Movies

Review: Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise (2021)

While there have been a lot of theme park rides based on successful movies, the number of movies inspired by theme park rides is far fewer, and has a much spottier track record. On the one hand, we have the atrocious The Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy in 2003 and, on the other, we have one of the most successful modern franchises in the Johnny Depp-driven Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Of course, if you’re Disney, any successful crossover helps drive traffic—and dollars—to one of thglobal theme parks, so the temptation to mine your existing intellectual property is tempting.

 

There are few rides more iconic in Disneyland lore than the Jungle Cruise. It was there on Day One when the park opened in July 1955, was one of Walt’s personal projects, and has remained in operation (with changes and updates, of course) ever

since.

 

Like with Pirates, the thing that makes the Jungle Cruise ride ripe for adopting into a movie is that it offers a perfect jumping-off point for any possible adventure that can happen, with the ability to weave in some nods to the ride along the way (kind of the way Pirates worked in the scene with the locked prisoners begging the dog to bring them a key, one of the iconic moments from the ride). Put some people on a boat, set them on a cruise, introduce a quest and some mayhem along the way . . . the thing practically writes itself! Disney felt the same as well, since a film based on the ride has been in the works since as early as 2004, with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen attached to star at one point.

 

This year, Jungle Cruise finally made it out of production and into theaters on July 30, with some big-name leads in the form of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt carrying the action. As has been common to Disney films 

JUNGLE CRUISE AT A GLANCE

This family-friendly Dwayne Johnson vehicle nicely follows the theme-park-ride-to-big-screen path carved out by Pirates of the Caribbean. 

 

PICTURE
Images are clean and sharp throughout but there isn’t the razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix provides near constant jungle sounds during the trip down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room.

during the pandemic—see Cruella, Luca, and Black Widow—Jungle Cruise saw a simultaneous debut both theatrically and as a Premier Access title for $29.99 on Disney+.

 

I went into this viewing highly optimistic. Disney has been on a pretty good role recently, and I feel like they’ve developed a solid formula for delivering big action films that hit the right balance of humor and fun that appeals to family watching. Also, I felt Johnson was at a point in his career that he wasn’t going to be attached to a stinker, and he’s proven that he can not only carry a big film but deliver a deft comedic touch—see Jumanji: The Next Level—which was what a Jungle Cruise captain would need to be true to the spirit of the ride. 

 

Plus, I’m a huge fan of Disneyland. My parents actually met working there. My dad was a ride operator and my mom worked at a Sunkist orange-juice stand near the Jungle Cruise. I’ve been on the ride dozens of times, including when it actually was an E-ticket attraction, and a ride on the Jungle Cruise is a requisite during any visit to the park. 

 

So, yeah, I’d say the deck was a bit stacked in favor of me enjoying the movie.

 

And, no real surprise, I did.

 

If you’ve read any other reviews of Jungle Cruise, you’ve likely heard that it borrows heavily from films such as The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Disney’s own Pirates films. But that’s OK. If you’re going to borrow, might as well use some classic films as your template. 

 

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors led by Don Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) are looking for the Tears of the Moon, a magical tree whose petals can cure any illness or injury. They end up being cursed by a chief and can never leave sight of the Amazon River. Cut to 1916, and Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) steals an ancient arrowhead that is the key to unlocking the location of the tree, and she, along with her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), heads to South America where she hires a boat from Frank Wolff (Johnson) to guide them down the Amazon and to the tree. Along the way they are chased by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) in a German submarine, before he ultimately joins forces with the cursed conquistadors in an effort to recover the arrowhead and locate the tree to help the German war effort.

 

The chemistry between Johnson and Blunt works really well, and it’s nice to see a female lead that is in on the action instead of being relegated to the role of sidekick, something they definitely play up repeatedly for laughs with her brother MacGregor. And the opening pre-title card scene with Johnson taking a group of tourists on a jungle cruise lifts many lines—corny dad-jokes, quips, and puns—and sight gags that are lifted straight from the Disneyland attraction, including the always popular “back side of water” gag. 

 

I wasn’t able to locate any specifications on the resolution used for filming or for the digital intermediate for this transfer, but my guess would be that this is sourced from a 2K DI. Images are clean and sharp throughout, revealing lots of detail in closeups, but just didn’t give that razor-sharp level of crispness you can get from a true 4K DI, especially on long shots. Also, with the extensive amount of CGI used throughout, it would likely be in a 2K workflow.

 

I watched the film twice, once on my Apple 4KTV on my 4K JVC projector at 115-inch diagonal 2.35.1 aspect ratio, and then again on my Xbox One S on a new Sony 65-inch OLED. What I mistook on the projector for a bit of softness in the opening scenes in a London University revealed itself to be more smokiness and haze when viewed on the OLED, but on both the colors and clarity definitely got a nice uptick when the action moves to outside.

 

One serious complaint is that there are several instances where subtitles are used for German and Spanish speakers. Disney chose to place these subtitles below the image. While this won’t impact viewers on 16:9 aspect-ratio screens, those with a 2.35 (or wider) screen will find that the subtitles are blown off the screen and totally unreadable. This will certainly be rectified when the film is made available to Kaleidescape, which uses technology to reposition the subtitles back into the viewing area. But for my Disney+ experience, it meant rewinding, zooming the image down to 16:9, and then rewatching the scenes so we could see what had been said. Talk about pulling you out of the movie!

 

As mentioned, closeups can have plenty of sharpness and clean, ultra-fine detail. You can see the weave in the hats worn by characters or the texture in MacGregor’s many outfits or the tiny squares in a screen covering a window. You can also clearly see the markings and engravings when the arrowhead is viewed in closeup.

 

With lots of dark and lowlight scenes, Jungle Cruise certainly benefits from HDR. Whether it is viewing characters in the warm glow of firelight or lanterns, seeing sunlight streaming through windows into dark rooms, characters moving about in caves, or deep inside the jungle, we get lots of rich shadow detail and bright highlights. Jungle greens are rich and lush, as are the vibrant reds, with several scenes with fire, along with the jacket worn by Joachim and the busses on the streets of London. 

 

Sonically, the Disney+ version includes Dolby Atmos packed in a lossy Dolby Digital+ wrapper versus the more dynamic and lossless Dolby TrueHD version that will accompany a disc or Kaleidescape release. Even still, there is plenty here to find entertaining, though you’ll likely want to bump the volume 5 to 10 dB over your normal listening levels (as seems to be the case with most of Disney+ streaming). There are near constant jungle sounds when sailing down the Amazon, creating a believable canopy over your listening room, with a variety of birds squawking overhead. When scenes cut to/from the open outside of the Amazon, you can “feel” the change in the room, just by how it expands in the outdoors, making a really nice effect. We also have a lot of audio effects wrapping overhead and around the room from creaking vines and snakes slithering about, or a swarm of bees that flies around the room, or the splashes of water coming over the sides of the boat during a harrowing rapids ride. James Newton Howard’s score is also given a lot of room to expand throughout the room, making it much fuller sounding.

 

There are a few moments where the subwoofer comes into play, and these were definitely more dynamic when played through my Xbox versus my AppleTV, which just seems to compress and crush dynamics. There is a deep rumble of massive waterfalls, the explosions of a torpedo, and the low chug of the boat’s engines. 

 

While it is mostly family-friendly fare, there is some mostly bloodless violence and stabbings, along with several intense moments (snakes crawling out of skulls and other creepy-crawly stuff) that were definitely too much for my five year old. While rated PG-13, most kids 12 and up will probably be OK to watch. 

 

Ultimately, Jungle Cruise delivered exactly what I expected, which was a fun time with some good action, a few laughs, quality acting, some quality visual effects, and nods to one of my favorite amusement-park rides. After the dour seriousness of Fast & Furious 9, this struck the right note of how a film can provide a night of fun and entertainment without taking itself too seriously.

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 Killing

The Killing (1956)

The staging is often stilted, the acting often laughably bad when it’s not just mismanaged, it’s a concatenation of crime-drama clichés that leans almost to the breaking point on John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, the whole punctuated by pretentious, even silly, compositions and tracking shots that convey nothing, and yet Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is one of the seminal works of American filmmaking, poised right on the pivot into what would become, for better or worse, the modern era of the 

movies. This is Kubrick’s first real feature, and he freely admitted that, in that time before film schools, he still had his training wheels on—and it shows. But, determined not to be a studio hack, aiming to be the first true independent within the studio system, he pushes the boundaries throughout. The results might be ludicrously mixed, but they’re a damn sight more interesting than what almost any other director was doing at that time, and their implications were, in retrospect, huge.

