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Bumblebee

Bumblebee

For many viewers, myself included, the Transformers franchise jumped the shark with its fifth film, Transformers: The Last Knight, where it tried to combine robots, dinosaurs, and Arthurian lore into a mess of a film that included Sir Anthony Hopkins delivering lines that were frequently cringeworthy at best. That film was panned by critics and received the lowest audience rating of any film in the series—a meager 16% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Due to this, my expectations for Bumblebee were basically non-existent.

But the Bumblebee team decided to do some transforming of its own. This film broke the tradition of having Michael Bay at the directorial helm (though he does retain a producer credit), instead going with relative newcomer Travis Knight, whose previous directorial credit included the critically acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings. They also went with an up-and-coming writers, Christina Hodson, for the script and story.

Those two changes made all the difference, with Bumblebee scoring big at the box office, bringing in a 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating—the highest of any film in the franchise—and resulting in a movie that has far more heart and story, and far less near-constant frenetic smash-em-up-blow-em-up action scenes. And guess what? When every scene isn’t filled with action, there is more room for story and character development, and more opportunity for the action pieces to stand out.

Also, by primarily focusing on a single robot character instead of virtually every Autobot and Decepticon still in existence, you have a chance to care more about them. Kudos to the design team that did a great job with Bumblebee’s eyes, giving him the ability to express emotion and feeling, further humanizing him.

Bumblebee

The film begins on the planet Cybertron, with the Autobots on the verge of being completely overthrown. As a last-ditch effort, Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, sends his lead fighter and scout, B-127, to the planet Earth in an escape pod to prepare a new base of operations for the Autobots to regroup. B-127 smashes into Earth right next to an Army Special Forces training exercise, and in a skirmish while attempting to escape and battling a Decepticon that followed him, B-127 is damaged, losing his ability to speak, as well as his memory of who he is and his mission. Low

on power and heavily injured, B-127 scans a nearby yellow ’67 Beetle and transforms, where he somehow ends up at a salvage yard before being discovered by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Charlie christens B-127 “Bumblebee” because of the sound his electronic mumblings make.

There are many similarities between the storylines of Bumblebee and the original 2007 Transformers film. In both movies, the human star is an outcast, nerdy high school student. That role was played by Shia LaBeouf in 2007, but this time it’s a female played by Steinfeld. Both kids encounter the discarded and barely functional Autobot, Bumblebee, while searching for their first car, taking him home and then discovering he’s “more than meets the eye.” They both rely on friends of the opposite sex to help them survive and keep Bumblebee’s secret; the bombshell Megan Fox in the original, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. in Bumblebee. We’ve also got a strong military presence trying to track down and stop the alien invasion in the form of Agent Burns (John Cena), who is given one of the best lines with, “They literally call themselves Decepticons. That doesn’t set off any red flags?!”

Set in the late ‘80s, Bumblebee has a great soundtrack featuring many classics from bands like The Smiths, Duran Duran, Tears For Fears, and A-HA, along with several band shirts worn by Steinfeld that would have been perfectly at home on any student at my high school. Also, without the ability to speak, Bumblebee plays snippets of audio from the radio to communicate, a device that works well.

Bumblebee

Shot on ARRIRAW at 3.4K, Bumblebee is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, not uncommon for heavily effects-driven films. But the image has no shortage of detail, especially in closeups where you can see tons of detail like texture, imperfections, and scratches in Bumblebee’s paint, or individual strands of hair in Steinfeld’s eyelashes. HDR is used to good effect during the night scenes, particularly with explosions and erupting fireballs, or the vibrant green of the Decepticon transmitter near the finale.

My favorite aspect of the video was that the camera style is far more steady and stable, moving away from the near seizure-inducing, rapid blur and jerk favored by the previous Transformer films. The action scenes here are stable and in focus, letting you appreciate all of the robot’s movements and motions.

By far the standout here is Bumblebee’s reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This movie sounds fantastic in a well-calibrated home theater, featuring an active mix that fully engages all Atmos speakers, immersing you in the action. Dialogue remains clear and intelligible throughout, no matter how many things are exploding onscreen. Home theater owners will especially love the massive amount of low-frequency impact. When heavy objects or bots crash, smash, collide, or explode, the bass is appropriately weighty, producing frequencies that will rattle your floor and slam into your chest. But far more than just one repetitive bass note, bass here is richly textured and layered, with different amounts of impact and detail according to  the scene. Excellent demo material for sure!

Bumblebee is available for download now at the Kaleidescape store, two weeks before the disc release on April 2.

John Sciacca

Bumblebee

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.

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

By now, you’ve no doubt heard what a technological marvel Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old truly is. On the off-chance that you haven’t, what sets this important film apart from previous such efforts is that Jackson and his team took hundreds of hours of raw footage from the Imperial War Museums’ film archives, cleaned it up, colorized it, and used video processing technology to transform the choppy, hand-cranked stock into smooth 24-frame-per-second film. That fact alone is what originally drew me to this documentary, although I never had the opportunity to see it in its brief run in American cinemas.

 

Despite that—despite having watched all of the behind-the-scenes material I could get my hands on, despite having seen many an A/B comparison between the stock footage and the restored film—I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional impact 

trailer

behind-the-scenes documentary

transition to color

of this technological wizardry. There’s a scene, about 25 minutes into the film, in which the grainy, torn, jerky black-and-white transitions into artfully colorized, naturally fluid high-definition video. In that instant, a switch flips in your brain. The historical characters on the screen suddenly become living, breathing men. Or boys, to be more precise. They magically transform from flat artifacts to three-dimensional human beings. And the psychological impact of that phase transition is equal parts wonder, empathy, and horror.

