Movies

Review: Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter (2020)

Based on the Capcom videogame franchise of the same title and coming from the same team—writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson and actress Milla Jovovich—that brought us what feels like a lifetime full of Resident Evil movies, don’t expect Monster Hunter to deliver a lot in the way of subtlety, rich character development, or introspection.

 

What you do get is pretty much 90-plus minutes of pure action, maybe not so much hunting monsters but sure as heck spending the majority of time running, hiding, and avoiding them. (And, yes, there is definitely some hunting.)

 

Monster Hunter never shies away from what it is or what it’s trying to be, namely an action-packed, popcorn-munching film, which keeps our characters in mortal peril for virtually the entire time. There is no Spielbergian building of tension and 

suspense, making you wait until deep into the movie before finally letting us catch a glimpse of the monsters. Nope. From the opening minutes, Monster Hunter throws us straight in to the action, showing us these big-baddies and letting you know just what you’re in for.

 

I didn’t have any prior knowledge or experience of the game, but unlike Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, this is a case where the film’s trailer tells you exactly what you’re gonna get: Jovovich kicking ass and fighting for her life in a strange world against Kaiju-like creatures. Plus, I expected it to deliver a pretty thrilling and engaging Dolby Atmos sound mix. (Spoiler: It totally does!)

 

Like nearly every recent film, Monster had a bit of a ping-pong journey to its theatrical release. Originally scheduled to be released in September 2020, the film was delayed to April 2021, then moved back to December 30, then 

HUNTER AT A GLANCE

Based on the video game, this movie provides 90-plus minutes of pure monster-hunting action. 

 

PICTURE
Images are sharp, detailed, and clear throughout. HDR plays a big role, with loads of dark scenes punctuated by bright highlights.

 

SOUND     

The real treat here is the dynamic and aggressive Kaleidescape Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which is by far the most exciting aspect of the film for a home theater fan.

Christmas week, finally debuting in the states on December 18. It bowed on home video via digital retailers February 16, with a planned physical release expected on March 2.

 

The film opens with a ship sailing through a vast ocean of sand, with a giant creature slipping under sand dunes, stalking and attacking it. The Admiral (Ron Perlman) tries to fight off the creature, but it appears he is unsuccessful and at least one of the crew is lost. We cut to “our” world and see a team of soldiers led by Captain Artemis (Jovovich) tracking a lost group of soldiers. A freak and strange storm pulls the convoy through a vortex into the sandy world, where they discover the destroyed remnants of the missing team. A bow-wielding Hunter (Tony Jaa) in the distance tries to get their attention, but they are attacked by a Diablos, the same massive horned monster that had attacked the ship. The soldiers flee from the monster into a cave where . . . well, let’s just say things aren’t a whole lot safer.

 

Artemis ultimately teams up with Hunter and they form a plan to kill the Diablos and make their way to the mysterious Sky Tower (which looks like a combination of Mordor from Lord of the Rings and Stephen King’s Dark Tower) on the horizon.

 

As mentioned, the film is based on a game, and it has a real videogame pacing and structure to it. We get our mission, meet a foe, meet other enemies, add to our party, get training and level up, beat the foe, move towards an objective, and then encounter the end boss. There are also nods to anyone who played the game. like the “Meowscular Chef,” a random one-eyed sushi-preparing pirate cat creature that shows up near the end.

 

Hunter speaks in an unsubtitled foreign language not understood by Artemis, so there’s not a lot of chatting between the two beyond things like, “This is chocolate. Choc-o-late. You eat it.” In fact, the two begin their relationship ridiculously trying to kill each other, repeatedly punching, kicking, throwing, and even stabbing. I mean, they are the only humans around and we know they are going to end up working together, so why they inexplicably waste time and energy fighting is really kind of pointless. (Maybe it’s from the game, but whatever.) What we do get to see is that Jaa has some legit fighting chops, holding black belts in Wushu and Tae Kwondo, along with being highly skilled in Muay Thai and more, and from all of her years in action films, Jovovich at least appears that she can hold her own.

 

With an estimated budget of $60 million, the effects shots and world building in Monster actually look really good. There was only one scene where the CGI looked a bit janky and called attention to itself. The creatures’ world seems appropriately vast, and they never shy away from showing the creatures close up and in detail. And from the conclusion—and mid-credits sequence—it’s pretty clear they’re hoping this movie catches on and are primed for a sequel.

 

There’s no mention of the resolution used to capture Monster but images are sharp, detailed, and clear throughout. Closeups have sharp focus and show tons of detail, such as the texture in uniforms and helmets, or on the attached straps, buckles, and webbing. Edges are always sharp and defined, and I was never distracted by any visual flaws.

 

High dynamic range plays a big role in the image quality of Monster. Most of the film is a bright, desert sun beaming down to gleaming white sand contrasted against the blue skies and drab green/brown of the soldier’s cammies. There are also loads 

of dark scenes punctuated by bright highlights—either sunlight pouring in through holes in underground caves, candles burning in the dark, or big blasts of fire in the night sky. We also get the piercing blue-white of lightning strikes and glowing runes, not to mention the preternatural white of Jovovich’s teeth.

 

For home theater viewers, the real treat here is the Kaleidescape Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which I would say is about as dynamic and aggressive as any I can think of. There are intense audio levels from all channels, and near constant activity from the height speakers. If you’ve been looking for a movie that shows off your investment in that new processor or additional speakers, look no further!

 

From the opening moments, you’ll be immersed in the sounds of the wooden ship creaking and groaning all around, as the sails and lightning snap and crack overhead. Vehicles crash and roll over (and over) across the top of the room, creatures skitter and crawl overhead and around, Ospreys and baddies whoosh and fly overhead, bullets fly, sand and wind blows, thunder booms. This mix is non-stop and by far the most exciting aspect of the film for a home theater fan.

 

Bass is also authoritative and powerful when called on, with monsters’ collisions and impacts energizing all the air in the viewing room. The only thing I might 

Monster Hunter (2020)

have liked was a bit more dynamics on the gunfire, but, really, in all of the cacophony, it might have been too much. And through all the mayhem, the little dialogue we do get remains clear and anchored to the center channel.

 

If you’re looking for a film that will lead to a deep discussion afterwards, this is not for you. I mean, they didn’t exactly bury the lede in the title. But if you’re in the mood to unplug, sit back, and enjoy a loud, raucous good time in your theater, have a few jump scares, and take a break from a ton of adult-language or gore, Monster Hunter should fit the bill. And for Atmos owners, the soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission.

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: Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

From the writing team that brought us the hilarious Bridesmaids back in 2011, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo re-team to write and star in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Originally slated for theatrical release in July 2020, it was pushed back nearly a full year to July 2021, before Lionsgate decided to go with a PVOD release via digital retailers on February 12.

 

Beyond its wide availability from sources like Apple TV, Hulu, and Fandango Now, Barb and Star is also one of the first PVOD titles to be available for rental on Kaleidescape.

 

Rental titles—PVOD or otherwise—are new for Kaleidescape, and the company takes a unique approach to delivering them. Unlike streamers, which deliver films in limited, compressed quality, Kaleidescape rentals are downloaded in full quality to an owner’s system just as if the film were purchased, meaning there’s no “rental penalty” with regards to picture or sound 

quality. As with other PVOD distributors, Kaleidescape rental titles remain on a user’s system for up to 30 days, but once viewing begins, there’s a 48-hour window in which you can watch the title as many times as you like, starting, pausing, rewinding, forwarding through the film as you would any other title. After the rental period—either the 30 days or 48 hours—has expired, the title disappears from the user’s system.

 

Another interesting twist with Kaleidescape’s rentals is that if you like the film and decide you want to own it, you can apply one-half of the rental price toward buying the film within 30 days. (This option does not apply to PVOD titles like Barb and Star as they are currently only offered for rental, not for sale.)

 

Having watched some of the trailers for Barb and Star, I thought I had a pretty good idea what the movie would be 

BARB & STAR AT A GLANCE

This wacky, absurd Kristen Wiig vehicle isn’t for everyone but makes for a nice PVOD diversion at a time when new releases are thin. 

