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Review: Cry Macho

Cry Macho (2021)

I was born in 1970, so as much as I know of Clint Eastwood as “The Man with No Name” from his westerns and “Dirty” Harry Callahan from that series of films, those aren’t the Eastwood movies I grew up watching. The Clint roles that really resonated with me were his portrayals of Frank Morris in Escape from Alcatraz, Mitchell Gant in Firefox, Preacher in Pale Rider, and Frank Horrigan in In the Line of Fire. 

(Fun fact: Growing up, Clint used to caddy at the country club I worked at in the Bay Area. He returned as a guest and played a round while I worked there, and I all but ran into him as he was walking out of the pro shop’s bathroom. He was a lot thinner looking than I expected, but his gravelly, “Excuse me . . .” was spot on.) 

 

While Eastwood has still been busy directing, he has taken fewer roles in front of the camera, and there has definitely been an introspective, looking-back-on-life feel to several of the characters he’s played recently, including Earl Stone in The Mule and Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino. Now at 91, Clint is back in front of and behind the camera as producer and director of Cry Macho.

 

Based on the 1975 N. Richard Nash novel of the same 

MACHO AT A GLANCE

Don’t expect any action—or much of anything else—here; just a 91-year-old Clint Eastwood shuffling around the frame.

 

PICTURE

Images are clean and sharp, with plenty of detail in the closeups.

 

SOUND     

There’s not much audio here to take advantage of any surround sound, but dialogue is the star of this soundtrack and it’s presented clearly in the center channel. 

name, I can’t help but feel a lot was shredded from the novel’s 302 pages to get to the 104-minute film we have here. And for anyone expecting any of Eastwood’s signature western-style action, I’d point to this bit of dialogue from The Simpsons when Homer brings home a copy of Paint Your Wagon for the family to watch:

 

Homer: A Clint Eastwood/Lee Marvin shoot ‘em up western!

Bart: So, prepare yourself for the bloody mayhem and unholy carnage of Joshua Logan’s Paint Your Wagon!

Homer: With blood, I bet! (Starts watching . . .) They’re singing, Marge! Why aren’t they killing each other?

Bart: Yeah, their guns are right there . . .

 

The film opens in 1979 in Texas with Mike Milo (Eastwood), an injured and retired rodeo star overcoming a drinking problem, summarily fired by his boss Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam). A year later, Polk calls up Milo and explains that his 13-year-old son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett), is being abused and he wants him back but due to “some legal trouble” down in Mexico, he is unable to go and get him. And Milo owes him, so he needs to go down to Mexico City to find Polk’s son and bring him back to Texas.

 

Milo heads down and makes contact with the boy’s mother, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), and locates Rafo on the streets cockfighting with his rooster named Macho. Rafo agrees to go and meet his father, and the two head back to Texas. Along the way, Rafo and Milo exchange stories about life and what it means to “be macho,” giving Eastwood a chance to open up, reflect, and show some emotion. The pair end up getting stuck in a small city after their car is stolen, where Milo develops a romantic interest in Marta (Natalia Traven), a woman running a small café.

 

If you’re looking for action of almost any kind, you’re likely to be disappointed by Cry Macho. While it isn’t realistic to expect Eastwood to be an action star in his 90s, I figured there would be some drama or conflict here. Honestly, I don’t think I was prepared for this film to be as slow and meandering as it was. It’s like a road movie that just never gets up and goes anywhere. 

 

Also—and there’s not a kind way to put this—Eastwood just looks and acts so old. Sure, he has his signature glare and scowl but his movements and manners are that of an old person. There is one scene where he is on a bed reading to Marta’s grandchildren and we see Milo from the back and he just looks so frail and delicate, like how your great-grandpa would be. Even delivering his lines, there are times when he seems a bit shaky and unsure. It’s a little bit painful to watch, like seeing a boxer long past his prime stepping into the ring and then getting hammered.

 

And a lot of the story just didn’t seem compelling, believable, or even make sense. Polk hadn’t seen his son in years—his only picture is of the boy when he is like five or so—so now he wants him back and he sends a recovering alcoholic nonagenarian to go and get him? And Leta lives in like a mansion or something and has bodyguards like she is a cartel boss or something, and she is an attractive woman 50 years Clint’s junior, yet she is bizarrely trying to seduce him in her bedroom? It’s not only odd, it’s icky. Milo, who can barely amble around, comes to the aid of a local rancher and starts breaking these wild stallions. And then Milo’s ultimate love interest Marta is played by another actress 40 years younger than Clint.  

 

The few jokes also feel forced, flat, and frankly just aren’t funny. The big “punchline” is Milo telling Rafo, “Guy wants to name his cock Macho, it’s OK by me.” 

 

Released both cinematically and day & date on HBO Max on September 17, Cry Macho is taken from a 4K digital intermediate. Much of the color palette is soft,  dusty brown and muted earth tones. Even the sky is that faded-out light blue of old denim. 

 

Images are clean and sharp, and there is plenty of detail in the closeups—certainly enough to appreciate the texture of the fabrics the characters are wearing, such as the weave of Rafo’s sweater or the feel of Milo’s hat, or the grit and gravel of the road, and the scrubby and dusty Mexico landscape. There is also a scene in Marta’s diner where we get a wide shot where all the objects are in crisp, sharp focus. Even still, images felt a bit film-soft instead of razor sharp.

 

There isn’t much room for HDR’s wider color gamut to stretch its legs here, but we do get nice shadow detail that produces lifelike images, and some nice bright highlights from a campfire and bright lights.

 

My Marantz processor reported it was receiving a 5.1-channel PCM audio signal, which was then upmixed to my other speakers. There’s not much audio here to take advantage of any surround sound, with the vast majority of sounds coming from the front channels. The soundtrack does expand and open a bit with the sounds of wind, rustling leaves, and bird chirps, but dialogue is the star of this soundtrack and it is presented clearly in the center channel. 

 

If you are a rabid fan of Eastwood’s directing style, then Cry Macho might be for you; however, I feel like The Marksman and News of the World are far more entertaining versions of the older-hero-rescuing-child road movie, with News having the added bonus of young Helena Zengel’s outstanding performance, which runs circles around Minett’s forced-feeling performance here. 

 

Milo sums it up with, “I used to be a lot of things. But I’m not now.” For me, I think I’d prefer to remember Clint for the things he used to be rather than for this late entry. 

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: Reminiscence

Reminiscence (2021)

If the pandemic has done anything, it has cut a brutal swath through movies that people are willing to venture out to theaters and pay for on those they aren’t. You have successes like FF9, Black Widow, and Jungle Cruise. Heck, as I write this, Free Guy, which has been exclusively in theaters less than 10 days, has already brought in over $110 million. Then you have movies that have just tanked, like Reminiscence. Released on Friday simultaneously theatrically and on HBO Max, the film has eked out a measly $5 million worldwide in its opening weekend. Of course, whether a film is good or not isn’t judged 

solely by its box office, but combined with a Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of just 37%, it isn’t one that has people rushing out to the cineplex.

 

Reminiscence is the perfect example of how theatrical and streaming can’t coexist and remain financially viable for studios, but in a much shortened window compared to before times. This was a movie that looked interesting to me, featured a strong cast and a cool premise, with trailers full of interesting visuals, but even so, it wasn’t strong enough to pull me into a theater. Had this movie gotten rave reviews, it might have changed my mind. But even with the lackluster reviews, I would have likely paid a premium PVOD rental to see it early in my home, or just waited for it to hit a digital/disc release.

