, and in 1995 Warner Brothers gave us the first Mortal Kombat film. (And, yes, I did go to the theater and see it on opening night, thank you very much.) Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, this film actually did a pretty good job of bringing the game to the screen, with some elaborate fight scenes, and featuring many of the game’s beloved characters. However, its PG-13 rating hindered it from truly tapping into the game’s spirit. 

 

This was followed up in 1997 with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which was, well, terrible. The effects and acting were dismal, the movie tried to cram in too many characters and introduced a game concept—Animalities—that just fell flat. And with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 2%, needless to say, critics were not kind.

 

While the Mortal Kombat gaming franchise continued to see regular updates, the failure of Annihilation cooled the film series more than an ice blast from Sub-Zero. 

 

Cut to 2010 and a video supposedly “accidentally” uploaded to YouTube resurrected Hollywood’s interest. Kevin Tancharoen directed and shot Mortal Kombat: Rebirth essentially as a pitch to demonstrate to studios how he envisioned rebooting the franchise. This short film quickly gained viral traction and was the gritty, dark, rooted-in-reality Mortal Kombat that many wanted from an MK film. Warner, however, wasn’t ready to back a film, instead greenlighting Tancharoen to make a generally well received Web series titled Mortal Kombat: Legacy, which lasted two seasons from 2011 to 2013. Tancharoen thought he was in line to make a third Mortal Kombat film, but it never materialized, and he detached his name from the project. 

 

In 2015, the Kombat ball started rolling again, with James Wan of Saw and Insidious fame signing on to produce a reboot. A script was completed in 2019, with filming to be done in South Australia. The film’s release was originally set for a March release, before being moved up to January, and then moved back to April 16, before finally releasing in both theaters and HBO Max on April 23. 

 

As a long-time fan of the franchise, I had been eagerly awaiting this new installment with an R rating that promised to be truer to the game’s violent nature, including Fatalities, especially after the film’s Red Band trailer dropped on February 18, 2021. (Apparently, initial cuts of the film were a little too game-accurate, as it initially bordered on receiving an NC-17 rating and required some edits and trims to get the MPAA to give it an R.) 

 

The film begins fantastically, opening in 17th-century Japan with Lin Kuei ninja assassin Bi-Han/Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) leading a group of fighters to confront Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) of the rival Shirai Ryu clan and his family. Fans of the game franchise will know that these two are long-term bitter enemies, but the movie tells you nearly everything you need to know about how these characters feel towards each other in the opening moments, as well as that some characters have superhuman abilities and that the fighting scenes will be fast and brutal. 

 

From here we cut to our time, where we learn that the realm of Outworld—the most brutal and murderous of all the realms—and home of soul-eating sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is only one death-match tournament away from conquering Earthrealm. The name of these tournaments? Mortal Kombat. Shang Tsung sends his warriors to Earthrealm to find and kill those chosen to be Earth’s champions, people identified by a dragon-mark tattoo.

 

Here on Earth, ex-Special Forces member Jax (Mehcad Brooks) is also searching for these champions, and he finds former MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan). After Young and his family are attacked by Sub-Zero, Jax sends him to see his old teammate, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), where she is keeping another person with the dragon tattoo, smart-mouthed Kano (Josh Lawson).

 

Together this group heads off to the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), a protector of Earthrealm, where they meet two other chosen fighters, Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), where they begin their fight training with the goal of unlocking their “arcana,” a special unique power given to all chosen fighters, all the while trying to fend off attacks from Shang Tsung’s warriors.

 

Mortal Kombat is a fun, violent (especially the final act), mostly entertaining movie that will likely have the most appeal for fans of the game franchise, who will appreciate the subtle nods to the franchise sprinkled liberally throughout as well as the 15 characters (at least by my count) represented. Many of the cast are trained fighters, and the skill is evident in the fight scenes, which are all cool and brutal and showcase each fighter’s individual skills and talents, with many moves lifted straight from the game. And for those worried the film wouldn’t be able to capture the game’s brutality, rest assured that the numerous fatalities—including Kung Lao’s hat buzzsaw—are well represented. 

 

For me, the opening scene between Sub-Zero and Hasashi in Japan offered some of the best parts of the film, and I wish it could have retained this feeling and spirit throughout, being less a video-game movie and having more an epic feel. I liked that the film took itself seriously, and kept the jokes—mostly limited to quips from Kano that helped lighten the mood—to a minimum. (I always found the Johnny Cage character from the 1995 film to be a little too tongue-in-cheek.) 