 

PICTURE
The images feature bright and vibrant tropical pastels but are sometimes marred by “Portrait mode”-type selective focus.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack is mostly restrained but really comes alive during the big musical numbers.

about: Two single, mid-life-aged female friends taking a vacation where things get a little wild. Turns out I was only about half right. About three minutes into the film, it takes a radical turn I don’t think anyone would see coming. Without spoiling the film, I’ll just say that Kristen Wiig plays two completely different roles—the titular easy-breezy, go-with-the-flow Star and another far less happy-go-lucky, sun-averse Sharon Gordon Fisherman who, due to a sleight that happened years before, has a secret lair and master-villain plot to kill everyone in Vista Del Mar with submarine-launched, weaponized killer mosquitoes.

 

Barb (Mumolo) and Star work and live together, sharing everything, and have been living a boring, beige, repetitive life lacking any adventure. After the furniture store the ladies work at suddenly closes, they decide to take the advice of friend Mickey (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and head down to Vista Del Mar to have an adventure and get their shimmer back.

 

While there, the ladies encounter hunky Edgar Paget (Jamie Dornan) at the bar, and after the threesome shares a “Buried Treasure” specialty drink together, they end up having a wild night where the ladies develop feelings. They try to court Edgar separately and secretly, but little do they know that Edgar is involved with Fisherman’s plot and not-so-secretly in love with her.

 

Things ultimately come to a head when the girls find out they’ve been sneaking around behind each other’s backs and that only they can save the town from the deadly mosquito attack.

 

For me, the jokes were more chuckles than big laughs. Sure, there are some funny moments scattered throughout but they were just too few and not enough, and I just kept waiting for it to hit, where everything clicked and came together. And I say that as someone who loved Kristen Wiig’s characters on SNL: Aunt Linda, Female A-Hole, Dooneese, Gilly, Sue, Target Lady . . . 

 

The movie is wacky and absurdist and jokes are often played, and played, and played. (Case in point, the whole Trish bit aboard the plane that just goes on . .  .) Characters randomly burst into song and dance, there’s a talking crab, a lounge crooner who primarily sings about boobs, and hijinks and romance ensue. It’s cheesy, ridiculous, and random but you’ve got to say this for it: Barb and Star leans-in and fully commits to its gags. And the girls’ wild exuberance, joy of life and the simple things, and comic charisma are what drive the film.

 

The cast includes cameos by several funny ladies including Vanessa Bayer, Fortune Feimster, Phyllis Smith, Rose Abdoo, who make up a hilarious and mean “Talking Club” (my favorite part of the film, that was sadly too brief), as well as Ian Gomez

as the girls’ boss and Daman Wayans Jr. as a spy that can’t quite keep a secret.

 

Visually, there’s a lot to love with Barb and Star, especially after the action moves to Florida, where things are filled with bright and vibrant tropical pastels—hot pinks, turquoise blues, gleaming whites. The outdoor shots, scenes around the pool and by the ocean are all sun-drenched and uber-saturated, and could be a travelogue for Florida.

 

Closeups feature great detail and sharp focus, such as Tommy Bahama’s (Andy Garcia) face, whiskers, and felt hat, or the texture and detail in Fisherman’s white-on-white cape. Many shots, however, almost felt like they were filmed with “Portrait mode” engaged, where any of the actors not in primary focus or objects in the foreground are just slightly (or not so slightly) blurred. Often objects at the edges or corners of the screen were blurred, something especially noticeable when projected on my 115-inch diagonal screen. I would describe the sharpness and detail as a bit uneven.

 

Sonically, the Kaleidescape rental (and eventual purchase) includes a Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack that serves the primary role of ensuring that dialogue is clearly presented and intelligible. The mix is mostly restrained but useful for 

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (2021)

creating ambience, such as the hums and echoes in Fisherman’s lair, announcements at the airport, or sounds of seagulls and waves crashing at the ocean. Sonically, the film really comes alive during the big musical numbers, such as the girls’ welcome to Vista Del Mar, a swirling rendition of “Cheeseburger in Paradise” after they finish the Buried Treasure, and a heavy bass-throbbing rave-feeling version of “My Heart Will Go On.” The sound mix isn’t enough to make or break the film, but it does an admirable job of serving it well.

 

So . . . this movie . . . I’m gonna say, Barb and Star is not going to be for everyone. In fact, I think it’s going to be one of those polarizing cult classics that people either love and watch over and over (probably with friends and while intoxicated) or they don’t understand at all and will never watch again. For me, this was the perfect rental title, as I’m not sure I’ll never need to join Barb and Star again, but hanging out with the ladies was good for a few laughs.

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 Croods: A New Age

The Croods: A New Age (2020)

If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s a sequel. Once the risk of investing in a new property has found audience favor—and the accompanying box-office success—then a sequel is almost sure to come. After grossing more than $587 million, a followup to DreamWorks’ 2013 The Croods was virtually cast in stone.

 

However, this prehistoric family had a somewhat challenging journey getting back to the screen. After the first film’s success, plans for The Croods: A New Age were announced in 2013, with original directors, Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, intending on returning. But the film was cancelled in November 2016 after Universal acquired DreamWorks. The project was revived 

with a new director, Joel Crawford, in 2017 with a planned release in November of that year. But after facing multiple delays, it finally debuted theatrically in the States on November 25, 2020, followed by a PVOD release on December 18, and available to digital retailers like Kaleidescape on February 9. (A physical 4K release is expected on February 23.) Despite all of these hurdles, the movie managed to gross nearly $150 million worldwide, and gathered favorable critics and audience scores of 77% and 94%, respectively.

 

While you could certainly jump straight into New Age without watching the initial Croods—a brief opening scene does a quick job of catching you up—you’d be doing yourself a bit of a disservice and setting yourself up to miss some of the callback gags from Age. The first film introduces us to the Croods, a prehistoric family led by ultra-protective patriarch Grug (Nicholas Cage) that lives together and sleeps in a pile in a cave, spending every moment surviving some natural disaster and hunting food. Rebellious teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone) sneaks 

NEW AGE AT A GLANCE

This 2020 sequel maintains the momentum of the 2013 mega-hit original, with terrific voice acting and eye-popping visuals enhancing the new adventures of the dysfunctional Stone Age family. 

 

PICTURE
Visuals are like an entire 64-color box of Crayons projected on your screen. Sharp and vibrant, the constant digital eye candy will make your display look its best.

 

SOUND     

The immersive Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack is a little restrained during the first part of the film but really kicks in for the finale, which delivers truly deep and powerful bass.

out of the cave one night to explore when she encounters a more modern human boy, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), and after a disaster destroys their cave home, the clan sets out on a quest to find a new place to live.

 

The entire Crood family returns for this sequel including wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), son Thunk (Clark Duke), and Gran (Cloris Leachman). We pick up the story with the family still together, still dodging predators, hunting food, and sleeping in a pile, but the boy-girl relationship between Guy and Eep has evolved to the point where they are talking their tomorrow together, branching off and starting their own pack. This doesn’t sit well with Grug, who feels the pack is stronger—and safer—together.

 

One day, Grug discovers a huge wall, and on the other side discovers the far more evolved and on-the-nose named Betterman family, with husband Phil (Peter Dinklage), wife Hope (Leslie Mann), and daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran). The Bettermans live in a fantastic treehouse with separate rooms for all, wear sandals, take showers, farm for food, use modern tools, and more. They also happen to have been friends with Guy’s parents, and feel like life would be better if the Croods left, but that Guy stayed behind “with his kind of people” to be with Dawn.

 

The middle part of the film is the humor of watching these two clashing lifestyles trying to relate to, and interacting with, one another, with Phil and Grug in an alpha-male clash, Eep finally having a friend her age with Dawn, who feels similarly trapped under her family’s strict “no going outside the wall” rule, and Guy struggling with wanting the better life with the Bettermans while still loving cavegirl Eep.

 

During the final act, the families have their inevitable reconciliation as they work together to overcome a common, banana-loving foe.