 

Critics did dismiss The Killing as a low-budget Asphalt Jungle knockoff—an accusation that was true as far as it went. And Kubrick might have seen himself as more of a Hustonian director at that point (although his affinity lay more with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but as he hit his stride as a filmmaker, it became obvious that if you created a Venn diagram of the two directors, any common 

THE KILLING AT A GLANCE

Kubrick’s first real feature is a bit of a mess—it’s also one of the seminal works in American film.  

 

PICTURE
Lots of grain, lots of noise—but not so much to make it unwatchable, and with enough clarity to allow you to appreciate Kubrick’s photojournalistic roots.

 

SOUND     

Oddly uneven dialogue levels that would be worth fixing if the film ever makes it to 4K.

ground between them would be minimal, and suspect. The more plausible explanation is that, in a bid to be palatable to the system, Kubrick donned a Huston disguise and used it as a Trojan horse to insinuate himself with the studio elders.

 

I can’t begin to do the film justice in this short review, just point out some things that might make the experience more interesting if you decide to revisit it—beginning with the fact that, while Jungle was a character-study-driven crime drama that was also about process, Kubrick decisively shifted that emphasis, not unsympathetically showing that his characters were pawns of much larger forces—not metaphysical but post-war societal ones defined by increasing dehumanization (a 

viewpoint well captured in the many meanings of the title—all but one of which is lost on contemporary viewers, with their blinkered fixation on bloodshed).

 

While Kubrick wanted to garner the largest possible audience, he had no interest in feeding them A-list pablum. He instead drew from the fertile muck of the B- (and often C-) movie world—a vital perspective on his work that’s rarely (actually, as far as I know, never been) explored. In many ways, his movies owe far more to Ed Wood and Burt I. Gordon than to William Wyler or Cecil B. DeMille. Just consider the recurring presence of actors like Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel or those godawful Gerald Fried scores (with Fried joined at the hip to the equally obstreperous Albert Glasser). And while it wasn’t deliberately placed there for the production, it’s not just pure chance that a poster for “Lenny Bruce and His All Girl Review” can be glimpsed on a seedy downtown LA wall when Sterling Hayden goes to buy a pawn-shop suitcase for hiding the loot. In a sense, Kubrick always showed an affinity with Bataille, constantly reminding us of the fetid underbelly that was essential to creating the Hollywood sheen—and driving the American engine.

 

And then there’s Jim Thompson, the roman noir King of the American Underbelly, whose work went through a very much lauded revival thanks to a seemingly endless string of film adaptations from the 1990s into the new millennium. Accepted wisdom has it that moviemaking wasn’t equal to Thompson’s material at the time he was an active writer. The truth is that none of those recent adaptations are worth the spit it took to make them. None of them grasped

Thompson but just pushed the more lurid elements for all they were worth. If you want to know his work, read his books—or watch The Killing or Paths of Glory. Or The Shining.

 

True, Kubrick didn’t know what to do with what Thompson was handing him—the scenes between Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. were great on paper but beyond what Kubrick was then capable of as a director. But they’re still meaningful, and amusing in ways that go beyond their status as kitsch, because they make it clear that Cook’s put-upon George Peatty is very much the heart and fulcrum of the film (which you would never know by looking at Kaleidescape’s cast list, where his name is oddly omitted.) 

 

There’s also Lucien Ballard, who’s a bit of a curious case. Known for shooting Three Stooges shorts, he lensed for Kubrick here with mixed but sometimes inspired results, then went on to do both Blake Edwards’ The Party and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch—which officially qualifies him as a kind of subversive chameleon. The Blu-ray-quality transfer of The Killing—like the hit-and-miss 4K one for Dr. Strangelove—helps highlight the huge impact Kubrick’s photojournalistic work had on his films—something that was a lot harder to discern in earlier, lower-res releases. That documentary aesthetic lends an authentic grit to

the action that more polished studio noir could never capture.

 

Brace yourself for a lot of grain, along with a lot of digital noise, but The Killing is definitely viewable on a big screen, and it’s worth making the effort for the shots where those forces aren’t as much in play, such as the many tight shots, a lot of them—like most of the closeups of Sterling Hayden and those key exchanges between Cook and Windsor—quite striking. (As with most older films, the opening titles are overly enhanced. When is somebody going to figure out how to make those stop looking like bad student video and more like film?)

 

Not much to be said about the audio, except that nothing can really be done to ameliorate the impact of Fried’s clangorous blaring except to scrub it from the film completely. I noticed on this viewing, though, that there were big disparities in the levels of the actors’ voices, which I’m sure is a baked-in problem but one someone should address if this ever makes it to 4K.

 

I don’t mean to dump too hard on The Killing, but it’s in no sense a great film—but it is an infinitely intriguing one, with moments of undeniably bold camerawork, editing, design, sound, and acting that still hold up. And of course there are all those early indications of the filmmaker Kubrick would eventually be. Maybe what 

The Killing (1956)

most redeems the movie is that you can sense him trying to claw his way above all the then-current melodramatic and romantic clichés in an effort to find higher, more authentic ground. (The contemporary equivalent would be trying to make a film that’s not hopelessly fouled by adolescent fantasy and its attendant fascist notions of power.) He would continue that parlous ascent all the way through Paths of Glory and Lolita, with decidedly mixed results, before emerging a master artist with Strangelove. (Even Kubrick freely admitted that Spartacus doesn’t count.)

 

You don’t have to be a Kubrick—or Jim Thompson or Sterling Hayden—fan to enjoy The Killing. But you do have to leave most of the current cultural biases at the door—and there are so many of them—to even begin to appreciate it. It’s not mindless entertainment, a diversion—it’s a movie.

Michael Gaughn

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

Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga

Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga

“Hate-watch” is defined as “watching [something] for the sake of the enjoyment one derives from mocking or criticizing it.” I think that kind of sums up my feelings about the Fast & Furious franchise, which is now improbably in its ninth full-length film plus a spinoff in the form of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. What started out as a small crew, led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), who drove souped-up muscle cars to hijack trucking shipments, now finds this “family” of drivers, thieves, and hackers somehow thrust into a situation where they need to travel the globe—and into space!—to save the world from a cyberterrorism attack.

I think I’ve seen all of the movies in the franchise but I’d be lying if I thought I could explain how we got to the events of Fast & Furious 9, or attempt to untwist all of the complex relationships—he/she’s betrayed us; he/she’s dead; he/she’s back again—that have happened over the course of the automotive soap opera that is the previous films.

 

Honestly, though, understanding any of those prior films and having a lot of backstory knowledge of them isn’t really important to watching—hate or otherwise—FF9. In fact, I’m not sure I can totally unravel all of the plot points of for you. About five minutes into the film, I turned to my wife and said, “Wait. We’re in the jungle now . . ?” and trying to describe the movie to a co-worker made me feel a bit like Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites attempting to define “irony” during a job interview.

 

The best thing to do with this film—along with about any 

FF9 AT A GLANCE

The ultimate car-chase franchise strikes out in new directions—even outer space—leaving all plausibility behind. 

 

PICTURE
Although taken from a 2K digital intermediate, the image quality is so terrific throughout—just clean, sharp, and detailed—you’d think it was a 4K DI transfer.

 

SOUND     

The aggressive Atmos mix uses all of the speakers to immerse you in the action, with your subwoofer getting a nice workout as well, delivering a satisfying low-end that can rattle your couch.

recent entry in the Fast franchise—is to check your sense of reality at the door, grab a bowl of popcorn, turn off the lights, and just let all of the glorious action wash over you. Why are things happening? How are things happening? Is that even possible?!? Quiet, Poindexter, you’re thinking too much! Just expect that this film will do virtually everything short of literally jumping a shark.

 

You’ve likely heard the saying “Give the people what they want,” which is clearly a message long-time series director and writer Justin Lin took to heart. While the film has a meager Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating of 59%, it racked up a near-franchise high 82% audience score, so Lin clearly understands the formula—action, action, and more action!—his fans expect.

 

Similar to the upcoming James Bond film, FF9 was never going to be released anywhere but the movie theater, and it had five different release dates between 2019 and 2021 before finally hitting theaters on June 25. Producers were right to wait, as the film has brought in nearly $625 million at the global box office to date, making it the top-grossing American film to date

in 2021. It was released as a PVOD rental on July 29, where it is available for Kaleidescape owners as a Premium Rental for $21.95, in full 4K HDR and Dolby TrueHD Atmos quality.

