A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story

Could Superman beat the Incredible Hulk? Is Batman a match for Iron-Man? These sorts of questions have filled the dreams of kids and comic book geeks alike for decades now, but they’re rarely seen as any more than conversation starters or flights of fancy. And yet, for some reason, asking who is the greatest baseball player or quarterback or goalie of all time is viewed

as legitimate discourse amongst grown-ass men and scholars alike.


Those of us who follow motorsports (serious ones, at least) know what a ridiculous question this is when applied to our own passion. Auto racing is as much about the team as it is the pilot. It’s as much about the car as the team. It’s as much about the chaos of meteorological conditions as it is the car. And, yes, we all have our favorite drivers (shout-out to Jan Magnussen), but that often has as much to do with personality or manufacturer affiliation as it does talent.


But such subjectivity didn’t satisfy Dr. Andrew Bell of the Sheffield Methods Institute, who set out in 2016 to use quantitative statistical analysis to remove (or at least account for) the differences made by cars, teams, weather, and even year-to-year variance in order to determine who was the best Formula One pilot of all time.


This ambitious Netflix documentary about the greatest Formula One driver of all time will intrigue and satisfy racing fans and non fans alike.



The 4K HDR presentation does well with the copious archival materials but really shines with the present-day interview segments and historical reenactments.



The soundtrack is marred by a New Age-y score whose power-nap vibe seriously goes against the film’s auto-racing grain.

I mention this research only because the resulting paper forms the backbone of the new Netflix documentary A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story. And this fact alone—the use of scientific parsing to answer the question of who could beat whom if they never competed head-to-head—makes for one of the most fascinating sports documentaries I’ve seen in ages. Perhaps ever.


As with any documentary focusing on the accomplishments of a single individual, A Life of Speed leans heavy on biography, and provides a solid understanding of who Fangio was and what made him tick, even if you’ve never heard his name before. It also provides a pretty satisfying history of Formula One, a sport that emerged just as Fangio was making a name for himself in long-distance dirt-road racing. On top of that, it sprinkles in a bit of the history of automotive engineering.


Truth be told, if the film weren’t so well made, it would probably crumble under its own weight. It attempts to be three or four documentaries at once—which is at least two too many—and if not for the talents of director Francisco Macri and editor Luciano Origlio, it would be a mess.


Somehow, though, it isn’t a mess. Quite the opposite, in fact; by juggling so many balls so effectively, A Life of Speed manages to be interesting in several simultaneous ways.

Of course, given its historical nature, the bulk of the film is comprised of archival photographs, old film stock, kinescope recordings, and even a few well-played VHS tapes, it seems. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for Netflix’s 4K HDR presentation to latch onto, though. The present-day interviews and newly filmed historical reenactments are beautifully framed, wonderfully composed, and have a distinctive low-contrast look that still makes great use of the enhanced dynamic range and color gamut of our modern home video standards.


If there’s one criticism I can level at A Life of Speed from a creative perspective, it’s that the score is just awful. If you’ve ever used one of those power-nap apps that are all the rage these days, you’ll recognize the New Age-y ambience in a heartbeat.


There’s also the fact the film is presented in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which wouldn’t be a problem except Netflix positions its subtitles halfway into the black bar at the bottom of the screen, with no way of moving them. So, if you’re using a constant-height projection setup, you’ll likely miss half the film’s dialogue and narration (unless you speak Spanish, Italian, German, and English).


Don’t let those quibbles turn you off of this one, though. Even if you’re not a fan of Formula One—indeed, even if you’ve never heard the name Fangio in your life—A Life of Speed is one of those rare documentaries whose quality isn’t contingent upon your interest in the subject matter.

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.



A scant two weeks after hitting theaters, Vin Diesel’s latest action thriller, Bloodshot, finds its way to wide digital release, available for purchase now at the Kaleidescape Store in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.


Considering theater chains around the world started closing within days of Bloodshot’s release, its opening weekend gross of nearly $30 million indicates it was on track to be another big success for Diesel, potentially even launching a new franchise à la Fast & Furious or xXx. And with an audience score of 78%, Diesel proves once again that he understands what his fans 

are looking for. (With critics, not so much, as Bloodshot managed a rotten 29% rating.)


As the opening credits hit the screen, I sarcastically joked to my wife, “You can always count on Vin Diesel to deliver an ultra-realistic movie!” as I thought about some of the many physics- and reality-defying stunts he’s been a part of during the Fast franchise.


However, I have to say, the premise of Bloodshot works quite well for Diesel, the gravel-voiced actor who seems to convey any lines of dialogue with the exact same emotion and intonation. (There’s probably a reason why he was cast as the voice of both The Iron Giant and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy.) Diesel’s character here, Ray Garrison, is a man of few words, much how John Wick lets Keanu Reeves use his fists and guns (and pencils, and motorcycles, and knives . . .) to do the talking for him.


So, I’m gonna say it. I really enjoyed Bloodshot.


This Vin Diesel Total Recall-meets-Matrix-meets-Terminator-meets-RoboCop-meets-Live Die Repeat mashup is a feast for action fans, featuring a steady stream of demo-quality HDR/Atmos action scenes.



The 4K transfer gets plenty of chances to show off its HDR capabilities, with lots of dark scenes filled with bright lights, gunfire, explosions, and even particles of flour.



The Dolby Atmos mix successfully ranges from outrageous to subtle, doing as well with the sound of big machines as it does with creaking floors.

Yep. This is a movie that knows exactly what it is and what its fans want. It’s unabashed action, with big set pieces that move the story forward in an easy-to-follow manner that allows the characters to move from one exotic locale to the next destroying stuff.


Bloodshot/Garrison is actually not an original character, but rather based on a Valiant Comics character that can trace his origins back to 1992. But the story was totally new to me, so I can’t comment on how true it was to its comic roots, or anything else about the Valiant universe.


The film begins with US Marine Garrison single-handedly raiding a house in Mombasa and rescuing a hostage. Shortly after, Garrison and his wife Gina (Talulah Riley) are kidnapped by Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell) while on holiday in Italy, and when Garrison can’t answer Axe’s question about who leaked the location of the hostage, Axe kills Gina. And then Garrison.


He awakens, and finds himself in the headquarters of Rising Spirit Tech (RST), where the company’s CEO, Dr. Harting (Guy Pearce), reveals that Garrison has been resurrected by the company’s experimental nanite technology. Besides, you know, being brought back to life, this army of nanites now coursing through Garrison’s body gives him superhuman strength and healing, as well as the ability to tap into the Internet to access any data or knowledge he desires, basically making him the ultimate soldier.


A side effect of the resurrection is that Garrison has no memories of his previous life. During a conversation with another RST-enhanced former solder, US Navy diver KT (Eliza Gonzalez), Garrison hears a song that triggers memories of his wife’s killer, and from there Garrison is off to exact his revenge.


Or is he?