 

But since it was offered day & date on HBO Max at no additional charge, there’s no way I would have ponied up to buy a ticket for it. The upside for HBO is, the day & date experiment with all Warner Brothers titles this year was 

REMINISCENCE AT A GLANCE

This box-office dud shows up day & date on HBO Max trying to be Blade Runner, Inception, L.A. Confidential, and a lot of other movies, but comes up short. 

 

PICTURE
Shot in 6K, you’d expect this movie to bristle with detail but it’s a bit soft, especially when there’s CGI involved.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack mostly keeps itself spread wide across the front channels, but has some surprisingly strong deep bass for a streamed title.

definitely enough to cause me to happily add the streaming service to my list of monthly charges, so I’m sure they have signed—and retained—a fair number of subscribers. Heck, for barely more than the price of a single ticket, I can get HBO Max for an entire month! (What happens with these subs next year when they stop feeding WB day & date titles remains to be seen.)

 

But enough of that, let’s talk about Reminiscence . . .

 

This is the feature-film directorial debut of Lisa Joy, who also wrote and produced the film. She is best known for her work (co-creator, writer, producer, director) on HBO’s original series Westworld, and there are sci-fi elements and vibes here that are definitely, umm, reminiscent of that show’s style. Hugh Jackman is the headliner, and he is re-united with his Greatest Showman cast mate Rebecca Ferguson, who is actually given the chance to sing, unlike having her big vocal moment dubbed in Showman. Joy also brought in two of her Westworld cast members in the form of Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan.

 

Reminiscence takes place in a near future where global warming has caused massive flooding around the world, specifically in Miami where most of the film takes place. Due to rising heat, people spend daylight hours indoors sleeping, and most people are nocturnal. Life in the present pretty much sucks unless you’re super wealthy, so people turn to the past, paying to relive moments and memories of better times. 

 

Nick Bannister (Jackman) and his partner Watts (Newton) used to be in the military together, but now run a facility helping people recall better times. His elaborate rig creates fully 3D holographic experiences that feel as real as being there. But business is slow, so they also take on side jobs helping the police by interrogating the memories of criminals, which are admissible in court. 

 

One evening before closing, a beautiful woman, Mae (Ferguson) walks in to Nick’s office, saying she needs help remembering where she left her keys. Bannister is instantly smitten with Mae, and while looking through her memories, he sees she sings at a club. He goes there the next night and she happens to be singing one of his favorite songs. They start a relationship, but after Mae suddenly disappears, Bannister starts searching for her and learns there is far more to her than he thought. 

 

You can’t fault Reminiscence for lacking ambition—it’s just that it feels like other movies that are just better than it is. Parts of the future reminded me of Blade Runner, but it just wasn’t as cool and developed, and the opening pass through flooded Miami showed its CGI elements. Other bits felt a lot like Inception with the playing of memories, but it lacked that film’s imagination, storytelling, and wow factor. It had a crime-detective noir-ish feel, but it wasn’t nearly as engaging as Usual Suspects or L.A. Confidential. Ultimately it is a really a love story that just doesn’t feel really loving. The film also tries so hard to be complex that it ends up being a bit confusing, requiring quite of bit of expositional voiceover from Bannister to try and bring us up to speed on what is happening.

 

Shot at a resolution of 6K and taken from a 4K digital intermediate, you’d expect this movie to bristle with detail but I found it a bit soft, specifically in long shots, perhaps due to all of the CGI in many of the exterior scenes. (Maybe “soft” is the wrong word, but just more film-like and less sharp than we’ve come to expect.) Even during some flyovers of the flooded buildings, there was some line twitter you wouldn’t normally see. 

 

Images are certainly clean and clear throughout, and closeups have tons of detail, showing actors’ faces in sharp, tight focus with every pore and line visible, but it never had that razor sharpness and micro detail of many modern digital transfers. For example, one scene in a library where you might expect all of the books to have clearly defined edges just looked soft and undefined. Most of the film looked like I was watching a good Blu-ray transfer, but this could be a limitation of streaming or my Apple 4K TV and not indicative of what the film could truly look like.

 

There are many dark and night scenes, and these images are definitely enhanced with HDR. Whether it is sunlight streaming through windows into dark rooms, Miami streets lit at night with neon lights, or the golden hues thrown off from lamp light, we get lots of nice shadow detail, colors, and clean blacks. I did notice a couple of instances where bright outdoor shots exhibited a bit of digital noise, perhaps from being blown out just a bit too much. 

 

The film does feature a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, but it mostly keeps itself spread wide across the front channels. The sound expands into the room a bit when people are reliving memories, with outdoor moments opening up with the sounds of birds, wind rustling leaves, etc. There is also a nice effect where remembered voices are echoed into the ceiling speakers, giving a nice disorienting audio effect that matches what is happening on screen. The audio track also expands during action scenes, with glass shattering, furniture breaking, or gunfire erupting around the room. 

 

Usually, low-frequency effects are a bit lackluster during streamed titles, but I found that Reminiscence had some pretty deep bass when called for, such as the very opening as we’re “flying” over Miami, the deep thrum of a train engine, a large sign falling and crashing, or fight impacts. 

 

Reminiscence isn’t a bad movie—it’s just not a good one. For me, it was one of those films that was interesting enough to keep my attention for its near two-hour runtime, with some cool visuals and compelling actors that kept me curious enough to see how it all played out that I was willing to hang in to the (predictable) end. But ultimately, it’s pretty forgettable and not a title I see myself returning to in the future. For HBO Max customers looking for something new to watch, it’s certainly worth giving a look while it’s free for the next 30 days. After that, you pays your money and you takes your chance . . .

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 Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad (2021)

I normally hate any movie review or commentary that turns into a meta discussion about the film industry as a whole. But if you’ll forgive me such an indulgence this one time, I need to talk about a lot of other franchise movies to put into context exactly why James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is so darned good. If you don’t care about any of this gossipy blather, you can skip ahead to the sixth paragraph. 

 

It’s a well-accepted truism that WarnerMedia, owner of DC Comics properties, has been obsessed with replicating the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for years now. With 2017’s Justice League, the company even went so far as to replace director Zack Snyder with Joss Whedon, who helmed the first two Avengers flicks, in an attempt to cheat their way to 

success. Rumor also has it Warner also heavily meddled with David Ayer’s original Suicide Squad (2016) to try to inject humor into the dark and dramatic first cut because they saw the levity of the MCU as its main strength. The results speak for themselves, I think.

 

When Disney fired director James Gunn due to some faux outrage over some years-old tweets, written a time when he was working for Troma Entertainment and attempting to craft an appropriately shocking public persona, Warner swooped in and snatched him up. Gunn, who was working on the third Guardians of the Galaxy film at the time for the MCU, was given carte blanche to take over any DC property he wanted. The company even reportedly tempted him with an offer to do a soft reboot of the Superman franchise.

 

Gunn demurred, though. He wanted to take a shot at doing the Suicide Squad right. And I’m sure Warner salivated at the idea of having this team of misfit outlaws handled by 

THE SQUAD AT A GLANCE

This sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad goes way heavier with the comedy, the cartoonishness, and the gore.  

 

PICTURE
HBO Max once again hits it out of the park with its Dolby Vision presentation, delivering the movie’s chaotic images artifact-free via streaming.