 

That’s really your first clue that these restoration efforts have nothing to do with spectacle or presentation. The goal here isn’t to make your display come alive with pretty pictures. It’s to bring the men who fought the “the war to end all wars” to life in a way that’s never been possible before.

 

That fact is borne out in every other aspect of the film, most pointedly in the fact that there is no overarching narration here, no real historical perspective. The footage focuses solely on the efforts of the British infantry on the western front, but that’s never explained. Aside from reenacted dialogue created to match the footage, the only voices we hear here are taken from interviews of the survivors of these battles.

 

And the story they tell is a complex one. Yes, we get insight into the horrors they faced. But we also get some shockingly honest recollections 

of pleasant memories. One interviewee describes the early days of the war as something akin to a camping trip. And the dark humor that these men and boys relied on to take the edge off of their squalid conditions permeates the film as well.

 

But more than anything else, what’s shocking about the narration is how blunt the survivors of WWI are in coming to terms with their own experiences in the war. There’s a strange dichotomy that arises from the fact that, for the first time, we as viewers feel that we can relate to these brave warriors, only to have them explain in their own words why any attempt at empathy on our part is ultimately futile, because the only people who truly understood them were their own brothers-in-arms.

 

At any rate, for all of the fuss that I and others have made about the technical aspects of the film, it may come as a surprise that it’s only being released to the home in 1080p, not 4K with HDR. After seeing the film, I can understand why. Despite the impressive cleanup job done to the footage, we’re still talking about 100-year-old film here. There almost certainly weren’t any additional pixels to be extracted from the source material. And the colorization, while truly stunning, always errs toward the side of subtlety. A wider color palette would simply be wasted here, driving up the price for no good reason.

 

What’s more, even in HD, you can see some occasional imperfections introduced by the restoration process: Skin sometimes looks waxy, eyes and mustaches occasionally morph and jump in a really wonky way as the computers try to recreate frames that never existed or were damaged beyond repair, and occasionally the textures are a little off. That’s not a criticism, mind you, especially given that Jackson and his team made a 140-minute film on a budget allocated for thirty minutes tops. (They also restored a total of 100 hours of footage for the Imperial War Museums, pro bono.) It’s simply to reiterate that you shouldn’t view They Shall Not Grow Old as an AV demo.

 

But you should enjoy it on the best home cinema system possible, nonetheless—especially to appreciate the work that Jackson et al. did in recreating the sonic landscape of the war. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack accompanying Kaleidescape’s release of the film does a wonderful job of complementing the video in its efforts to bring this old (silent) footage to life.

 

Also accompanying the Kaleidescape release is an important bonus feature that seems to be missing from the Vudu release: A 28-minute interview with Peter Jackson conducted at the BFI London Film Festival. The personal and historical perspective that this interview brings to the table is welcome, but it isn’t necessary. The film really speaks for itself.

Dennis Burger

They Shall Not Grow Old

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.

Aquaman

Aquaman

I grew up a fan of DC Comics—which is the other universe outside of Marvel—that includes the Justice League comprised of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. And while I’m assuming Aquaman was given his fair share of ink over the years, I can’t really remember anything about his backstory, or him doing anything stand-out. Thus, his storyline never really resonated with me, and I remember him as just being kind of an “extra” figure who only really came into the action when things moved to the water.

 

Starting with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, DC looked to “Marvel-ize” its extended universe of heroes by introducing other characters. In that film, Wonder Woman was introduced and given a fairly significant role, but we were also given glimpses of other heroes, namely The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman. Those heroes would ultimately be brought together to make up the recent Justice League film. While B v S was generally panned, we can thank it for at least one thing: It gave us Wonder Woman, a fantastic film that showed our favorite Amazon warrior princess’ origin story perfectly portrayed by Gal Gadot.

 

Looking to capitalize on Wonder Woman’s momentum, DC delivers the second spinoff of its Extended Universe with Aquaman. As is the recent trend, Aquaman was available for digital download in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack as of March 5, a full three weeks before it is released on physical media.

 

Aquaman was one of those films on my “definitely want to see” radar, but not high enough that I wanted to go through the hassle of seeing it in a movie theater. I thought Jason Mamoa’s portrayal of Atlantis’ rightful heir-to-the-throne, Arthur Curry, in Justice League, was pretty great. He was about as reluctant a hero as possible, wanting nothing to do with the limelight, and spending his days saving wayward fishermen and drinking at the local pub.

 

This movie begins by introducing us to Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), queen of Atlantis who is rescued by a lighthouse keeper. They fall in love, and young Arthur is born. However, Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis, and she entrusts Arthur’s training to her advisor, Vulko (Willem Defoe). When Arthur learns his mother was executed for having a half-breed son with a human, he swears off Atlantis, and returns to his unassuming life of protecting sailors. Arthur is ultimately drawn into a battle between his half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants the sea kingdoms to unite and declare war on the surface world. To claim his rightful place on Atlantis’ throne and prevent this all-out war, Arthur begins a quest to find the Trident of Atlan. He is aided along the way by Mera (Amber Heard), who ultimately becomes his queen.