 

When the film tried to get deep into the lore of the Mortal Kombat’s mythology, with characters trying to explain things in dialogue that works fine in a video game but becomes complicated or awkward to relate in exposition—or when cutting back to Outworld to insert some plot point—it bogged down a bit, and will likely become less entertaining to non-gamers. Also, the third act felt a bit rushed, like they were in a bit of a hurry to get to the climax and wrap things up. 

 

Shot on Arri at 4.5K, the HBO Max presentation is sourced from a 4K digital intermediate. Of course, when streaming, you’re limited by a variety of factors, so individual streaming experience with vary. I found the images to be mostly clean, sharp, and detailed, but some scenes—especially the opening—had a softness to them. Usually when watching a film sourced from a 4K DI, I notice the enhanced resolution and detail in many shots, but that wasn’t the case here. It isn’t that the film looked bad—it just had the potential to look better, and we’ll have to wait for an eventual 4K Blu-ray or Kaleidescape download to see its full potential.

 

Even still, we get some nice detail in closeups that reveal the scarring and battle-wear on characters’ faces, or to appreciate the texture and craftsmanship in different costumes. The CGI is also quite good, especially the all-digital Prince Goro, who moves and fights with believable realism—well, as believable as any four-armed super-being from Outworld can be. Images are also mostly clean throughout, with just one scene—when Earth’s heroes are transported to an almost all-white void—that was plagued with some digital noise, which could have been compression artifacts introduced from streaming. 

 

Mortal Kombat definitely benefits from HDR, with lots of scenes shot in dark locations—inside buildings, at night, in caves—where we retain good shadow detail while still getting bright, punchy highlights. Scenes like Jax walking around a dark warehouse with a flashlight or the fluorescent lights in Sonya’s trailer all pop. Effects scenes like Lord Raiden’s lightning bolts or the bright-red beam from Kano’s eye laser, the glowing armor on Young’s suit, or fireballs all have lots of vivid colors and detail. 

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track is pretty active and engaging. But, as I’ve found with other HBO Max films streamed through my Apple 4KTV, I needed to bump the volume about 10 dB higher than my normal listening level to really experience the dynamics and low end. 

 

From the opening scenes, we get the subtle ambience of forest sounds filling the space, followed by a room-filling thunder- and rainstorm. The speakers are also used effectively to help you locate characters moving around the space, such as Sub-Zero creeping around behind you or Reptile scurrying around the back of the room, through the sides, and up into the ceiling. 

 

The height speakers are also actively used to put you into the moment, such as when Sub-Zero unleashes a snow flurry with chunks of ice hurtling and smashing from the ceiling and down all around the space, or when Raiden puts a protected forcefield around the characters, which you can hear swirling around the room, or when Nitara (Mel Jarnson) flies around the space and screeches overhead. The fight scenes also see much use of all speakers, with characters being slammed up into the ceiling, thrown into the side walls, blades whooshing past overhead, and fire engulfing the space. 

 

As a fan of the franchise, I wasn’t disappointed, and I enjoyed the latest Mortal Kombat reboot. But I also didn’t leave feeling like I’d gotten exactly the movie I really wanted. Fortunately, the end sets the film up for a sequel—and co-writer Greg Russo said he has plans for this to be the first in a trilogy of films—so there will likely be more Kombat in our future. For HBO Max subscribers that can handle a bit of brutality with their fantasy, Mortal Kombat makes for a fun (adult)night at your theater.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: Hannah and Her Sisters

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Many consider Hannah and Her Sisters one of Woody Allen’s best films. Some call it his best. I find it an incredibly uneven affair. It does have undeniably strong sequences, scenes, and moments that represent tremendous growth in Allen’s skill as a filmmaker, but it also has some off-key and sometimes embarrassingly lame elements that keep it from achieving a satisfying balance. And it’s about 20 minutes too long.

 

Allen really hit his stride as an actor’s director here. He’s able to draw effective performances out of a large and diverse cast, ranging from the Studio Era stylings of Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan to the Bergmanesque gravity of Max von Sydow 

to the looser, more indie vibe of Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey—both of whom are exceptional, especially Hershey. Even Carrie Fisher is something other than grating for a change. The one person who can’t seem to find the right groove is Michael Caine, who has his good moments but who seems determined—like Kenneth Branagh (Celebrity) and Jesse Eisenberg (Cafe Society)—to do some kind of Woody impression. It doesn’t work.

 

And then there are Allen’s cringe-worthy efforts to begin dismantling his own persona. I understand that he didn’t want the nuanced version of the Woody character to detract from the more dramatic plot lines and hoped to use his character’s misadventures—mainly his scramble to find a religion he can buy into—as comic relief. But while occasional lines land, his scenes just aren’t funny. Allen always had a pitch-perfect ear for comedy, so he had to have known the bits set at the ersatz SNL were hopelessly

HANNAH AT A GLANCE

One of Woody Allen’s most ambitious but uneven films, it does perfectly capture New York in the mid ’80s and features a still impressive performance by Barbara Hershey.