 

SOUND     

The thoughtfully orchestrated Atmos mix uses the height and surround channels, as well as the subs, to full effect—although you’ll need to pump it up a few dB.

the director who turned Marvel’s own team of misfit outlaws into such a popular slice of pop culture. I can just imagine the cat-petting executives, sitting in their offices, smug in the belief that they were finally going to be able to replicate Marvel’s success.

 

And I can only imagine their subsequent shock and consternation when Gunn turned in a movie that’s absolutely nothing like his MCU movies—nor any MCU movie, for that matter. But here’s the thing I don’t think any studio executive has the creative vision to understand: The Suicide Squad works for all the same reasons the best MCU movies do, even if it’s nothing like them. What makes it work is a deep understanding of and love for the source material, combined with a desire to make a good movie, period—one that stands on its own two legs, no matter how it connects to other offerings in the franchise.

 

The Suicide Squad (2021) is kind of a sequel to Suicide Squad (2016) and it’s kind of not. It’s sort of a soft reboot, but it sort of isn’t. For the most part, Gunn gives Ayer’s ill-conceived drama-turned-comedy all the space it needs to coexist with this satirical slapstick farce. But by and large, he simply ignores it. 

 

If J.J. Abrams were one-tenth the filmmaker James Gunn is, he would have taken the same approach in trying to appease the very vocal minority of Star Wars fans who pitched a pathetic hissy-fit about The Last Jedi. If Abrams absolutely felt the need to appease the same gaggle of neck-bearded keyboard warriors, he simply could have ignored Episode VIII in the writing of Episode IX. Instead, he tried to unmake the previous film and ended up with something so muddled and pointless it hardly registers as a film in its own right.

 

Gunn doesn’t make the same mistake here. He doesn’t try to unmake Suicide Squad. He only acknowledges its existence enough to allow fans of both movies to imagine their coexistence. But you don’t have to have seen Suicide Squad to understand a thing about The Suicide Squad. The latter, in its first scene, hilariously and economically sets up its premise—a band of supervillains and psychopaths are given the opportunity to go on a dangerous covert mission for the U.S. government, Dirty Dozen-style, in exchange for ten years off their sentences. The exposition here is so streamlined and so effortless that it’s easy to miss the fact that what we’re being given is a quick recap of the entire first movie in a handful of terse dialogue exchanges.  

 

What follows is one of the funniest, most tightly scripted and self-aware comic-book romps I’ve seen in ages. It’s also, by the way, the single goriest. Seriously, the X-rated director’s cut of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop looks tame by comparison. It also, oddly enough, looks hyper-realistic by comparison. And that’s largely because Gunn plays the outlandish cartoon violence in The Suicide Squad for laughs, in something of a callback to his Troma roots. 

 

If you’re squeamish about such things, nothing is going to make the violence in this movie palatable to you. People are literally ripped in half by a gigantic, bipedal, surf-shorts-wearing shark-god. Arms are sliced off. Craniums are cleft. Shotguns blow holes clean through bodies. If you’re like me, though, your tolerance for violence probably depends on how realistically it’s depicted, and Gunn never lets you forget for a second that none of the action in this movie has anything to do with reality. It’s all one big unapologetic cartoon, and pretends to be nothing more or less.

 

That doesn’t mean it has no substance, though. In fact, it’s probably the most biting satire of American imperialism and state-sponsored clandestine shenanigans I’ve seen in the modern, overtly corporate era of filmmaking. In a story whose characters mostly represent the dregs of society, the real villain here is the covert establishment.

 

Despite the fact that this is a major studio production starring some seriously big names—Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Nathan Fillion, Taika Waititi, Viola Davis, Peter Capaldi, and Sylvester Stallone, just to name a very few—The Suicide Squad also comes across as a run-and-gun independent movie. There’s a heavy reliance on practical effects, with very little application CGI aside from the aforementioned talking shark (voiced to perfection by Stallone) and the gigantic alien starfish kaiju that the Suicide Squad has been sent to deal with. It’s also a bit weirdly structured, not necessarily beholden to the template-based three-act framework you’d expect from a franchise movie. 

 

I’m still kind of amazed Gunn managed to make a 132-minute action movie with seven co-equal protagonists that doesn’t buckle under its own weight or overstay its welcome. A lot of that comes down to pacing, of course. The movie knows when to give you a break from the action. 

 

It also knows how to use its characters. The aforementioned Robbie returns as Harley Quinn in her third turn at the character, and it would have been really easy to make her the centerpiece of this adventure, given the popularity of both the character and Robbie’s portrayal. But for the most part, Gunn sidelines her, only bringing her into the fight toward the end. What this does, though, is give him plenty of opportunity to let her have some truly meaningful character development. She doesn’t move the plot forward much if at all, but she does shape the emotional arc of the movie beautifully. 

 

And that, ultimately, points toward the biggest strength of The Suicide Squad. Given the premise of this property, it would have been really easy to turn the whole thing into a cynical rage-fest obsessed with how horrible people are and how awful the world is. But when you get right down to it, this bizarre live-action animated gorefest has more heart, humanity, and sincere tenderness at its core than anyone could have ever predicted. 

 

There’s a really beautiful line uttered near the end by Taika Waititi—who plays the dead father of Ratcatcher 2, one of The Suicide Squad‘s best characters. In a flashback, Ratcatcher 2 asks her dad why he’s so fond of the rodents. “Rats,” he replies, “are the lowliest and most despised of all creatures, my love. If they have purpose, so do we all.” 

 

And that’s ultimately the whole point of this delightfully ridiculous and purposefully chaotic adventure. The Suicide Squad asks you to set aside your preconceptions and believe—if only for two hours—that, at our core, human beings are decent, that even the worst of us have the capacity for love and compassion. And to this old cynic, that’s probably the most unbelievable thing about it. But I’ll be damned if James Gunn didn’t make his argument compellingly enough to sway me in the direction of his optimistic worldview. 

 

Again, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you will accept the premise that a hyper-violent and hilarious Ed-Wood-style sequel to a poorly received grimdark drama-turned-comedy-by-studio-meddling can be a good film, then The Suicide Squad is certainly a good film. Scratch that—it’s a great film. I honestly can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard. I also can’t remember the last time I saw a movie this grounded in the courage of its own convictions. 

 

I fully realize I’m testing the patience of my editorial overlords with the length of this diatribe, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t also talk about the look and sound of the film. HBO Max has once again hit it out of the park with its Dolby Vision presentation. Shot in a mix of 6K and 8K and finished in a 4K digital intermediate (likely only possible given the relatively light reliance on CGI except at the climax), The Suicide Squad isn’t always razor sharp, but it is when it needs to be. It’s a quite chaotic image at times, so much so I’m surprised it’s delivered artifact-free via streaming, but it is. There were about five seconds during the closing credits where it looked like the resolution dropped from 2160p to 1080p, but that was the only consequence I could see if the online delivery. 

 

This is another case where I can only wish my local IMAX were capable of delivering such a rich, nuanced, detailed, and beautifully high-dynamic-range image, but if I’m eventually forced to go back to theaters to see movies of this sort on Day One, there’s simply no denying that the impacts on presentation quality will be substantial.

 

The movie defaults to a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and although it once again seems to be a theatrical mix, not a home-cinema mix, it sounded fantastic in my media room once I turned it up about 3dB above reference levels. Once the action started and I realized just how insane the action was going to be, I half-expected to be put off by the Atmos mix, but it’s a really thoughtfully orchestrated track that uses the height and surround channels, as well as the subs, to full effect. 