 

If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ll be happy to know that the gang is mostly here for this one, and the film includes nearly every returning member of Toretto’s crew from past films save for Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). (Deckard Shaw [Jason Statham] has a brief mid-credits appearance in what I’m assuming is a tease for the next film.) We also have Charlize Theron returning as baddie Cipher, along with a new antagonist in the form of Jakob (John Cena), who is

Dun dun DUH!!!—Dominic’s long-estranged brother! Sure, for a guy that has talked about almost nothing but the importance of family over the course of eight previous films, you might have expected him to have mentioned the fact that he had a brother at some point, but just refer to that part about thinking too much and asking too many questions. The film does a decent job of providing some backstory for this new brother dynamic, with some flashback scenes spread throughout that show the origins of their rocky relationship and how racing has always been in the Toretto blood.

 

While fans are coming to FF9 expecting a ton of over-the-top action set pieces with crashes and explosions aplenty—and, rest assured, you’ll get them—with a film like this, you’re also expecting to have a fun time. (Which is why Hobbs and Shaw is ultimately a far more entertaining film to watch.) Part of the problem is that the movie takes itself so seriously—especially Diesel, who sulks and growls his way through nearly every take—that it misses the fun part. John Cena has some comedic chops that are wasted here. Instead he spends most of his time on camera trying to out-brood Diesel.

 

The only two characters that seem to remember this isn’t actually life and death and meant to be entertaining are long-time members of Toretto’s crew, Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson). The scenes between them offered the film’s few chuckles as well as some really self-aware fun-poking at some of the franchise’s more ridiculous bits with lines like, “I was just thinking if this was a movie, this would be the part where . . .” or “You know ain’t no one gonna believe this, right?” or “I’m not even going to mention that part about the submarine [from the last movie]” that lets the audience know that these guys are aware of the ridiculous situations we’re watching.

 

I’m not sure there’s any point in trying to explain the plot. For one, I’m not sure I could, and, let’s be honest, the film’s plot isn’t what’s going to bring you to the table for this. Suffice to say, there’s this super-weapon thing called the Aries—a two-part device that if assembled and activated basically gives someone control over every computer on the planet. Or something. Dom’s crew is trying to get it before Jakob and his crew, and they follow various clues and bits of information around the world—South America, London, Tokyo, Edinburgh, Tbilisi—in an attempt to stop him. Insert car chases, crashes, gunfire, fist fights, and explosions throughout. Oh, and they launch a modified Pontiac Fiero into space. You know, the yoozh. 

 

So, is it worth your time? Well, I’ll say this . . . it looks and sounds great, so if you’re willing to invest nearly two and a half hours in something for the sake of a  quality home theater experience, this delivers. While IMDB reports it was filmed in 3.4K and this is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, thimage quality was so terrific throughout—just clean, sharp, and detailed—

I was sure this was a 4K DI transfer. The only exception tis the flashback scenes that occur in 1989 and look much softer, grainier and “film-like” by design.

 

Closeups reveal tons of facial detail, including every pore and bit of stubble on Diesel’s face and head, or the texture in the ever-present ribbed muscle-T’s that make up the entirety of Torreto’s wardrobe. There’s also plenty of detail in long shots, with scenes shot in London and Edinburgh looking fantastic, with razor-sharp building edges and clearly defined brick and stonework.

 

There are a lot of moments for the HDR grading to shine, with bright headlights gleaming during night races, flashlights and fluorescents illuminating dark garages, tunnels, and hideouts, or the bright neon lighting and signs in Tokyo. The actors’ faces are also often shown in warm, golden-colored lighting, and HDR gives nice shadow depth and detail.

 

The audio mix also delivers with an aggressive Atmos mix, using all of the speakers to immerse you in the action. You get cars racing well outside the main channels, along the side walls and into the back of the room, things zipping and flying overhead, dust and debris from explosions cascading down all around, and the zing of bullet hits. In the film’s quieter moments, we also get some nice 

Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga

ambience with outdoor sounds of bugs, birds, and wind noise. Your subwoofer will get a nice workout as well, with explosions and collisions that deliver satisfying low-end that can rattle your couch.

 

With the shortage of new content hitting the home market, FF9 provides a big summer blockbuster to “enjoy” that will likely be a crowd pleasure for a big movie-night watch party. And fans/haters of the series will be happy to hear there are already two more films planned to conclude the series. Obviously, if they don’t use Fur10us as part of the next title, someone should be fired.

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: Ran

Ran (1985)

Discussing Akira Kurosawa’s Ran publicly is a strange feeling for me, so my apologies if I seem a bit more awkward than usual here. This film has always been a private indulgence for me, a secret pleasure. When new people come into my life, I might sit them down and make them watch Amélie, or Almost Famous, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or The Conformist. But never, ever Ran.

 

Part of that boils down to being protective of it. You tell me you don’t like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Searchers or Tokyo Story? It’s all good. Different strokes and all that. Sit next to me in the dark and watch Ran, though, and if you come out of 

the experience feeling anything less than reverence, I’m probably never inviting you over for movie night ever again.

 

At least, I assume that would be the case. I’ve never even shared the experience with my wife, simply out of fear she would take custody of Bruno in the divorce. 

 

Part of that forced isolation while viewing Ran, though, comes down to the recognition that this isn’t an easy film to watch. It’s exhausting, though not in the ways we would normally hang that adjective on a work of cinema. It’s methodically, deliberately exhausting. That fatigue is an essential element of the film.

 

It’s also, at times, a brutal film, both emotionally and physically. And although the violence is mostly cartoonish, with its cheap blood-squirting effects and its overwrought 

RAN AT A GLANCE

Akira Kurosawa’s King Lear-inspired late-period masterpiece gets a subtle upgrade to 4K. 

 

PICTURE
Just a handful of scenes show the benefits of UHD resolution, and the colors are just as muted, reserved, and measured as they were on the Blu-ray.

 

SOUND     

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a textbook example of how films of this vintage and importance should be remixed.

death scenes, it hits me harder in this film than almost any other. The carnage may look fake, but it feels real.

 

That makes it a questionable choice for a feel-good get-together with friends. All that said, this is a film that I think needs to be in the collection of any serious cinephile, for more than one reason. Firstly, it’s Akira Kurosawa’s last truly great film. (Madadayo is very good, but falls just shy of greatness). Seen from a more charitable perspective, though, it’s incredible that the auteur managed to make such a vibrant work at the age of 75. 

 

Kurosawa’s age definitely shows in the film, but not in its production. Ran—which, by the way, translates roughly into something like chaos, discord, turmoil, turbulence—is in many ways the filmmaker’s grandest statement on human nature. It has been described as a beautifully nihilistic work, but I think that’s far too reductive. Here, as with many of his best works, Kurosawa shines an unflinching light on human nature and the most ignoble tendencies of man. But describing the film as nihilistic assumes Kurosawa saw in us no capacity to rebel against our basest instincts, to rise above. Ran is a warning, a parable, a lesson from which to learn. Kurosawa shows us humanity at its worst to inspire us to be better.

 

It’s also reductive to simply write Ran off as an adaptation of King Lear, as so many have done. Kurosawa didn’t recognize the parallels between the story he wanted to tell and the Bard’s famous play until late in the scripting process. King Lear certainly influenced Ran in ways, some subconscious, but to pretend that the latter is a direct adaption of the former—the way Throne of Blood (1957) very deliberately transposed the plot of The Scottish Play in space and time—would hang some additional baggage on the movie that it was never designed to carry. 

 

Chances are good, though, that if you have any interest in purchasing this new 4K HDR release, you couldn’t care less about what I think of the film. You may even think the above opinions are daft. That’s fine.

 

What I think we’ll agree on, though, is that this is the best-looking home video release of Ran to date. Just don’t go in expecting monumental improvements over the excellent StudioCanal Blu-ray from 2016, which was taken from the 4K restoration used here. 

 

In my “4K HDR Wish List” from February, I said I thought Ran, of all Kurosawa’s films, would “benefit most from the enhanced resolution and especially the expanded color gamut of 4K HDR. Watching the Blu-ray release, you can tell there’s ten pounds of color here crammed into an eight-pound bag.”