 

PICTURE
Carlo Di Palma’s subtle cinematography needs that slight pop that Blu-ray-quality HD just can’t provide, but is pleasing here nonetheless.

 

SOUND     

Nothing very adventurous happens sonically, which is as it should be.

flat. I remain baffled by what he was going for here, and how he could have so readily abandoned a painstakingly molded character that had not only served him well but had become an unparalleled vehicle for expressing, mocking, and dissecting the age.

 

To return to Barbara Hershey for a moment, films like Boxcar Bertha and The Stunt Man had given her a reputation as something of an indie-film bimbo, so it was heartening to see her get the chance to play a fully fledged, non-objectified character and run with it. Ultimately, this film doesn’t revolve around Farrow’s Hannah or Caine or Allen or Wiest but Hershey, who stands firmly at its emotional core and brings it a substance and energy it might have been lacking if the role had gone to someone else. It’s a great loss for the movies that she never again got to play a part this good.

 

People were pleased but not necessarily surprised when Allen was able to create characters who evoked the world around him in films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, but they were shocked to find he could craft well-rounded and not-so-predictable roles like Hershey’s—or 27 years later, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine.

 

Like a lot of people, I had assumed the ugliest decade in American culture was the ‘70s, so it was a jolt to be reminded that the ‘80s were actually worse. Most of the characters here look like they got their clothes at the Salvation Army, and there’s an elevated sloppiness to the whole culture that’s, in retrospect, kind of repugnant. Of course, some of this was unique to New York, which was just emerging from its nadir in the mid ‘70s and making the grunginess of midst-of-being-flipped neighborhoods like SoHo chic in an effort to inflate real-estate values. But the scene near the end where Allen comes across Wiest in a Tower Records, with its salmon and teal cutouts, glandular lettering, and Barry Gibb posters, reminded me 

we all would have been better off if the ‘80s had never happened.

 

Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma deserves great praise for taking the streets, storefronts, walls, and doorways of the older, decaying New York, the affluent shabbiness of downtown lofts and sprawling Upper West Side apartments, and the carefully cultivated disregard for personal appearance and making it all look beautiful. I doubt any other film has ever better evoked November in New York. This Blu-ray-quality HD download is an acceptable viewing experience, but Di Palma’s shooting style is so subtle that there are moments here that look flat when they should have an understated but distinctive pop.

 

Di Palma is also important because he helped dispel the myth that a lot of Allen’s greatness as a director came from using Gordon Willis as a crutch. By this point, Allen had developed a basal aesthetic and technique he was able to successfully translate from film to film regardless of who was doing the shooting, giving lensers like Di Palma, Sven Nykvist, and Javier Aguirresarobe the latitude to enhance his material without having to prop it up.

 

This is the film where Allen began to be accused of what was called at the time yuppie porn. There’s some justification for that because Hannah did help lay the 

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

groundwork for more unfortunate later works like Match Point. But the greater sin on display here could be called “assimilation porn,” which he paid a disproportionately high price for in the anti-Semitic backlash to his custody trial, when the seemingly hip but inherently conservative New York and Hollywood elites he showcased so well turned on him so viciously.

 

While it’s not possible to put Hannah and Her Sisters in the highest tier of Allen’s work, that’s not to say it can’t be a gratifying experience. Most of the characters are well crafted, most of the performances click, most of the presentation was satisfying, and he almost perfectly captured New York at that moment in time. Only Allen’s uncertainty about what to do with his own persona keeps it from coming together into a more fulfilling whole.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Better Days

Better Days

Derek Tsang’s Better Daysan Oscar nominee for International Feature Film—is a frustrating movie that’s worth the frustration. Its imperfections don’t keep it from being a powerful and moving story and its convolutions aren’t wholly justified, but if tasked with trimming it down a bit, I’m not sure what I would cut. It’s also plagued by issues forced upon the filmmaker by the Chinese government. But before we dig into all of that, let’s talk about what makes it unique and beautiful nonetheless.

 

Adapted from the novel In His Youth, In Her Beauty by Jiu Yuexi, Better Days is the story of Chen Nian, a gifted young woman preparing for her college entrance exams while also suffering horrific treatment at the hands of bullies. That makes it all 

sound a bit trite, but there’s no way to convey in a few sentences how horrible the bullying on display here truly is. Think Lord of the Flies on steroids, just in an urban environment.