Bloodshot has a lot of elements of other films. It is definitely part RoboCop, with the resurrected, part-machine Garrison recovering memories and trying to reconnect with his previous life. It’s part Matrix as Garrison taps into the network to acquire skills on demand, like flying a Gulfstream jet. It’s part Terminator in the way he heals and reforms following grievous damage. It’s also part Live Die Repeat, as Garrison is forced to repeat missions. It’s also part Total Recall, where he’s not sure which memories are his and what he can trust.


But, if you’re gonna crib some movies for ideas, you could do a lot worse.


I’ve long held that some of the best looking and sounding movies released to the home market are coming from Sony, and Bloodshot is no exception. Shot on Panavision DXL cameras at 8K resolution, the home release is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it looks it. Closeups are packed with detail and are razor-sharp, sometimes looking a bit too clear like when you are staring into every pore, eyebrow hair, or bit of whisker stubble on Diesel’s face.


Early shots of the Amalfi Coast or the Aviana airbase in Italy have a warm, gold cast to them, with candlelit and sunshine tones, while many later scenes are tinted with cool blues and silvers, giving images a glossy, high-tech sleek and modern palette.


The film’s real visual treat is its extensive use of HDR. There are many scenes throughout shot in dark interiors where there are lights—fluorescent bulbs, spotlights, screens, overheads, wall spots, case lighting, etc.—that brightly illuminate the scene without noise, banding, or washing out the dark details.


There is a lengthy tunnel fight sequence that makes especially good use of HDR, resulting in a visual feast that will make fantastic demo fodder. Garrison intentionally jackknifes a flour truck in a tunnel to trap a caravan. Once inside the tunnel, all the lights are off, plunging the entire space into blackness. As the bad guys start exiting their vehicles, the tunnel is illuminated by a variety of light sources: Vehicle headlights, red flares, weapon laser pointers, and gunfire. We can see the individual flour particles floating in the air, as well as the bright beams of light, sharp reds of the flares and lasers, and stabbing flames from the weapons.


Another scene has KT doing some kind of underwater ballet or tai chi. The camera looks at her head-on underwater, but behind her is a bright spotlight, illuminating her and the water in myriad shades of blues, which is just an absolute, worst-case banding nightmare. But here the gradations are smooth and seamless with no noise or banding, something I don’t think any bandwidth-limited streaming service could manage to pull off as beautifully.


Sonically, Bloodshot offers a ton for home theater fans to enjoy, with a soundtrack that is dynamic, engaging, and immersive throughout, with frequent use of the height speakers in creative and convincing ways. Whether it’s the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” blasting through the overheads and surrounds during an interrogation, or voices echoing around the room during

Garrison’s flashbacks, or the sound of machines sliding overhead with gears turning and whirring, you are always in the midst of the action.


The big fight scenes also pour on the audio mayhem as you’d expect, with bass that is deep and authoritative as needed, energizing the room with explosions. Gunshots are also sharp and loud, with bullets punching holes in the sides and rear of the room, followed by sounds of debris and rubble.


There are also some nice subtle audio moments, like the creak of wood flooring to indicate a person walking overhead, or glass shattering and elevator cabling creaking and whooshing past your head, or the sound of drones whirring overhead. Bloodshot offers a terrific amount of demo material to show off your theater, especially though with Atmos-capable systems.


This movie’s conclusion all but screams “BLOODSHOT WILL RETURN IN A SEQUEL!” as the main characters literally drive off into the sunset. But that sequel will likely have to wait and see how the box office—and home video sales—ultimately stack up.


Bloodshot isn’t a movie where you’ll be in for any big Keyser Söze reveals or plot


twists as the bad guys are pretty clearly telegraphed. This movie is far more about the fun of the journey than the excitement of the destination. Most importantly, Bloodshot looks and sounds fantastic in a premium home theater, with perhaps one of the most active and dynamic Dolby Atmos soundtracks I’ve heard in a while, and it will likely find its way into your demo-scene sizzle reel.

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

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

We benefit from yet another film that received a fast-tracked release to home video, one that just came out in theaters on February 7—though I’m not even entirely sure what to call it, as Warner Brothers was nearly as conflicted with the title as Harley Quinn herself. The film originally released with the nonsensical and absolute mouthful Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, but when that didn’t resonate with moviegoers, they changed it to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, a title that puts the emphasis where it belongs.

I was a fan of DC comics growing up, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of the DC universe is fairly limited to the members of the Justice League—Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, The Flash, etc.—and while Harley is a member of the extended DC Universe, I really didn’t know much about her character.


Those who watched 2016’s Suicide Squad were introduced to Harley (Margot Robbie) as she joined a band of misfits to perform deadly missions in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 27%, the film wasn’t well-received. However, Harley was the movie’s highpoint, and she generated enough excitement to get her own spinoff here. While Birds doesn’t feel tied to Squad in any way, there is one brief moment where the “Daddy’s Lil Monster” shirt Harley wore in Squad is held up, which places the movie in that continuity.


Which is all a roundabout way of saying that if you aren’t a 


Another entry in the emerging genre of man-hating action films, Birds of Prey tends be as confusing and hard to follow as its heroine, but features lots of fight scenes to keep superhero fans engaged.



The 4K transfer does a terrific job of handling the spectrum from the usual Gotham City gloom to shimmering golds, glittering sequins, and the bright neons of fireworks.



The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is active and engaging, with appropriate impact, but Quinn’s VOs are too forward and loud in the mix.

hardcore comic-book geek, or haven’t seen all the DC movies, or don’t know anything about Harley Quinn, the movie brings you up to speed on everything you need to know about Harley’s backstory in the opening minutes.


Essentially, Harley grows up with a bad father, goes to school and gets her PhD in psychology, and then goes to work at Gotham City’s infamous Arkham Asylum, where she is assigned to treat The Joker. Over time, she falls in love with him, and, well, he kind of drives her insane. (Those hoping for any more of Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker are out of luck. An uncredited Joker has just a snippet of screen time in a flashback and we only see the back of his head. Also, no cameos by the caped crusader.)


Birds begins after Mr. J has broken up with Harley, and now she is forced to figure things out and survive in a Gotham where she has made a lot of enemies and no longer has The Joker’s protection.


While Harley frenetically bumbles through life, she ends up at a nightclub owned by main baddie Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). When Sionis’ driver is incapacitated, he ends up making club singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) his new driver, forcing her deeper into his seedy world.


After a diamond embedded with account numbers is pickpocketed from one of Sionis’ enforcers by young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Harley volunteers to find the diamond in exchange for Sionis not killing her, setting her off on her quest.


While this is going on, a separate story develops about a crossbow-wielding vigilante calling herself The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is going around the city and killing crime-family members, while being pursued by Gotham City detective, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).


These stories all weave separately, with characters occasionally bumping into each other until they finally intertwine, forcing the females to band together to fight off an army of masked criminals Sionis has assembled to kill them all and retrieve the diamond.




If that all sounds a bit confusing and a tad hard to follow, well, it kind of is. Nothing that Harley does seems planned or thought out, with everything just a spontaneous impulse based on sudden emotion or reaction. Right away, we see that she is totally lost without The Joker, telling us that “a harlequin’s role is to serve,” and they are nothing without their master.


