Movies

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.

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.

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.

The Polka King

I’ve never known what to make of Jack Black. He’s been good enough in enough things to have a steady career, but he’s always got that smartass look in his eye that makes everything he does feels like a comedy sketch he’s not all in on.

 

He almost busts through that handicap in Netflix’ The Polka King, thanks partly to a heavy, mannered foreign accent that helps him create the semblance of a character. But he doesn’t completely make it—partly because the accent and his delivery have more than a touch of vaudeville, and partly because the movie’s uncertain tone doesn’t allow him—or any of the actors—to completely settle into their roles.

 

The Polka King is based on a documentary about the self-made and self-proclaimed polka legend Jan Lewan, but it’s not really a biopic or a docudrama. Actually, I don’t know what the hell it is, and that’s one of its biggest problems. The first hour feels like textbook Farrelly Brothers—which means there are some really big laughs along the way (which is at least half the reason why I’d recommend checking it out).

 

But then it radically shifts subject matter and tone for a while, and then shifts them again, feeling like three distinctly different scripts grafted onto each other, with the grafts refusing to take. Add to that some basic technical incompetence—some of the shots just don’t match, so you get the sense the setups were rushed—and you’re left wondering how firm the controlling hand was on the rudder.

Netflix The Polka King

Black is entertaining, even if he never manages to step completely beyond doing his standard Jack Black thing. Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) are killer, pushing well past the limitations of the material. Even Jason Schwartzman is interesting.

 

Yes, I have very mixed feelings about this thing, but it’s worth your time, one, because it does have some big laughs (Black’s “No! I have America up the wazoo!” line is a classic); two, because, even though it’s set mainly in the 80s and 90s, it almost succeeds as an acid-dripping snapshot of the present moment. And, three, any movie with an electric ukulele in it can’t be all bad.

 

Probably its biggest problem is its patrician condescension. The nobility has a tough time portraying the working class without reducing it to caricaturesor, like here, cartoon characters. Also, the desperate need to convince viewers that we’re all the same on the level that counts (a bald-faced lie but essential to attracting a large audience) turns this into another one of those slobbering puppy dog movies that wants to have some grit but ultimately settles for a pat on the head.

 

But The Polka King is worth a look because it at least wants to mean something instead of nothing at all.

 

Michael Gaughn

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

REVIEWS

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

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

There’s no question that DC has had serious issues competing in the superhero film genre against Disney-owned Marvel. While Marvel scores hit after hit with every attempt—Iron Man, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Deadpool—DC films have struggled with both critics and fans, flopping across the board, with none of its recent offerings (following the glorious Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy) scoring “fresh” on the Rotten Tomatoes meter.

 

DC looked to 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as a way of kickstarting a new franchise of hero films, introducing the characters that would make up the recent Justice League film. But while B v S was generally panned, we can thank it for at least one thing: it gave us Wonder Woman.

 

I’ll be honest, while I grew up reading DC comics, and was especially a fan of the Justice League series, my knowledge of Wonder Woman was pretty much limited to occasionally watching the Linda Carter TV series. I knew she was an Amazonian that wore bullet-blocking bracelets, had a magic truth-telling lasso, and used an invisible jet (not featured in the film, btw), but that’s basically it.

 

Thus, I went into Wonder Woman with fairly modest expectations. And boy, were they blown away!

 

Beyond being a good superhero movie, WW is just a good movie, period. First, the casting is terrific throughout, with every role handled perfectly. This, of course, starts at the top with Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Gadot is not only very easy on the eyes, but her background serving in the Israeli army gave her a leg up in handling the fight scenes with incredible believability.

 

Beyond that, she nails the wide-eyed, girl-exploring-a-new-world innocence required to portray her character venturing for the first time beyond the Amazon island of Themyscira. In fact, Gadot is so perfect as Wonder Woman it’s impossible to imagine anyone else tackling the role. (She is also one of the best parts of Justice League, proving her character is more than a one-hit wonder!) Further, the chemistry between Gadot and Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is believable and far deeper than pretty-girl-swept-off-her-feet-by-handsome-stranger.

Wonder Woman

Instead of trying to cram multiple superheroes into a single film, which weighed down and confused B v S, director Patty Jenkins wisely focused solely on Wonder Woman (with a brief cameo from another hero that ties in perfectly with both B v S and JL), fleshing out her backstory and developing her character as she grows and discovers her powers.

 

Since the transfer was taken from a 2K Digital Intermediate, it doesn’t feature the incredible micro-detail and pristine quality of some modern transfers; nevertheless, Wonder Woman in 4K HDR still looks mostly terrific. The image suffers from occasional noise in some of the night scenes, but it still has plenty to get your 4K TV’s 8 million pixels excited about. You can see the metal texture in Diana’s bracelets and crown, the detail in her armor, and the nicks in her sword.

 

While the color palette is mostly muted throughout in a slightly-faded World War I-era style, early scenes on Themyscira look gorgeous, with the wide color gamut revealing beautiful blue-green waters. Also, as there are a lot of night scenes, the high dynamic range does a great job of keeping shadows black while maintaining the piercing brightness of fires, searchlights, and Diana’s glowing lasso.