 

At 2 hours 23 minutes, Aquaman is not a short film, but there’s no shortage of action and beautiful onscreen visuals and sonic mayhem to keep you engaged along the way. In fact, it almost feels like James Wan’s (Furious 7, Saw) directorial direction was, “That looks great, but is there any way we could work a fight scene or some other bit of action in here?” The result for me was a movie that was entertaining to watch, but a tad short on substance, so that I’m not left remembering a lot of specifics or story in between all the mayhem and destruction.

 

You’ve got to hand it to Mamoa in that the dude sure looks like he can fight. The fight scenes with him really look like he is utterly smashing people with crushing blows, and when he picks up some massive object (say, a Russian nuclear submarine), you have the impression that he could actually do it. Also, who knew Aquaman was bulletproof? Mamoa does a good job injecting some sarcastic humor into the role, and, like Gadot as Wonder Woman, it is difficult to imagine another actor that could have pulled off Aquaman.

 

While taken from a 2K Digital Intermediate, I never felt the image lacked detail. In fact, far from it. Water is one of those things that can really benefit from HDR’s wider color gamut, and the underwater scenes all look gorgeous, with lots of bright and delineated blues and greens. There is a lot of phosphorescence in the undersea kingdoms, with colors that pop off the screen. You also get excellent shadow detail and no banding issues. The various characters’ hair all flows and gently waves around their heads while they are underwater, further adding to the illusion. Closeups have a ton of detail, like the detailing in the characters’ costumes or individual water droplets. There is nary a bit of grain, and black levels are deep and solid. One of the many fight scenes takes place outside in Sicily, and has several long shots where the camera pulls back to see the housetops. It looks fantastic—edge detail is sharp and the HDR highlights really come through.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is quite aggressive and plays wonderfully in a luxury home theater. There is a lot of deep, seismic bass info to keep your subs happy, and the surround channels are used frequently and effectively to put you in the action. The sound design team also uses the height speakers to frequent and good effect, placing appropriate sounds above you like rain and footsteps. Also, I’ve noticed many recent films are over-mixing action into the center channel, which can make dialogue difficult to understand, but I (happily) didn’t have any issues with dialogue intelligibility here.

 

While some of the talk about sea kingdoms and rulers reminded me of the Senate redistricting mess of Star Wars: Episode I, and some of the underwater alien battle scenes were reminiscent of Starship Troopers, and visually I was often reminded of Pandora from Avatar, overall Aquaman makes for a fun night in the home theater. And after raking in over $1.14 billion at the box office, a sequel is already in the works.

John Sciacca

Aquaman

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.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really have a lot of desire to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse when it was in movie theaters. Nothing about the trailer really grabbed me, but when it started getting rave reviews both from critics (97% on Rotten Tomatoes, with comments like “It is a game changer”) and audiences (94% positive), I figured maybe the trailer didn’t resonate with me but that the film would. Then, when it took home the Academy Award this year for Best Animated Feature Film, that clinched it.

 

Fortunately, Kaleidescape owners were able to get the film on February 26, a full three weeks before it’s released on disc on March 19, so I downloaded the film and settled in to enjoy.

 

This is and also totally isn’t the Spider-Man story that you know. It begins with the Peter Parker (voiced by Chris Pine) we’ve always known, and has animated versions of several of the marquee scenes you’ll likely remember from the multiple live-action Spider-Man movies from recent years. But the real star of this movie is teenaged Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), who was unknowingly bitten by a radioactive spider (don’t you hate when that happens?) and then crosses paths with Parker while he is in the midst of battling some baddies to save Brooklyn (again). During the battle, a particle accelerator opens up portals to alternate universes, bringing five alternate Spider-people into Brooklyn, where they all work together to stop Kingpin from unleashing the accelerator that could destroy not only our world, but the entire universe.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming for a few of reasons. One, it didn’t get bogged down in its own origin story, forcing us to relive —once again—how Spider-Man becomes Spider-Man. At this point we all know the story, and this was a theme that Spider-Verse repeatedly poked fun at. Two, after the recent Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield outings, Tom Holland’s Spidey just felt fresh and new, more wide-eyed and trying to figure things out. Three, it gave us

 a great sidekick in Ned (Jacob Batalon), who provided a much needed second personality as well as adding enough Tony Stark/Iron Man to keep the film feeling bigger than just “another Spider-Man” movie, while also giving it a place in the much larger Marvel universe.

 

I say all of that because I think those things equally apply to Spider-Verse which feels both the same (but in a good way) and yet totally new and fresh.

 

What really sets Spider-Verse apart is its totally unique visual style. And as much as I loved Ralph Breaks the Internet and The Incredibles 2also nominated in the Best Animated Feature category—after watching Spider-Verse, it’s not a surprise that it took home the Oscar as it has an innovative style and look that is really unlike anything that has come before it. You can tell you’re in for something different right from the opening Columbia title screen.

 

Animation always looks fantastic in 4K HDR and this is no different. The colors are bright and vivid and pushed to the boundaries, with the reds of Spidey’s suit particularly vibrant and heavily saturated. The blacks are also deep, with HDR used throughout to provide extra punch.

The visual look and style of Spider-Verse constantly changes throughout the movie, often during the same scene, and it definitely embraces its comic-book roots, with a style that often feels like comic panels have been brought to life. Images are

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

near photo-realistic, then switch to a cartoon panel-style, then to the Pop Art style of Roy Lichtenstein. The image has an incredible depth of focus that looks truly 3D at times. Frequently, things in the near- or background are heavily blurred to make you focus on specific portions of the frame. The style in some scenes reminded me of the film noir storytelling style of the Max Payne video game from years ago.