The film also teaches that men, even trusted friends, will screw you over and that “if you want boys to respect you, you have to show you’re serious; blow something up, shoot someone.” The emancipated Harley doesn’t take anything from any man, paying back any sleight or offense with maximum pain.


The story is a bit schizophrenic at times, often jumping backwards in time as Harley’s mind puts things together, or adding new pieces of information helping to make sense of things and fill in the holes.


Prey looks terrific. Shot on Arriraw at 3.4K resolution, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it shows. Images are gloriously sharp, with razor clarity and depth. Shots framed in tight focus leap off the screen, such as one closeup of an egg sandwich being cooked that reveals every texture and sharp edge and looked like a cinematic Food Network cooking demo. You can see every pore and line in actors’ faces, and the makeup and tattoos covering Harley. Wide exterior shots have a full field of focus that is almost three-dimensional.


The movie also has a bright and often hyper-vibrant color palette that looks fantastic in HDR. An early scene has neon-colored fireworks going off amidst brilliant-red fireball explosions. Costumes and backgrounds burst with color, with lots of shimmering golds and glittering silver sequins that shine and sparkle.


Because it’s Gotham, there are a lot of night and dark scenes, and blacks are deep and clean. Headlights, street lights, and the flashing blue and red police lights all pop off the screen. A final scene is on a misty and foggy pier, with lots of greys that are lit by dim and bright lights, which can be a total compression and banding nightmare, but these images remain solid, stable, and noise-free.


Sonically, Prey includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that is pretty active and engaging, and that makes frequent use of the height speakers.


City scenes have appropriate ambient street noises, and the nightclub takes on an entirely different sonic character, especially when Black Canary is singing and her voice has the reverb and ambience of being in a small jazz club. The Fun

House at the end also does a nice job getting playful with the audio mix, with lots of sounds coming from overhead.


There are a lot of fight scenes throughout the movie, and these have a lot sonic excitement. Gunshots have an appropriate snap and dynamics, and explosions energize the room with bass energy. During one scene, Harley attacks a police station with her “Fun Gun,” a weapon that shoots different non-lethal ammunition, and these projectiles launch with a solid thunk. When she fires off some gas rounds, you hear the smoke hissing into the room and overhead, and other rounds burst a confetti spray over the room.


Another fight happens in a prison hallway flooded with water. First is the sound of the water pouring overhead from the sprinkler system, and later you hear all of the splashes and individual water droplets spraying around the room.


I was a little concerned because Harley routinely narrates her thoughts, other characters’ backstories, or what is happening in a voiceover that booms across the front three channels. At first, I thought that overall dialogue levels were going to be way too loud and uncomfortably forward-sounding, and I ended up cutting the volume back a good bit from my usual reference. But it is just

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

Harley’s VOs that are recorded at a louder, forward, and in-your-face level. I think this would have played better—and been a far more playful use of the mix—had these VOs been mixed up into the height speakers, but I didn’t get to weigh-in. Fortunately, most of the dialogue is “correctly” mixed and easy to understand.


While this is a “comic book” movie, it is most definitely not family-friendly fare. There is a lot of swearing throughout, as well as some fairly graphic violence including physical abuse to women as well as one character that likes to, umm, cut peoples’ faces off. So, yeah, not for kids. But for the adults looking for a night in with a total break from reality, Birds of Prey is a sonic and visual feast that will make a home theater shine.

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

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters (2019)

As the title suggests, Todd Haynes’ film Dark Waters is no light piece of fluffy escapism, and its tone and weight feel even darker and heavier given the current state of the world. It is a film that forces you to confront sickness, death, and corruption head-on, like Robert Bilott, the protagonist of the story, convincingly underplayed by Mark Ruffalo. Based on a true story, you will be both disturbed and riveted.

The film opens on a warm night in Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1975 when a trio of teenagers sneak onto private property, shuck off their clothes, and take a dip in the lake. A few seconds later, they are swiftly kicked out by the authorities, two men in a small power boat bearing the name “West Virginia Containment Services.” The men are in the midst of spraying a mysterious chemical onto the water’s surface as one of them shouts to the other, “Turn off the beam, fool!”, referring to the boat’s spotlight. Whatever they’re doing, it’s meant to be a secret.


Cut to 1998 in Cincinnati, where Robert Bilott (Ruffalo), a recent partner at the corporate law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, is paid an unexpected visit by a farmer from Parkersburg seeking his help. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) 


This frightening, powerful true story of DuPont Chemical’s poisoning of a small West Virginia town features a strong performance from Mark Ruffalo as the lawyer who uncovers the truth.



The film is well made, but relies on a blue filter effect that’s distracting and ultimately unnecessary.



Composer Marcelo Zavros’ score is particularly effective. 

claims that DuPont is poisoning his farm’s creek and thereby killing the animals—and he has proof. He needs a lawyer, though, and he wants Bilott, whose grandma lives in Parkersburg. Only problem is that Bilott defends chemical companies, he doesn’t sue them.


Bilott refuses at first, but a nagging curiosity brings him to Tennant’s farm in West Virginia, and what he sees there cannot be unseen—190 dead cows, people getting sick, and a mysterious landfill belonging to DuPont. Bilott eventually takes the case, as he is the only lawyer willing to face the juggernaut chemical company. Dark suspicions and alarming evidence begin piling up, as does the paperwork Bilott must sift through to uncover the horrible truth. It will take him many years to find it, and at what cost? His career? His family? His life?


Mark Ruffalo gives one of his best performances as “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, which is the title of the New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich from which the screenplay (by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) is adapted. The supporting cast is equally strong and includes Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp (heart-breaking as Wilbur Tennant), and Anne Hathaway, particularly compelling as Bilott’s wife, Sarah.


The music score by Marcelo Zarvos is effective and in one scene, the use of the John Denver hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was particularly eerie juxtaposed with the film’s grim circumstances.


The look of the film, however, is its one weak spot. Nearly every scene is layered with a blue filter, used in an effort to manipulate the tone of the film, to make it feel somber and serious. The effect is overbearing and relentless. When we first see Tennant’s farm, for example, it is a dreary, blue day, and then when we revisit the farm more than a decade later, it looks exactly the same. The weather has not changed one iota. Did Haynes film it all on the same day using the same blue filter? His film does not need to rely on gimmicks. Dark Waters is an excellent movie; well-shot, well-scored, well-edited and well-acted, and these elements alone give us the tone. No filters necessary.


Despite this one qualm, Dark Waters is both frightening and powerful, and stands alongside the best of its genre like Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich. It’s so scary, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after seeing it, you find yourself going through your kitchen cabinets and throwing out some of your non-stick pots and pans. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of
On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album 
cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
Dig a Little Deeper.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

I have been a fan of the musical and movie versions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch for a very long time and take a certain amount of pride knowing that I was in on the phenomenon quite early. I got into the original cast recording when the show was still in its infancy. We even flew from California to New York in 1999 primarily to see the show when it was still way Off 

Broadway down on Jane Street in Greenwich Village. Michael Cerveris was starring in the production then; I think he was the second Hedwig, right after creator John Cameron Mitchell.