 

While the movie doesn’t really break any new ground, the story of class struggle, love, growing up, and family are all relatable, but what makes it so entertaining are the site gags and terrific voice acting. Reynolds has repeatedly proven his great comic voicing and timing (Exhibit A and B: Deadpool and Aviation Gin ads), and Stone certainly holds her own with her

exuberance. Ugga is perfect for Cage to unleash his over-the-top self, and Dinklage is also on point as Phil, reminding me a bit of his Mighty Eagle character from The Angry Birds.

 

Besides bringing some fresh content that your home theater has been craving, New Age flat-out looks fantastic in 4K HDR. Images are razor sharp, clear, and pristine. Nearly every frame bristles with vibrant colors, like the entire 64-color box of Crayons has been projected onto your screen, with colors changing dramatically in almost every scene. From the greens of foliage to the rich red-oranges of fire to the bright blues of water to glowing bioluminescence at night, colors explode with richness and vibrancy you don’t see outside of animation. Almost the entirety of the 95-minute runtime is digital eye candy, making your display look its best.

 

While New Age uses a less realistic animation style than some Pixar films like Soul or Toy Story 4, it is consistent throughout, and images never lack for texture and detail. Closeups show the care and detail in the animation, revealing individual strands of fur, scratches, fabric detail, and grain. Some banana outfits near the end show such texture you can clearly imagine what they would feel like.

The Croods: A New Age (2020)

The Kaleidescape download of the film also boasts an immersive Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack. While the first half of the film is a bit restrained, there are still plenty of atmospherics spread around the room to put you into the jungle action. Whether wind or insect sounds, the echoes of the environment, or the musical score, the surround channels are called on to expand the soundstage. We also get a lot of far offscreen voice work and effects, with characters announcing their locations from surround channels around the room, or as someone—or something—is thrown into a far corner.. As we move into the film’s climax, we get a lot more excitement in the audio domain, especially with the subwoofer kicking in to deliver powerful low end. Also, be sure to stay through the opening part of the end credits to enjoy a Tenacious D version of “I Think I Love You.” Dialogue is also clear and easily understandable throughout.

 

The Croods: A New Age is an entertaining, family-friendly film that also happens to looks fantastic on a good display, making it an easy recommendation for your next movie night get together.

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: Space Sweepers

Space Sweepers (2021)

One of my favorite books from my childhood was The Empire Strikes Back Mix or Match Storybook, a ridiculous little publication featuring split pages that allowed you to pull a character from one scene and actions from another, match them with an out-of-context plot point and setting, and put together nonsensical little koans like, “Boba Fett . . . was taking a lubrication bath . . . on the Rebel base . . . when Lando greeted him . . . and chased him into a cave . . . where old droids were stored.” Expand that concept beyond the confines of the Star Wars galaxy and you’ll have a pretty good sense of how

the script for Space Sweepers (aka Seungriho, aka Space Victory) surely must have been written.

 

Take the general premise of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and Pixar’s Wall-E, mash them up with the overall tone of Guardians of the Galaxy, the character dynamics of Firefly, the aesthetic of Alien, the villain from Prometheus, sprinkle in some details from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, and some of the vibe of Cowboy Beebop . . . I could go on and on.

 

The thing is, this kind of mashup can result in something truly satisfying and worthwhile when the filmmakers pilfer from so many sources with intentionality, based on what these stories mean, what they’re trying to say, the connotations built into the pop-cultural consciousness. But it doesn’t seem as if the writers of this post-post-post-postmodernist mishmash had any intention of going that

SWEEPERS AT A GLANCE

This Netflix-exclusive sci-fi action comedy is a big mess, and yet it almost works.

 

PICTURE
The artifact-free presentation alternates between Marvel-quality effects and CGI that looks like cut scenes from old video games.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos audio mix, which is beyond aggressive with something going on almost constantly in nearly every channel, is one of the few consistently good things about this film.

route. Instead, I can only imagine that the most common phrase uttered in the writer’s room must have been, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if . . ?”

 

It’s a shame because Space Sweepers really does seem to be trying to say something about corporatocracy and class struggles (the latter a quite common theme in Korean cinema these days), but since it lets all of its influences do the talking, especially in the first act, a coherent thematic thread fails to emerge. It ends up bordering on sound and fury signifying way too much. Or maybe I’m just a victim of pareidolia here, perceiving signals where there’s really little more than noise. It’s honestly hard to tell.

 

Mind you, none of the above means Space Sweepers should be written off entirely. Of all the properties from which it pilfers, it actually manages to be a better movie than some of them (most notably Prometheus). And it’s a more enjoyable ride than

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a movie too recent to have inspired any element of Space Sweepers, but one that certainly seems to have been cobbled together in a similar manner.

 

What makes Space Sweepers work—when it works—is mostly the core cast, led by Song Joong-ki (Descendants of the Sun), Tae-ri Kim (The Handmaiden), and Seon-kyu Jin (The Outlaws). The trio has good chemistry and, when given the

chance to develop their own characters rather than merely pantomiming archetypes, they’re a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

 

At least, they are in their original Korean—which brings up an interesting point. Space Sweepers is presented on Netflix by default with a soundtrack it labels “English (Atmos).” In point of fact, there’s more non-English in the English soundtrack than anything else, as the dialogue runs the gamut from Korean to English to Russian to the sort of post-English pidgin dialect that’s common in sci-fi these days.

 

Really, the only dialogue that changes when you switch from the English dub to the original Korean soundtrack is that of the main crew of the Spaceship Victory, the beat-up ship on which most of the action takes place. (Given the number of lines ripped straight from other properties, I’m surprised no one refers to the Victory as a “bucket of bolts” or “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”)

 

But in their original Korean, the performances of the principles all feel a little more natural, a little less hokey, a lot more sincere. If only the same could be said for the rest of the cast, whose acting ranges in quality from “dinner theater” to “middle-school class play.” Even Richard Armitage (yes, that Richard Armitage) turns in such a hackneyed, scene-chewing performance that I didn’t even recognize him until very nearly the end of the movie, and even then I second-guessed myself. (“That can’t be Richard Armitage, can it? No . . . surely not. Richard Armitage is actually a good actor.”)

 

No matter which audio track you pick, the Atmos audio mix is beyond aggressive. There’s something going on in nearly every channel on a nigh-constant basis. But you know what? It just works. It’s one of the few genuinely, consistently good things about the movie. Dialogue pours out of the surround channels as characters move around and off the screen or speak over intercoms. The action creates a holographic bubble of audio that makes Space Sweepers feel like a much more polished production than it has any right to.

 

Mind you, not every element of the sound is great. The score seems less like a deliberate composition and more like a playlist created by someone who sat behind a computer screen and Googled, “Royalty-free KMFDM ripoff,” “Royalty-free Alan Silvestri soundalike,” “Royalty-free sad song.” The only thing I can say about the score is, at least it never quotes “Dies irae,” because I’m not sure anyone involved in this project would have understood the connotations of that piece enough to make it work.

 

The video is a similarly mixed bag. Mind you, I think Space Sweepers was, at some point, being set up for a big theatrical release in 2020, but then, well, you know. Things happened. As such it ended up as a Netflix exclusive.

 

It isn’t Netflix’s presentation of the movie that holds it back, mind you, since the stream is delivered artifact-free via Roku Ultra. The problem is that while some of the special effects wouldn’t look out of place in a modern Marvel movie, some of the CGI would have come off as janky in a cut-scene from a 20-year-old video game. If all of the FX had been MST3K-worthy, your brain could adapt to that and move on, but the inconsistency is jarring.

 

HDR also isn’t employed very effectively, except to stave off some black crush in the super-contrasty cinematography, as well as to provide a saturation boost for some of the crayon drawings created by the movie’s McGuffin, the is-she-a-hydrogen-bomb-or-isn’t-she? little girl known alternately as Dorothy and Kang Kot-nim.

 

In the end, the choice of whether or not to give two-plus hours of your time over to Space Sweepers really depends upon how hungry you are for some sci-fi/action/comedy right now. It certainly has its merits, and at moments it approaches something genuinely good. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the third act is a downright hoot.