 

Well, I was wrong on both counts. There are, at best, a handful of scenes where the benefits of UHD resolution can be seen, and the colors are just as muted, reserved, and measured as they were on the Blu-ray. This new restoration was overseen and approved by cinematographer Shôji Ueda, so it’s safe to assume it’s true to the original vision for the film. But as it turns out 8-bit 1080p video was more than sufficient to unlock most of the detail and almost all of the colors found on the original camera negative.

 

There are some improvements in contrasts, which contribute to an image with more depth and nuance. Am I saying you shouldn’t upgrade to the 4K HDR version? Of course not. Why wouldn’t you want to own the best presentation of the film seen to date? Just go in knowing that the improvements are incremental at best. There are also a few noticeable instances of

edge enhancement as well as some grain that looks more digital than organic, but that was true of the 2016 Blu-ray as well and can’t be pinned on Kaleidescape’s otherwise unimpeachable presentation of this somewhat flawed but still much appreciated remaster.

 

The only options for audio on Kaleidescape are the original Japanese in stereo or remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. I don’t care how much of a purist you are, opt for the latter. It’s a textbook example of how films of this vintage and of this importance should be remixed. It’s largely a three-channel affair, with surrounds mostly used to add ambience and space to the mix. But dialogue sounds fantastic and is always utterly intelligible, locked firmly as it is in the center channel.

 

I do have a slight beef with the English subtitles, which can’t be turned off or modified in any form. The problem is that they’re mostly white, with but one pixel of black surrounding each letter to give it some contrast. For the bulk of the film, that’s perfectly fine. But in shots that are brightly lit, in which the lower portion of the image is mostly gray or white or very light tan, the subtitles get a bit lost in the image.

 

Other than that, the only major flaw with the Kaleidescape release is that 

Ran (1985)

Lionsgate, which is distributing this new 4K HDR release in the U.S., seems to have once again given Apple the exclusive on bonus features. That means iTunes is your only option if you want to enjoy the incredible feature-length documentary AK, short of buying the disc. That said, the Kaleidescape 4K HDR release is surprisingly inexpensive—just $14.99. So if you have that option, grab it, obviously.

 

But if you have the 2016 Blu-ray already and you’re not obsessed with very minor, momentary, sporadic improvements in picture quality that you’d probably only notice in a direct A/B comparison, you can probably safely stick with the disc you already own.

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: In the Line of Fire

In the Line of Fire (1993)

I can remember sitting in the theater when the first trailer for In the Line of Fire came on. Trailers were different back in those days, and didn’t have the best bits from the film slickly excised and edited down to a two-minute sizzle reel that all but gave everything away. In fact, the first third of this trailer just showed “Nov. 22 1963” on screen, with a red ticking second 

hand while a voiceover described how a Secret Service agent had been a split-second too late to save President Kennedy and had spent a life second-guessing himself. When the second hand gets to the bottom of the screen, the 6 in 1963 (from when Kennedy was assassinated) slowly starts rotating while you hear a phone call begin, with the caller menacingly taunting the agent over what happened back in Dallas. Finally, as the 6 rotates into a 9 for 1993, when the film was going to be released, the camera pulls back to reveal crosshairs centered on the number, and the 

caller says, “I see you, Frank. I see you standing over the grave of another dead president.” Cut to Clint Eastwood grabbing a pistol, racking the slide, and turning to the camera and growling, “That’s not gonna happen,” and you’ve got a film I’m 100% gonna see.

 

It had been some time since I’d revisited In the Line of Fire, so I was thrilled to hear Sony Pictures was giving it a new 4K HDR remaster with a new Dolby Atmos sound mix, giving a reason to rewatch this classic.

 

Plot-wise, the film is pretty straightforward. Ex-CIA nut job Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) has decided he is going to kill the president but he wants to make it a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood), 

who served on Kennedy’s Presidential detail, and was standing feet away from the car when Kennedy was fatally shot. (Digitally inserting Eastwood into archival photos with Kennedy in Dallas added some realism to the film, a year before Forrest Gump did it.) As Leary plans for the assassination, he continues to call and taunt Horrigan, who, with help from partner Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott), agent Lily Raines (Rene Russo), the rest of the Secret Service, the FBI, and even the CIA, track down every clue and lead to try and identify and stop him before he takes his shot.

 

There are so many things that just work for me in this movie. For one, the film is long enough to allow the pacing to feel steady and unhurried but not too long that it wears out its welcome. The plot moves along at a realistic pace, constantly doling out enough bits of information and details to keep you engaged and involved, but that gives the film 

LINOF FIRE AT A GLANCE

The Eastwood vs. Malkovich battle of wits gets a new 4K HDR remaster and Dolby Atmos mix. 

 

PICTURE
One of the better film-to-4K transfers, the movie is sharp, clean & clear, and just beautiful-looking throughout.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix isn’t overly aggressive and is a great update of the soundtrack for modern systems, expanding the elements that are already present.

added realism. Much of what the Secret Service does is just brute-force, manpower investigation, and we get enough scenes of that to give us a sense of what is actually involved in working the protection detail for the most powerful man in the world but not so much that it becomes tedious or like a documentary.

 

Eastwood is great as grizzled Horrigan, looking to end his career by getting another chance at stopping the “big bullet,” proving to himself that he was willing to sacrifice his life for Kennedy’s back in Dallas. Instead of just a one-note agent or character that has slipped into alcoholism or some other abuse, we see Horrigan off the clock, listening to jazz, playing piano, having what feels like a life instead of just being some two-dimensional construct. Similar to how Eastwood played Bill Munny going out for one last ride in Unforgiven, here he’s clearly at the end of his career in a young-man’s game, looking to go out holding his head high. 

 

Equally great is Malkovich as ex-CIA “wet boy” Leary. Much of the first half of the film involves Leary taunting Horrigan over the phone about his failings in Dallas. “If you’d reacted to that first shot, could you have gotten there in time to stop the big bullet? And if you had—that could’ve been your head being blown apart. Do you wish you’d succeeded, Frank? Or is life too precious?” For the film to work, you need a strong, smart foil to Horrigan, and to believe Leary is not only willing, but capable of pulling off the assassination, and Malkovich’s intense performance—specifically some of his later phone calls with Horrigan—shows how smart, unhinged, and willing he is.

 

Something else I noticed during this viewing is how director Wolfgang Peterson (who did another fantastic film about a Presidential assassination attempt in Air Force One) kept Leary’s face hidden, obscured, or shown only in tight closeups or deep shadow for the first 30-plus-minutes of the film. It reminded me of Jaws and other “monster” movies in this way, as you are kept a bit in suspense waiting for that character to be revealed.

 

I have been very impressed with many of Sony’s 4K home releases, and I’m happy to say In the Line of Fire looks as good as any of them. This release is taken from a scan of the original camera negative and master interpositive to create a new true 4K digital intermediate with HDR color grading. I was a little nervous for about the first 30 seconds, where the opening sky shots of DC show a lot of noise, grain, softness, and general lack of detail, but then the camera cuts to shots of the city, buildings, and traffic and it just snaps into sharp, clean, clear focus, and it remains just beautiful-looking for the remainder of its two-plus-hour run time. 

 

Throughout the film, I just kept thinking that it was as if layers of imperfections had been wiped away, and we were seeing exactly what it must have looked like through the camera viewfinder. Detail wasn’t scrubbed away into softness; it’s just that everything that isn’t the film is removed, and every detail is left clean and easy to appreciate. With the possible exception of some huge restoration projects like My Fair Lady and Spartacus, this is one of the better film-to-4K transfers I can remember watching. It is just terrific-looking, and a benchmark for other studios of how a 35mm film-to-4K transfer should be handled.

 

The most detail is definitely appreciated in closeups, with faces showing every pore, line, and whisker, or beads of sweat that pop up on foreheads. It’s not like you need 4K to appreciate the complexion differences between a (then) 63-year-old 

Eastwood and 39-year-old Russo, but this sure lays them bare. You can also appreciate the textures in different clothing, from the pebbling of a tuxedo shirt Eastwood wears, to the fine check, plaid, and striping patterns in suits and jackets. Long shots, such as the big crowd scenes during the President’s outdoor rally speech in Denver, look quite good also, with lots of depth, detail, and color, as does the sharpness and detail in the brickwork during the building chase scene.

 

The HDR grade isn’t too aggressive, but it delivers very realistic colors and shades, along with some nice, deep, and clear blacks and good shadow detail. There are some nicely vibrant colors as well, such as the scene with the reds of carpets, flags, and the First Lady’s dress at an embassy dinner. There are also some bright whites from button-down dress shirts. Night scenes also pop with car headlights and other lights in the dark.