 

But it never sounds gimmicky. It’s one of those rare mixes that manages to walk a fine line, giving Atmos enthusiasts enough height-channel activity to justify their extra speaker installations without punishing folks like me, who often find overhead audio effects immersion-breaking. If you’re going to check out The Suicide Squad for free on HBO Max before its free-to-view window ends on September 5, just turn the sound up a few decibels and I think you’ll find it’s a truly wonderful home-cinema-demo experience from beginning to end.

 

Just ship the kids off to grandma’s house for a couple of hours before you cue it 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.

Review: In the Heights

In the Heights (2021)

When you say “musical,” some people just have a natural aversion, reacting with a blanket “I don’t like/see musicals.” But if you haven’t seen a musical in years, you have missed out on a real paradigm shift in the genre, with “modern” musicals being incredibly hip and relevant, and likely 180 degrees different from what you’re imagining.

 

If you’re connecting the dots on the modern state of musical theater, where we break away from the big, classic Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical numbers and end up with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking rap-

infused Hamilton, there are few clear milestones we can connect on the map along the way that would include Hair and Rent.

 

It’s also safe to say that there wouldn’t be Hamilton had there not first been In the Heights. While the story is in no way connected to Miranda’s epoch-defining musical, you can’t help but feel the catchy beats, tempos, meter, breaks, and rat-a-tat-tat style that made Hamilton so groundbreaking were crafted and forged during his writing of In the Heights.

 

Heights debuted on Broadway in March 2008 and received 13 Tony nominations (ultimately winning four, including Best Musical), and had a successful multi-year run before going on a world tour. Interestingly, Universal Pictures had planned for a film adaptation in 2008, but that fell through. Warner Brothers stepped in, bringing in Jon Chu to direct after his success with Crazy Rich Asians. The film opened 

THE HEIGHTS AT A GLANCE

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first big stage musical finally makes it to the big screen.

 

PICTURE
The 4K HDR/Dolby Vision presentation presents the actors and the Brooklyn locations sharply, cleanly, and with a lot of punch. 

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t have a lot going on in the surround or height channels, but creates a wide, detailed soundstage across the front, allowing you to pick out individual voices in the layered singing.

theatrically on June 10, while simultaneously debuting on HBO Max, where it is being shown in 4K HDR with both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos.

 

Miranda—likely recognizing he had aged out of playing the lead, Usnavi, but also realizing attaching his name would give the film another level of cachet—takes on the role of the Piragüero, a street snow-cone vendor. While it’s a small role—just one sub-two-minute solo—he doesn’t throw away his shot, making the most of his screen time. (And be sure to stick around through all the credits to see Señor Piraguas get the final word with Mr. Softee.)

 

The filmmakers throw in some nods to Hamilton, such as the on-hold music played in the background during a phone call, as well as a cameo by Chris Jackson (who played George Washington) as Mr. Softee. Less subtly, we have Anthony Ramos (who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton) taking over the lead role of Usnavi.

 

Some changes were made to turn the stage play into a film, such as reordering the songs and actually removing a key lyric in Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) song “Pacienza Y Fe” that reveals one of the film’s major plot points far earlier. They also

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Hamilton

chose to have Usnavi telling the story to a group of kids, using this device to have him deliver some plot points via voiceover. One of the film’s continual themes is sueñitos, little dreams, the things that keep you motivated and going, and we learn you can barely walk down the block without running into someone’s dreams.

 

During the film’s lengthy opening number, “In the Heights,” Usnavi, who runs a small bodega that serves as a hub of the community, introduces us to most of the key players as well as telling us a bit about their story. In addition to Abuela, who is like a surrogate grandmother for the

neighborhood, helping to keep them centered in their Latin roots, we meet Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who runs a local taxi dispatch; Rosario’s eager employee-on-the-rise Benny (Corey Hawkins); and Rosario’s just-home-from-Stanford daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who is seen as the barrio’s best chance of getting out and succeeding. We also meet Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a nail-salon worker who aspires to be a fashion designer and the object of Usnavi’s not-very-secret affections; and Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s young undocumented helper.

 

A few big moments drive the story forward, such as several characters looking to move out of the Heights, a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000 sold at the bodega, and a blackout that shrouds the neighborhood in darkness—and heat—for a couple of days.

 

While I was never bored—and really enjoyed many of the musical and dance numbers—at 2 hours and 22 minutes, there are slow parts and by the end the film does start to feel a bit long. Like the Emperor said in Amadeus, “There are simply too many notes.” Now, I’m not sure which notes I would excise—every song serve a purpose—it’s just that after two hours, I was ready for it to wrap.

 

Shot at 7K resolution, the home transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the movie is really beautiful to look at. Many of the scenes are shot outside on location in Brooklyn Heights, and the natural lighting gives the film a great look. Skin tones look natural, with loads of color and shadow detail, and a huge depth of focus. 

 

Overall the film just looks clean, focused, and sharp throughout. For example, the huge array of street dancers shown at the end of the opening number as well as in the community swimming pool after “96,000” are shown with great depth and clarity. Long shots showing buildings reveal tight, sharp lines of brick-and-mortar. Closeups also reveal all kinds of detail, such as in the opening number—as the camera moves through Usnavi’s store, we can clearly see every can, box, and label on the shelves. Faces show every pore, line, and whisker, and you can see the pinpoint detail in Rosario’s button-down shirts and suit jacket, as well as the intricacy of Abuela’s hand-sewn handkerchiefs. 

 

There are not a lot of effects shots, save for one big dance number (“When The Sun Goes Down”) on the side of a building. However, there are two shots at the public swimming pool where Usnavi looks obviously green-screened in that were mildly distracting. This also speaks to how sharp the rest of the film looks that these moments stood out in contrast.

 

HDR is used to pump up the brightness of neon signs/lights in store windows, and to give the night scenes—particularly in a dance club and on the street after the blackout—more punch. In fact, the song “Blackout” would be a great demo scene, with bright flashlights, candles, sparklers, and fireworks punctuating the dark night. Abuela’s song “Pacienza Y Fe” is performed in a subway car/station lit with bright overhead lights and lots of deep shadows that really benefit from HDR. 

 

Interestingly, even though it is mixed and presented in Dolby Atmos, the soundtrack—at least as presented by HBO Max—doesn’t feature a lot of height information, and virtually nothing in the rear/surround back speakers, with just some music going to the side and front heights.

 

The mix does give us some nice width and directionality across the front, letting characters and sounds move far off screen left/right as appropriate. There is also plenty of detail to let us hear individual voices in the layered singing, letting you pick out a given singer in the sonic space. We also get some nice ambient sounds that gently fill and expand the room, such as sounds of traffic, trains, sirens, dogs barking, and wind and birds in the neighborhood. 

 

Sonically, the musical numbers are the big star here, and the instruments and vocals are given a lot of room across the front channels, with some space added in the front height and surround speakers. Many of the songs are upbeat and up-tempo and you can’t help but tap your toes. Some of my favorites were “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Champagne,” and “96,000,” which name-checks such disparate pop culture moments as Lord of the Rings, Tiger Woods, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  

 

If you liked Hamilton—and how could you not?—then I daresay you’ll enjoy In the Heights, as its DNA runs thick throughout. By moving from the confines of a stage to a film shot throughout Brooklyn with a huge cast of dancers and extras, it expands the scale of the movie and also likely its appeal. Asking it to convert everyone into a musical lover is a big ask, but there is no disputing that it has loads of heart and looks terrific, and is certainly worth a night in your theater. 