 

I just wish it had more of its own personality. As it stands, the shooting script resembles the narrative equivalent of temp-track score music—a cobbled together hodgepodge of other people’s work that, when used correctly, can give structure or serve as inspiration for the final work. Put this script through a couple of editing passes or hand it over to a script doctor, and it could have ended up being something kinda special. As it stands, though, it feels more like someone set their iTunes to “shuffle,” generated a playlist, and released it as an original album. But perhaps the most frustrating thing about the movie is that it almost works.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Fast forward 30 years from the last Woody Allen effort I reviewed, 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and you arrive at Blue Jasmine, his best late-period work and the film that nabbed Cate Blanchett a Best Actress Oscar. That at first glance it can be difficult to see the common DNA between these two movies shows how much Allen evolved as filmmaker over the decades and helps dispel the jaundiced myth that he is little more than an assemblage of mannerisms treading in a  rut.

 

What isn’t a myth is that Allen has struggled ever since his break with Mia Farrow after 1992’s Husbands and Wives. He earned much praise for Match Point (2005), but that film is ultimately undone by its implausibility, and its success can mainly be attributed to the public’s fascination with the bright, shiny Scarlett Johansson. Midnight in Paris (2011) was celebrated as

a return to form, and made Allen a crapload of money, but it’s basically a lazy recitation of his greatest hits that’s ultimately thinner than a cup of fast-food coffee. Wonder Wheel (2017) earned Kate Winslet some kudos (but the real standout is Jim Belushi, who’s so good it’s shocking) and the film almost works, if you’re willing to roll with its early acts, but is ultimately a noble failure.

 

Of the later films, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Vicky Christina Barcelona, the dramatic sections of Melinda and Melinda, and, much more modestly, Cafe Society, join Blue Jasmine as the ones worth a good look. (I’ve been trying to see the Sean Penn vehicle Sweet and Lowdown for years, but it flits in and out of circulation so arbitrarily that I’ve never been able to seize the opportunity on the rare occasions when it’s bobbed to the surface.)

 

Jasmine exists at a higher level than any of his other late-

JASMINE AT A GLANCE

Woody Allen’s late-period masterpiece looks exceptional in this Blu-ray-quality HD presentation.

 

PICTURE
Aside from some overdone gold tinting added in post, the film features a restrained but still sumptuous presentation that holds up well in HD.

 

SOUND     

Lots of dialogue, some NY and San Fran atmospherics, and some tasteful jazz cues, all well-presented—in other words, a Woody Allen movie.

period work, on par with the much earlier Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose of Cairo. But it’s not easy to pin down why everything suddenly clicked here. Unlike his other masterworks, it’s not a comedy, although it does have some humorous touches. The Allen persona is nowhere to be seen, even in surrogate form. And even though he has an incredibly uneven track record with dramas, Allen shows an effortless command here.

 

I suspect many would attribute its success to Blanchett, but that shows a fundamental ignorance of how movies work. She didn’t write the script, plan or execute the shots, or labor in the editing room. Without that elaborate support—which is essentially the entire edifice of a film—a performance, no matter how good, isn’t worth bupkis. I think the success of Jasmine, and the reason Allen rose to the occasion, can be actually attributed to class. But I’ll get to that.

Blue Jasmine exhibits a bounty of great acting, and it’s not really possible to appreciate the film without first considering Allen and actors. From the late ’70s on, and even in his subpar efforts, Allen has offered a place where actors can show their abilities without fear of being humiliated, relegated to reciting genre clichés, treated like the director’s marionette, or subjugated to green screen. Because he provided an oasis, a place where an actor’s abilities were treasured and given room to flourish, a tremendous diversity of talent flocked to his projects—that is, until Me Too happened (but we’re not going to go there again).

 

(It’s ironic, by the way, that someone with no traditional training turned out to be the best actor’s director of the last half century.)

 

What’s always intriguing about Allen is that he can get me to appreciate performers I can’t stomach elsewhere. I wouldn’t want to spend a nanosecond with Andrew Dice Clay outside the boundaries of this film, and yet he’s perfectly cast here. Pretty much the same can be said for Louis C.K., who’s insufferable as a comedian and elsewhere only borderline acceptable as an actor (he does do a strong turn in American Hustle, though). Here he shines. Ditto for Alec Baldwin, who’s become a caricature of himself over time but rises above his limitations in Jasmine.

 

Other standouts: Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire

brings depth and some surprising twists to what could have been a thuggish performance as Sally Hawkins’ boyfriend. And Michael Stuhlbarg, who out and out stole Men in Black 3 as the pixieish multi-dimensional alien Griffin, is far more understated but still strong here.

 

As for Blanchett: As one of those performers, like Penn and Streep, far better at “acting” than acting, I’ve always found her work rough going—her attempt to play Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator was so cringeworthy I wanted to avert my eyes from the screen—but she is perfectly in sync with Allen’s material and makes a potentially unsympathetic character compelling. And while Blanchett got most of the attention, Hawkins—another actor I could usually take or leave—I think actually bests her here.

 

The two weak spots in the chain are Peter Sarsgaard, who just doesn’t bring enough heft to his role as the aspiring diplomat, and Alden Ehrenreich as Blanchett’s son, who barely registers as a presence.

 

About the whole class thing: Allen has taken a lot of heat over the years, some of it justified, for being overly enamored with Upper East Side society. And a lot of his portrayals are so fawning they take on a peepshow quality for almost every human being on the planet who wasn’t to the manor born. But the 2008 recession caused him to put all that in perspective, and Blue Jasmine is a perceptive, even biting, look at the great class divide that doesn’t have an ax to grind for either side—and thankfully doesn’t fall into the oppressive cliché of saying the members of the lower classes are forever doomed to do

themselves in. It’s his ability to pull from his vast experience with both sides of the class equation without peddling an agenda that allows him to go deeper than most mainstream attempts to fathom the issue.

 

(Let me pause to note that Allen is one of the last filmmakers left from the era before you had to be a member of the top one percent to gain admittance to Hollywood, when lower-bred outsiders were at least tolerated as long as their movies made money, when they could still have a voice.)

 

Blue Jasmine looks really, really good in Blu-ray-quality HD—which I suspect can be attributed to the existence of a DI. I was hard pressed to find any serious flaws—not that you can’t find problems if you really want to hunt for them, but nothing that was happening with the images ever pulled me out of the film, which is all that should matter at the end of the day. My one criticism is the introduction of too many golden tones in post. Yes, I get where they were going with that, but I still suspect that future generations are going to look at the early efforts of digital filmmaking and want to slap us silly for not being able to resist fiddling with the knobs.

 

And now I once again come to the pointlessness of talking about the audio in a 

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Woody Allen film. It’s not like he’s making silent movies and audio doesn’t matter—few directors rely as heavily on dialogue—and it’s not like the mix doesn’t help create atmosphere in the scenes; and it’s not like music cues don’t have a huge impact in his work. The point is that the audio is in modest service of the material, as it should be—there are no bravura flourishes that would make you exclaim “Nice audio!” So let’s just say that it works, and works well.

 

You don’t need to know anything about Allen’s other films to appreciate Jasmine, but saying that at this moment in time sounds defensive and weak. Allen has created a tremendous and unparalleled body of work, one that deserves to continue to be appreciated. Few directors are capable of making movies that are as human, and Blue Jasmine, as a sophisticated and unsparing study of pride and vulnerability, might be his most human effort of all.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

If you want to know how Taika Waititi—a quirky independent Kiwi filmmaker previously best known for making that mockumentary about vampires and a few episodes of that TV show about a musical-comedy duo—somehow came out of nowhere and landed a gig directing Thor movies, you’ll find some answers in 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. If you’re still trying to figure out how Waititi actually managed to make a good Thor movie, when directors as celebrated as Kenneth Branagh tried the same and failed spectacularly, again, I would point you in the direction of Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

 

Waititi has, of course, developed a reputation for absurdity, and this hilarious film about a troubled foster child and his reluctant guardian traipsing through the New Zealand bush on the run from the law is nothing if not absurd. But who cares, really? There are any number of filmmakers out there who specialize in the absurd, and you don’t see Hollywood throwing 

money at them to helm blockbusters. (Seriously, I don’t mean to take a sideways crack at Wes Anderson here, because unlike most of my Cineluxe compatriots I actually enjoy his films. But can you imagine Anderson being asked to helm a tentpole blockbuster?)