 

While this Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix isn’t overly aggressive, it is a great update of the soundtrack for modern systems, expanding the elements that are already present. Dialogue is kept centered in the front, but we get a lot of expansion off screen that helps sonically put you in the moment. Sounds like cars and traffic, people chattering in offices or crowd scenes, sirens and dogs barking, 

In the Line of Fire (1993)

and other street sounds help establish the environment. A perfect example is during the opening scene aboard the counterfeiters’ boat, where you’ll hear the little groans and creaks and noises of the boat filling the room.

 

The audio mix becomes more aggressive when appropriate, such as the big throaty roar of large planes flying overhead or coming in for landing, the rumble of motorcycles driving through the room, passing along the sides of the listening area and into the back, or PA announcements. There aren’t a lot of gunshots, but the few there are—specifically when Leary is at the lake—have a lot of dynamics, with the report echoing out over the water. 

 

While Eastwood is better known for his westerns and Dirty Harry films, In the Line of Fire is one of my favorites in his oeuvre, and I’m thrilled we now have a reference-quality version to enjoy at home. Whether you’ve never seen it or watched it numerous times, it’s a classic that has never looked or sounded better that makes a worthy add to any collection!

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: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2021)

This review was supposed to be done weeks ago. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was technically released to UHD Blu-ray on July 6, 2021. The day it was due to arrive, though, Amazon informed me they didn’t have an estimated ship date. So I went to Best Buy. No Scott Pilgrim. I hit Walmart. No Scott Pilgrim. I scoured every online source for shiny silver discs and no one could get me a copy of this movie in physical form in anything approaching a predictable timeframe. Thankfully, the disc finally arrived from Amazon this past weekend. 

 

If I hadn’t already decided that this would be my last disc purchase, this whole experience would have pushed me hard in that direction. The reality is, discs are a niche product at this point. There’s only one replication facility left in North America that can produce UHD Blu-rays, as far as I know, and when they get backed up or when there’s more demand than expected for

a title like Scott Pilgrim, getting your hands on a copy becomes a frustrating affair.

 

But you’re not here to read a treatise about the current state of a dying format. You’re here to read about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and whether the new Dolby Vision remaster was worth the wait. And indeed, it was—but not quite in the ways I expected.

 

I’ve always just assumed that this, one of my favorite movies, was shot digitally. But about ten seconds into watching the new remaster, I jotted a quick note on my notepad: “This looks like 35mm!” Indeed, the movie was shot on photochemical film, and as good as the old Blu-ray was, it just wasn’t revealing enough to deliver the nuance of fine film grain.

 

There’s just no denying it in 4K. And mind you, this is a

SCOTT PILGRIM AT A GLANCE

The 4K release makes it clear this ultimate self-reflexive comic-book movie was shot on film—a fact the pre-UHD versions failed to reveal. 

 

PICTURE
The new Dolby Vision color grade & dynamic-range expansion are very rarely in your face, pulling out splashes of color and brightness only for punctuation.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is big, bold, loud, and an outright violation of your subwoofers’ rights.

remaster, not a full-on restoration. The original 35mm camera negatives were not rescanned. This is an upsample of the old 2K digital intermediate. But it still represents enough of a boost in resolution and fine detail that the analog origins of the film are there to be seen, clearly and unambiguously.

 

And as subtle a difference as that is, it’s enough to change the entire vibe of Scott Pilgrim for me. It’s a weird movie if you’ve never seen it—it’s another one of those films that is simultaneously a thing and a critique of that thing. It’s a pop-culture-reference-packed comic book movie that playfully mocks all the shortcomings of pop-culture-reference-packed comic book movies. It’s a sendup of everything ridiculous about video games, made by and about people who completely adore video games. It’s a takedown of hipsters despite being hipsterish as heck. It sort of takes the piss out of vegans and feminists and the LGBT community but with complete and utter love and respect for anyone who falls under any of those umbrellas. It walks the fine line of laughing with, rather than laughing at. 

 

But perhaps the biggest seeming contradiction at the heart of the film is that it’s a grungy garage-band rock-and-roll picture (with, by the way, the single best original motion-picture soundtrack since Almost Famous, thanks to the songwriting talents 

of Beck and the vocal and musical talents of the actors, all of whom performed the music seen in the film themselves), but it’s also a super-slick special-effects extravaganza.

 

And again, that element of the movie has always worked on Blu-ray. But it simply works so much better in Dolby Vision, since you can see the grit and organic chaos of film stock under the computer graphics and other effects. It’s not simply that Dolby Vision makes Scott Pilgrim look better; it legitimately allows it to work better as a piece of art, as a

story about the weirdness of nostalgia, as a big old bag of very intentional contradictions.

 

Mind you, there are still one or two very brief moments where you can see the consequences of the 2K digital intermediate—a bit of lost resolution here and there in the backgrounds or in quickly panning shots. But they’re so fleeting I’m not sure it would be worth the effort to do a ground-up restoration.

 

One thing I want to be clear about is that the new Dolby Vision color grade and dynamic-range expansion are rarely in your face. By and large, the chromatic character of the imagery remains the same. There are a few splashes of color here and there that ring through with more vibrancy and purity. There are also some nice specular highlights from time to time. But the new color grade really keeps those splashes of color and brightness in its back pocket and only pulls them out for punctuation. The biggest difference in terms of dynamic range is that blacks are blacker, shadows are better resolved, and the overall image has a more natural dimensionality and depth. 

 

The new Dolby Atmos remix, on the other hand, very rarely shows similar restraint. It’s big, bold, loud, and an outright violation of your subwoofers’ rights. Normally, I would hate this kind of mix. But for such a ridiculous spectacle as this movie is, it just works. I wouldn’t change a single thing about the mix.

Of course, none of this will make a lick of difference if you’re not a fan of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. And if you’ve never seen the movie, all I can say is that a quick watch of the trailer will tell you whether you’ll love it or loathe it. (I’ve never met anyone who thought it was “just OK”.)

 

But if you’re already a card-carrying member of the Scott Pilgrim fan club, this new Dolby Vision release is an

essential upgrade. Just maybe skip the hassle of trying to get it on UHD Blu-ray. I spot-checked the disc against the Vudu and iTunes streams, and there’s virtually no meaningful difference between them in terms of picture quality. Level-match the soundtracks, and there’s no real difference in audio fidelity, either.

 

So, yes, grab this new Dolby Vision remaster at your earliest convenience. But if you don’t have a Kaleidescape, just go ahead and buy it via MoviesAnywhere. I’m glad I have the disc on my shelf, since I know it’ll be there when my internet service is out and I need my Scott Pilgrim fix right this very now. But if I had to do it over again, I would have just bought the digital copy and saved myself a massive headache. 

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 Quiet Place, Part II

A Quiet Place, Part II (2021)

John Krasinski has clearly attended the Chris Pratt school of “how to reinvent your acting career after playing a lovable goofball for years.” Best known as the office-nice-guy—and the other half of the Jim-and-Pam dynamic—Jim Halpert from his nine seasons on The Office, Krasinski has left quiet-Jim behind to become more of an action star, playing the roles of a special-forces operator in 13 Hours and  young CIA-operative Jack Ryan in Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series. Krasinski has also stretched his talents into writing and directing, most notably with the surprise hit A Quiet Place back in

2018, which he wrote, directed and starred in along with his wife, Emily Blunt.

 

After the huge success of A Quiet Place—raking in over $350 million at the box office against a budget of just $22 million—a sequel was all but inevitable, and Krasinski once again returned to bat the writing/directing/acting cycle.

 

While production began in June 2019, the film took the usual pandemic-postponed path before finally making its way to big screens. Originally planned for a March 2020 release, it was pulled when cinemas across the country closed, and then continued to be pushed back. Much like Christopher Nolan and Tenet, Krasinski was fairly insistent that this movie be seen in a theater as a shared experience, and not to be pushed to a streamer or PVOD release.

 

The film ultimately hit theaters on May 28, where it had one 

QUIET PLAC2 AT A GLANCE

This bigger-budget sequel to the 2018 megahit manages to deliver the horror without leaning on the gore. 

 

PICTURE
Shot on 35mm film, some shots look soft and grainy while others are sharp & clear, with HDR lending shadow depth and detail to the many low-light scenes.