 

Beyond the visuals, a modern animated film often succeeds or fails based on the quality of the story and voice acting. While the theme of a band of strangers coming together to defeat a common enemy is nothing new, Spider-Verse never feels like a retread and manages to work in enough pop culture references to be clever.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The voicing is great, with Nicholas Cage as the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir, a private eye from 1933 who likes to drink egg creams and fight Nazis. Jake Johnson brings his hilarious Nick Miller New Girl vibe and mannerisms to Peter B. Parker, a Spidey who has gone through a nasty breakup and let himself go. You even get Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actor

Mahersala Ali as Miles’ Uncle Aaron. John Mulaney does a good job with Peter Porker, aka Spider-Ham, though something about his delivery reminded me of Nathan Lane’s Timon from The Lion King. (Also, I couldn’t get “Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig, does whatever a Spider Pig does. . .” out of my head whenever I saw Spider-Ham.)

 

The Dolby Atmos audio mix is very aggressive throughout, with many discrete effects routed to all

channels and lots of height-channel information. There is also some serious low-frequency information that will rattle your windows and slam you in the chest. Dialogue is well recorded and remains easy to understand regardless what world-ending event is happening onscreen.

 

Spider-Verse is a fresh take on the superhero genre, and a visually stunning film that will look fantastic in a home theater, and is sure to entertain family members of all ages.

John Sciacca

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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.

Mortal Engines

On paper, Mortal Engines seems like a can’t-miss film. It’s an adaptation of the well-received Young Adult novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, comes from a screenplay by the writing team behind the epic The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, including Peter Jackson, and included a trailer with striking visuals. But with mostly weak reviews, scoring a meager 26% on Rotten Tomatoes (audiences were slightly more kind with a 56% rating), and a paltry $16 million box office take in the US and Canada, this Engine was perhaps a little too Mortal.

 

But I’m not one to let a bad review dictate what I’ll watch, and my faith in Peter Jackson was enough to have me eager to give this a view at home. As is often the case recently, ME was released on digital download a full three weeks before the disc version, so I downloaded the film from the Kaleidescape store in 4K HDR.

 

There are, of course, three ways to approach a movie based on a popular book: Read it before, read it after, or don’t read it at all. With The Hunger Games trilogy, I devoured the books prior to watching the movies, and this built a lot of anticipation for the films, which didn’t disappoint, IMO. With Ready Player One, I was inspired to read the book after watching, and felt that while the two works were markedly different in many respects, they both worked for their medium. My wife started reading ME but the story didn’t grab her, so I went into the film knowing very little.

 

The 128-minute movie starts off with just a bit of exposition to explain how mankind arrived at its current state. Some untold number of years ago—enough for people in our time period to be referred to as “the ancients”—a 60-minute war involving a Quantum energy weapon known as MEDUSA effectively destroyed most of the world, bringing humanity to the edge of extinction. Out of the toxic remnants, a new age arose—the age of the great predator cities of the west. Of these cities, one of the largest is London, which roams around the Great Hunting Grounds of continental Europe practicing a philosophy known as “Municipal Darwinism,” where large cities on immense treads hunt down, ingest, and dismantle smaller cities for food, fuel, and any salvaged technology that can be repurposed.

 

Within the first 10 minutes you’re introduced to the main players which include Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who is out to avenge her mother’s killer; Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan of recent The Umbrella Academy fame), a historian who gets (literally) kicked off the London and is forced to bond with Hester to survive; and Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving from The Matrix and the Hobbit and Rings trilogies), London’s power-hungry head science engineer who is searching for old-tech in order to secure a new power source for London’s future and oppose the anti-traction league, a group of static cities that sit protected behind a giant shield wall.

Mortal Engines

The film’s opening scene is action packed, as the enormous London chases, captures, and ingests a smaller city. The film has massive scope, scale, and world building, with convincing CGI that shows how something on the scale of London-on-tracks would function from a technical level, and makes it appear these giant tracked cities are actually driving around. I’m not sure to what extent the sets were of practical design versus created inside a computer with CGI, but the visuals are impressive, presenting these immense mobile locations that drive around carving out huge ruts in the land with their enormous tracks. Some of my favorite parts of the film were just admiring the inner-working and design of London.

 

The film was shot in Redcode RAW at 8K and the home release is taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate and looks terrific.The film is a feast for the eyes, and items have terrific texture and detail. Whether it is the fabric in actors’ clothing, the various states of disrepair on walls and items around the very Steampunk-inspired London, or the multiple bits of machinery, ME offers tons of detail in every frame. There are several closeups where you can see the individual strands of hair on an actor’s head.

 

The film spends almost equal parts in dark and light environments, and HDR is used to good effect throughout to produce images that pop with detail. London at night, various searchlights piercing the darkness, and various lights and gauges inside cockpits all retain deep, rich black with appropriately bright highlights. The fires inside London’s engine room also particularly benefit from the HDR color grading.

 

Sonically, ME is the stuff home theater owners live for. The bass is big and weighty, carrying the proper amount of heft for something the size of London driving around and smashing into things. There are also a lot of textural sounds—engines thrumming, gears turning, cables moving—giving life to scenes. Sound effects have tons of directionality, putting the full soundstage to use to create an immersive experience. Dialogue also remains clear and intelligible throughout, even in the big action pieces, something some recent films have been missing.

 

My only complaint with the audio is that the Kaleidescape digital download didn’t include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, instead having a 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. For a movie with such a dynamic and textured soundtrack, I’d love to hear how this sounded in a full Atmos mix. Of course, the blame here lies with NBC Universal, which for some reason refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the immersive audio mix for any of its films in 4K HDR. Here’s hoping that gets resolved at some point in the near future, at which point anyone who has already purchased the film would be able to re-download it with the new audio track at no charge.