Hedwig was everything I expected and more. I came home abuzz, trying to tell as many people as I could about this amazing music and production. I even convinced a one-off cover band I was in for a special benefit concert to do “Wicked Little Town”—which confused many in the audience, who had no clue what we were playing, yet it excited the handful who were hip to it. (I have a recording of that somewhere.) I’ve seen other productions of the show since, including most recently Mitchell’s fabulous Origin of Love concert tour, which was extremely rewarding—I finally got to see the original Hedwig!


Criterion does its typically superb job of presenting this glam/punk/pop musical classic on Blu-ray.



Wonderful 4K transfer, but maybe a little too faithful to the original film, retaining more grain than contemporary audiences are used to.



The 5.1 mix is warm and inviting, but way too conservative for a rock ‘n’ roll film that could use a little rear-channel action. 

The music of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is spectacular, springboarding off of an early-’70s glam-punk-pop template shaped by David Bowie, Marc Bolin (T-Rex), Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. Mitchell and songwriter/lyricist Stephen Trask crafted a grand rock musical so compelling that Hedwig has enjoyed performances around the globe, including a successful Broadway run in 2014 starring Neil Patrick Harris.


When I recently learned about a Blu-ray release of the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which had sneaked out last year, I scurried over to Amoeba Music and found their last copy. Thus, our review here today . . .


Generally, I’m quite pleased with this new edition from Criterion. Packaging-wise, it has a very different look from the original DVD version, more in keeping with the show’s artful, Germanic, drag-punk aesthetic. With its wild hand-drawn angular lettering and such, the design feels like some alternate-universe German silent film akin to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The original movie art looked nothing like that.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Those are details not lost on me given the story’s genesis (which I assume you know . . . but if you don’t, please click here for a link to the Wiki that can help bring you up to speed).


The picture quality on the Criterion Blu-ray of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is quite wonderful, restored at 4K. The colors are beautiful, with a very distinct sense of film grain. The latter detail is both appealing and distracting, and I admit I’m a bit on the fence about how I feel about this. I know it’s the most authentic vision, representative of how the film should look, but perhaps we see almost too much grain. I wouldn’t change it, of course. But I do need to acknowledge this, for what it’s worth. 


The detailing is nonetheless quite lovely, especially in the closeups. The ruby slipper-like sparkle on Hedwig’s lips is pretty incredible!


The detailed booklet in this Criterion issue features all 

manner of behind-the-scenes images and insights, including artwork tracing the character’s evolution. The bonus materials are essential, including a charming memory piece where John Cameron Mitchell explores his archives, telling stories of how Hedwig came together, illustrated with rare memorabilia and video footage. (Some of this section mirrors tales he told on his recent Origin of Love concert tour.) The interviews with cast and crew are revealing and enlightening. I’m still going through these materials, but so far I am very pleased.


My only disappointment with this edition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch involves the sound. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio surround sound mix was a letdown—it is effectively a stereo mix with generic room ambience in the rear channels. It would have been nice to hear even a little bit of discrete activity in those channels! Maybe we will get that in a Super Deluxe Edition version somewhere down the pike.


That said, the mix does ultimately treat the music very nicely, sounding warm and inviting, almost analog at times. Accordingly, Hedwig and the Angry Inch sounds its best when you play it loud—after all, rock ‘n’ roll should be played at full volume! So if you love this movie musical and decide to get this new Criterion edition, don’t hesitate to turn up your amplifier to 11 for maximum rock ’n’ roll velocity.


You won’t regret it.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?



By all normal logic, you should not be reading this review right now. Disney/Pixar’s latest film, Onward, was just released theatrically on March 6, and with an opening gross of $103 million—and status as the #1 movie in the United States—it was already well on its way to becoming the studio’s next mega-hit.


But then the world went topsy-turvy and all the commercial cinemas closed, forcing studios to make a difficult and unprecedented decision: Wait until theaters reopen and hope interest for these movies is still there, or release them in non-

traditional ways. (You can read my post “Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date to see more on this fascinating development.)


Like others, Disney chose to greatly accelerate the home release date for Onward, making it available for purchase on digital download just two weeks after its theatrical debut. And, like Frozen II, Onward will also see a far earlier release date for streaming on Disney+, arriving there on April 3.


These plans came about so abruptly that digital retailers like Kaleidescape and Vudu didn’t even receive the 4K HDR files. However, in another unusual move from Disney, the company is using “harmonized pricing” for users purchasing Onward, meaning that one price—$26.99 in the case of Kaleidescape—gets you access to the film in HD resolution now with rights to download the UHD and 4K HDR versions when they are available.


Pixar had another mega-hit on its hands before it was forced to take this heartfelt but fun D&D-derived tale of loss & redemption out of theaters and straight to the home market.



Picks up where the groundbreaking Toy Story 4 left off, with photorealistic graphics and dazzling effects.



The adventurous mix—7.1 in the current version, but with an Atmos upgrade due soon—features plenty of pans, ambience, and bass.

So, with that preamble out of the way, we can proceed with the review . . .


Onward is set in the fantasy world of New Mushroomton, a world long ago that was filled with adventure and wonder and magic. But magic wasn’t easy to master, and over time, it faded away, and now it is a forgotten skill replaced by technology. I mean, why struggle learning to cast a light spell or rely on a wizard when now everyone can just walk over and flip a switch?


This setting is one of the first unique things for Pixar, in that the film is set in an entirely fantastical world. Every other Pixar film has been set to some degree in the “real world.” Whether it is the distant future of Wall-E, the underground insect world of A Bug’s Life, inside Riley’s head in Inside Out, or the alternate reality of The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s world-building has thus


Toy Story 4

far been built around our reality. (Even Monstropolis from Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University is tied to our world, as the monsters cross over into our side of the closet door on multiple occasions.)


Onward also features some deep ties to fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, with tons of references overt and subtle that fans of these games will pick up and love, specifically one gelatinous monster that even passing D&D fans will be familiar with. The movie’s substitute for these is Quests of Yore, “A historically based role-playing scenario.”

In a way, it reminded me of a “Weird” Al Yankovic song like “All About the Pentiums.” You can enjoy the song on the surface for what it is, but the deeper you are into geek culture, the more you’ll appreciate its brilliance on different layers. Pixar is known for littering Easter eggs throughout its films. Onward features more references and hidden jokes than perhaps any other, and the home release allows you to pause and analyze scenes to loot-hunt these treasures at your leisure.


Whether it’s The Lion King, Bambi, Frozen, Finding Nemo, or numerous other films, a common theme among Disney heroes is having lost a parent, often in some tragic manner. But no film tackles this subject head-on quite like Onward, where the entire plot revolves around the opportunity to bring back a lost parent, to spend one last day with him. Also, for the first time we hear Disney characters not only talking about the pain and loss of losing a parent, but of the emotions of having to deal with a parent that is sick and dying. Heavy stuff for a “kid’s” movie.