 

SOUND     

A terrific Atmos mix filled with directional cues, many of them subtle, and lots of atmospherics.

of the biggest post-pandemic openings before finally coming to the Paramount Plus streaming service and becoming available for digital download via other retailers—including Kaleidescape—on July 12 after a shortened 45-day exclusive theatrical window.

 

While Quiet Place 2 could be viewed on its own without having watched the original—the opening has a bit of setup to understand what is happening—you’d really be doing yourself a disservice by doing so. Not only does the first film give you a lot of context to better understand the characters and events of the second one, it is also a terrifically entertaining movie in its own right. 

 

While the first film begins some 89 days after a sudden and unexplained invasion by a horde of blind, armored alien creatures with hypersensitive hearing and super speed intent on killing every human they encounter, and follows the Abbott family as they learn to survive in near total silence to remain hidden from the creatures, the second one begins at Day One of the invasion. Not only does this provide a bit of exposition for new viewers, it also gives the film a chance to bring Lee Abbott (Krasinski) back for a bit.

 

After the opening, Quiet Place 2 jumps ahead to Day 474 of the invasion, some short time after the events of the first film. The Abbott family of Evelyn (Blunt), hearing-impaired teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and adolescent son Marcus (Noah Jupe) are still living on their farm, caring for the baby born near the end of the first film. After noticing some signal fires on the horizon, the family sets out to try to find a safer place and any survivors, where they meet up with an old family friend, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who is living in an abandoned steel factory that provides a measure of sonic security from the aliens. 

 

While scrolling through a radio dial looking for any signals, they stumble across a station playing “Beyond the Sea” on repeat. Believing this is a clue to where other survivors are living, Millicent sets off on a quest to find them and see if she can weaponize her cochlear implant by playing the high-frequency feedback it produces through the radio’s transmitter. But not all of the human survivors are good, which adds another element to the danger. 

 

The film’s taut sub-90-minute runtime (excluding end credits) has very little fat and moves along at a brisk clip. Something is always happening to move the story forward, and by splitting the family into three groups, there is always some measure of tension and suspense. And because characters are generally whispering or communicating via American Sign Language, it forces you to pay attention, almost leaning forward in your seat, making you even more susceptible to the films several quality jump-scare moments. 

 

It has been some time since I watched the first film, but I feel like this had more action and excitement, and certainly gives a far better look at the aliens. With a much larger budget, in excess of $55 million, it also feels like a “bigger” film without losing the focus of the first film. Also, while this seemed like the kind of movie that all but screamed for a mid- or end-credits scene to tease a further installment, there isn’t one. 

 

A fair bit of Quiet Place 2 looked a bit soft and grainy to me, which made a lot more sense after I learned that it was shot on actual 35mm film. While the home transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, it definitely doesn’t have that tack-sharp look of modern digitally-shot productions. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of shots—specifically closeups—that have abundant sharpness, clarity, and detail; it’s just that there are also quite a few moments—specifically long shots or scenes with extreme low-lighting—that are soft and a bit grain heavy, and more resemble a good Blu-ray transfer than a true 4K film.

 

Many of the scenes are shot in dark or very low-lit interiors, such as one of the principal locations inside an abandoned steel foundry and often inside an old forge with the door closed. Here HDR gives us nice shadow depth and detail, delivering very natural and realistic image quality. There are also quite a few scenes filmed by firelight (actual fires, candles, or lighters) that benefit from HDR’s wider range. 

 

For a movie with “Quiet” in its title, you might not expect the sound mix to play an important role, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, both this and the original film have absolutely terrific Dolby Atmos mixes that really help throw you into 

the scenes. Sound is an incredibly vital element to the story, and the mixers take every opportunity to provide directional cues to what is happening, heightening the suspense of the action.

 

There is so much tense silence where little clicks, creaks, and noises inform you what is happening—or when you are thrust into Regan’s silent hearing-space, when she is without her cochlear implant (which plays a significant role in both films), where sound can go almost totally silent.

 

There are tons of little atmospheric sounds throughout that really draw you into the experience. Whether it is birds chirping and wind rustling, the clicking and skittering noises of the creatures moving around and overhead, the tinkling of glass bottles, or the flooding rush of a fire sprinkler, you are frequently immersed in the action.

 

My one sonic nit was that some of Murphy’s dialogue could be a bit difficult to understand. He often speaks with a semi-closed-mouth husky-voices whisper that can make understanding a bit of a challenge.

 

A Quiet Place, Part II is almost like a classic horror film where suspense and what

A Quiet Place, Part II (2021)

you don’t see provides much of the scares, and it is the perfect “scary movie” for people who don’t like what the modern horror genre has become. The violence is mostly bloodless, and not the focus of the film.

 

Not only does it make for a great night at the movies, I think it actually plays better in a well-designed home theater outfitted with an array of Atmos height and surround speakers for the full experience. At home, you aren’t at the mercy of suffering through popcorn chewing, drink slurping, candy rustling, and audience chit-chat that would otherwise break the moment, allowing to really enjoy the ride!

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 Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

I’ve said it here before—I’m a sucker for submarine movies. Das Boot, U-571, Crimson Tide, K-19: The Widowmaker, Hunter Killer . . . I’m game for them all. If the movie takes place aboard, or features a lot of action inside, a sub—preferably one from the modern era—I’m all in. The tension of trying to slip past a boat actively searching for you, the pings of active sonar and the splashes of depth charges, the sounds of torpedoes streaking by as they narrowly miss, and the near inevitable moment when someone has to have a hatch closed on them to keep the sub from flooding . . .

 

And to the list of the best modern submarine films, you’d have to include The Hunt for Red October, based on Tom Clancy’s first book of the same name. For its 30th anniversary, Red October has been given a new 4K HDR release, which is available 

on physical media as well as for download from Kaleidescape.

 

What makes Red October different from your typical sub movie is that while there is some action—a handful of torpedo launches and a gunfight—the movie isn’t really about subs shooting at each other, or about a sub in some kind of trouble, stranding men in a confined and water-filling coffin, but really more a tense spy thriller that happens to revolve around—and take place aboard—submarines, as well as the mental chess match between the two principal actors.

 

Red October—both the book and the film—introduced the world to Jack Ryan, an aspiring CIA analyst with expertise in the machinations of the Soviet system, who eventually worked his way up to being a pretty capable field officer, and ultimately becoming President of the United States in the Clancy literary universe. Ryan has (so far) been 

RED OCTOBER AT A GLANCE

This classic light-on-gunplay-and-torpedoes Jack Ryan spy thriller gets a 30th-anniversary 4K HDR upgrade. 

 

PICTURE
While much of the film looks terrific, particularly closeups of the actors and shots aboard the USS Dallas, the video quality is uneven throughout.

 

SOUND     

The 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix is true to the original film while delivering quite a bit of excitement in a modern home theater, although the bass is pretty mild by contemporary standards.

portrayed by no less than five different A-list actors, including Harrison Ford (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears), Chris Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), and John Krasinski (Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series).

 

Taking up the mantle for this first film was Alec Baldwin, who was a perfect choice to play the everyman Ryan totally out of his depth being called to leave the desk and take his analysis into the field, face-to-face with the enemy. Ryan is someone far more likely to outwit an opponent with his mind than to engage him with his fists or a gun, and Baldwin handled the role perfectly, and it was disappointing he didn’t return to reprise him in future films. 

 

Set in 1984, the Soviet Union launches a new Typhoon-class nuclear missile submarine named “Red October” captained by veteran sailor, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery). The October is fitted with an advanced prototype “caterpillar” drive that uses a hydro-propulsion system that will make it virtually undetectable by traditional means, letting it creep up off the coast of a city and unleash its payload without any time to respond. While on a routine patrol, Jonesy (Courtney B. Vance), a star sonar operator aboard the USS Dallas, a USS Los Angeles-class attack submarine, picks up the Red October as it is putting to sea, tracking it for a while before it suddenly disappears. When news about the October’s capabilities are known, USS Dallas’ skipper, Captain Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), receives orders to relocate the October, track her, and remain in position to destroy her if need be. 

 

Simultaneously, the Soviet government launches nearly its entire naval fleet out to sea. Is it an unannounced exercise? A rescue mission? Or a prelude to war? 