 

What makes Waititi so sought after is that he also has a knack for something Hollywood couldn’t fake if you let an infinite number of studio monkeys tug at an infinite number of heartstrings for an infinite amount of time: Sincerity. And of all his films I’ve seen to date, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is his most sincere.

 

There’s a moment early on that illustrates this perfectly. Little Ricky Baker, an adolescent hooligan who has bounced around the foster-care system, is first introduced to his foster mother, Bella. Her excitement is palpable and she nearly trips all over herself as a result, which of course causes her to say and do the stupidest things possible.

 

I have to think that in almost any other filmmaker’s hands, 

WILDERPEOPLE AT A GLANCE

Taika (Jojo Rabbit) Waititi’s 2016 indie-film effort is an absurd but sincere tale of a foster child and his guardian traipsing through the New Zealand bush.

 

PICTURE
The limitations of the HD presentation are in no way distracting, although a handful of the scenes would benefit from the enhanced resolution of UHD.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack can get a little too clever for its own good but it’s a fantastic mix overall, full of aggressive front-soundstage panning that perfectly serves the onscreen action.

Bella’s nervous awkwardness would have been played for laughs at her expense. She would have been a joke to be mocked, an out-of-touch wannabe-hip parental unit portrayed in the most clichéd way possible.

 

And don’t get me wrong: The scene is played for laughs. But not at Bella’s expense. The humor comes from the situation itself, the relatability of it all. And it’s that fact that makes the character’s transformation from doting foster parent into bad-ass backwoods farmer chick all the more believable. It’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with her, because she’s really the heart of the film. But her untimely death is the fire that fuels the entire rest of the plot, which is one of the most compelling comedies-of-errors I’ve seen in ages.

 

I’m not really spoiling the plot here because there’s not a ton to spoil, but with Bella out of the picture, Ricky is slated to be taken back into the foster system, and as a result he runs away. Bella’s husband, Hec—who professes to have no emotional investment in the boy—follows him, and before long they’re branded as fugitives and become the targets of a highly publicized manhunt.

 

And that’s it, really. That’s the story. But I’m a sucker for a simple tale, especially one this well told. It isn’t just Waititi’s utter lack of cynicism that makes it all work, though. It’s also his gift for pacing and most especially timing. He also, for whatever reason, knows how to let kids be kids. Ricky, played by Julian Dennison (who would go on to have a memorable turn in Deadpool 2 as Firefist), doesn’t just act like a kid and talk like a kid—he thinks like a kid. It’s one of those rare performances that shines an unflinching light on just how awful and inauthentic most portrayals of adolescents are in films.

 

What’s more, Dennison and Sam Neill (who plays Hec) don’t really act like they’re in a comedy. Some of the secondary characters do, hamming it up and overplaying—not to an egregious degree, but certainly in keeping with the genre. The two leads, though, play it straight. They’re both weirdos, mind you. And there’s definitely a comedy-duo dynamic between then, with Dennison playing the goof and Neill the straight man. But . . . again, I’m struggling for any word other than “sincerity” here to describe their approach. They’re hilarious, yes, but they’re not playing it up for laughs.

 

Narratively simple though Wilderpeople may be, it’s pretty thematically rich for a comedy. It’s hard to watch and not be reminded of Goethe’s famous quote: “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” Wilderpeople takes that one step in the other direction and plays with notions of what happens when we assume people to be criminals. And while it’s not too terribly deep, it’s certainly more food for thought than you’ll get from most slapstick romps.

 

Another thing that makes Wilderpeople such a joy is that it’s not nearly as predictable as most comedies tend to be. About an hour into the 100-minute runtime, anyone who’s ever seen any movie ever will have written the ending in their heads. It seems downright obvious. But Waititi doesn’t go for the obvious here, which makes the resolution just a bit more satisfying and a lot more humorous, though no less sweet than what you’ll think you see coming.

 

One word of warning, though: If you’re at all sensitive to animals being harmed, or if you have kids who are, there are a couple of scenes that are more difficult to watch than Old Yeller. I wish I’d known that ahead of time.

 

At any rate, given the relatively recent vintage of Wilderpeople, it’s a little surprising it’s not available in 4K HDR. But perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising. Watching the film in HD via Kaleidescape, it’s evident that a handful of scenes would benefit from the enhanced resolution of UHD, especially some of the landscape shots. As for HDR, though? I’m not sure it would make a huge difference. Waititi and cinematographer Lachlan Milne obviously aimed for a somewhat muted look, at least in terms of contrasts. Blacks are never fully black and at no point do any of the brighter areas of the image come close to clipping. That gives the film a rather pastel look, even when colors get a bit more vibrant. Given this deliberate aesthetic choice, I can’t help but wonder if 10-bit color and dynamic range would significantly change the look of the imagery at all.

The real question, though, is whether or not the limitations of HD are in any way distracting. And the answer to that is a resounding and enthusiastic “No!” Honestly, the film is so visually striking that you rarely have time to worry about things like pixel count and color gamut. Every shot, no matter how seemingly mundane, is framed in such a way as to be utterly engaging. The eye can’t help but explore the screen from corner to corner. There’s nothing obtrusive about the camerawork, though. All of it is in service of the story, and I have to wonder if most viewers will consciously appreciate some of the framing choices that give the film its distinctive vibe without being in any way affected.

 

I’ll admit, though, that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does get a little too clever for its own good at times. Such instances are rare, but the mix leans a bit too heavy on the surround channels on occasion, especially in scenes where music is the predominant audio element. Ignoring those rare flubs, it’s a pretty fantastic mix overall, full of aggressive front-soundstage panning that perfectly serves the onscreen action. Dialogue intelligibility is also topnotch, which is much appreciated given the thick Kiwi accents of most of the actors.

 

It’s a bit of a bummer that the Kaleidescape download lacks the supplemental

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

material included with the Blu-ray release. (Kaleidescape isn’t alone, mind you. Vudu, Amazon, and other digital retailers also present Wilderpeople completely devoid of goodies since Apple seems to have nabbed the exclusive rights to the film’s extras in the digital domain.) I’m itching to listen to the commentary featuring Waititi, Neill, and Dennison, and I wouldn’t mind checking out the blooper reel, either. But I’m not motivated enough to make room for yet another disc on my movie shelves, especially given that those are the only bonus features of note.

 

Really, though, Hunt for the Wilderpeople stands on its own, and is very much worth the purchase price even without supplements.

Dennis Burger

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

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

It’s got maybe the worst title ever and probably the worst ending of any Woody Allen film, but wedged between the opening-title card and that third act that got away is one of Allen’s best films, an almost perfectly balanced ensemble piece that’s probably the best evocation ever of midsummer, which is especially amazing when you consider how much Allen hates the country.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was his first film with Mia Farrow and kicked off the diverse and more subdued but still fecund era that followed the tremendous creative explosion of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories. Allen shot Sex 

Comedy simultaneously with Zelig, which he now admits wasn’t such a great idea but led to two amazing miniatures. He and Farrow would then do such standouts as Broadway Danny Rose (one of his best), The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the superb but troubling Husbands and Wives. After their all too public breakup, Allen would spend the following decades wandering in the woods, producing far more misses than hits, but occasionally conjuring up gems like Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, and Blue Jasmine that, at the end of the day, still give him a higher overall batting average than any other first-rank filmmaker.

 

What makes Sex Comedy different from almost every other one of his films (and there are a lot of them) is that he apparently decided to start by capturing a certain time of year—the feel of the peak of summer—and then build a movie around it. He and Gordon Willis had already done 

SEX COMEDY AT A GLANCE

Ignore the awful title and ending and bask in the warm midsummer glow of Woody Allen’s most underrated film.