 

While not perfect, and a bit light on plot, I found Mortal Engines engaging and entertaining, and it definitely looks and sounds fantastic on a proper system. 

John Sciacca

Mortal Engines

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.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet, the followup to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, is one of those rare sequels that, if not better than the original, stands equal to it. Like many modern Disney (and Pixar) films, even though it’s animated, Breaks’s story and themes are designed to appeal across a wide range of ages, and offers plenty of laughs and emotion for everyone in the family.

 

Around six years have passed since the end of the first movie, and life remains mostly unchanged in the arcade for Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who spend their days playing as characters in their video games, and their nights hanging out together, traveling to different games and throwing back root beer at Tapper’s.

 

When the steering wheel in Vanellope’s racing game, Sugar Rush, breaks, the machine is unplugged, leaving all of the characters “gameless” (i.e., homeless). Ralph and Vanellope turn to the Internet to find the part needed to repair the game, starting our heroes on their quest. But the film is really about friendship enduring as people grow and change. And the insecurity that one person feels when they are totally happy with the status quo and want nothing to change, and the other wonders what more the world has to offer and feels like they need to move on. Ultimately, your friends don’t need to be exactly like you to be your friends, and we need to let the ones we love be free to pursue their dreams, even if that means potentially losing them. Heady themes for a “kid’s” movie.

 

Ralph checked all the boxes for me; video games, nostalgia, technology, Disney, and Easter eggs aplenty, rivaling Ready Player One for things hidden in the background. (Google the license plate in the shark’s mouth for one great one!)

 

The film does a great job of visualizing how technology works—from the concept of packetizing data and sending it through a router and off to the Internet, how searches, viral videos, and pop-ups work—what causes the Internet to drop, and imagining what the Internet might look like if it were a physical place that data actually visited.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Without a doubt, the scenes at OhMyDisney.com were my favorite parts of Breaks, and quite possibly some of my favorite scenes from any movie in recent years. This area of the ‘net brings together virtually every Disney property—classic Disney, princesses, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, hidden Mickeys —into a lengthy segment featuring some fantastic Easter eggs throughout that had me smiling until my cheeks hurt. Instead of just being a cheap franchise tie-in, this scene brings multiple franchises together in a fantastically organic and entertaining manner. And kudos to Disney for getting all of the original actors back to reprise their voice roles here. Great stuff!

 

Similar to how the first film used different animation styles to differentiate between the worlds of Fix-It Felix (Ralph’s game), Sugar Rush (Vanellope’s game), and Hero’s Duty (Calhoun’s game), Breaks has different visual looks and styles

depending on where we are in Ralph’s world: the arcade, inside different games, the Internet, or the Dark Web.

 

One of the marquee locales is Slaughter Race, a gritty, smoggy, bathed-in eternal dusty-golden-light, crime-ridden world a la Grand Theft Audio. Here we meet ultra-racer/gang leader, Shank (Gal Gadot), who ends 

Ralph Breaks the Internet

up becoming an unlikely mentor and pivotal in Vanellope’s journey as well as contributing to a big-time song-and-dance number that’s an homage to classic Hollywood pieces of old.

 

Animation generally looks fantastic in 4K HDR, and Breaks definitely doesn’t disappoint. Colors are incredibly bright and punchy, almost neon when called for, especially in the Internet. Blacks are also deep, with a lot of detail.

 

Breaks sounds as good as it looks, with an aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack that’s used effectively throughout, both to create environment and to add impact to the onscreen action. The overhead, ceiling speakers are smartly used to create a wonderfully immersive experience, such as the echoing, swirling sounds when Ralph and Vanellope travel into the Internet or the multiple announcements that occur throughout. The carjacking scene in Slaughter Race also sounds great, with a lot of dimensionality and solid bass accompanying the crashes.

 

While mostly family friendly, there were a couple of scenes in the film’s final act —notably Ralphzilla and Double-Dan (you’ll know him when you see him) —that were a little too intense and frightening for my almost-3-yo.

 

Definitely continue watching through the end credits for one last great Ralph meme—probably the most perfect end credits scene a movie about breaking the Internet could possibly have.

 

The 4K HDR digital download is available from the Kaleidescape store now, a full two weeks before the physical disc is released, and contains numerous making-of docs, a handful of deleted scenes, and two music videos.

 

John Sciacca

Ralph Breaks the Interner

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.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

I feel like Bohemian Rhapsody is one of those films that either really appealed to you or really didn’t register at all. I was born in 1970, so I grew up during a time when Queen’s music was played a fair bit on the radio. But I was only a casual fan, and outside of their Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits II albums, my music collection is Queen-free. I was curious to see the film, though, and learn more about the band, especially since I enjoyed Rami Malek’s performance in the recent Papillion remake.

 

I say this because I went into the movie knowing practically nothing about Queen outside of its hits, and Freddie Mercury’s stage presence, mustache, and wife-beater T-shirts. So my experience and impression of this movie will probably be different from those of someone who was a real fan of the band and familiar with its history. Bohemian Rhapsody follows Queen’s formation and meteoric rise to success, specifically focusing on the life of flamboyant front man Freddie Mercury, culminating in a terrific recreation of the band’s epic Live Aid performance in 1985 and Mercury’s admission to the band that he had contracted AIDS. 