 

After briefing Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), Ryan brings his analysis to the Joint Chiefs, positing that he believes Ramius is not looking to start a war but rather looking to defect. Unsure of the Russians’ intentions, and with a lot of US naval assets headed towards confrontation, National Security Adviser Jeffrey Pelt (Richard Jordan) believes Ryan’s postulation enough to give him three days to confirm his theory. This puts Ryan on a flight out to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, where he must convince Admiral Painter (Fred Thompson) to get him aboard the Dallas to make contact with Ramius. Meanwhile, the US fleet is in a race to intercept and engage Ramius before the Russian navy can find and destroy him. Of course, the Soviet Union is not going to sit idly by while a rogue captain hands over a multi-billion-dollar flagship submarine to its enemy, so how to solve the issue of getting hold of the submarine while it is being hunted and make the Russians believe it was destroyed?

 

Red October holds up remarkably well even after 30 years. Sure, some of the tech (primarily the screens aboard the subs) looks dated, but the story is still tense and believable. One thing that did take me out of the film a bit more on this viewing is the almost total lack of Russian accents by the actors portraying Soviets. Of course, Connery has his classic Scottish brogue, making no effort to conceal it, but even others (Tim Curry, Stellan Skarsgard, Sam Neill) just don’t sound Russian. The film does use an interesting “device” to switch from actors speaking Russian with subtitles to speaking English, but I can’t help but think that if they remade the film today, it would have a more “authentic” Russian crew.

 

Originally filmed in 35mm, this transfer is taken from a new, true 4K digital intermediate with a new HDR color grade. While many parts of the film look terrific, and have clean, sharp, defined edges and detail—particularly closeups of the actors, or shots aboard the USS Dallas—video quality is really uneven throughout. 

 

The opening had a lot of noise and grain and just general lack of detail, and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was watching a Blu-ray version of the film for much of it. (I actually checked my processor to make sure it was receiving 4K HDR content.) But the best-looking images snap you back to just how good the film can look. And then there are other scenes—such as when Ryan is briefing the Joint Chiefs—which were so badly focused and lacking in details they rivaled VHS quality, especially apparent when blown up to my 115-inch screen.

 

The filmmakers differentiate the look of the interiors aboard the Red October and the Dallas, not only through the set design but also the lighting, and it is almost as if they used different cameras or lenses for these shots. The October never looks as sharp or detailed as the Dallas, which just looks cleaner and clearer. 

 

There is a series of green graphic overlays that appears throughout the film, and these look bright, crisp and sharp. But the traditional white subtitles during the opening—when the Russian crew is speaking Russian-are blurrier, though near the

end these subtitles also look sharpened and cleaned up as well.

 

The HDR grade isn’t too aggressive, but it does a nice job of giving some extra pop to all the screens and buttons aboard the subs, as well as deeper, more realistic blacks throughout, and some bright glints and highlights off the equipment inside the subs or on the medals worn by sailors. We also get some nice depth of color when the sub is rigged for red, or the flashing yellow alarm lights. There were a couple of underwater shots that exhibited a slight bit of banding, and some of the visual effects shots of torpedoes or green screen had a bit of white edging.

 

Red October received three Academy Awards nominations, including Sound and Sound Effects Editing (for which it won), and the 4K release includes a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix that is both true to the original while delivering quite a bit of excitement in a modern home theater. I watched with DTS: Neural X upmixing engaged on my Marantz processor, and the film provided a surprising amount of atmospherics and immersion.

 

From the get-go, you are surrounded by the sounds of winds swirling and rain pouring overhead. Then aboard the subs, we get the sounds of humming 

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

machinery, crew noises, hatches opening/closing, etc. Other moments, like the pressure crushing in on the hull of the Dallas as it makes a deep dive with pops and groans of the metal, or the sounds of a helicopter hovering overhead, or the loud ping from active sonar scans, or the zip of torpedoes streaking past, all help to put you right into the action. I actually had the opportunity to spend a night aboard an active aircraft carrier, and the sounds of flight ops and the steam-powered catapult launch system were spot on.

 

Bass is pretty mild by modern standards, but we do get a bit of subwoofer involvement when torpedoes detonate, or the low hum of engines running. 

 

While this new transfer isn’t without some flaws, it is still the best we’ve had at home, and remains a fun, exciting night at the movies, with a PG rating appropriate for all members of the family. With a lack of new releases on the horizon, The Hunt for Red October is a classic that is certainly worth revisiting. 

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: Black Widow

Black Widow (2021)

If you’re clicking on a review of Black Widow right now, I can only assume you’re here in search of one more person’s opinion about whether it was worth the wait. The simple answer to that is: Yes. If you don’t mind, though, I’m gonna ramble on for a bit about why.

 

I’m normally not one to invest much energy in the horse-race discussion about movies like this. But in the case of Black Widow, it’s hard to ignore. It was supposed to come out last year, but ended up being one of many casualties of the global pandemic. Meant to kick off Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it got beaten to that punch by WandaVision, Falcon

and the Winter Soldier, and Loki. It’s probably the biggest Disney movie to date to be available via Premier Access, three months ahead of its free-to-view streaming release on October 6, 2021.

 

The thing is, though, none of that really matters. None of it has any bearing whatsoever on the quality of the movie. And yet, it’s a hard discussion to avoid.

 

Why do I say it doesn’t matter, though? Well, for one thing, Black Widow was always going to be a movie whose release was a little weird, temporally speaking. The bulk of the plot takes place between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but it’s a story that couldn’t really be told until after Endgame (2019), not necessarily for narrative reasons but for emotional ones. To fully make sense of the character of Natalia Alianovna Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in this story, you have to understand not only the redemption arc she’s been on 

BLACK WIDOW AT A GLANCE

The Scarlett Johansson-centric MCU actioner finally makes its long-awaited debut in theaters and on Disney+.

 

PICTURE
The Disney+ presentation is stunning, with gorgeous colors, plentiful fine detail, and spectacular use of HDR .

 

SOUND     

Apparently mixed for movie theaters, the Atmos soundtrack is occasionally a little too dynamic; and the volume needs to be goosed slightly to unlock the full fidelity of the audio.

since first introduced to the MCU in Iron Man 2, but you also have to know that she’s the type of person who would make the sacrifice she did in Endgame.

 

All of that makes Black Widow a puzzle piece that you can only place in time, not merely space. But that’s sort of fitting for a character as complex as Natasha. I won’t bother to even begin to attempt to explain the plot. Doing so would make me sound ridiculous. It’s got a thousand tiny little moving pieces, and it plays a very dangerous game with them in that it all flirts with being just a little too much. I’m normally turned off by plots this complex—give me a simple story any day of the week—but writing simple stories is difficult.

 

Here’s the thing, though: The convolutions of the script don’t seem to be a product of laziness, but of necessity. Story writers Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), along with screenwriter Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok), seem to understand that this one had to do a lot of heavy lifting and cover a lot of ground. It also manages to pull off a trick that few stories do successfully—it manages to be a critique of a thing while also being that thing itself. Black

Widow is a comic-book action movie, yes. But it’s also a subversion of the genre, a sendup of its tropes, and a cheeky rumination on the dangers of idolizing these impossibly perfect characters.

 

It only works because the writers understood three key things.

 

Firstly, pacing: For every big action set-piece (and there are plenty of them, with car chases that rival Baby Driver and fight sequences that are every bit as stupid and amazing as anything in the John Wick series), there’s at least as much time devoted to quieter, tenderer character moments.

 

Secondly, tone: The movie deals with a lot of heavy material, from psychological manipulation to the exploitation of vulnerable women to Cold War hangover, but it always strikes the right balance between sincerity and levity. It knows when to take itself seriously and when not to. It’s heartbreaking one moment and legitimately hilarious the next.

 

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly: It just knows what it’s about, and although it would take two hours to recount the narrative beat by beat, it’s easy to explain what it all means. Ultimately, Black Widow is about family—specifically that weird and contradictory set of emotions that comes from interacting with your family now that you’re an adult; that troubling realization that your parents were just cosplaying as adults for your entire childhood; the baffling combination of rage and familiarity that only your relatives can drag out of you simultaneously.

 

It’s also about freedom—not only the necessity thereof but also the cost and why that cost is worth paying. While playing around with that theme, the story also touches on notions of free will and animal instinct. But all of that really points back to freedom.

 

And that’s it, really. As many twists and turns as there are in the plot, all of them ultimately support the themes of family

or freedom, or both. That’s what keeps Black Widow grounded throughout, what keeps it from devolving into utter chaos.