The film focuses on elven brothers Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) some 16 years after their father has died. On Ian’s 16th birthday, their mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) unveils a present their father left behind for when both boys were over 16. Inside the present are a wizard’s staff, a rare Phoenix Gem, and instructions for casting a “visitation spell” that will allow the dad to return for a single day to see how the boys have grown. Of course, things go awry when casting the spell, and Dad only returns from the waist down before the Phoenix Gem—an assist element required for casting powerful magic—is destroyed.


This sets up the campaign quest, as the brothers—and the lower-half of dad—head off in Barley’s sweet-van, Guinevere (fueled by an appropriately epic mixtape, of course), to follow clues left behind from the magic of old to discover another 

Phoenix Gem and finish casting the spell before the sun sets, and Dad is again lost forever.


Pixar inhabits this fantasy world with all manner of creatures, including gnomes, pixies, mermaids, unicorns, centaurs, cyclops, and goblins, which keeps scenes visually entertaining. In keeping with the RPG “rules,” different character classes have different abilities; and it is the shy and awkward Ian (whose name might be


a subtle nod to Sir Ian McKellen, who played a certain wizard named Gandalf the Grey in a few Tolkien films) who develops the ability to use the wizard’s staff to cast spells rather than his RPG-obsessed, living the “longest gap year ever” non-starter brother, Barley, perpetually wearing a jean vest emblazoned with patches and buttons of Metal-like band names and a 20-sided die, like so many of the kids I went to high-school with in the ‘80s.


And like any epic quest, the story begins at an all-too common starting point: The Tavern. From Chaucer’s Tale to Hobbiton’s Green Dragon Inn to numerous D&D campaigns, the Tavern is often the place where parties gather to palaver prior to beginning their journey. In this case, the Tavern is run by a Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a mythical creature with “a vaguely humanoid head, the body of a lion, and the wings of a dragon [whose] long tail ends in a cluster of deadly spikes,” according to D&D rules. With magic gone, our Manticore has lost its bite, and the tavern is now more a family-friendly TGI Friday’s affair. But it serves as the launching point for the brothers’ adventure—as well as a way for the Manticore to do some self-discovery—and provides the first clue to tracking down the Gem.


As mentioned at the outset, this review is of the HD version, which looks fantastic in its own right, but it definitely left me eager to see this visual glory all over again but in higher resolution, and with the added color and punch of HDR, when the 4K HDR release becomes available.


As literally every pixel shown on screen is rendered in computer, we get an amazing level of detail, especially in closeups. Here, literally every strand of hair or fur is visible in perfect detail, as are things like the grain in desks or the stones in walls. Other things have a photo-realistic quality, such as slices of bread, vehicles, or wet roads. Pixar continues upping the ante in computer visuals, and Onward picks up where the gorgeous Toy Story 4 left off.

Lighting effects are dazzling, whether it is fire, sparkling magic, or light streaming in through windows. Dark spaces like caves or night scenes make for especially vibrant eye candy. 


As is the case with every Disney release I am aware of, the digital HD version—and Blu-ray disc on release—doesn’t contain the object-based Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which is reserved for the premium 4K content. Instead, Onward’s HD version has a 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack.


While I can’t wait to audition the Atmos track when the 4K version drops, this mix offers plenty to enjoy. There are strong panning and surround effects tracking the onscreen action, especially during the driving scenes on the expressway and the final challenge quest in the tunnels, where multiple objects whiz past your head. Even with the 7.1-channel mix, my processor’s upmixer smartly put sounds up into the ceiling, such as a dragon’s tail swiping overhead or fire breathing across the room. Outdoor scenes feature tons of ambient sounds to place you in the action, and bass is deep and authoritative when called for. I find dialogue to be slightly forward with DTS mixes, but I had no difficulty understanding all the lines.


Of course, the brilliance of Pixar is in making movies that appeal to a broad range of viewers, and not just for that small subset of hardcore fans of a specific genre or RPG subculture. Unlike any other studio, Pixar has a knack for writing stories and jokes that play across multiple levels. Kids appreciate the top-level humor, with other jokes and references for adults, and deeper meanings and storytelling themes that parents recognize.


Ultimately, Onward is Pixar doing what it does best, which is creating movies about deep relationships and going right for the feels at the end. Whether you’re a beginning Level 1 Crafty Rogue or a veteran Level 20 Wizard, there is plenty in Onward to engage and entertain family members of all ages.

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

Just Mercy

Just Mercy (2019)

Wherever you stand on the controversial topic of capital punishment, it’s probably safe to say that no one wants to get it wrong and accidentally put an innocent person to death. And while we would probably all like to believe the justice system is infallible and that it goes out of its way to get it right and ensure those given the ultimate sentence are truly guilty and deserving, the sad truth is that isn’t the case. Especially in the past. And even more especially in parts of the South.


Just Mercy is the true story of an idealistic, fresh-from-Harvard-Law graduate African American, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who travels to Alabama to open the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Brie Larsen) to seek justice for those wrongfully convicted or who had received inadequate counsel. While visiting the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, Stevenson meets with a variety of inmates and listens to one sad story after another about being railroaded by a legal system that seems rigged to work against them.


One of these is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), accused, convicted, and sentenced to death in Monroe, Alabama for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white girl. After McMillian has spent years on death row, Stevenson takes up his case. (Interestingly, Monroe County is where Harper Lee was born, and the wrongful trial and conviction of Tom Robinson in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird in many ways echoes what happened to McMillian.)


As Stevenson starts digging through files and records and court transcripts, it quickly becomes apparent that the case against McMillian was fueled by deep-seated racism and the need to solve the murder, with much of the evidence that would have acquitted him having been excluded, and with the guilty verdict—and the prosecution’s entire case—hinging entirely on the forced and fabricated testimony of a convicted felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson).


Beyond the compelling story, what truly drives Just Mercy are the fantastic performances turned in by Jordan, Foxx, and Nelson. Jordan is quickly becoming a favorite actor of mine, after engaging roles in Creed, Black Panther, and Fruitvale Station, and he definitely delivers here, showing off Stevenson’s idealism and hope to change the system and save lives. And we repeatedly experience the shocking injustice at virtually every turn through his eyes and expressions.


Foxx is the polar opposite of his normal bombastic and cocky persona, instead being reserved and slow to believe and hope that this time this lawyer will actually be different, but when intensity and emotion are called for, Foxx delivers.


Nelson, who has made a career of playing quirky characters (and whose appearance in movies never fails to elicit an, “We thought you was a toad!” quote from my wife and me, recalling his character Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother Where Art Thou?) does a terrific job of inhabiting the conflicted Myers, adopting a tic and speech pattern that represent his abuse growing up in the foster system and bringing some humanity to what initially seems an unredeemable person.


The film avoids all of the usual prison-film tropes of guards beating prisoners, yard riots, or shower rapes, and instead focuses on the friendships that develop between prisoners on the Row and the helpless feeling of waiting around in a cage for someone or something else to make a decision that will change or end your life.


There is one execution that underscores the high stakes involved should the appeals fail, but even that scene shies away from reveling in anything gruesome, with the camera instead cutting away right before the electricity is applied. However, it retains a high level of emotion as we experience what we can’t see through Stevenson’s eyes and the feelings of the other prisoners along with a low, steady hum of high-current passing off camera.