 

PICTURE
Gordon Willis’s cinematography—some of his best—comes across surprisingly well in HD, which faithfully conveys most of its nuances.

 

SOUND     

Ensemble dialogue, the sounds of summer, and an all-Mendelssohn score presented in a fine, but not flashy, stereo mix.

something similar with Manhattan, where no other film has done a better job of evoking the feel of the Upper East Side at night. You’re not just watching the people stroll the streets—you’re right there with them, which creates an irreplaceable bond with the characters.

 

Here, you’re placed in the midst of the country that sits just on the cusp of the city—more specifically, Westchester County, just north of Manhattan—which is conveyed in such a way that it feels like both the city’s complement and dialectical other. 

This is some of Willis’s best cinematography, which is saying a lot, managing to capture that elusive sense of warm days, abundant nature, and lingering light. There is a reliance on day for night, which creates some unevenness toward the end but is only really egregious in a shot of Tony Roberts leaving the front of the summer home to go off into the woods.

 

I was pleasantly surprised by how well Willis’s images came across in Kaleidescape’s Blu-ray-quality HD presentation. The subtle gradations are for the most part there and it’s possible to get lost in the frame while being only occasionally distracted by blown-out bright spots like shots of the full moon. Of course, this film would likely look superb in 4K HDR, which would pull out the wealth of detail in the fields, the interiors, and especially the period clothing but I have no significant nits with how it looks in its current incarnation. (And, given where this movie stands in Allen’s body of work, and his current status in general, it’s not like Sex Comedy and 4K are likely to cross paths any time soon.)

 

Sex Comedy marks a big step forward in Allen’s evolution as a director, displaying a new maturity with his handling of the cast. Mary Steenburgen, José Ferrer, and Farrow all give nuanced, engaging performances that help reinforce the heady atmosphere of the film. Allen is even able to make Julie Hagerty shine within her very limited range. The one false note is Roberts, who was always 

tolerable when relegated to playing Allen’s sidekick but just isn’t that good of a film actor and whose beats always feel a little forced here. But nothing he does is enough to ever disrupt the ensemble’s seemingly effortless momentum.

Allen shows an increased mastery of film technique as well, with that new-found confidence carrying over into a growing reliance on lengthy master shots, which reinforce the movie’s ensemble nature while also lending it an appropriately pastoral rhythm. The Allen of his earlier films would have never been able to pull off the extended exchange where Steenburgen confronts his character about lying about Farrow, which is brilliantly blocked and performed.

 

This is pretty much the last film where Allen allowed his character to be well-rounded and witty, for some reason opting to just spew jokes via a borderline caricature from that point on. I’m not sure why he wandered off down such a self-defeating path—it’s obvious from the documentary Wild Man Blues that he was still capable of ringing resonant changes on the persona he’d so carefully created—but Sex Comedy sadly represents the swan song of the Woody who defined an era.

 

Now, about that ending: Allen does an unimpeachable job of establishing the atmosphere, then setting the tone, then introducing the characters, and then setting the various interactions in motion, fleshing out the characters along the 

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

way. And all of that is so delicious and, yes, charming that it makes it that much more dispiriting when you have to deal with the train wreck of the final act. My surmise—and I’m really winging it here—is that working on Zelig at the same time prevented him from seeing the flaws in the Sex Comedy script and likely kept him from doing the kind of reshooting that allowed him to elevate many of his other films from pedestrian or confused to extraordinary.

 

Had he been able to solve the puzzle he created for himself, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy would have easily ranked up with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah in the mass mind. But anyone who hesitates because of what they’ve heard, or who have heard nothing at all about this film, is missing out in a big way. This is what a great movie feels like when it doesn’t feel the need to strut its stuff. It’s so light and energetic and infectious, it’s like a bracing tonic—the cinematic equivalent of a good saison. It moves and feels like no other film. It’s Woody Allen’s most underrated work—and it’s a much needed infusion of summer light during what has been, in more ways than one, the darkest time of the year.

Michael Gaughn

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

Review: Greenland

Greenland (2020)

With all the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty going on in the world around us, sometimes a little Hollywood escapism to see that things could be worse—oh so much worse—than what we’re actually dealing with can be just the mindless distraction we crave for a couple of hours. But, with “From the producer of the JOHN WICK franchise” (Basil Iwanyk) emblazoned across the top of its poster art above a large picture of action-star Gerard Butler, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Greenland is just another run-and-gun action flick.

 

After seeing its intended theatrical release date repeatedly pushed, distributor STX Films finally decided to give Greenland a PVOD release on December 18, followed by streaming on the new HBO Max platform “in early 2021.” For those looking to 

see the film in the highest quality, it is available for purchase now from Kaleidescape in 4K HDR.

 

I’ll admit I’m a fan of Gerard Butler’s oeuvre. With his gravelly voice, rugged physicality, and penchant for finding himself the underdog amidst impossible situations—such as portraying King Leonidas in 300, Captain Joe Glass in Hunter Killer, or Secret Service agent extraordinaire Mike Banning in the Fallen-trilogy—you kind of know what you’re going to get. I mean, I don’t go to Taco Bell expecting a complex gastronomic experience, and I don’t expect a Butler film to be overly cerebral. Give me a decent plot, a capable supporting cast, and a clearly defined—though neigh-impossible to achieve—objective, and I’m happy to let Butler take me on a quest/mission for 90-plus-minutes.

 

And that’s essentially what you’ve got with Greenland, a film that leans as heavily on family and heart as it does action and mayhem. Cut from similar cloth as 1998’s Deep Impact and Armageddon, Greenland begins as we learn of a 

GREENLAND AT A GLANCE

Life on Earth once again finds itself threatened by a celestial object, but this Gerard Butler vehicle tends to emphasize family over mayhem.

 

PICTURE
Greenland looks good, with lots of sharply focused tight closeups that present the actors’ faces in crisp detail, but its $35-million budget leads to some iffy CGI work.

 

SOUND     

A totally serviceable DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, with dialogue for the most part clearly heard and explosions, shockwaves, and comet strikes delivering the necessary deep bass.

massive life-destroying comet, Clarke, hurtling towards earth, with the planet having just a few days’ notice to essentially come to terms with the inevitable. (Something about the unpredictability of how the comet responds and out-gasses to alter its course when getting the near the sun explains why NASA didn’t give us more of a warning.)

 

While Impact and Armageddon focused their storytelling on how mankind responds to a massive object hurtling toward Earth by quickly assembling a space-bound effort to try and blow it up, Greenland instead embraces the inevitable that the comet is coming and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. So, what would life on earth look like in those final days and what could be done to preserve mankind and plan for the eventual rebuilding of society?

 

Structural engineer John Garrity (Butler) is out getting party supplies with his son, Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd), when he—and he alone—receives an odd emergency broadcast message on his phone informing him that he and his family have been selected for emergency sheltering. He has no idea why he has been chosen (possibly karma for saving presidents’ lives on numerous occasions as Banning . . .), but a recording informs him they have just a few hours to get to a military air base for evacuation. Having recently reconciled with his wife, Allison (Morena Baccarin), John races home to explain the situation, pack up their vehicle, and head to Warner Robins Air Force base to catch a plane to an unknown destination.

 

Of course, in case a life-ending comet doesn’t provide enough tension on its own, we learn Nathan has Type 1 diabetes with a recently implanted insulin pump, and his med-pack falls out of his backpack onto the floor of the vehicle while he’s reaching for a blanket—something the family doesn’t discover until moments before boarding their aircraft. While John hustles back to the vehicle to retrieve the meds, Allison is told no one with a medical condition is allowed on the evacuation list, and they are denied boarding. With cell towers hopelessly jammed, the family is unable to communicate, and they become separated, embarking on their own journeys.

 

With the clock ticking down to a most unfortunate yet certain planetary appointment with Clarke, John is dedicated to doing everything in his power to not only locate and reunite his family, but also to somehow get them to safety, however and wherever that is. (If the title wasn’t clear enough, it’s in a bunker in Greenland designed to survive a nuclear attack.)