John Sciacca

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

Review: Those Who Wish Me Dead

Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)

If you cut your teeth on the sort of high-concept action movies Renny Harlin and Jan de Bont used to crank out in the ’90s and you miss that style of picture, oh boy, do I have some good news for you. Those Who Wish Me Dead—available now on HBO Max for a limited time, synced with its theatrical run—is like a full-blown nostalgia bomb that plays by all of the same rules as “classics” like Dante’s Peak, Daylight, Twister, etc. 

 

To even begin to attempt to recount the plot would make me sound like a raving lunatic, but in short: The story revolves around a pair of assassins hired to kill anyone who knows anything about some sort of conspiracy or another involving all manner of government officials and law enforcement. The two are hot on the trail of a forensic accountant who uncovered the 

conspiracy, who’s on the run with his son and attempting to find refuge with family members in Montana—respectively, a sheriff’s deputy and a proprietor of a wilderness survival school. And then there’s Angelina Jolie as a wildland firefighter who’s seen some stuff, man. I’m not even going to bother trying to tell you how she factors into all of this. 

 

As you might imagine from all of the above, the script is a hot mess that manages to be simultaneously nonsensical and wholly predicable, which is quite the feat. Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Koryta, who shares screenplay credit, the plot is a rapid-fire succession of improbable (bordering on impossible) coincidences that quickly become easy to suss out if you simply ask yourself, “What’s the absolute laziest path from this plot point to the inevitable action-packed conclusion?”

 

That’s not to say that Those Who Wish Me Dead is bad for what it is. It’s perfectly average, in fact. It’s fine, really. I’m not asking for the last 100 minutes of my life back or

WISH ME DEAD AT A GLANCE

This throwback actioner provides 100 minutes of mindless entertainment that, with a little more effort from the filmmakers, could have resulted in something a lot more fun. 

 

PICTURE
Fine detail abounds in HBO Max’s Dolby Vision presentation, providing reference-quality home theater demo material that’s gorgeous to look at.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio delivers, with strong & dynamic low-frequency effects, hyperactive surrounds, and dialogue that’s never buried in the dense mix.

anything, but if I had shelled out $25 for movie tickets and another $25 for a bag of popcorn and two bottles of water, I might feel differently.

 

But, hey, if the screenwriters (and there were plenty of them) had spent a little more time making the banal one-liners just a weensy bit cheesier, they could have had an OK mindless diversion on their hands here. The cast is pretty good, especially Jon Bernthal, who stars as the deputy who gets tied up in this mess from two different directions. Jolie also turns in a solid performance, even if she would need about thirty pounds of prosthetics to be truly believable in the role. 

 

The action is solid (although a bit sparser than you might imagine), the cinematography is better than it has any right to be, and the special effects are absolutely incredible. So if this sort of action flick is your jam, sure. Check it out. Or not. Whatever.

 

I’ll say this, though: HBO Max’s presentation is further evidence of just how good streaming has gotten in recent years. On Roku Ultra, at least, the Dolby Vision presentation is absolutely reference-quality home theater demo material. What flaws there are in the imagery can’t be pinned on the high-efficiency streaming encode, at any rate.

 

Shot on a variety of Arri cameras in ArriRaw format in a mix of 3.4K and 5K, the movie was finished in a 4K digital intermediate (kind of surprising, actually, given the amount of digital wizardry in the third act). As you might expect, fine detail abounds, and although I could take issue with the fact that the color palette has been dialed to extremes of warmth even when it doesn’t need to be, it’s still gorgeous to look at. 

 

The expanded dynamic range is used mostly to up the brightness during inferno sequences, or in dark scenes punctuated by very bright lights, and it’s effectively employed. I do wish there were a bit more wiggle room at the lower end of the value scale, since contrasts have been cranked almost to the point of black crush. But that seems to be the look cinematographer Ben Richardson (Mare of Easttown, Yellowstone) was going for, and far be it from me to tell him he’s wrong, because there’s a lot of truly breathtaking imagery on display here, and it’s all captured quite competently.

 

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 only—sorry, Atmos fans—but it does the job of delivering a by-the-numbers action-movie mix quite well. Low-frequency effects are strong and dynamic, the surrounds are hyperactive (although, oddly, never distracting), and dialogue is never buried in the dense mix.

 

In short, if you’re looking to disconnect your brain for an hour and forty minutes and you’re looking for a throwback-style action movie to work the fans in your projector and amps half to death, Those Who Wish Me Dead might be worth your time. It isn’t worth your money, though, so if you don’t catch it on HBO Max before June 13, wait for it to come back around in a few months.

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: Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat (2021)

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

KOMBAT AT A GLANCE

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

 

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

 

SOUND     

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

John Sciacca

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

Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

I tell people I’ve been waiting my entire life for Hollywood to make a decent Godzilla movie, but the truth is that I gave up hope on that front years ago. The 1998 farce starring Matthew Broderick, I think, speaks for itself. There’s nothing redeemable about it. Gareth Edwards’ stab at the mythology in 2014 almost worked, in that it understood the need to make the human drama the driving force of the story; but Edwards simply proved himself incapable of directing actors well enough to make the human dimension work. 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters fared better in that respect, but dropped the ball 

with a convoluted and messy screenplay that violated its own internal logic at every turn and didn’t recognize when it had worn out its welcome. At 132 minutes, it felt more like four hours. It also committed the biggest sin you could commit with a movie like this—it was absolutely joyless.

 

Godzilla vs. Kong, the fourth and presumably final entry in Legendary’s MonsterVerse quadrilogy, is—at the risk of making myself sound like a total dweeb—the Godzilla movie I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid. And interestingly, it turns out the trick to making a good Godzilla flick is to not bother trying to make a Godzilla flick at all.

 

Despite the privileged position given to the King of the Monsters in the title of this lagarto a simio showdown, this is really Kong’s tale, and although it’s the same ape we grew to love in Skull Island, he’s matured a good bit in the 48 years since that movie was set. He’s bigger. He’s smarter. He’s also a lot more civilized. As such, we hairless apes viewing the movie can’t help but relate to him more. So it

GODZILLA VS. KONG AT A GLANCE

There’s finally a decent American-made Godzilla movie to enjoy—even if it’s not really a Godzilla movie.

 

PICTURE
The Dolby Vision presentation is practically reference quality, with stunning peak brightness, a vibrant color palette, and oodles of detail—but there’s almost too much detail at times.

 

SOUND     

If you like your height-channel effects aggressive and distracting, you’ll find a lot to love in the Dolby Atmos mix here.

was a wise decision to make it his story first and foremost and relegate Godzilla to the force-of-nature role, which he plays so well.

 

But that’s not the only wise decision made in constructing the script. Screenwriters Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Max Borenstein (screenwriter on Godzilla and co-writer on Skull Island) have figured out what didn’t work about the first two big-lizard movies and—more importantly—what absolutely did work about this Kong’s screen debut, and they’ve applied all of those lessons to this script.

 

There are primarily two things that make this movie work, the first being its humor. Millie Bobby Brown reprises her role from King of the Monsters, but instead of standing around and crying in the rain and staring at the sky pensively, she’s the centerpiece of a comedic plot that also involves a high-school friend (played by Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s Julian Dennison) and a popular conspiracy-theory podcaster (played by Brian Tyree Henry of Atlanta fame). Their antics honestly prompted some of the most genuine laughter any movie has pulled out of me in a long time.