Repeatedly, the film leaves you feeling infuriated by the smug confidence and corruption of the (then) all-white Alabama law machine, specifically Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) who seems less concerned whether McMillian is the guilty person and more so that someone is going to pay. The justice system appears to circumvent and corrupt justice at every turn, and, like 

McMillian, you end up with a feeling of despair, hopelessness, and anguish. Just how many wrongs can be uncovered and the truth still be denied?


Filmed in 8K, Just Mercy is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and closeups certainly reveal each pixel of this detail. Facial detail is sharp and in razor focus, showing every pore, pockmark, and whisker. Early on Stevenson wears a V-neck sweater vest, and there is fine-line stitching clearly visible along the neck and shoulders.


The film has a mostly reserved color palette throughout. Many exterior scenes feature earth tones under a mostly muted and overcast sky, with even the often bright-blue Alabama skies dialed back. The interior of McMillian’s home is filled with tans, browns, creams, and other muted tones, and the prison interiors are taupes, greys, whites, and beiges.


HDR is used to provide punch to shadows and sunlight streaming through windows, but this isn’t really a film that stuns with amazing visuals.


Sonically, I’d call the Dolby Atmos soundtrack reserved. Fortunately, dialogue, which is the all-important character here, is well and faithfully presented in the 

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

center channel, letting you easily understand every line. They do use some opportunities to provide some ambience in the mix, such as having birds chirp, wind blowing, and leaves rustling in outdoor scenes. The mix also does a nice job of putting you inside the prison, with dialogue mixed in a way to makes you feel like you’re in a low-ceilinged room, with the subtle buzz of lights and hum of the HVAC system. Occasionally, you’ll hears doors slamming or shouts off in the distance. When McMillian is locked in his cell, the door slides shut with a weighty and convincing thunk.


Just Mercy is a heavy and powerful 2 hour and 17-minute film that received a well-deserved 99% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is one that will leave you thinking well after the credits roll. In fact, an end-credit scene leaves you with the staggering statistic that for every nine persons executed in the United States, one is exonerated and set free.


The film dropped a week earlier than expected at the Kaleidescape store, nearly a full month before the physical Blu-ray release on April 14. No 4K disc version is announced at this time, making Kaleidescape your best option for the highest-quality viewing experience.

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

The Report

The Report (2019)

Sitting at home during the early stages of what may turn out to be a genuinely spectacular pandemic, I sometimes let my mind drift over recent history, with specific key aspects of select periods pointing to some deeper meaning.


Sure, it may be the wine talking, but there are truths that only become apparent when allowed to ruminate without the burden of an overly hectic social schedule. Facts like how 2019 was unlike any other year in that it indeed was the Year of Adam Driver.


Think about it: Last year, Driver starred in no fewer than four full-length North American releases: The Dead Don’t Die, Marriage Story, The Rise of Skywalker, and The Report, the last of which came and went in a haze all too fast to garner nearly as much box office success as it deserves.


Released in November ’19 a month ahead of the super-hyped wrap to the original Star Wars saga, The Report places Driver in the role of Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones who, in 2009, was enlisted by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to investigate the ’05 destruction of videotapes documenting allegedly abusive CIA interrogations of prisoners in the months following 9/11. 


When the report detailing the findings of the original two-year investigation is brushed aside, Feinstein directs Jones and his team of six to dig deeper, leading them to discover horrible truths that the CIA preferred to remain buried.


As a thriller, The Report relentlessly grabs viewers by the collar as we’re taken behind the scenes of the torture program that came to be known for the introduction of the term waterboarding into the American vernacular.


Like Three Days of the Condor and other classic thrillers of the ‘70s, The Report builds tension by allowing the story to unfold around a central character, in this case Jones, whose sincerity and near-disbelief at the attempts to thwart his investigation only inspire him to push harder, if not always with the greatest of prudence.


Directed by Scott Z. Burns, The Report is a big film with big-ticket stars that remarkably maintains the feel of a lean, independent production. Special effects are replaced by a keen eye on detail, as Jones and his team methodically research the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” videos of which went missing shortly before the original investigation kicked into gear. This isn’t some Watergate-style 18-minute gap in audio—hundreds of hours of tapes quickly went MIA thanks to the CIA, or so Jones and his team maintained as the followup investigation built momentum over five years. According to history, the small group dove into more than six million pages of documents, conducted interviews, and met with interference by the Agency and members of the Obama administration, among others. 


Unlike thrillers that expand the narrative into the leads’ personal lives, The Report is all about the business at hand. We’re left to surmise that Jones’ home and love lives are anemic at best, as we see him work tirelessly with an added boost of adrenalin every time he or a member of his staff discover a new and potentially beneficial revelation.


Playing a man who is consumed by his mission, Driver portrays Jones as supremely buttoned-up, humorless, and wholly wonkish as he dives into a sea of paper in pursuit of the true story. Burns, making his directorial debut, lets the day-to-day details of the story build as the 6,700-page report takes shape. Aside from occasional violence depicted in flashback scenes to the CIA black sites where the abuses took place, The Report is all talk and tension in the best possible way.


It is a challenge to present relatively recent news.Yet, Burns and the cast pull it off with what felt like a never-ending race from the windowless box where the team did their research to meetings with administration officials, the CIA, and conversations with anonymous sources. Throughout, Driver maintains a focused, sort of angry composure that had me anticipating an explosion of emotion that never materializes. Instead, he is simply a professional with no intention of letting up, especially as it becomes clear that early suspicions about allegations of torture are in fact true.


As a screenwriter, Burns collaborated with co-producer Steven Soderbergh on several films, including Contagion, which unsurprisingly is getting cited in current news stories. He eschews oversized scenes for adherence to the story, acknowledging that the story itself is more powerful than any dramatic flourish can provide. Of course, this means the viewer must keep up with the dialogue, which is mixed clear and upfront, with sound effects and music playing their roles as distant seconds to the words.


This is Driver’s sweet spot. His dry yet impassioned delivery comes across as honest and sincere, whereas a lesser actor may have lapsed into a more over-the-top presentation throughout the film. As Sen. Feinstein, Annette Bening becomes the character—from her outward appearance to her mannerisms in public and private, she embodies the senator’s pleasant, no-nonsense manner without it becoming a caricature.


Upon its release, The Report came and went without making a dent at the box office, which is a shame, given that you will be hard-pressed to find an equally gripping film with a commitment to historical accuracy that makes it required viewing for fans of historical narratives. The combination of a tight script and first-rate cast makes The Report a home run for Burns, box office losses to the contrary.   

Adam Sohmer

Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
owner of
Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. 
Find him on
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker

There hasn’t been a lot of good news swirling about lately, so it was a real treat to open my email on Saturday morning and see a message from Kaleidescape announcing that Disney and Lucasfilm had decided to give fans a little bit of weekend fun by releasing the latest Star Wars movie a few days early. (It as originally scheduled for March 17; the disc release is scheduled for March 31.)