 

Shortly thereafter, Nian attempts to report the beating of a street thug and gets drawn into his life after nearly being killed by the gang attacking him. And again, Tsang shows a level of restraint here most directors wouldn’t. We don’t see Xiao Bei being beaten because we don’t need to. The look on her face tells us everything we need to know about the violence she’s witnessing.

 

The story that follows is equal parts Romeo and Juliet (sans the family feuds), Lord of the Flies (but with societal pressures standing in for the lack thereof), and a touch of Mean Girls (without the humor), but it combines its influences into something unique. The plot does get a bit messy at times but it holds together thanks to the 

BETTER DAYS AT A GLANCE

Nominated for the International Feature Film Oscar, this brutal tale of bullying and societal strife is compelling and satisfying despite some meddling by the Chinese censors.

 

PICTURE
Even at 1080p on Vudu, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups, without any significant artifacts.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel soundtrack manages to be creative without being gimmicky, with the ambient sound effects beautifully mixed.

performances of Dongyu Zhou as Chen Nian and Jackson Yee as Xiao Bei, as well as Tsang’s gifts for visual storytelling.

 

For all its ugliness, Better Days is a beautifully shot film, with some of the best application of color theory I’ve seen on any screen in some time. The portions that take place in Nian’s school are awash in secondary hues and pastels that starkly contrast with the browns and grays of Xiao Bei’s underworld. It’s a shame the film wasn’t released in 4K HDR because the color palette really deserves the expanded gamut 10-bit video would bring. So, too, do the darker scenes, where the dynamic range feels constrained. Shadows simply don’t reach as deep as they should, and the image lacks of a bit of dimension as a result.

 

Otherwise, Vudu’s HDX presentation is admirable. The film was shot in 3.2K resolution and finished in a 2K digital intermedia, so it’s not as if we’re losing out on a lot of resolution in the 1080p presentation. Indeed, the image is wonderfully detailed, especially in closeups. And I didn’t see any significant artifacts in Vudu’s stream. If you’re going to rent this in the digital domain, though, pick your provider carefully. I can’t imagine Amazon Prime would do justice to the cinematography, given how drab and fuzzy most of that service’s HD streams look. My advice would be to stick with Vudu or iTunes. 

 

Either way you go, though, the 5.1 soundtrack (delivered on Vudu in Dolby Digital+) is a lot better than you’d probably expect. The mix manages to be creative without being gimmicky. There’s a scene early on where a character is listening to headphones and pulls them out of her ears one at a time. The sound mix follows her lead, planting the audio she hears dead center at first, then leaning to the left before fading away completely. Ambient sound effects are also beautifully mixed, be it the sounds of rain, traffic, or simply the background din of an overpopulated cityscape. 

 

Vudu also presents the film with baked-in subtitles, and the only soundtrack option is the original Mandarin. This, of course, shouldn’t be a problem in and of itself, but it sort of is.  I know next to no Mandarin, and what little I do know comes from wuxia films and kung-fu flicks. But even I picked up on the fact that the subtitles are occasionally lacking. Regional idioms in particular are stripped of all their flavor in favor of more generic translations. 

 

That does little to rob the film of its impact. What does suck a bit of soul out of it is the blatantly tacked-on coda that reads more like hostage video than a legitimate expression of the filmmaker. After the story has wrapped back on itself beautifully, like a narrative ouroboros that manages to let go of its own tail, we’re subjected to some tacked-on text—accompanied by cheery music—that would have us believe the Chinese government has stamped out all the bullying and all the societal ills represented in the film have been rectified. 

 

That left me stunned. It was so incongruous with everything else about the film that I went digging. And I found that this was far from the only meddling the Chinese government did. And with that, it all makes sense—the little plot threads that don’t feel properly resolved, the heavy-handed exposition at the hands of the film’s police characters . . . all the little nagging problems I had with the film can seemingly be blamed on the interference of the CCP. 

 

But Better Days rises above those flaws to be a compelling movie with universal applicability. It’s a heart-wrenching story about the weight of societal and familial expectations and the tolls of living in a society where the choices made in one’s youth represent a fork in the road, with one path leading to a comfortable but oppressive life and the other toward the freedom of squalor and destitution. I wish we could see the film Derek Tsang wanted us to see, because I can only imagine how much more impact it had before all the government censorship. But none of that is to say that I’m dissatisfied with the movie we got instead.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: The Courier (2020)

The Courier (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

THE COURIER AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Courier (2020)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: Nomadland

Nomadland (2020)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

NOMADLAND AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Nomadland (2020)

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

 

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

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (1956)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

According to Paramount Home Entertainment’s press release:

 

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

COMMANDMENTS AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Ten Commandments (1956)

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.