 

A movie focusing on actual people—especially someone with such a bigger-than-life personality as Mercury—rises or falls on the quality and believability of the actors portraying them, and I found Malek’s portrayal of Mercury to be spectacular, capturing his nuances and stage mannerisms as I remember them. This is helped quite a bit by some serious prosthetics to recreate Mercury’s signature overbite (caused by having four additional incisors, according to the film, which may or may not have contributed to his extended vocal range). In some of the early scenes I felt I could see the makeup, but that could have been more a factor of the 4K transfer being a tad too revealing. Is Malek a caricature of the actual Mercury? Maybe, but to my eyes the performance worked perfectly. Also, Gwilym Lee—or rather Gwilym Lee’s impressive wigs—transformed him into a lookalike of guitarist Brian May. (The film also features an almost unrecognizable Mike Myers as EMI executive Ray Foster.)

 

The 2 hour and 14 minute run time zips by, moving from one milestone in the band’s career to the next. This is partly due to its hyper-compressed timelines, taking events that happened over years in some cases and boiling them down to a single scene. I’m not saying Bohemian plays fast and loose with the truth exactly, but it left me feeling like you weren’t getting the whole story and were watching a Cliff Notes version of actual events.

Bohemian Rhapsody

For example, the opening would have you believe Freddie just happened upon a band who’s lead singer suddenly quit and, “Guess what guys? I happen to write songs and sing a bit.” In actuality, Mercury had been writing songs and playing music for years, had been singing for a couple of other bands, and was friends with the band that would eventually become Queen. It also suggests “We Will Rock You” was just thrown together by May when Mercury was a few minutes late for a band meeting. And, contrary to the ending, Mercury wasn’t diagnosed with AIDS until two years after the famous Live Aid concert.

 

Whether it was naivety, ignorance, or the culture of the times, Mercury being gay wasn’t part of his narrative that I remember while growing up. (To be fair, I also remember thinking The Village People were just a cool bunch of guys who liked dressing up in wacky costumes, embodying different characters. Yeah, it was a different time and news travelled a lot slower back in the ‘70s . . . and I was like 10.) The film certainly addresses Freddie’s sexuality, but does so staying outside the bedroom. And like many of the other time-compressed moments, he seemingly goes from a happy, committed, hetero relationship to, “OK, I’m gay now,” following one lingering glance from a trucker outside a men’s room.

 

Mercury seemed to be constantly running away from things—his Zanzibar birthplace, his Parsi background, his family, his name (Farrokh Bulsara), his girlfriend, and ultimately his band—and rushing towards a future and lifestyle that ultimately killed him. I definitely came away from the movie with a far greater appreciation of the talent of both Queen and Mercury. The film’s portrayal of the recording sessions for their first album and “Bohemian Rhapsody” showed an experimentation and creativity that reminded me of Brian Wilson’s efforts with Pet Sounds or The Beatles and George Martin on Sgt. Pepper’s. I finished the film wanting to go to Tidal to experience their catalogue.

 

For a movie focusing on a rock band, it’s crucial the music sound great, and it truly looked like the songs were being played and sung by the actors. I felt Rhapsody scored a definite A here, and apparently they blended Malik’s singing in with Mercury’s (and others) vocals. The live shows sound especially good, with big kick-drum beats that send bass waves into your chest, and the finale at Live Aid is just terrific.

 

One major disappointment is that the Kaleidescape digital download doesn’t include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, instead having a 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. For a movie where music plays such a starring role, I’d love to hear how this sounded in a full Atmos mix. Of course, the blame here lies with 20th Century Fox, which for some reason refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the immersive audio mix for any of its films. Here’s hoping that gets resolved at some point in the near future, at which point anyone who has already purchased the film would be able to re-download it with the new audio track at no charge.

 

For me, Bohemian Rhapsody does a great job of packing nearly 20 years of time into a cohesive story, and gets enough of the big stuff right that you can overlook the little factual errors.

 

It is available now for digital download, a full three-weeks before it will be released on physical media.

John Sciacca

Bohemian Rhapsody

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.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer

Don’t feel bad if you have never heard of Hunter Killer. It went in and out of theaters nearly as quickly as the first explosions occur in the film. HK belongs to that increasing group of films that have a huge divide between critics and moviegoers, with the film generally panned by critics with a 37% approval rating and average score of 4.7/10, but with CinemaScore audiences giving it a far more generous average grade of A-.

 

I originally stumbled across HK while scrolling through the trailers of upcoming films on my Apple TV, and I was sold. I’m a nut for submarine movies—Das Boot, Hunt for Red October, U-571, Crimson Tide . . . I’ve seen ‘em all. It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good sub film, and none showcasing the latest technologies of the newest real-world boats, and the trailer for HK was action packed. So, when HK arrived on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack a full two weeks before being available on disc, it was a no-brainer for me.

 

There are essentially two types of submarines in the modern Navy, often referred to as Boomers and Hunter Killers. Boomers—technically Ohio-class ballistic- and guided-missile submarines—lurk around the world’s oceans as silently as possible, lying in wait and ready to unleash a maelstrom of ballistic missiles on an unsuspecting enemy should the launch order come. (That was the USS Alabama in Crimson Tide.) Hunter Killers—Virginia-class fast-attack submarines, of which there are currently 16 in active service—spend their time looking for and then tracking enemy subs and other ships, constantly prepared to destroy them before they can launch their payload should war break out.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer follows the USS Arkansas, a Virginia-class attack submarine, and its crew captained by the very non-traditional and unorthodox (“He didn’t go to Annapolis”) newly appointed captain, Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), as they sail off to investigate the disappearance of a US submarine feared lost in the Arctic. Concurrently, a four-man team of Navy SEALs infiltrates a Russian naval base and discovers a coup underway. After witnessing the Russian President taken prisoner and seeing the defense minister’s moves to goad the US into war, the SEALs are tasked with the mission of “rescuing” the Russian President and whisking him away to safety. These two plotlines ultimately converge in the film’s climax. In between is lots of gunfire, rocket launches, and sub-on-sub torpedo action.