 

By focusing on the Garrity family, Greenland reduces the massive overwhelmingness of planet-killing scale to focus on a far more relatable scenario: One man doing what he can to save his family. And at the risk of anyone’s suspension of disbelief, I daresay director Ric Roman Waugh handles the story here in a manner far more believable than Michael Bay’s ragtag band of deep-sea oil drillers being quickly trained up and shot off into space in Armageddon. The film also shows how quickly society collapses in the face of an imminent cataclysmic event, with rioting, looting, and self-preservation becoming the order of the day.

 

While the technical details make no mention of the resolution of the cinematography or transfer, Greenland looks good, and has lots of tight closeups that are sharply focused and present the actors’ faces in crisp detail. The opening pans over buildings in Atlanta has clean, sharp edges and nice detail, while another scene lets you clearly see the pinpoint stitching in John’s shirt.

 

At $35 million, Greenland isn’t a big-budget film, and some of the effects shots—particularly one plane lifting off—look a bit iffy at times. At other moments, such as shots of the post-strike devastation, it’s almost as if they are flashed up on screen just long enough for you to see, but not long enough for you to really see. Still, the film is far more than a string of effects sequences, and doesn’t need to rely on elaborate CGI to work, and I didn’t find the occasionally underwhelming CGI enough to hinder my enjoyment.

 

There are essentially three different “color” periods to the film—the opening, which features a lot of punchy outdoor colors like brilliant green grass or bright yellow street signs; the middle, which takes place mostly at night; and the following day, which has very red-orange/golden hues as comet strikes start affecting the atmosphere. The night scenes look particularly good with HDR, with bright lights from planes, airport runways, police lights, and car taillights really popping. The wider color gamut

is also used to create deep and vibrant fire colors.

 

The Kaleidescape transfer includes a totally serviceable 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master surround track. While I generally find DTS mixes “hotter” than their Dolby counterparts, generally needing to turn the volume down by several dB to not be too overwhelming, this mix was considerably lower, and I viewed at about 6 dB louder than our typically listening level.

 

Since much of what we learn in this movie is through snatches of overheard conversations on the radio or TV, dialogue intelligibility is key, and the mix does a good job of clearly presenting the audio and not letting the other channels overwhelm it. (The only exception was at the very end where I found several radio transmissions of status reports very difficult to make out.) With the volume adjusted, dynamics are also quite good, with one startlingly loud gunshot causing both my wife and I to literally jump and flinch in our seats. There is also some deep bass when called for from explosions, shockwaves, and impacts of comet strikes.

 

While not a true immersive, object-based mix à la Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, the upmixer in my Marantz processor did a wonderful job translating the native 5.1-

Greenland (2020)

mix into my 7.2.6-channel speaker array, placing sounds like PA announcements, passing jets and helicopters, and streaking comet bits clearly up into the height dimension, and surrounding you with the din of angry mobs.

 

While Greenland isn’t going to make anyone’s Best-Of list—probably not even cracking the top-three of Butler’s Best Films—with a Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of 73% it is a surprisingly well-made and entertaining, offering a different take on a Hollywood apocalypse scenario. And with the dearth of new content available for home viewing, Greenland delivered exactly what I was expecting for a family movie night.

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: Manhattan

Manhattan (1979)

Woody Allen has said his biggest regret is that he’s never made a great film. I’m not sure what his criteria are for determining that but by any yardstick I’m aware of, Manhattan is a great film, undeniably (to use a much abused and poorly understood term) a classic. It’s so strong it might even survive the efforts to erase his career, even though it’s frequently waved around as Exhibit A in the culture wars.*

 

Manhattan is Allen’s most ambitious work, the movie where he completely rose to, and exceeded, the level of those ambitions. It and Annie Hall are his fullest films. No matter how good any of his subsequent efforts have been, they’ve never 

been as generous, don’t have that same sense of abundance, of flowing over. In no other film has he been as familiar or confident with the material.

 

And yet Allen pleaded with United Artists not to release Manhattan. He’s never really explained why. It could just be that he doesn’t have a good perspective on his own work, which would help explain (and I’m not being facetious here) the shortcomings of many of his films.

 

While this is his fullest movie, nothing really happens in it—or it at least it seems that way if you’ve become addicted to melodrama and its crippled stepchild, adventure. But if you focus intently on each of the characters and can establish some common ground with them, their decisions and actions become significant and the film becomes a kind of intimate epic, with Manhattan, fittingly, as its landscape.

MANHATTAN AT A GLANCE

Woody Allen’s most ambitious film, probably his best—and, for completely irrelevant reasons, still his most controversial.

 

PICTURE
While you can appreciate Gordon Willis’s widescreen black & white cinematography even in HD, this is one of those classics that’s overdue for a UHD upgrade.

 

SOUND     

Smart, witty creatives talk to each other for 90 minutes. There is no gunplay.

In any other city, this congruity between a handful of people and the totality of the urban environment would seem forced, but Manhattan being confined to an island allows Allen to put a frame around the action—literally. Doing a comedy in both 2.39:1 widescreen and black & white ran the risk of being gimmicky but Allen and Gordon Willis pull it off, partly because the framing 

is a constant reminder of the city’s island status and mostly because it firmly establishes everything in the film as an extension of the Allen character, sealing the connection between individual and larger environment.

 

And the variety of the widescreen compositions is dazzling, ranging from macro—the Walker Evans-ish cityscapes to a massive fireworks display in Central Park South to the justly famous image of the 59th Street Bridge at dawn—to micro: a group of creatives chatting at a reception at MOMA to the long take of Allen and Mariel Hemingway strolling through SoHo with Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy to Allen glimpsed at a distance through the slats of Venetian blinds as he sits on his terrace. By each composition being so apt and by creating such a seamless flow between them, Allen instills the sense that these people are New York (or at least best embody a certain, admittedly romantic, notion of the city.)

 

Maybe the most successful composition is the post-coital one of Hemingway laying on a couch in a pool of light from a wall lamp, bottom frame left, as Allen comes down spiral stairs almost in silhouette frame right. He and Willis turn an upscale apartment into a grand stage set with the feel of a palace without losing any of the intimacy—no small feat.

 

Their evocation of the Upper East Side at night, of walking down deserted streets with most of the businesses closed for the evening as taxi cabs continue to stream down the

avenues, is so convincing it’s uncanny. No one has ever done a better job of capturing the energy constantly simmering behind the hushed roar, the sense of possibility, of New York after dark.

 

This was Allen’s first comedy with traditionally structured scenes and a sustained narrative structure, and he applies the lessons learned in the labored Interiors well. He wasn’t yet accomplished as an actor’s director, though, so while he and Keaton have no problems holding the frame, Murphy, Hemingway, and Anne Byrne (in a woefully underwritten role) don’t register as strongly as they should.

 

But those are quibbles. The film is so dynamic and so spot-on that it has a life of its own that makes its flaws seem inconsequential. That’s exceedingly rare in movies, and in a more just world, only those films where the cup runneth

consistently over would ever be considered classics.

 

And now to the awkward part: Being able to savor Willis’s cinematography is a big part of experiencing Manhattan but the current release is in HD and watching it on a 4K display will only make you ache to see it properly presented in UHD. Once you get past the opening montage, the irritating distractions of the upsampled high-def presentation are minimal and you rarely find yourself pulled out of the film (with one glaring exception). But that opening is so essential—and seductive—that it’s hard not to wince every time a large, uniform bright area in the frame becomes a gnat infestation.

 

That glaring exception: The last three shots of Allen and Keaton walking through an exhibit at the Hayden Planetarium are so contrasty and over-processed they look like community-access chromakey. This isn’t even close to how those shots look on film. Many of Allen’s films deserve to be upgraded to 4K HDR but, given his current pariah status, that might take a while. When it finally does happen, though, Manhattan should be at the top of the list.

 

I know I’m a broken record about this but what can you really say about the sound in a movie where people basically just talk to each other for 90 minutes, offering a

Manhattan (1979)

blissful retreat from the aural assaults we’ve unfortunately come to prize from surround sound? The all-Gershwin score sounds fine—although I wish Allen had been able to get just about anyone but Zubin Mehta to do Rhapsody in Blue.