 

The other side of that equation is that the human drama also just works. I found myself legitimately caring whether characters lived or died. I was, despite myself, invested. And a lot of that is due to Rebecca Hall (Vicky from Vicky Cristina Barcelona), who absolutely sticks the landing as the movie’s agent of pathos. Don’t get me wrong here—this isn’t high drama or anything. But Hall gives us a glimpse of what could have been if the human storylines in Edwards’ movie had been well-directed. The thing that really makes her character tick is that Hall approaches the role with sincerity.

 

There’s a balancing act here, between the goofball comedy and the heartfelt drama, that shouldn’t work. But it does. And I think a lot of that can be chalked up to the fact that the screenwriters turned to some unlikely inspiration for this story. I’ve seen the trailers. I’ve seen the movies that lead up to this one. But nothing really prepared me for the fact that there’s an undeniable Victorian-era adventure-story vibe about the whole endeavor. Hell, snatch Jules Verne out of the past, pressgang him into writing a movie about a big lizard fighting a big ape, and I kinda think this is exactly the movie he would have come up with.

 

You can’t help but go into something like this wondering, “Wait, why are these big monsters fighting?” In addition to everything else wrong with it, what made King of the Monsters such a slog is that the answer to that question didn’t make a lick of damned sense. In Godzilla vs. Kong, though, their animus builds pretty organically, for pretty logical reasons—well, as logical as you could ask for in a kaiju brawl.

 

The other thing that makes Godzilla vs. Kong work is that everyone involved (except for maybe Hall) seems to have fully and lovingly embraced the fact that they were making a B movie. So, in the end, it all comes off like Journey to the Center of the Earth as directed by Ed Wood, just with a sufficient budget and a lot more intentional humor. Combine that vibe with pretty good editing overall, and you’ve got the makings of a truly solid monster movie.

 

Is it art? No. Was I entertained? Heck, yes. I do have some curmudgeonly gripes, though. Despite the fact that HBO Max’s Dolby Vision presentation is practically reference quality, with stunning peak brightness, a vibrant color palette, and oodles of detail, there’s honestly almost too much detail on the screen at times. The 4K digital intermediate (taken from 6.5K ArriRaw live-action photography) does make the textures of Godzilla’s leathery skin look a little fake at times. But whatever. I’ve spent my entire life watching a dude stomp around in a rubber suit pretending to be a giant radioactive reptile—I can forgive some overly-textured CGI in a shot or two.

 

My real beef with the imagery has nothing to do with the presentation, though—it’s the fact that 90% of the movie is lit with those garish teal-and-orange hues that I thought (hoped) fell out of favor years ago. And the digital color grading pushes this aesthetic to the extremes, making it impossible to ignore.

 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack, meanwhile, will be popular with home cinema fans who like their object-based audio mixes extreme. It was all just too much for me—so much so that I paused the movie halfway through to disable Atmos processing on my preamp. But if you like your height-channel effects aggressive and distracting, you’ll find a lot to love here. Either way, I think we could agree that the low-frequency sound effects are exactly the right amount of over-the-top you’d expect—nay, demand—for a thrill ride like this. But, come on, you knew that was going to be the case, didn’t you?

 

Unsurprisingly, given that Godzilla vs. Kong is debuting on HBO Max the same day it drops in American cinemas, it sounds like the audio mix was intended for large auditoriums, with no real effort made to remix it for the smaller confines of home cinema systems. The result is that dialogue is ever-so-slightly low in the mix, so you’ll need to turn the volume up to THX reference levels to hear it all—which does mean that the sound effects will be a touch too loud. But that kinda works for this movie, assuming you’ve got a sound system that can handle it.

 

It’s a shame, really, that Legendary couldn’t have taken the time to develop its two standalone Godzilla movies and make them this much fun, this well-balanced. But such is life. I finally have a decent American-made Godzilla movie to enjoy—even if it’s not really a Godzilla movie—and that’s the best I could have hoped for from this one.

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: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

While it’s probably possible to talk about Zack Snyder’s Justice League (aka “The Snyder Cut”), released last week on HBO Max, on its own without discussing all of the baggage that comes with it, some context seems appropriate to establish why and how this all came to be.

 

First, we need to travel back to 2017. Snyder had completed two DC films for Warner Bros., Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), which were going to establish and launch the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), setting it up to stand against the tide of Marvel heroes. As Snyder was deep in the process of completing his followup film, Justice League, tragedy struck his family when 20-year-old daughter Autumn took her own life. 

 

Understandably, Snyder and his wife Deborah (who was working as producer on the film) felt unable to continue with the demands of production and battling with the studio to get the film completed on his terms, and they decided to step away to focus on their family. 

 

Warner, with millions already invested and most of Snyder’s filming complete, brought in Joss Whedon to direct and bring the film across the finish line. Many had complained that Snyder’s vision for the DCEU was too dark (Batman v Superman had a 

dismal critics’ score of just 29%), and that Whedon’s more light-hearted approach combined with his prior success working on two Avengers films (The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) was the right tone to help get the DCEU back on track.

 

Whedon took over the reins, rewriting, reshooting, and editing the film, injecting some humor to lighten the dark tone as well as making major trims to meet Warner’s alleged mandate of hitting a two-hour runtime—frankly an overly ambitious goal in a film planning on introducing three major new characters that would help carry the film and drive the DCEU forward, resurrecting another, setting up a new franchise Big Bad, and then having this newly assembled team save the world.

 

The result was 2017’s Justice League, a film Snyder says his wife and executive producer Christopher Nolan told him never to see as it “would break his heart,” and one that 

ZSJL AT A GLANCE

The subject of much social-media-driven fan expectation turns out to be an improvement on Joss Whedon’s stab at the film, resulting in a fuller, but not exceptionally better, experience.

 

PICTURE
Image quality is clean throughout, though never bristling with sharpness and detail—which might be due to HBO Max’s streaming bandwidth.

 

SOUND     

A pretty aggressive Dolby Atmos mix, with lots of atmospherics that appropriately fill the room, but with somewhat limited low-end dynamics.

seemed to disappoint more people than it pleased. (Though it must be pointed out that both its critics’ and audience ratings were higher than Snyder’s BvS . . . )

 

Over the years, rumors started circulating that Snyder had all of the footage he shot during his time in the director’s seat and that he had assembled a rough-cut that he’d shown to some friends and insiders, and that this true vision of Justice League was a film that righted all wrongs.

 

Fans glommed onto this and started a #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement filled with the usual social-media fervor, including toxic and hateful rhetoric and cyberbullying on Twitter and Reddit and at least one death threat. Even members of the Justice League cast and crew started showing support for the release of Snyder’s version of the film, and the movement continued to grow.

 

A lot of hate was spewed at Whedon, who—at least as far as I can tell—handled it all like a silent professional. Also, it’s important to remember that he never asked for any of this. He wasn’t clamoring to take the film away from Snyder—he was brought in at the 11th hour to save a major project. This is kind of like a pinch hitter being brought in to replace an injured 

player who’s told by the manager that he has to bunt, and then being crucified for not living up to the crowd’s expectations.

 

At any other time, this likely would have never gone anywhere, but then Warner launched its streaming service, HBO Max. Hungry to gobble up subscribers with unique and desirable content—and with a huge legion of rabid fans out there clamoring for it—Warner gave Snyder the go-ahead—and budget—to finish his version, announcing that it would stream exclusively on the new HBO Max platform.