 

The picture quality is pretty terrific, with loads of detail, especially in the brightly lit outdoor scenes. HDR is used to good effect in the dimly lit submarine, with its myriad of screens and displays. My one nit is that the 4K transfer is so good that some of the underwater sub-chase scenes ended up looking fake.

Hunter Killer

The interior sets of the USS Arkansas, however, look amazingly real and authentic. Apparently, the US Navy was involved with the film’s production and design team in developing the look of the sub, and it really shows. Every scene inside the sub looks and feels real, which goes a long way towards giving a sub movie credibility. Butler also spent several days aboard an actual Virginia-class sub while underway to get a feel for daily submarine life and operations.

Sonically, the Atmos mix does exactly what it should, and sounds mostly fantastic in a home theater. From the opening scenes, you are plunged underwater with sounds of the ocean rolling and bubbling overhead. The Arkansas is also filled with tons of little ambient sounds that place you right in the midst of the boat. There is plenty of low-frequency info to give your subwoofer a workout, specifically the deep, steady thrum of the sub’s turbine. Dialogue is mostly intelligible, but there were several scenes where it was buried in the midst of background sounds, making it difficult to understand.

 

Is HK a good movie? Meh. Let’s just say I doubt “cerebral” would be anyone’s adjective of choice to describe it. It also has its share of head-scratching moments, as well as scenes that stretch your suspension of disbelief (submarines don’t follow other boats just feet off the stern, or race around the ocean floor, zig-zagging through impossibly narrow channels with the agility of a Ferrari navigating Nurburgring). And Butler seems hellbent on being angry, defying all established protocol, and arguing with his XO in nearly every scene.

 

A far better question is, “Is HK an entertaining movie?” and if you’re a fan of the action or military genre, the answer is a definite yes. A good metric might be whether or not you enjoyed Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen or its sequel, London Has Fallen, as Hunter Killer is similar in pacing and style but (obviously) set on a sub. The movie’s two-plus-hour run time zips by, and there is constantly something happening to keep you engaged and entertained. If you’re looking for a movie where you can sit back and just enjoy the action unfolding onscreen and the dynamic Atmos audio mix, HK is the perfect Friday-night popcorn flick.

John Sciacca

Hunter Killer

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.

First Man

First Man

Two minutes into Damien Chazelle’s First Man, I thought I knew exactly what sort of film I was in for. It’s the sort of film I consume ravenously. A ra-ra tribute to the heroes of the Gemini and Apollo programs. A moving monument to the men and women who took us from the earth to the moon. A seat-of-the-pants celebration of the space cowboys who left our little blue marble and turned around to show it to us from a perspective unlike any we’d ever seen.

 

I was wrong. So utterly wrong. First Man isn’t that film in the slightest. It’s unlike any film about the space program to date, and that’s largely because it’s not a film about the space program at all. It’s a film about one man. One beautifully complicated, flawed, enigmatic man who just so happened to be the first to set foot on lunar soil. And what makes it doubly fascinating is that it isn’t even a film about how he became the first man on the moon, or even why, but rather how it made him feel.

 

That’s an interesting approach for a man whose feelings were so guarded. And the result is that First Man is a stunningly quiet, introspective, even at times abstract film. It’s a tone poem comprised of muted tones. And it’s an utterly gripping film for exactly none of the reasons you might expect.

 

I hesitate to say much more, not for fear of spoiling the story, because we obviously all know the story by now. But First Man does make it fresh in the telling, in the choices it makes about what to explore and what to ignore.

First Man

There is a scene early on that truly made me understand the approach Chazelle was going for here: Neil Armstrong—played nearly perfectly by Ryan Gosling, who really only falters in his inability to recreate the real Armstrong’s fake smile—is the first astronaut to be subjected to the gimbal rig, a multi-axis trainer designed to make trainees puke or pass out. In any other film on the subject, I have to think the rig itself would have been the focal point. But here, Chazelle keeps the camera locked on Armstrong himself while the world around him blurs. That’s really a metaphor for the entire narrative here. It’s amongst a handful of shots that serve to remind the viewer that Armstrong is the sole focus of this story. If it didn’t happen to him or directly affect him or his family, the events of the Gemini and Apollo programs go unsaid, unseen.

 

Another enigmatic thing about the film is its audiovisual presentation. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot the bulk of the film on 16mm, with larger-format stocks reserved mainly for First Man’s dénouement. As such, it’s a gritty, grungy, gorgeously organic film with oodles of grain. You might be inclined to think such a film doesn’t really demand a high-quality transfer, but you’d be wrong. This is one of those increasingly rare films whose imagery just can’t be done justice by streaming—even superior streaming sources like Vudu. Without the full bandwidth of a Kaleidescape download (or the eventual UHD Blu-ray release, one assumes), the image devolves into harsh noise.