 

The big question about Manhattan is why, having developed his character, his persona, and the city so fully, in a way that suggested so many more creative opportunities, did Allen essentially retreat? After Annie Hall and this film, he never really went down that path again. His character is in the forefront of Stardust Memories, but that’s not really a New York film. And while he explores similar territory in Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Husbands and Wives, he reduces his character to secondary status, to a kind of comic relief that almost makes him superfluous. I’m not saying he should have just kept churning out Manhattan retreads, but there’s an unshakeable sense that we all lost something vital when he decided to close that door.

Michael Gaughn

 

(* I’m going here reluctantly, which is why I’m relegating these comments to a footnote, but the whole “You shouldn’t watch Manhattan because Allen’s character has a relationship with a 17 year old” thing has become such a flashpoint that you can’t mention—let alone praise—the film without addressing it. Let’s just leave it at this: There’s been a lot of smug commentary along the lines of “Audiences at the time of the film’s release didn’t have a problem with that relationship but we, from our morally superior viewpoint in the present, do.” First off, contemporary audiences did have problems with that relationship, which Allen deliberately introduced into the film to make them squirm and to get them to rethink what defines a relationship—something we no longer seem capable of doing unless it’s framed in terms of a bland and stultifying androgyny. Second, when a certain entitled subset of society hopelessly confuses fiction with reality and then feels it can put fetters on expression and decide what can and can’t be portrayed, we are indisputably at the end of empire.)

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

Review: Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection

Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection

Right off the top of my head, I can think of one entertainment-industry job that simply wouldn’t be worth the headache and heartache no matter how much it paid: Being in charge of deciding which Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons to release for home video. I say this because whoever ultimately makes that decision has to serve two completely different masters. On the one hand, you have obsessive fans like myself who simply want as many shorts as possible archived in some sort of logical order, be it grouped by character, director, or just chronologically. On the other hand, you have normal 

people, who are perfectly content to own the greatest hits like “Robin Hood Daffy” and “One Froggy Evening” and maybe some of the better Road Runner and Tweety/Granny shorts.

 

If you’re wondering which group the Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collectionrecently released on Blu-ray disc and Kaleidescape—is supposed to appeal to, my guess would be that the folks at Warner Bros. did their best to split the difference. That’s a dangerous line to walk, but this new celebratory collection mostly manages to straddle it.

 

As the name implies, this isn’t a catch-all Looney Tunes archive collection, à la the previous Golden Collection DVDs and Platinum Collection Blu-ray discs. Instead, it’s a birthday party for everyone’s favorite wascally wabbit, collecting a reasonably representative sample of the best Bugs Bunny shorts from the past eight decades. (Actually, it 

BUGS AT A GLANCE

Come for the 60 classic shorts, spanning Bugs’ career; stay for the profusion of extras, including a new retrospective documentary.

 

PICTURE     

The vibrancy and detail of these old cartoons still holds up, despite a moderate amount of film grain.

 

SOUND     

There’s enough punch and sweetness in the mono soundtracks that you don’t need more than one channel to enjoy and appreciate their brilliance.

kicks off with “Elmer’s Candid Camera,” the final short starring Happy Rabbit before he would evolve into the Bugs we know and love in the second short in this collection, “A Wild Hare.”)

 

In the crowd-pleasing department, of the 60 remastered classic shorts included on the 80th Anniversary Collection, many fall firmly into familiar territory. The big hitters like “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “Baseball Bugs” are mostly all here, although there are a few no-brainers that are inexplicably missing, like “Little Red Riding Rabbit” and “Rabbit Hood.”

 

On the other hand, nearly half of the shorts in this collection have never appeared on DVD or Blu-ray in any form, much less remastered. The completist in me nearly jumps with joy to see under-appreciated gems like “Hare Lift” and “Rabbitson Crusoe” finally included in a high-quality Looney Tunes collection, especially given that Warner Bros. seems to have given up on releasing more Platinum Collections (for reasons we’ll speculate on in a bit).

 

Sure, I can gripe about the fact that only the first short in Chuck Jones’ wet-yourself-hilarious hunting trilogy (“Rabbit Fire,” “Rabbit Seasoning,” and “Duck! Rabbit, Duck!”) made the cut here (for what it’s worth, the other two were released on Blu-ray in the Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2). But for every grumble of that nature, I have to concede some 

Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection

appreciation for the fact that “Lumber Jack-Rabbit,” which was cropped to 16:9 for its DVD release, has been restored to the proper 1:33:1 aspect ratio. And it’s not alone. All of the cartoons included here are presented as shot, many of them with their original titles restored for the first time in decades. 

 

So, on the balance sheet, I have to give kudos to WB for throwing us collectors a bone or 30, while also appealing to the casual Looney Tunes fan. That 

said, if this release represents something of a template for future Looney Tunes home video releases (as I suspect it does), chances are good Bugs won’t get another shot in the spotlight for quite some time. And there are still oodles of Bugs Bunny shorts that have yet to appear on DVD or Blu-ray at all. Gems like “Apes of Wrath” and “Mississippi Hare,” as well as “Transylvania 6-5000,” the latter of which is noteworthy for being the final Bugs Bunny short directed by Chuck Jones in his original run with WB, and one of his last cartoons of the classic era.

 

As I said, though, the era of truly archival, non-themed Looney Tunes home video releases has probably come to an end, and that’s largely due HBO Max, which is home to the bulk of the major Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts that have yet to see a proper home video release. And indeed, almost all of them are restored, with audio and video that’s every bit as good as what you’ll find on Blu-ray or Kaleidescape.

 

Which is to say that if you grew up watching The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour every Saturday morning on ABC, you’ll be shocked by how well these old cartoons have held up in terms of vibrancy and detail. Sure, most of them sport some moderate level of film grain, as expected, but it’s rare that any of the shorts look noisy as a result. (Only “Baseball Bugs” comes to mind as an exception). I’m just grateful that in restoring these classics, WB didn’t go too far, as they’ve done in the past, applying too much noise reduction or digitally removing imperfections in the original negatives, like the occasional hair in the gate. Simply put, these shorts look like what they are—properly restored and archived film.

On the audio front, we’re of course limited to monophonic soundtracks for the shorts themselves. But still, there’s enough punch and sweetness in these old Carl Stalling scores and Treg Brown sound effects that you don’t need more than one channel to enjoy and appreciate their brilliance.

 

All of which, of course, raises an interesting question: If HBO Max has a more complete library of Looney Tunes shorts, all presented in quality that’s every bit the match of higher-bandwidth home video releases, why would you buy the Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection?

 

Bonus goodies.

 

It’s all about the supplemental material. To call this release a collection of 60 classic animated shorts really only tells half the story. An equally big draw are the audio commentaries (29 in all), alternative music- or vocal-only audio tracks (4 in total), documentaries/featurettes (11 by my count), and a collection of 10 new Bugs Bunny cartoons that were originally created specifically for HBO Max.

 

Granted, most of the documentaries are carryovers from previous DVD releases, but Bugs Bunny’s 80th What’s Up Doc-umentary! is all new and is definitely worth

Bugs Bunny 80th Anniversary Collection

your time. And as far as I can tell, this collection is the only place you can watch it. Much of the footage cobbled together for the film is archival, and you’ve almost certainly seen snippets of the old interviews included herein elsewhere. But this is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, because this one-hour feature does a better job than any Bugs Bunny retrospective I’ve ever seen of giving a thorough overview and understanding of the character’s genesis, evolution, and cultural impact.

 

Seriously, this one feature alone is almost worth the $35 (assuming you’re purchasing on Kaleidescape, that is—the Blu-ray collection will run you between $65 and $75). The fact that you also get 60 of the nearly 170 classic Bugs Bunny shorts (well, that number is actually exactly 170 if you count those early Happy Rabbit cartoons and proto-Bugs) is, needless to say, also a huge selling point. Throw in the audio commentaries and other supplemental snacks, and you’d be positively hare-brained to pass this one up.

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.