 

Whether you want to compare this to negotiating with 

terrorists or not, it actually makes a lot of sense from Warner’s perspective. This groundswell of fan support created a ton of social-media buzz and free advertising that the studio literally couldn’t have purchased. At a time when much of Hollywood was shut down, it also fast-tracked a marquee title exclusively available on its streaming service, with less than a year passing between the announcement and the film’s availability. While the estimated $70 million required to finish the VFX and do some reshoots might sound like a lot—especially on top of the estimated $300 million Warner had already sunk into the film—it certainly isn’t unheard of for a tentpole title. (You might recall Disney paid $75 million for the worldwide rights to Hamilton, and Apple paid $70 million for Tom Hanks’ film Greyhound.) It also brings a ton of interest back to the DC Universe, with multiple new films in the pipeline, and likely considering any additional monies spent on the Snyder Cut as investments in future properties.

 

So . . . that kind of sets the stage for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

 

After all the protests and demands and waiting, is this four-hour-and-two-minute film a better experience that’s worth your time? Yes.

 

I can’t think that too many people would prefer Whedon’s JL to Snyder’s, as the ZSJL is just a far more complete and finished experience. (And currently stands with a critics’ score of 74% and audience score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.) 

 

But, it’s also a totally unfair comparison. Warner would have never given the four-hour-plus ZSJL cut we have here a commercial theatrical release back in 2017, especially following the dismal ratings of BvS. And it isn’t enough of a film to be split into two-parts à la the final Avengers films—which had “earned’ their two-part release over 20 films of world and character building—and even if it had been allowed to be released at an extended three-hour runtime, that would still have required an hour of trimming from what we have here.

 

Honestly, much of the film and overall experience feels overly indulgent. This isn’t to say it isn’t mostly entertaining, it just feels like . . . a journey. And sometimes a long one at that. Here, Snyder is free to do whatever he wants without the limits of time nor benefit of any outside input of test screenings to see ways to improve (reminding me a bit of George Lucas surrounding himself with “Yes!” men when working on the Star Wars prequel trilogy). 

 

Beyond the runtime, we have Snyder’s decision to release the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, with a title card reading, “This film is presented in a 4:3 format to preserve the integrity of Zack Snyder’s creative vision” appearing just before it begins. Sure, this might play great—and larger—on a giant commercial IMAX screen. which is Snyder’s ultimate goal, but for the 99.9% of HBO Max viewers who will be watching it on a 16:9 screen (let alone a 2.35:1 screen without the benefit of masking!) this “huge” movie feels smaller. 

 

At least Snyder pulled back from one of his original goals, to release the film in black & white. (He says “the ultimate version is the black-and-white IMAX version of the movie.”) Also, it feels like he was reaching for an edgier R rating for some reason, throwing in three completely arbitrary and out-of-place-feeling F-words to force the MPAA’s hand. Sigh . . .

 

At times, the movie feels like a kitchen-sink approach, lacking editorial restraint. Scenes like the singing after we see Aquaman entering the water or the ballad played over the lengthy slow-motion of The Flash saving future girlfriend Iris West just feel drawn out.

 

Even though Snyder has said he wouldn’t use a single frame of footage he hadn’t shot, fundamentally the ZSJL is much the same as Whedon’s 2017 movie, and watching it doesn’t feel like a wholly new experience so much as a fuller experience—kind of like skimming the Cliff’s Notes for War and Peace versus sitting down and pondering every word. The film still has Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) looking to locate and unite the same band of heroes: Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Once joined, the newly formed League fights alien-baddy Steppenwolf (a CGI character voiced by Ciaran Hinds), trying to keep him from collecting three otherworldly Mother Boxes he plans to join into a planet-killing unity. After claiming the Boxes from the Amazons and Atlanteans, the League uses the box entrusted to humans centuries before to bring Superman (Henry Cavill) back to help in their fight—a showdown against Steppenwolf and his horde of Parademons in an abandoned nuclear reactor in Russia.

 

Much of the order of the film is the same and all the big fights and encounters remain. The tone is just darker and heavier throughout, with virtually all of the levity and quips gone. You get a sense of the difference in tone and narrative structure from the very opening. Where JL 2017 opened with (a heavily CGI de-mustached) Superman talking about hope and pondering his favorite thing about Earth after doing some Superman rescue, ZSJL opens with Superman being killed (from the end of BvS), his death screams echoing around the globe and causing the Mother Boxes to awaken, thus announcing their presence to Steppenwolf.  

 

Everything is just way more developed, with characters getting far more fleshed-out backstories, particularly pre-Cyborg Victor Stone. (One thing that isn’t “developed” is Whedon’s random Russian family stuck in a house near the power plant. That foolish little subplot has been excised.) We also get a much deeper look into Aquaman’s Atlantis. Relationships make more sense because they have two more hours to be explored and expanded, and the team coming together feels more authentic because it isn’t just thrown together over a matter of minutes. 

 

Battles are also longer, more intense, and more violent, with action shown from different angles and perspectives. In Whedon’s JL, Steppenwolf seems virtually unstoppable as he just rolls through the heroes claiming the boxes, only to ultimately have Superman appear at the 11th hour to save the day. In the ZSJL we get a sense the band of heroes could defeat Steppenwolf even without Supe, and his conquests are much harder fought along the way. Another big change—though not fundamentally affecting the film, although it would have guided the DCEU going forward had Snyder’s ultimate vision for continued films prevailed—is that Steppenwolf (who also has a completely different look here) is not the Big Bad but rather just a servant of ultimate baddy, Darkseid (another CGI character, voiced by Ray Porter), who would have been akin to Marvel’s Thanos. 

 

We have to assume that with all the trouble—and expense—Warner has gone to give Snyder this mulligan, everything we see is exactly the way he wanted. Which makes it interesting that Snyder chose to divide the experience into “chapters,” with six parts followed by an epilogue:

 

Part 1: Don’t Count on it, Batman

Part 2: The Age of Heroes

Part 3: Beloved Mother, Beloved Son

Part 4: Change Machine

Part 5: All the King’s Men

Part 6: Something Darker

Epilogue: A Father Twice Over

 

While it makes for convenient stopping points when watching (the end of Part 3 is almost a perfect halfway point), and seems ready-made for episodic streaming, these part “breaks” within the film don’t seem to serve any purpose other than to introduce what’s coming, and actually take you out of the moment a bit. 

 

Visually, you get used to the 4:3 aspect ratio fairly quickly (especially if you have some screen masking), with the more vertical presentation making our standing heroes appear taller. In practical terms, this took my 115-inch 2.35:1 screen (92-inch 16:9) down to a 75-inch 4:3 experience, which certainly was a bit less cinematic. The HBO Max presentation is in 4K HDR, including Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. 

 

Shot on 35mm film and taken from a 4K digital intermediate, image quality is clean throughout, though I never felt it was bristling with sharpness and detail. In fact, in between Parts 3 and 4, we watched the first episode of Falcon and Winter Soldier on Disney+, and that looked sharper and more detailed. I was never taken by the micro detail in fabric or razor sharpness in a scene—in fact, some shots were noticeably softer than others. It certainly didn’t have the visual pop of other IMAX films, such as Mission: Impossible—Fallout. Whether this a case of the limitation of HBO Max’s streaming bandwidth or the source material is difficult to say. 