 

Granted, on Kaleidescape you’ll have to make the choice between Blu-ray quality with Dolby Atmos audio or 4K HDR with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Go for the latter, no matter your usual audio preferences. First Man doesn’t succeed or fail

based on its audio—in fact, large swaths of the film are borderline monophonic, and old-school surround sound is plenty sufficient for the handful of aurally active scenes. In large part, the sound is a matter of quality over quantity, and its dense mixing of dialogue will put your center speaker to the test.

 

The visuals, though, absolutely demand to be seen in high dynamic 

First Man

range, especially in the way the HDR grade conveys the stark contrasts and eye-reactive brightness of the lunar surface. It’s an effect that’s absolutely essential to understanding and feeling the alienness of the lunar environs, and Armstrong’s emotional reaction during those strange moments of solitude.

Dennis Burger

Kaleidescape "First Man"

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.

Venom

Venom

I’ll freely admit that I’m a superhero-movie fan. Ever since seeing the original, Christopher Reeve Superman: The Movie as an 8-year-old, I’ve loved watching these heroes battle to save the planet up on the big screen, and now in the comfort of my own home.

 

No franchise has done more to raise the bar of the superhero genre than Marvel, which, for the past 10 years, has been crafting a spectacular, epic tale that has gradually been drawing an entire universe of characters together in a battle for half the galaxy that began in Avengers: Infinity War and will culminate in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. (Not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe [MCU], but still spectacular superhero viewing includes Wonder Woman and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, especially The Dark Knight, which transcends the superhero genre into the realm of simply spectacular cinema.)

 

I bring this up because as much as I enjoy superhero films, I knew virtually nothing about Venom prior to watching. In fact, my only previous knowledge of the character was his appearance in the 2007 Spider-Man 3. From that film, I learned that Venom was an alien entity that bonded with Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and kind of became like a bad version of the character, wearing a black version of Spidey’s costume.

 

With this latest reboot of the character, I expected Venom to continue the MCU trend of bringing multiple characters together, or would at the very least include Tom Holland, who has taken over Spidey’s mantle starting in Captain America: Civil War and continuing in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Infinity War.

 

Well, umm, no.

 

While it was made in association with Marvel Studios, Venom is a standalone Sony Pictures release bearing no obvious connection to the MCU or even to Spider-Man. This is part of a complicated legal and licensing agreement between Sony and Marvel that you can read more about here.

 

So, unless you’re a hardcore Venom fan, you can scrap everything you think you might know about Venom and just go into this cold. In fact, knowing nothing might actually be the best way to approach this, since you won’t be burdened by any required geek-cred knowledge of backstories, interwoven plot lines, or fear of missing any fanboy Easter eggs.

 

This is an origin story, attempting to introduce and launch a new expanded universe of Spider-Man characters. But the film has a big shortcoming in the casting of (or maybe it’s the direction or the dialogue given to) Tom Hardy, who plays both Edie Brock and Venom. Brock is supposed to be this killer investigative journalist, but, honestly, Hardy comes across as just too slow, clunky, and dim-witted to be even close to believable in this role, and the early scenes with him as a journalist were the hardest for me to just sit back and enjoy.

 

Fortunately, your suspension of disbelief over Hardy’s journalistic prowess doesn’t need to last long, as he soon bonds with the alien symbiote Venom, who was brought back from a space exploration mission and kept locked in a lab looking for a compatible host. Once Hardy absorbs Venom, the rest of the film has him coming to terms with his new amorphous, shape-

shifting, and head-chomping alter-ego as the movie transitions from one action piece to another as the duo looks to take down the techno-billionaire bad guy. Actually, I found Hardy more believable post-infection since his body adapting to the “parasite” offers an explanation for his semi out-of-it behavior.

 

One thing Sony knows how to do is release fantastic-looking 4K HDR films,

and Venom is no exception. Detail and color are first-rate throughout, but especially during the multiple night scenes in San Francisco, where the city looks stunning. These shots take full advantage of HDR to produce bright lights and vibrant colors while retaining deep and solid black levels.

 

Venom has no shortage of big action scenes and visual effects, which all look terrific. One of the best scenes is a chase through downtown San Francisco (happening around the 54-minute mark) that highlights the best of what Venom is: Pure balls-out mayhem, with a liberal dose of SFX thrown in for good measure. Just don’t count how many times The Rialto theater appears in the background. Rather, sit back and enjoy the cars smashing and Brock/Venom racing manically through the crowded streets on a motorcycle.

 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is equally impressive, offering a very dynamic mix that will definitely give your system a workout. There are tons of moments where the height channels are called into action, whether it’s drones or helicopters flying overhead, gun mayhem, or just the ambience representing the acoustic space on screen. Bass is particularly impressive, having a ton of weight and impact, with explosions you’ll feel in your chair. Venom’s voice is also recorded with a very cool effect, booming from all around and sounding like it’s coming from inside your head. 

 

The Kaleidescape download includes five pre-marked scenes, along with several bonus features, including multiple making-of docs, deleted scenes, and a special “Venom mode” that engages “informative pop-ups throughout the film to provide insight on the movie’s relationship to the comics, and to reveal hidden references that even a seasoned Venom-fan may have missed!”

 

Venom belongs to that increasing group of films that sees a real divide between critics and fans. While scoring a meager 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, it managed an 85% audience score. In short, I’d say Venom is a classic big summer popcorn action film where it pays to check your brain at the door and just sit back and marvel (no pun intended) at the terrific visual effects and pummeling Dolby Atmos audio track. If you’re looking for some home theater eye and ear candy, Venom won’t disappoint.

John Sciacca

Venom

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.