While the Mouse House offered no official announcement (at least that I could find) about the reasoning behind this early release, the company did make an announcement that Frozen 2 “will be available three months ahead of schedule on Disney+ in the U.S. . . . surprising families with some fun and joy during this challenging period,” an allusion to the COVID-19 pandemic.


With more families staying at home, a bit of Star Wars could be just the thing to lift spirits.


Officially carrying the weighty title Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker, this film brings to a conclusion the space opera created by George Lucas back in 1977, and wraps the final trilogy of films which began in 2015 with The Force

Awakens and continued in 2017 with The Last Jedi.


Following the mixed fan reception of director Rian Johnson’s Jedi, which received a favorable critics’ rating of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, but a dismal, franchise-low audience score of just 43%, Star Wars looked to finish strong with Skywalker. But there was difficulty early on as initial writer and director Colin Trevorrow was quickly replaced due to “creative differences,” and J.J. Abrams was brought back in to helm the ship and finish the trilogy he began with Awakens.


To be fair, Abrams had an almost impossible task here—to conclude a saga that had taken on myth and meaning in people’s lives, with expectations far beyond what any movie could ever deliver. To its credit, Disney threw a ton of money at the film (an estimated $275 million), and J.J. tried to give fans the farewell they wanted, even bringing back a host of characters not seen in years, including Lando Calrissian (Billy De Williams), Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson), and Wicket (Warwick Davis), along with even more that are only heard. And while he reversed the tide of Last Jedi’s ratings, scoring an audience score of 86%, he also managed a franchise-low critic’s rating of just 51%.


Abrams also faced the major obstacles of losing Carrie Fisher, whose Princess Leia was supposed to be a central character in this final episode, and having to follow some of the story choices Johnson took with Last Jedi. The result is a movie that feels a bit disjointed at times, shoehorning and repurposing previously shot footage and dialogue of Fisher where it could, and feeling like it was rewriting Johnson’s film at others. The result left some with more questions than answers.


Like many of you, I grew up with Star Wars. I saw the first film at a small theater in Carmel, California while my parents were out shopping when I was 7. I can remember that first Star Destroyer flying overhead and thinking this was like nothing I’d ever seen before. When the movie was over, I walked out and met my parents outside, told them how amazing it was, and then turned around and went back in and watched it again.


For the record, I enjoyed Skywalker, but left the theater on opening night a bit conflicted. When my wife asked me what I thought of it, I said, “I liked it, but I’m not sure it is the movie I wanted. But I’m not sure what I wanted.”


No matter how great this film was, it was always going to be somewhat of a bittersweet experience for fans. We all watched the final credits knowing this was the end of 

something that had become important in our lives, and now there is no more Star Wars to look forward to. (At least in the manner that we’ve grown accustomed to. Disney and Lucasfilm will most certainly continue to mine that galaxy far, far away for stories for years to come.) For me, this is now the third time I’ve “lost” Star Wars, the first being when Return of the Jedi finished in 1983, the second when Episode III—Revenge of the Sith finished in 2005.


Now, I’m not going to presume my review or analysis of Skywalker is going to sway your decision to watch it, nor am I going to bother wasting time and space trying to recap the plot—especially since this is an almost two-and-a-half-hour film that concludes 42 years’ worth of storytelling. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve already seen the movie, and have already drawn your own conclusions, and have likely already pre-ordered the mega box set of all the films, scheduled for release at the end of the month. (Incidentally, the other eight films in the Star Wars saga were also released in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos soundtracks at the same time as Skywalker.) But if you haven’t seen Skywalker by now, maybe you can be swayed to give this a viewing in your home theater. I assure you, it’s well worth the time, and I feel it improves on repeated viewings. (I far more enjoyed it on my second viewing this past January in Las Vegas on the only Sony Premium Digital Cinema in the country.)


OK, with that out of the way, lets get down to it: How does the 4K HDR release of Rise of Skywalker look and sound? Fortunately, this is a far less controversial question to answer, as the presentation is top-notch! The film even garnered three Academy Awards nominations, for John Williams’ original score, visual effects, and sound editing.


Shot on a combination of Kodak film stocks, Skywalker’s transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and uses HDR throughout to really pump colors and highlights, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that surrounds and immerses you in the action.


From the opening scenes, Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) unstable lightsaber sizzles on screen, glowing and seething with bright reds. The final battle on Exegol is like an HDR demo reel, with dark skies dotted with glowing engines of ships, and illuminating the room with frequent bright blue-white bursts of pupil-searing lightning strikes and laser bolts.


While space is never “pitch black” in Star Wars films, images remain clean and noise-free, and we get some true blacks in interiors. The scenes aboard Ren’s Star Destroyer (which reminded me of what an incredible job Disney did of transporting you into the Star Wars universe in its new Rise of the Resistance ride) look fantastic, with gleaming, glistening black decks, bright lighting illuminating hallways, and laser blasts and sparks.


The underground sand worm’s lair on Pasaana is another scene that could be a recipe for producing a video and compression nightmare, with dimly lit passageways illuminated by BB8’s glowing lights along with a couple of flashlights and the searing blue of Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) lightsaber. Blacks remain deep, with lots of shadow detail without any distracting banding or other artifacts.


Closeups reveal a terrific level of detail, showing every pore, strand of hair, stitch, texture, and bit of wear. Part of owning the film—and watching it repeatedly—is the you can revel in the attention to detail in nearly every shot, such as the creature design and the large interiors. The only scenes that appear “soft” are the ones with Leia. All of her shots are comprised of previously unused footage shot while filming Force Awakens. The previous background elements were removed digitally so she could be composited into the new shots.


Disney has received flack over the soundtracks on many of its top-level releases, but the Atmos audio included here is beyond reproach, with lots of dynamics and activity. Whether it is the snap and hum of lightsabers, the effects of Force energy, the waves crashing on the moon in the Endor system, the thrum of various engines, or explosions, bass is deep, powerful, and room-energizing when appropriate.

Surround and height speakers are used frequently to immerse you in the scenes and action. The speeder chase on Pasaana has laser blasts that shoot around the room and troopers launching and flying overhead. The scenes on Kijimi are filled with expansive street sounds to place you on location, with wind blowing, snow falling, and distant shouts and voices. The height speakers are also used to good effect during Rey and Ren’s Force chats, Emperor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) booming voice, and the voices of Jedi past that echo in Rey’s mind.


Sonically, my favorite scenes are aboard the remnants of the second Death Star. These scenes are among the most interesting from an audio standpoint, with loads of drips, creaks, and groans of wires twisting and metal straining as the giant ship constantly settles while Rey moves about in the cavernous interiors. The exterior shots are filled with the roar of wind and crash of waves and water splattering—all of it an ambient feast for the audio senses!


Beyond dialogue being clear and easily intelligible, the soundtrack also does a wonderful job presenting Williams’ score, what he says will be his final time working with Star Wars.

The Rise of Skywalker

Even if Rise of Skywalker isn’t your favorite film in the Star Wars saga, the movie is worth purchasing just for the extras, including the feature-length documentary The Skywalker Legacy, along with five other featurettes. Included with the Kaleidescape release as a digital exclusive is “The Maestro’s Finale,” which has John Williams looking back on his 40-plus-year career working with Star Wars.