 

As mentioned, this is a dark film in tone, theme, and visual style. Much of it takes place either at night or in some darkened interior. Even the “daylight” scenes—such as between Clark and Lois Lane (Amy Adams)—outside in a cornfield are shot at near dusk. Blacks are nice, clean, and deep, and we get a lot of visual pop courtesy of HDR. Things like lights streaming in through windows, computer screens, and headlights all have a realistic look. We also get some nice punchy colors in the form of things like Cyborg’s glowing red eye, Amazonian’s golden outfit, and roaring flames. 

 

While I wouldn’t call the streaming experience “reference quality” video, it certainly goes beyond merely “watchable,” and makes me look forward to a second viewing in full-resolution video quality from Kaleidescape.

 

Sonically, the film has a pretty aggressive Dolby Atmos mix, with lots of atmospherics that appropriately fill the room. Whether it’s sirens, alarms, machinery, echoes, birds, wind, or motor sounds, interior spaces are rich with different audio cues to place you in the space. The battles also make good use of all speakers, throwing action into all corners of the room.

 

Even viewing at reference volume level, I found the mix to be missing some of the low-end dynamics I would have expected. Again, I can’t say this is due to the mix itself (unlikely), the limitation of streaming via HBO Max (definitely a factor), or the audio output of my Apple 4K TV (also suspect). While bass wasn’t non-existent, it never had the wallop you’d expect from a big-budget superhero film, and it wasn’t until the climax with the Mother Boxes where I ever really felt like bass was reaching a tactile level I could feel in my seat. Again, it makes me look forward to a second viewing on Kaleidescape in a lossless Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix. 

 

Now that it’s finally here, you have to ask whether the film was worthy of the social movement that helped bring it about and make it a reality. I’d say, no. 

 

However, I’d also certainly concede it is the better Justice League film, offering a far richer viewing experience that is definitely more in line in with the style and tone of Snyder’s two DC films that preceded it and giving us a glimpse into where he thought the DCEU would head. And if completing it and bringing it to the public brought Snyder and his family any personal closure from their tragedy, then that’s another positive. Among movie fans—especially the superhero-loving kind—Zack Snyder’s Justice League is going to be a watercooler topic for some time, and it will be interesting to see what—if any—lasting impact it will have on Warner’s plans for the DCEU going forward.

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: Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

I honestly can’t tell you for sure whether I would have seen Wonder Woman 1984 in a movie theater had it been released in 2019 as originally planned, or if its June 2020 followup release date hadn’t been canceled by COVID-19. All I can say with certainty is that I’m glad my first viewing was at home rather than the local multiplex. Because I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it nearly so much surrounded by a crowd of my fellow comic-book geeks. 

 

And I say that for two reasons. The first is one scene in particular that occurs about halfway through the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. I won’t spoil the particulars for you, other than to say it’s a moment that was obviously intended to pluck the strings of nostalgia for old-school Wonder Woman (and indeed Super Friends) fans. But it isn’t a wink and a nod, as little 

nuggets of fan service like this normally are. Instead, it’s a moment of personal triumph for Princess Diana of Themyscira—one that drew a great big (but quiet) grin out of me, not only for the nostalgic sugar kick but also the integral story beat it represents within the movie.

 

And quite frankly, the barrage of cheers I’m almost certain are rippling through cinemas here in the States when that scene plays out (diminished though they may be by half-sized crowds and the like) would have ruined that moment for me. Or, if not ruined, at least colored my own personal reaction to it. Watching it play out on HBO Max, though, with only my wife by my side and my 85-pound pit bull sprawled out in my lap, I got to form my own emotional attachment to that moment, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

 

The other reason I’m glad I saw the movie at home rather than at the local IMAX boils down to quality of presentation. Say what you will about flicks of this nature being designed for the crowd experience, I’d say a far more 

1984 AT A GLANCE

The much anticipated super-girl sequel arrives in both theaters and on HBO Max with enough sugar kicks to more than satisfy the comic-book crowd.

 

PICTURE     

The film leans heavily on high dynamic range and wide color gamut, and HBO Max presents it all in 4K without any obvious flaws in the delivery.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix provides some beefy home cinema demo material, with a very Hans Zimmery score taking your speakers for a near-constant thrill ride.

crucial ingredient of this one’s success is the overall audiovisual impact. And a lot of that comes from liberal application of high dynamic range and wide color gamut, something only a handful of cinema screens can deliver. (Last I looked, I think there were something like 200 Dolby Cinemas worldwide and roughly the same number of IMAX Laser screens around the globe, none of which are within driving distance of me.)

 

From nearly beginning to end, WW84 leans heavily into the ’80s aesthetic, with Day-Glo colors dominating its palette almost to the point of hilarity at times. What’s more, one of its few action set-pieces takes place at night, and although I didn’t find HBO Max’s Dolby Vision presentation of that showdown distracting in the slightest, I was almost distracted by my musings about whether or not I would have been able to follow any of it on the low-contrast, dimly lit screens down at my local AMC.

 

I guess I’m somewhat burying the important takeaway here. We’ve all been curious about whether or not HBO Max would do 4K HDR right in this, its first outing with the modern video format. And the answer to that is a resounding “Yes!” I couldn’t find a single visual flaw in the delivery, and any nits there were to pick were subjective quibbles with the cinematography and special effects (many of which seem to be intentionally laughably bad). There’s also the fact that WW84 seems to have been shot with a deliberately soft look, so you shouldn’t expect razor-sharp edges or super-fine details. But you can see from the fine grain that all of this is inherent to the 35mm negative and not a problem with the transfer.

 

The Dolby Atmos track also shines, especially if you’re looking for some beefy home cinema demo material. Granted, a full 70 percent of the mix seemingly consists of Hans Zimmer’s score Hans-Zimmering the hell out of every speaker with unbridled intensity. As much as that would normally annoy me, it works for this movie, if only because WW84 is so delightfully and unapologetically cheesy from start to finish that subtlety in any aspect of the presentation would have seemed out of place.

 

And I don’t mean that as a sort of back-handed compliment, mind you. Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t just use the ’80s as its setting; it uses the style of storytelling common to action movies and comic books of that era to guide its tone, its pace, and indeed its narrative. And I’m totally here for it.

 

My only real gripe about the story is that it’s a little too densely packed for its own good. Director Patty Jenkins seems to have had a million ideas for how to follow up her 2017 breakout hit with a story that covered almost none of the same ground in almost none of the same ways yet still felt connected to the original. I just wish she had left a few of those ideas in the first draft of the screenplay. Trim 30 pages from the script and it would have been nearly perfect. As it stands, we have to settle for merely very, very good.

 

I say that, though, assuming you’re at least of an age to appreciate so much of the material that inspired Jenkins and co-writer Geoff Johns. Tonally and narratively, WW84 owes a lot to both Superman: The Movie (1978) and Batman Returns (1992)—and yes, I know it’s hard to imagine common ground between such disparate cinematic efforts, but this movie manages to find it.

 

But if you didn’t grow up on movies of that era, or at least experience them in your formative years, I can’t help but wonder if Wonder Woman 1984 might feel just a little too over-the-top, a little too cheeky, a little too fantastical. 

 

I honestly can’t know. But the good news is, as long as you’re willing to face the needlessly convoluted gauntlet of signing up for an HBO Max account and signing into the app, you can watch the movie to your heart’s content for the next 31 days before it disappears for a while in preparation for its actual home video release.

 

Will I plunk down my hard-earned dollars to buy the movie when that times comes? You bet I will. Again, it’s not perfect, but I liked this sequel even more than the first Wonder Woman movie, and it’s exactly the sort of goofy and good-natured escapism I need in my life right now.

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.