 

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack will give your speakers a workout as well, with the numerous fight scenes bringing mayhem from every corner of the room as well as overhead. You hear Diana’s lasso whip around the room, vehicles being hurled, and bullets ricocheting and whizzing past. And if your subwoofer(s) are up to the task, Diana clapping her bracelets together produces a sonic concussion that will punch you in the chest!

 

Wonder Woman scored a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a 2 hour 21 minute runtime. It’s rated PG-13 for some violence and innuendo. Download it from the Kaleidescape Store today and enjoy in your theater tonight!

—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.

The Astral Factor

The funniest MST3K ever isn’t even an episode from the series. It’s not even an official video but bootleg audio from a live show MST veterans Hodgson, Beaulieu, Conniff, Pehl, and Weinstein-understudy Allen did in San Francisco during their final tour under the Cinematic Titanic banner, synced by a fan to a copy—a workprint, no less—of an unspeakably bad TV pilot some misguided soul pumped up into a feature film (mainly by showing off Stefanie Powers’ butt crack).

 

So the video really sucks, and the audio really sucks. But it doesn’t matter because the quips and jabs from these nonpareil virtuosos of movie riffing are really f***ing funny.

 

The film Hodgson & Co. mercilessly bludgeon like a recalcitrant piñata really is about as bad as it gets—bad script, bad production design, bad editing, bad makeup, bad clothes, bad music, lame stunts, bad fonts, and criminally bad acting and directing. To paraphrase a line from MST3K‘s legendary Manos, there’s a buffet of loathsomeness here.

But The Astral Factor achieves a level most MST episodes could only dream of because there’s a whole bevy of has-been stars on the premises, including Elke Sommer, the aforementioned Powers (“with Stefanie Powers come Stefanie responsibility”), and, in a stomach-churning cameo, Sue (Lolita) Lyon, whose production company was apparently responsible for this flaming sack of dog poopie.

 

The pacing of the jokes is relentless, with the crew landing solid blows at least every 20 seconds, and sometimes releasing whole barrages that left the audience in San Francisco’s Castro Theatre breathless.

 

Don’t come here looking for 4K HDR or the perfect aspect ratio or perfectly calibrated sound or even surround sound, let alone Atmos. (Atmos?! On a policeman’s salary!?) This is about laughing your ass off—pure, and simple, and all too rare.

Michael Gaughn

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

REVIEWS

Patton Oswalt: Annihilation

Patton Oswalt Annihilation

Patton Oswalt is obviously a really smart guy. He has a jaw-dropping ability to react to, dissect, build on, and recontextualize situations on the fly. And anything that brings together him, Bob Goldthwait, and M. Ward can’t be all bad.

 

But . . .

 

You always get the feeling he could do better but he’s decided to take the easier path. (Witness his decision to play second banana on the MST3K reboot.)

 

He’s obviously trying to push his personal envelope with the Netflix Annihilation special, and the result is a comedy routine that’s frequently funny even when it ventures into what, even by the current, low standards, is uncomfortable territory. But it all ultimately feels safe—nerd safe.

 

There’s vast creative potential in exploring what happens when nerds are confronted by brutal reality in ways they can’t shrug off by retreating into a womb-like fantasy world. And Oswalt comes really close to going there—but he never crosses the line into the truly risky, and that’s where the special falls short. And that failure underlines an even greater flaw.

 

Oswalt has always been a guy in a bubble talking to other people inside the same bubble. He talks a lot in Annihilation about empathizing, but it’s not really empathizing if you’re just telling people who believe exactly what you do exactly what they want to hear.

 

He spends about the first third of the special venting, with good cause, over the current sad state of things. But he ultimately just reinforces his audience’s prejudices—the same smug, judgmental, knee-jerk behavior that helped create the crisis in the first place.

 

Simply put, if he can’t acknowledge the weaknesses in his positions, and by extension the positions of his audience, he’s not really empathizing. This epidemic of people within every imaginable political and cultural subgroup preaching only to the converted, and by doing so only reinforcing the oppressive divide & conquer worldview they claim to abhor, might be the single most malignant cultural disease.

 

That doesn’t mean every comedian should stop what they’re doing and submit their philosophies and dogma to merciless scrutiny—most of them aren’t up to the task so it would only lead to another empty exercise in narcissism. But the ones who claim to be deeply disturbed by the broken social landscape should, and they should do it publicly. Otherwise, nothing’s going to change.

 

Put another way, people have gotten so desperate for constant, unqualified praise that they’re scared crapless to challenge anybody or anything directly, and instead blame all their woes on some bogeyman Other.

 

But let me make the point again: Oswalt is really funny here. And he’s obviously really smart. So Annihilation is a good use of your time. I’m just not comfortable with anyone who decries the state of the world while turning a blind eye to what they’re doing to contribute to the fiasco.

Michael Gaughn

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

REVIEWS