 

Can I just say, though, that this is yet another blockbuster movie I’m so glad I didn’t have to suffer through in a packed cinema? Its presentation on Disney+ far surpasses the quality of any commercial cinema I could reasonable reach in a half-day’s drive, and I also got to enjoy it without suffering the distractions of an auditorium full of chatty extroverts and their rowdy kids. At home, I could give it my full attention and even take a tinkle break halfway through without being forced to choose between skipping an action sequence or a bit of character development.

 

The Dolby Vision presentation is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, as most MCU movies are, which was itself sourced from original footage captured in a mix of 4, 6, and 8K. Fine detail abounds, not merely in closeups but also in long shots (which many of the action sequences are—a welcome break from the claustrophobic framing of most high-octane movies these days). Colors are gorgeous and the high dynamic range is employed spectacularly.

 

There are a few very minor and very fleeting blemishes, but I’m really not sure whether they’re a consequence of post-production, Disney+’s encoding, or the fact that I streamed it on Day One, simultaneously with millions of other people.

 

Evidence for the latter comes from the fact that, on my Roku Ultra, with my 250mbps internet connection, the stream didn’t switch from 1080p to 4K until about two-thirds of the way through the Marvel Studios logo that precedes the movie. Disney+ normally launches at 4K for me.

 

Evidence for these blemishes being baked into the master come from circumstantial evidence. There’s a shot very early on that takes place in a shadowy bathroom. There’s about a quarter-second of very, very minor banding as the flat tiles of the environment give way to the shadows. But the very next shot is in the same environment, with the same tonal variation, and there’s no banding. There’s also a long shot of Natasha’s trailer that exhibits a touch of moiré for a few frames. But a few minutes later there’s another shot of the exterior photographed from the same distance in roughly the same light, and there’s no moiré. 

 

So I can’t be sure if these momentary visual imperfections can be blamed on streaming or taxed servers or what. But thankfully they add up to no more than a cumulative second over the course of a 135-minute film. Otherwise, Black Widow looks stunning. 

 

It also sounds way, way better in my home than it would in any movie theater I’ve ever sat in. Mind you, the Dolby Atmos track seems to have been mixed for large auditoria, not home cinemas, so it can be a little too dynamic in spots. I also had to turn the volume on my preamp up to +3dB (with 0dB being cinema reference levels) to unlock the full fidelity of the track, especially the bass. If you have a well-designed sound system, though, you’re in for a sonic treat. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to watch Black Widow with a soundbar as your only audio system—even a really good soundbar—you’re quickly going to discover what it feels like to pack ten pounds of you-know-what into a five-pound bag.

 

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Disney continues to support these day-and-date releases via Premier Access as Hollywood attempts to force a return to normal over the next year. All I can say is this: If I have the option to watch future Star Wars and Marvel movies—the only movies I really feel compelled to see Day One—in the comfort of my home in quality this far superior to even a good cineplex for just $29.99? Sign me the heck up. I’ll never need to sully the bottom of my flip-flops with sticky popcorn grease ever again.

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: Broadway Danny Rose

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Indulge me for a moment while I begin with a digression. I had been surveying Woody Allen’s films on Kaleidescape because its recent acquisition of the MGM/UA catalog had seriously upped the number of Allen titles on the service. But what had been a steady stream has recently trailed off to a trickle, and two of his most crucial efforts—Broadway Danny Rose and Zelig—have stubbornly refused to appear. Wanting to wrap up my perusal, which was always meant to be a prelude to writing an

appreciation of Allen, I turned, really, really reluctantly, to Amazon to bail me out.

 

To be blunt, HD movies streamed on Amazon tend to suck—bad. And when I watched Danny Rose on there a few months back when I’d first been toying with a review, the quality was so awful I couldn’t bring myself to write it up. But something has changed. I don’t know what it is, and I’m curious to hear if anyone has an explanation, but the HD movies I’ve watched on Amazon recently have looked pretty damn good. To deliberately mix things up, I watched a black & white film from the ‘40s (Murder, My Sweet) and a color film from the early ‘90s (The Fisher King) just to make sure this wasn’t a fluke. And while I haven’t yet dived deep enough to know anything definitively, it looks like Amazon might have finally gotten its HD act together.

 

Which means I can finally review Broadway Danny Rose without having to liberally sprinkle the text with caveats and

DANNY ROSE AT A GLANCE

Woody Allen’s droll, affectionate tale of treachery in the world of small-time show biz ranks among his best work.

 

PICTURE

Still far from reference quality, the Amazon Prime HD presentation is a surprising step up from how Amazon was delivering HD content just a couple of months ago. 

 

SOUND     

Once again, we’re talking about a Woody Allen film. The sound is content to adequately serve the dialogue and music and leave it at that.

apologies. Rose is undeniably one of Allen’s best films—which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems. It does. A lot of them. But the fundamental impulse behind it is so strong and so brilliantly realized that the many fumbles actually, somehow, enhance the experience.

 

For instance, the yarn at the center of the film is supposed to be set in the early ‘70s, but Allen shot it in mid-‘80s New York without changing a thing. Everybody drives those godawful 1980s cars, wears those godawful 1980s cloths, etc. There’s even

one shot that prominently features a marquee for the very un-‘70s Halloween III.

 

And it’s implausible that Allen’s character would pick somebody up in the early afternoon for an eight o’clock performance at the Waldorf Astoria, but he deploys just enough smoke and mirrors to keep you from focusing on something that could have easily sunk a lesser film. Equally implausible is Sandy Baron’s telling of the story that provides the movie’s frame, which veers from feeling like a raconteur’s show-biz tall tale to sounding like he’s reading from a Mailer novel.

 

And yet the movie somehow transcends all that—probably because its love for the sausage-making of show business is so obvious and runs so deep that it’s infectious, and you don’t really care how the story is told as long as it stays true to the roots—which it does.

 

This is probably Mia Farrow’s best performance in an Allen film—probably because she’s not allowed to get lazy and just play Mia Farrow again but actually has to develop a character; and not just a character but an against-type comic character that could have easily tumbled into jokey caricature if she hadn’t displayed enough discipline.

 

Allen isn’t quite as successful playing Rose—which became the basis for the annoying pipsqueaks he later leaned on in films like Small-Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, and Scoop. But he maintains a firm enough hold on Rose’s basic enthusiasm and decency, and blind devotion to the business, that you’re willing to roll with the shortcomings. Similarly, Nick Apollo Forte is just able to hold together the Lou Canova/Tony Bennett character, but it works partly because Canova is supposed to be something of a delusional dope—a level of acting Forte is easily capable of achieving.

 

Broadway Danny Rose is a yarn, a tall tale, a fable. Given that, it could have easily gone too broad. But Allen keeps it focused on the characters and not the action, and the film works best when he lets these slightly larger-than-life people just be people, when he gets beyond the backstage gossip to something that feels like what it must be like to be trying to get by in a business whose only meaningful yardstick is stupid levels of success.

 

Gordon Willis’s black & white cinematography goes a long way toward selling the film. Color, no matter how restrained, would have felt too big, too current. The black & white images help to place it someplace other—a kind of subsistence-level show-biz netherworld that, at the end of the day, is still better than having to hustle aluminum siding and storm doors and offers a hell of a lot more chances to brush up against greatness—illusory or otherwise.

 

In a lot of ways, Rose resembles Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty—another puckish fairy tale about the necessary muck of show biz that exists below—sometimes just below—all the glamor and pumped-up success. Both films capture the inevitable desperation, but both also make it clear why the denizens gladly inhabit these worlds instead of settling into a nice, quiet place in the suburbs.

 

Coming off the success—commercial and creative—of Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen could have spent the ‘80s churning out archetypal Woody Allen films but instead used that decade to try on new clothes, seeing what, if anything, would fit; and it yielded some stunning achievements and 

some noble failures, but few efforts that weren’t worth the audience’s time. But as his inspiration started to fail, it left him with little to lean on as he approached the turn of the century. Rose was about the last time he was able to take a modest premise, keep the proportions right, and yet have the material yield something completely satisfying.

 

His most charming, and deeply felt, miniature, Rose is a kind of valentine to the part of the business no one gets to see, and a reminder that it is a business. No one but a long-time insider, and an eager collector of the lore, could have told the tale this neatly or compellingly. The best Allen films are the ones where you feel like you’ve been granted temporary access to a world just off to one side of the tedious, grinding norm, and Danny Rose offers that glimpse with wry writ, telling insight, and an endearing affection.

Michael Gaughn

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