While this might not be the conclusion to the Skywalker saga that some wanted, this is the one we’ve been given. And there is still a lot here to enjoy, especially in a home theater setting. Get a bowl of popcorn, turn down the lights, turn up the sound, sit back and enjoy, and I all but guarantee the Force will be with you.

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


1917 (2019)

Filmmakers don’t typically cover World War I with the frequency they do more recent wars. Perhaps it’s because with the age of the war there aren’t many first-hand accounts to draw from, or it doesn’t feature the cool tech of modern wars, or the political angle of Vietnam, or the clear-cut good-versus-evil themes of WWII. Whatever the reason, if director Sam Mendes’ 1917 is the last film we ever get covering the First Great War, the subject will have been well served.


This is a personal project for Mendes, who not only directed but also co-wrote and produced, being based in part on stories told to him by his grandfather, who fought in the war as a 17-year-old. And it clearly resonated with both fans and critics alike,

raking in over $360 million worldwide and nabbing ten Academy Awards nominations, including Director and Picture, along with wins for Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Cinematography.


To me, 1917 is less about the actual story—which is rather simple—and far more about the way it is told and how it visually unfolds.


The film opens on April 6, 1917, where we are introduced to two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Den-Charles Chapman). Actually, “introduced” is really an 

overstatement; we just see them lying down and learn nothing of them before they’re called in to meet with General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who has some vital news that must be delivered by dawn to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch).


Through aerial reconnaissance, the British army has discovered that instead of having the German army on the run, Mackenzie is about to lead his men into a massive German ambush, likely causing the massacre of two full battalions—upwards of 1,600 men. Making the message even more personal, Blake’s brother is among the men in the regiment scheduled to attack, so failure could mean a personal loss. The two soldiers are thus sent off with a message ordering Mackenzie to call off the attack, covering miles of hostile territory alone and in the full light of day.


Welcome to the opening minutes of 1917.


In the hands of a different director, this likely wouldn’t have been such a successful and powerful film, as Mendes does two things that combine to make it feel so much more real, immediate, and personal.


First, it’s shot in a manner that makes the movie feel like one (well, actually two) continuous takes. There are almost no interruptions to the two long scenes; no quick camera cuts or edits, no perspective changes, just a continued focus on our heroes. You get a sense of the planning needed for this as the cameras follow the two protagonists through what feels like miles of trenches, sliding around other soldiers and navigating twists and turns, or following them as they run through battle scenes.


Second, the shots are almost always framed tight—either head-on or from a close follow—rarely more than just a few feet from the two leads. You frequently see little in the distance or much off to the periphery as you are locked tight on them. This draws you naturally in to their situation, seeing their feelings and emotions, the wear of their uniforms, and the strain of the task at hand, making you care more about the mission. But it also serves to add to the tension and unease and fog of war of the journey, as you are given far less information about your surroundings, and end up reacting to events as they happen instead of being prepared for them.


As you’d expect, Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography looks beautiful. When the camera does pull back, we see the immense scope, with huge landscapes and wide vistas looking epic in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The lighting is also beautifully done—and greatly benefits from HDR. Whether it is the dark interior of a tent warmly lit in rich red-orange glows from lamps, the dark insides of bunkers illuminated by flashlight, or a French village lit up at night by overhead flares and a conflagration, blacks are deep, with lots of shadow detail. Skies during the daylight scenes—the first of the two shots—are a bright, overcast grey, free of any noise or banding and still revealing clouds and other details thanks to HDR.


Equally impressive is the attention to detail in the set dressing and production design (also nominated). Filmed in ArriRaw at 4.5K, with this transfer taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you appreciate all the little details on screen. In the opening scenes, you can see the layers of texture and materials on the soldiers’ uniforms and kit, with individual stitching, fray, and wear, and the aging on their leathers.


Going through the trenches, you can see all the work required to dig in a protected position and the nightmare of having to sleep in a constant state of mud and muck (later juxtaposed by the much more advanced German trenches). We follow right on the heels of the two soldiers as they slog through the muddy, gritty, terrifying textures of life as a WWI soldier, where the landscape is frequently littered with rotting, fly-covered carcasses, rats running in and out of decomposing bodies, various bits of limbs protruding from dust-covered landscapes, and rusted-out helmets pocked with bullet holes. You could nearly get a case of trench foot from the wet-muddy realism of it. And all of these shots without break in a single, long take!


The only video issue I noticed was a pretty severe bit of judder at around 42:40 (immediately preceding “The Dogfight” scene). The camera shoots through the gaps between some vertical wooden fence slats while slowly tracking to the right. Whether it is the shutter speed used, the speed of the camera panning, or just an inherent issue with the limitations of filming at 24 frames per second, on my two displays (a JVC 4K projector and Sony 4K TV), the wooden posts broke down into a ghosted mess during these few seconds. At first I thought there might be an issue with the Kaleidescape encode, but I had fellow reviewer Dennis Burger check the same scene on a 4K version of the movie streamed from Vudu, and he had the same experience. (Another Kaleidescape user at the Owner’s Forum commented that he didn’t notice any issues with that scene, so it is likely display dependent.)


Given the film’s Academy Award for sound mixing and nomination for sound editing, I was excited to hear the audio mix; and while the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack included with the Kaleidescape download is certainly dynamic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t (again!) call out NBC Universal for not providing Kaleidescape with the fully immersive Dolby Atmos track.


Even still, the upmixer in my Marantz processor did an admirable job of extracting ambient cues from scenes, adding the swirl of wind through leaves and trees in a forest canopy, the roar of plunging water, or the sounds of a bunker caving in around 

you, with its wooden supports splintering and dust and debris filling the room. Another scene has a biplane roaring overhead and disappear out through the front of the room, and in another you hear flares launched up overhead, where they sizzle and burn.


This is a war film, so there is a fair bit of shooting and explosions, and rifle shots have an appropriately loud and sharp crack, with the sounds of ejected and spent brass shell casings tinkling and bouncing on the floor. One explosion was so loud and sudden that it literally had me jump in my seat!


Further, the movie is well served by Thomas Newman’s Oscar-nominated original score, which seems to always add the right level of sweeping scale, tension, and urgency to the film. It reminded me in some ways of the frantic, haunting music Hans Zimmer created for The Dark Knight, always reminding you that our characters are in a race against the clock, and the clock is ticking.


Dialogue is mostly easy to understand throughout, and when it wasn’t, it was more due to the occasionally thick accents of the actors than to any poor quality of the mix.

1917 (2019)

If I have one last nit to pick, it is again with NBC Universal. As is another of their maddening policies, they don’t provide Kaleidescape with any of the film’s extras or supplemental features, and 1917 is a movie that demands a making-of documentary viewing to see how they pulled off the incredible cinematography and camera work. Hopefully this policy will change in the future.


For me, recommending 1917 is a total no-brainer. It is not only one of the most unique and engaging films I’ve seen in a while, it looks fantastic in a home theater—the bigger the screen the better. It’s an intense viewing experience, but one that is well worth it.

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

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